Life Flashes By

I played Life Flashes By last year, when the first public release appeared. The author had previously demoed the game at the IF gathering at PAX Prime in Seattle, so I'd already seen a "middle" chapter of the work.

I didn't write anything at the time, because I am lazy and then because Emily Short wrote a column that was more perceptive than what I was thinking. However, now it's been another few months; Life Flashes By has circulated around the various gaming communities and been discussed some; it's been featured in the recent IF Demo Fair; and Deirdra Kiai is declaring a full, final, let's get this thing on the road release. (Available as free download or collector's edition.)

"So now what do you think, smart guy?" Hm.

Life Flashes By is a pure-dialogue game which a real-world setting. Or, rather, a real world with a lightly fantastical frame that owes more to magical realism than to genre fantasy. It's a story about a somewhat disgruntled novelist who runs into an unexpected tree in the dark-forest-in-the-middle-of-her-life. She is given (or gives herself) a time-out to reflect on what she's done with her life, and what else she could have done with it. And that's it. It's not a game built around puzzles -- not even abstract conversational puzzles -- much less jumping, shooting, or matching three of anything in particular.

This is a simple experiment by some criteria, and a radical one by others. From a literary point of view, LFB is a story like many others you might read. It has a tangible character and it's well-written. Speaking as an IF person, I can say that LFB fits easily in with textual dialogue games like Galatea and Alabaster.

But if you're coming from the traditional videogame world, you may be shocked, for more than one reason. Since when do games have reams of strong dialogue about three-dimensional people? Living their ordinary lives? But also: where is the game in this game? What does the player have to try to do?

I can breezily take good writing for granted. (Go ahead, mock me.) But I suppose I have some of that latter reaction too. I got into IF when the genre was synonymous with puzzles. My horizons have, I hope, expanded since then; but I still think of games as having an inherent element of challenge, of frustration and achievement. Even if it's only "explore everywhere" or "find every ending". (A good game, or at least a good narrative game, ties the challenge to your immersion in the story or the story world.)

LFB is certainly a story. It's certainly interactive: on the moment-to-moment level of dialogue choices; in the higher-level decisions of how much time to spend in each scene and which features to discuss; and in the chapter-level choices of where in the "world map" to visit.

My problem is discerning the connection between those decisions and the story. The game's web page says:

[Life Flashes By] is a story best told non-linearly, which lends itself uniquely to the interactive nature of games. As a player, you won't just be watching a plot unfold, you'll be shaping and affecting it in a way unique to you alone.

But the non-linearity of the presentation doesn't seem to affect the story that is presented. You, speaking for the protagonist, can select her take on any given scene in her life -- regret or satisfaction, disgust or forgiveness. But I never had the sense that the attitudes I chose were part of her story. The game didn't seem to react to them, outside the context of a single dialogue sequence. The only point at which I felt I had a significant choice was at the end, where a summing-up what-did-you-think option gained some oomph simply from its final placement.

The structure of LFB may be working against me, here. It's seven scenes from the protagonist's life, and seven alternate outcomes from her choices in those scenes. Again, you can experience these in any order, and react as you will to them -- but they are memories, and imply a fixed, immutable life story. Deciding the protagonist's attitude feels like a weak reed, compared to the weight of history.

Of course, as with any game, it's possible that some of the interactivity went over my head in the first play-through. And I have only played through LFB once. (A drawback of the voice-acted approach. To replay, you pretty much have to turn on subtitles and button-mash through the spoken output. I haven't.)

So I've missed any aspect of the story that arises from the tension between different approaches. I'm not sure what to say about this possibility, except that if a game aims for that structure, it must offer some tangible motivation for replay. Visibly missed goals, perhaps, as you make divergent choices. Or directly visible consequences of the choices you did make, implying the possibility of consequences you missed. Having seen all seven primary and alternate scenes of LFB, I feel that I have experienced the whole game.

Please understand -- I recommend Life Flashes By to you. It is a polished work, with clever (consciously cartoon-style) artwork, excellent voice work, and a delightfully understated soundtrack. (I've put "Gloom and Doom and Horrible Torment" into my regular hacking-music lineup; you can think what you want of that.) The author has also extended a foot into alternate-reality-fiction; the story's main characters occasionally pop up on Twitter. (I'm following the irritating fairy foil but not the protagonist herself, and you can think what you like of that, too.)

I may have spent half of this post musing on LFB's possible weaknesses, but that's just the way I write about games. I am interested in the next game -- any next game -- and what it can do differently. Narrative games today seem to be divided into the overproduced genre romps (from the commercial world), the cruftily text-parsered (in my IF corner), and a few highly-pixelated poetic abstractions. Not too many authors sit down to write a straight-up high-quality story, in the interactive mode. For that alone you should pay Life Flashes By your attention.

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One Response to Life Flashes By

  1. Nathan says:

    Interesting -- I'll give it a try. I am reminded of this very, very old game that still haunts me by its irrevocability (sure, you can play it again, but it almost seems like cheating):

    I've never seen a modern review of that game; I'm curious where it fits in.

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