Tuesday, January 9, 2018

In Media Res: Life is Strange and Narrative-Driven Video Games

by Angie

Confession time. I have a tenancy to forget that I am playing a game. There are some games that I intentionally don't finish, I just grow tired of playing them and walk away. There are games that I convince myself I am going to "go back to someday and finish" because I am still enjoying but I have something else I want to play but I'm still really enjoying it. And then sometimes life just gets busy or I get frustrated with something about a game and decide to take a break for a day and do something else entirely and somehow it slips through the cracks and I completely forget that I was playing it at all. It's not that I have plans to "go finish that someday", or even that I'm bored with them, it's just that I... forgot?

Rewind to sometime in the way back years of 2011. I discovered a "new" style of narrative-driven adventure games. The first one I played was Heavy Rain. It was roleplaying in a whole new way. I wrote about the way it made me feel at the time, and it's still of the most emotional experiences I've ever had in gaming. 

Oh, Ethan. How far would you go??

About a year later The Walking Dead Season One came out, and I was once again captivated. I had zero interest in the Walking Dead franchise, but I had read so many cool things about the game, so I picked it up and I was immediately drawn into the story of Lee and Clementine. Another story that has stuck with me for years. 

Oh, Lee. What would you do for Clem?

Since then I have eagerly played as many of the narrative-driven, often episodic, games as I could. Telltale Games is especially known for putting out these types of adventure games, and has an entire selection of them now ranging from Batman to Minecraft Story Mode. Despite the strong emotional impact of Walking Dead, my favorite so far has bee Tales From the Borderlands, which also had an emotional impact but was also just so *fun*. I loved the characters and felt really invested in the story. I am a big Borderlands fan, so my delight in the universe played a huge role I'm sure. The fun style, the friends-frienemies story between Rhys and Fiona, the jokes (I laughed out loud in this game so many times! BEST FRIEND LOADER-BOT!), the great use of music, and the moments of action-game feel really made it feel like I was in for a fun ride.  

Oh, Rhys and Fiona. I love you both so much!

Sometime after Tales of the Borderlands, fellow Growing Up Gamers blogger Julian recommended to me a new game he was playing called Life is Strange. This one was not a Telltale Games adventure, and he was raving about the story and the fact that it had a neat new mechanic where you could rewind time to see how other decisions could have played out. This sounded like a fun new evolution, first we get choices that matter and now we have games where choices matter but we can play around with deciding which way we want those choices to impact the story. I'm in! 

Max can rewind time and change her choices!

I played through the first episode of Life is Strange right away and loved it. Cool story, great characters, and the fact it was set in Oregon was a really fun bonus. One thing I noticed that I especially enjoyed was the use of music in the game. This is a thing I enjoyed a lot about Borderlands and while Life is Strange did it completely differently I'm coming to appreciate how much of an impact it can have on my experience, and have been trying not to immediately mute a game and play with my own music on!

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I really like the general vibe of this game, it's relaxing but sometimes intense

One of the things I liked the most about the first chapter of Life is Strange was the emerging/rekindling friendship story between Max and Chloe. That was what I enjoyed so much about Walking Dead, the friendship between Lee and Clemintine, but that game was so stressful. Life is Strange definitely has stressful things going on in it, but the rewind power makes it so I know I can go back and (probably?) fix my mistakes. I was invested in their story and eager to see how it played out.

I really want this to all work out for them. They seem like they could be good BFF's

And then it happened. I got stuck on a minor thing in Chapter 2. It was frustrating me so I decided to take a break. The next day I chose to watch TV or something instead of playing the game. I probably started binge watching a show. And despite my enjoyment of the game and investment in the characters, I completely forgot I was playing it!

Fast forward to last week. My friend started streaming games on Twitch and when she said she would be streaming Life is Strange I suddenly remembered Max and Chloe and all the things I wanted to do! I had 3 and a half chapters to go! I hastily "finished" Chapter 2 so I could watch her stream without spoilers. I say "finished" because it was late at night, a dramatic thing happened and there was an emotional scene, and I somehow told myself it was over despite not seeing credits roll.


The feels. Also, get off the train tracks kids!

So, I jumped into the stream eager to watch someone else play the game and see the choices she would make. One question I always have is how do your choices really impact the story, and can it really have a difference?  I think it's super engaging with a game of this sort to see the choices other people make and how they play out, especially if they are scripted well so that some of the consequences may not appear until much later. I think that its possible that in many instances you have the illusion of consequence more than actual branching paths, and perhaps watching all the permutations could break that, but I'm still willing to buy into my choices and story. I'm a role-player, after all :)

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the stream and participating in the chat. It's exciting to experience the story reveals along with others. Eagerly anticipating the next stream, I went to play Chapter 3 to stay ahead and turns out I hadn't finished Chapter 2 after all. No spoilers but WHOA there's a major story moment at the end of chapter 2! I definitely would have remembered that, so I'm glad I had to cut out of the stream a few minutes before she got to that part, although I am very curious how our choices differed.

If you want to join in on the fun, my friend Mrs_Growley  will be streaming Episode 3 tonight, January 9th, at 6:30pm PST on her Twitch channel. Excuse me while I got play Chapter 3! Come join us for the stream, or check out the stream archives on the channel if you're interested.

What's your favorite narrative-driven video game?


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