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Writing is Strange

Extra Credits put Life is Strange on their educational Steam curator list, saying it'd be great for English classes. I think it would be, too, but I still don't like the game.

I care about games and I care about education, which leads me to caring about using games for educational purposes, both in and out of school. I am therefore following the Extra Credits EDU Steam curation list (which I recommend). This morning I was scrolling through my Steam activity feed and saw that EC EDU had recommended Life is Strange, saying: "English, media studies. 3+ hours. Easy. Excellent narrative game from a High School setting. Examine the plot, themes etc. compare with other literature". Even though I don't like the game, I really have to agree with that assessment.

I love the kind of game that Life is Strange is; I dunno if we've named them as a genre yet, but this meld of choose your own adventure and cinematic techniques with interactive cutscenes thing, delivered in two-hour chunks you can fit into just about any evening, is a kind of game I enjoy very much. I've learned, however, that whether or not I'll like a specific one is heavily dependent on the writing. I love The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands, for example, but as I've written about before, I couldn't get into The Walking Dead because the main character wouldn't do what I wanted him to.

In The Walking Dead, it's possible for the main character to retcon player choices. I as the player make a decision, but the character gets two words in and then changes tack. The reasons for this are understandable: it let Telltale craft a character with a certain personality and also reduced the game's scope by limiting the ways that characters interact with each other. By extension, this also reduced the number of variables that needed to be accounted for later. Unfortunately, the way it was written reminded me that I was looking at the events through a fourth wall and busted my immersion open like an egg thrown full force at the ground. Telltale Games has gotten better about avoiding that problem, writing in external interruptions that have the bonus effect of comedy, developing supporting characters, and/or developing plot.

My beef with Life is Strange is completely different. A lot of the praise heaped on Life is Strange is about how well-written the characters are, how well it captures the innocence of youth. I can't deny that it does that. It does it really well. But you know what? I hated high school. I have some fond memories of good times that happened during high school, but I am really glad all of that is far behind me. I didn't get very far into Life is Strange because the high school drama was painful to sit through.

Ironically, I can't stand Life is Strange precisely because it is written so well. I kinda knew that in the back of my head, which is why I've been meaning to give it a second chance, but this Extra Credits EDU curator comment about how it would be good for English classes and comparison to literature reminded me of this one time during my high school creative writing class.

The teacher had written a paragraph on the board, copied from some book we weren't reading and meant to be used as an example for whatever we were going to be doing next. It rambled, starting on one subject and ending on another over the course of about half a dozen sentences. It was crap, and I said as much. The teacher then said that the book he took it from had won multiple awards for literature. Was I more qualified than literature experts to call it crap? The next student to talk pointed out that the sentences flowed like the thoughs of a child, quickly flitting from one subject to the next. It turned out that the character from whose perspective the paragraph had been written was indeeed a child. This kind of characterization is where Life is Strange excels.

Although this blog post has mostly focused on the writing, since English classes are part of the discussion here, it should also be noted that the work of the voice actors and artists also play a huge part in characterization here. Games like Life is Strange have more in common with film and stage than do many other kinds of games. However well-written the dialogue is, a poor vocal performance could kill it. There are also many unspoken details in these games, such as the would-be hug in Life is Strange, that add a lot of depth to the characters and their relationships. Set pieces, outfits, and the animations that give the characters a visual semblance of life are just as big a part of the "performance".

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