Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

life-is-strange

There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

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Games as storytelling tools

I’ve written before about using videogames as storytelling tools – specifically Fable 2 and the awesome stories you can tell away from the main thrust of the game. Well, in addition the shorter narrative-centric games I mentioned in my last post, I’ve also just finished GTA 5 (as with Witcher 3 which I mentioned last week, ‘finished’ is something of a misnomer for games of this size) and it’s got some great tools for storytellers.

My love for Fable comes in part from the interactions you can have – you can get married, go off on a quest and then find that your wife has left you. What you do then is up to you; it’s not important to the ‘proper’ plot, but if you want you can decide how your character would respond. Go to the local tavern, get roaring drunk and pull a barmaid? Give up adventuring for a while to live a life of celibacy and wood-chopping? Have a breakdown and start massacring innocents? Belch everywhere you go? It’s absolutely up to your own creativity.

GTA 5 is slightly different. Sure, when certain things happened to the main characters I updated their outfits and hairstyles to better suit their mental (and financial) states. I made sure they listened to the radio stations they liked rather than my favourites all the time. But although there are myriad things to do in the main GTA 5 game, the way you actually interact with the world doesn’t give that sense of creative freedom…

…until unleashing the director mode and Rockstar Editor. And it’s utterly brilliant.

In director mode you can select from hundreds of different characters in the game (including animals after a bit of unlocking), as well as your own customised characters from the online game, and record them doing… whatever. With all manner of gestures and dialogue, as well as the ability to add props into the world, it’s creative paradise. Once you’ve recorded some action, you can then completely edit the hell out of it, changing camera angles, speed, adding music, splicing scenes together to create whatever you want.

My first foray into the editor was a simple ‘I wonder what I can do’ type scene. Playing to the cliché, I attempted to blow some things up and cause a bit of mayhem. Here are the results – ‘attempted’ is the important word.

That was fun to put together, but ultimately I fancied doing something non-violent. I’ve been a longtime GTA fan, but as games look ever more real I find some aspects more problematic than I used to. Strippers are paradoxically less fun to visit when they look like strippers rather than polygons. Weird, right? And while the blackly comic tone mollifies some of my qualms, not everything needs to come down to violence. So that’s where my next video came from.

Here’s the audition day for Los Santos Community Theatre’s production of Waiting For Godot:

I shan’t expect Hollywood (should that be Vinewood?) to call any time soon! That said, the latter clip only took a couple of hours of messing around, and I haven’t really dug deep into the tools available on the editor yet. I’m going to try a few more non-violent videos and see what I can come up with – no idea how it would work yet, but some kind of rom-com is quite appealing…

@BornToPootle

 

Games for Storytellers and Storytelling for Gamers

The happy game for happy people.

The happy game for happy people.

Storytelling as a game is not something new – it’s been around as long as there have been fires to hunch by on long, dark nights. From kids around campfires trying to scare the bejesus out of each other to improvising troupes taking it in turns to spin a yarn word by word, storytelling has led to games and games have led to storytelling.

For Christmas I received a lovely card game from my other half where the whole endeavour lives or dies on the storytelling element, and it got me thinking about my favourite games where creating my own story was either the point or the most fun part. So, in no particular order, here are my top three.

1. Gloom

This was the present I received. It’s a brilliant, gothy card game, very much inspired by Edward Gorey. The premise is that each player has a group of five characters, and by playing special cards on each character the player has to bring as much sorrow down on their heads as possible and kill them off. At the end of the game the player whose characters died in the most anguish wins. The storytelling fun comes from the nature of the cards – the events you play on characters (who vary from mad inventors to twisted circus-folk) are things like ‘trapped on a train’, ‘torn apart by weasels’, ‘chastised by the church’ or ‘plagued by the pox’. It’s up to the player to construct a story for each of their characters that links each event until their inevitable demise. Add to the mix that other players can play cards on your characters to cheer them up and swerve your story in a different direction, and it’s an awful lot of fun.

2. Storytelling dice

I bought a set of these for a friend’s child, but I think they’ll work for any age. It’s a set of nine wooden dice, with different symbols etched on each face of each one. The game is to roll the dice and construct a story based on the elements you roll, and there are magic/fantasy, pirate and space-themed sets to choose from. It would be interesting to use this as the basis for a pantsed NaNoWriMo novel if November comes around and I find I’m at a loose end. You can put the story together in any order you want, or in order die by die – trying to get it to fit a generic plot structure would give you an instant (if, possibly, rather odd) novel outline.

3. Fable 2

A slightly different beastie, this one. I love videogames and Fable 2 is probably my all-time fave. There are many reasons why, but prime among them is the storytelling capability. The humour and scripted quests in the game are compelling enough, though fairly standard, but it’s what you can get up to along the way that really made me fall in love with the game. The amount of different ways you can make your character express themselves, coupled to the reactions to those expressions really set this apart from other games, even the other games in the franchise, and it’s perfectly possible to construct your own narrative around your exploits. So, during the first part of the game you could find true love, get married and have kids, then (spoilerish alert) you get taken away for a while and traumatic things happen. Depending on how much you’d worked on your relationship before being taken away your wife might be waiting, or she may have vanished. So then you can do what you like – pursue your true love or go and get drunk, belch and fart your way through the next few days in a haze of drunkenness, shag half the town and wake up in a same sex relationship, or become a monk-like ascetic, swearing off relationships lest you hurt someone again. I tried the latter and then finally, having given in to temptation and found love with a barmaid, was leading her off to get married when we were attacked by bandits and she was killed. All of this is completely extraneous to the game itself and relies on the player to construct the narrative and put the work in themselves.

Those are my favourite storytelling games – none of them have directly led to any novelling inspiration yet, but should I ever run out of ideas then it’s great to have some ways of getting my storytelling brain kicked back into gear. Have you tried any of these? Or have you got other recommendations? I’d love to try some more!

@BornToPootle