Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Choices in Life is Strange

Life is Strange is a narrative game about making choices. There are countless examples of this genre from RPGs to the popular modern Graphic Adventures but LiS embraces an element of save-scumming to remove the short-term experience of finality that drives a lot of those decisions. When players are allowed to fully explore every dialogue tree, a game about choices becomes one that can really focus on the cause and effect that occurs more than within the immediate moments after a choice is made.

Anyone who's played many games built around choices will remember plenty of occasions where the designers have reinforced the idea of consequences by inserting gotcha answers into the dialogue trees. Pick the wrong answer, see the "amusing" failure and either be thrown back into the same question to pick an acceptable answer or hit game over and reload from the last save. The equivalent of the tabletop GM getting tired of your crap and bringing the freestyle nonsense to a swift end.

The classic model, before gigabytes of audio data came with every game, was to have players read their choices, pick an option, and then jump into the response. The player was the protagonist who decided a response and then jumped into the corresponding reply, possibly with some key bits voiced for effect. Then "cinematic" because the only way to sell games and everything had to be voiced. Eventually the player character was forced into a voiced role (and so the narrowing of the avatar into only roles that matched the recorded dialogue) and it was decided that the player should not have to read the full dialogue before making a choice and hearing it delivered by the voice talent. A decision that has given us the modern dialogue wheel and which many people will push back against. Now you have to guess at roughly what your avatar is about to say and so are guessing at the reaction it will evoke once removed.

But Dontnod Entertainment, expanding on the time-manipulation sections in their previous game, Remember Me, have found a path forward that retains the voiced dialogue without requiring the player to guess at what is going to be said or putting paragraphs of text up before a choice is made. This freedom can clearly be felt in the long dialogue blocks that can be triggered when the player picks what to discuss. But none of it is a permanent, locked choice due to the mechanic by which time can always be rewound and other choices made. The player is never left screaming at the screen as their avatar does or says something they would never have wanted to role-play in a tabletop version of the story.

I've previously discussed how Life is Strange manages to carefully genericise the setting and story to allow this European young-adult tale to play in America or elsewhere (even tagged as a story in a fictional Oregon coastal town). It doesn't quite stick the landing on that, especially when measured against specific local expectations ("Well I didn't talk like that when I was a kid"). But it does provide widespread familiarity for a story that generally doesn't get funded by the publishing model for computer games. That's the reason why the narrative of this game is one of the most exciting things to come from a publisher in years: a reasonably highly funded studio project about two queer women finding love amongst the background of ubiquitous rape culture in higher education.

But it's also mechanically interesting and a step forward for the genre of games that provide the player with narrative choices. How can you go back to a game that offers some broad categories and emotions on a wheel and pretends that the player is making an informed choice to role-play by fumbling through the dialogue when this system offers the player genuine choices about how to interact?

The cost is that you can no longer embed gotchas into your dialogue systems. Players don't need to game the system with save-scumming to undo immediate reactions to their choices but this just means they no longer are playing a game of second guessing the writers and avoiding picking the selection under which a mine has been hidden.

Life is Strange is a game all about choices, tying the ludic and narrative strands together into a coherent whole. And none of them are a cheap way of punishing choices. When necessary, as seen at the end of episode two, the ability to see all options is restricted to avoid exploitation of the game (with save-scumming or reaching for a phone to look up a FAQ) but in general the point of a game about the effect of actions is to show them occurring over the spread of days and even years. At no point does denying the curious player the chance to see what other options the writers put into the dialogue tree ruin that.