Critical Play: Mysteries

This week, I played “Life Is Strange” developed by Dontnod Entertainment on macOS. The game’s primary target audience seems to be players age 17+ — the setting and narrative is most relatable given the player’s familiarity of high school drama — who are interested in a deep narrative with many opportunities for replay. The game exemplifies the kinds of fun given by narrative and discovery fun as the player becomes engrossed in a large conspiracy that encompasses the world of Arcadia Bay.

Narratively, the game plays well into the mystery genre. Immediately, the player is thrown into a chaotic storm wherein the character wonders out loud “Where am I? What’s happened? Why am I here?” before waking up in a typical high school classroom. This initial scene is so wild and confusing that its juxtaposition against the otherwise mundane day as a high school student that follows creates a tension to see how the story builds up to that initial point. The use of the protagonist’s personal journal full of entries provides a convenient way to get the player up to speed on the narrative while remaining convincingly in theme.

Mechanically, the game also plays well into its own mystery. Each scene’s surrounding is embedded with tons of artifacts that given the player greater insight into the context of the situation without revealing too much at once — in this way, the player’s curiosity builds and builds as they unearth the breadcrumbs of a mystery. This engages well with the main source of interaction within the game — namely, walking up to these objects (or other characters) and investigating them while the protagonist remarks on them via inner dialogue. As a result, the player is guided along the intended line of confusion and thought by the protagonist’s musings. Still, the player’s next objective is typically clearly stated by this very dialogue, thus giving the player the opportunity to progress the story while the momentum of curiosity still hot.

There are a few points of critique within “Life is Strange”. At times, the gameplay seems tedious — many pieces of information are placed redundantly across the world while others are completely extraneous to the overall gameplay. The cutscenes feature dialogue that is, at times, poorly synced to the animations of the in-game characters. Similarly, the dialogue — at times — seems a bit far-fetched for a typical high school to utter. This lack of realism in dialogue and animation occasionally bumps the player to realize the existence of the Magic Circle and disturb them from feeling fully engrossed in the narrative.

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