Happy Ides of July! Welcome to the second edition of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I’ll talk about games, all types of games, and the ways that we play them. Today we’re gonna talk about episodic video games, my favorite trend in development right now, and my favorite game so far, Life is Strange (which, aside from being great to play, is also real nice to look at).
On the surface, episodic video games describe any video game that’s being released in small parts, usually 6-8 weeks apart. Virtually any game could be divided up in five parts, with new regions, bosses and sub-bosses galore, but so far, most episodic video games have veered away from traditional games and play more like interactive fiction. Rather than having a framing story that gives context to the game mechanics, these games are pretty much all story. Episodes are offered individually or packaged together in a “season pass.” You don’t play to learn cooler moves and find better loot; you simply play to see what happens next. You consume it the way you consume a TV show.
Story-driven games have been around for a long time. There are twine games, hypertext novels, and the 90s movement of decision-focused exploration games marketed toward girls (the Nancy Drew series is aging well and still releasing new titles, Rockett’s New School not so much). Like those games, contemporary titles such as Telltale Games’ adaptations of Game of Thrones or The Wolf Among Us don’t have any skillsets to hone, levels to gain, stats to grind, or equipment to find. Instead, you explore your surroundings and have conversations and make choices. You make a lot of choices, usually to do with the tone and direction of your conversations. The occasional puzzles and action-based confrontations become a little harder as the game progresses, but are rarely so difficult that you’ll get stuck in a zone. There’s nothing but the story, and, maybe more importantly, the main character that you’re shaping.
Episodic games have been described as choose-your-own-adventure-y, but it’s more than that. Think of your favorite shows or books, and your favorite characters in them. I guarantee there’s at least one instance where they did something you thought was inconsistent. The Olivia Pope I know would never do that. These writers have no handle on H. G. Wells. Your sense of them comes not only from what they do, but how they interact with other people, the way they speak and react to the small things that knit the larger plot together. A story-and-choice-driven game puts you in charge of that. You decide what’s consistent with your character, whether you’re trying to rescue the reputation of gruff Sheriff Bigby Wolf or just going for maximum gruffness and maximum chaos. It puts an emphasis on decision-making, which results in you caring more about, say, communication choices, and less about skill-learning and stats. Not that games emphasize value reflexes and motor skill or stats-building aren’t fantastic! But right now, the most refreshing game I’ve been playing has been the episodic, queer-ish, magical realist mystery, Life is Strange.
Life is Strange is a combination of a lot of cultural touchstones. It’s a little Twin Peaks, a little Veronica Mars, a little 90s story-games, and a little Butterfly Effect. You play as Max, an eighteen-year-old photographer from Seattle who’s returning to her hometown to finish high school at Blackwell Academy, an art school. You’re trying to figure out what happened to Rachel Amber (a fellow student who’s gone missing), you’re trying to reconnect with Chloe Price (your childhood best friend), and you just discovered that you can rewind time.
Mechanically speaking, Life is Strange takes some cues from mainstream video games. You have plenty of puzzles to solve that rely on your rewind power. You have NPCs all over campus who aren’t necessary to advancing the game, but they’ll give you helpful information. You have fields and buildings to explore and small optional side quests. The rewind-time gimmick works like reloading the game from the beginning of a scene. You have a “limited” amount of time to solve a puzzle, but an unlimited number of chances to get it right — except for the big instances when you don’t, and then you’ll have to rely on your past choices and instincts to get the result you want.
The option to rewind time becomes interesting the more you get to know Max and the dark underbelly of drugs, partying, and date rape at Blackwell. There are people and plot seeds that are clearly Bad, and still, the choices are hard. It’s a mystery game, so you snoop, but then you get caught by your classmate — do you rewind? From context, you can tell that Max comes off shy and aloof to others, and from her journal, she’s awkwardly precocious and insecure around the cool rich kids crowd. Do you let Max get yelled at when she (and you!) are trying to solve a bigger mystery? Snooping is pretty invasive, and privacy and surveillance are big issues at the school. Or do you backtrack and keep your spying a secret? The same goes for altruistic choices. Do you tell another classmate that she’s about to get hit with a wayward football? Messing with time can have massive consequences (the game literally foreshadows them from the very beginning), but also, isn’t it worth being helpful and maybe making a new friend for Max? When you see the security officer harassing a student over a viral video, do you stand up for her and make trouble for yourself, or do you hang back and take a photo as evidence? There’s not much of a right or wrong way to play that out, which is, I think, fitting for the complexity of the choices. Naturally, both choices have downsides later.
There’s also Chloe. Y’all, Chloe. Chloe’s a spot-on angry rebellious punk, a little annoying and a lot teenager, and she and Max are the galliest of pals, in that slightly unhealthy, super-supportive and co-dependent way that people sometimes are. She and Rachel Amber were also the galliest of pals, before Rachel’s disappearance, and Chloe’s determined to bring Max along in her investigation. She reminds me of the best and worst parts of being a teenager. Though there aren’t any conclusive love interests for Max, the game seems to favor Chloe. Of your many choices in the game, most have to do with defining the kind of relationship you have with Chloe. Do you go along with her wilder schemes willingly, or do you actively take someone else’s side? Do you take the fall for her the way she expects you to? Do you feel jealous of Rachel Amber? Do you flirt back every time she flirts with you? On the flip side, Life is Strange also features Warren, a male classmate who is definitely into Max. Do you flirt with him? Do you agree to go to a movie? Either way, regardless of your Max’s intentions, most of your interactions with Warren happen over text, while almost all of your interactions with Chloe occur onscreen and in person. I don’t want to make any bold statements, but I suspect that even if you play Max as interested in Warren, he’ll become a victim of the fallout from Max’s time-traveling. Plus, this happens:
Not that Chloe’s an ideal girlfriend! She is, for sure, a peer pressurer and a demanding friend. Maybe my favorite thing about this is that even if Max goes along happily with Chloe and obviously cares about her, her journal reveals that she knows Chloe goes too far sometimes (for the record, she journals about Chloe a lot). “I’m not a fan of Chloe’s petulant side. She tried to make me feel like an ass, but screw that…Chloe has to know I can have two friends at once,” she writes, after Chloe gives her shit for answering a call while they hang out. Consent and boundaries come up over and over in the game, and it’s nice to see Max actively acknowledging when Chloe crosses a line.
Throughout every chapter, the implications of time-travel loom in the very near future, but it’s a forgone conclusion that Max will keep going full-tilt at it. It’s a forgone conclusion that you’ll probably figure out what happened to Rachel Amber, every last sordid detail. What you have to decide is how Max will get there. What kind of friendships will she make? What kind of person will she be to the snobs and misfits and nerds at Blackwell? How does she take a stand against adults who abuse their power or kids who have too much influence? What kind of friend will she be to Chloe, and what kind of friend does she want Chloe to be to her?
Life is Strange tries to tackle a lot of big topics in just five episodes. It’s not going to resolve all of them perfectly — Max certainly isn’t a perfectly moral narrator. It’s not a perfect game — dialog and animation don’t always sync up, and the town population is overwhelmingly white. But it does more in three chapters of play than a lot of full-featured mainstream games I’ve seen. It absolutely nails some of the complexities of being a teenager, and it’s a lovely way to explore the nuances of connecting with other people and the relationships we can have with them.
Life is Strange is currently available on Steam for Windows, XBox, and Playstation. Three out of five episodes have been released, with the fourth predicted to come out in the next week or so.
What’s your favorite story-driven game? Got a particular moment you really like? Also, let me know what you’d like to see featured in future Gayme Corner posts! We’re all ears, all the time.