I hooked up my PS4 for the first time in maybe two years. I’ve been playing Life is Strange together with J, and intend on catching up on other, similarly narrative-driven games I’ve missed over the last decade. These games, if you’re not familiar with them, tend to be heavier on dialogue and story, and have multiple endings based on the choices you make as a player. They’re much more like films or tv shows in that way – Life is Strange is a coming-of-age YA thriller, kind of like an interactive Thirteen Reasons Why. They’re great to watch someone else play, too; watch them reason through and explain out loud the morality behind their choices.
Growing up I had a uneasy relationship with Choose Your Own Adventure books. I’d spy them at the library or in boxes at the garage sales we’d go to on weekends, and while a part of me was fascinated with the multiple, branching possibilities, another part was troubled by how many of those branches were jarring dead ends: you’d fall into a pit and the story would be over. Sure, you could flip back and make different choices, but it made the world of the story seem, on one hand, cruel and senseless, and on the other, containing only a limited number of ways to properly move through, a limited number of ways to be “good.”
Maybe that senselessness is true to life. Maybe the abrupt endings are more numerous than we’d like to think. But it wasn’t something that 10-year-old Jack was comfortable with, and I don’t think 34-year-old Jack is fully comfortable with it either. Life doesn’t taunt us with its unlived possibilities in quite the same way those little trade paperbacks do with their unread pages. We might have flashes of what might have been, but we can’t see the full possibility set, and maybe because we can’t see it, then our definition of goodness changes. Instead of being about finding the optimal narrative, it’s about coming to terms with the choices we’ve already made. The difference between a shallow reading of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and a deeper one.
We’re still only two episodes into Life is Strange – out of five total – so I can’t speak to the ending, but so far it’s been a different experience than those old CYOA books. You/the character make choices and all of them lead to both favorable and unfavorable outcomes, but there’s still some consistent feeling you get underneath; are still themes that extend across all the different timelines.
Call it the flavor of the world. And I think it might be that flavor, when ten years from now I see this game in a box at a garage sale, that I remember.