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Analysis: The Ghost of Snarkiness Past - Story In Life Flashes By

Writer and designer Emily Short looks at Deirdra Kiai's story-based indie game Life Flashes By, its messages on the life of an artist, and how new approaches to interactivity wo

Emily Short, Blogger

December 13, 2010

7 Min Read

[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at Deirdra Kiai's story-based indie game Life Flashes By, its messages on the life of an artist, and how new approaches to interactivity work here.] Life Flashes By is a meditative conversational piece partly about art and artists. It talks about art for art's sake and art for a commercial audience; about genre and literary work; about traditional and interactive media. It especially talks about the different kinds of rewards the world offers to people who choose these different options, even though the animating vocation may not be much different at all. The protagonist, Charlotte, is a writer of modestly successful literary novels. Midway through life, she finds herself lost in a dark wood. There she has an experience that owes perhaps a little to Dante and quite a lot to "A Christmas Carol" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Guided by a -- ghost? spirit? angel? ...let's just say a short, winged person -- named Trevin, Charlotte revisits the scenes that made her who she is, from a childhood rejection of math to the argument that ended her marriage. The character sketched by this retrospective is not entirely likable. She's bright but insecure, lonely but judgmental, repressed and closed to new experiences. Being hurt and rejected hasn't taught her to go gently with other people. Her talent is real, but it doesn't always make her or anyone else happy. She is committed to her craft, but writing is such a deeply necessary, gut-deep aspect of her that she doesn't view her hard work as inherently admirable, and the player is free to discount it similarly. There are moments when we see other characters trying to reach out to her, befriend her, like her -- only to be rebuffed. Her husband doesn't want their marriage to end, but Charlotte calculates other people's feelings according to her own ruthless emotional arithmetic, and is unable to listen fully to what he's trying to say. And at each moment we get to view a piece of the life Charlotte might have had if she'd chosen differently. If she'd gone on that vacation around the world instead of attending the exclusive creative writing program. If she hadn't met her husband. If, if, if. She always ends up a storyteller, but not always the same kind, or in the same way. She doesn't always end up lonely. After I was done, I thought (a) that I had liked that quite a bit, and (b) that I wasn't quite sure why. Asking The Tough Questions Some aspects of the design felt questionable. The game's structure is highly schematized and sometimes feels a little forced; not all the "alternative outcome" scenes are equally organic to the story. The dialogue is sometimes heavy-handed. At one or two points I felt like the conversation was lamp-shading some aspect of the game itself, a trick that almost always annoys me. Some of the characters talk about their problems with suspiciously analytical precision, in ways rarely seen in actual conversation. Some are preachy or more thematically on-message than they need to be. Then there's the nagging sense that the interactivity isn't as richly used as it could be. I sometimes wished for a stronger sense of agency, as much of the player's action is exploration of scenes and conversational responses. It's possible to pick the order in which scenes occur, but there's an obvious chronological layout for them, and so it's very tempting to play through in temporal order, to avoid getting confused or missing anything. I'm fairly sure the story would have felt different if I'd played Charlotte's life in reverse, or in a way that explored themes rather than the progression of time; but there was no incentive to do so, and the mode of accessing scenes did seem to privilege one particular order. (Contrast Le Reprobateur, a similarly theme-heavy work that more or less refuses the player the luxury of a chronological reading.) Nonetheless, the effect is engrossing, or at least it was to me. And the more I think about it, the less I'm bothered by the design choices that I initially questioned. The Value Of Interactivity Despite the low-agency feel, Life Flashes By needs to be interactive because the experience of intentional exploration just is different from the experience of passive reception. This is much the same reason that Le Reprobateur's interaction works. The player has to work through Charlotte's life; he has to wonder about it and then take action to discover an answer. Charlotte's experience is a therapeutic one. She is doing something difficult for her, even unpleasant. A story the reader doesn't have to work to experience would not parallel the content as closely. Second, if there's not much causal choice, there's a fair amount of what the Failbetter Games blog would call reflective choice: the player does get to decide how dream-Charlotte reacts to vignettes from the past. Will you have her comment snarkily and continue to reject the same ideas she rejected before? Will you ease her towards a new attitude towards her history? Mercifully, the game allows you to shape her responses to things without forcing a falsely happy conclusion. Charlotte is an ornery woman, and when she looks back at the moments that are probably her biggest human failures -- the overtures of friendship and love that she rejected, the people she let down or refused to understand -- her attitude only has a little room for adjustment, not a lot. The range of her possible reactions is also part of the story. If she were capable of a freeing, Scrooge-like transformation, she would have been a different woman to start with. Even the game's schematic shape has some justification. The courses that Charlotte's life doesn't take: they're like alternative endings in a game that offers such a thing. Knowing what else could have happened adds depth to the official version. The difference is that Life Flashes By doesn't pretend you have a choice about what has happened; only about what to feel about it, and what to imagine happens next. Illusion Of Choice But at the end of the day the reason I liked this story was the same reason I like certain works of literature: the bits of true human observation. The idea that a vocation is something you can reframe and work on many ways, but never get rid of -- that resonated with me. Then there was the painfully familiar segment where Charlotte encounters her alternate self speaking about a narrative-writing AI that automatically generates a gazillion narrative variations on the Hero's Journey. Charlotte reacts with disgust. Argh! The Hero's Journey! Yes, it's fine, but there are other possible stories, and besides, it's usually such a male power fantasy! I enjoyed the moment, cringed at its accuracy, and was bothered by how much it seemed like an insert from the game's author, all at the same time. The outstanding issue I have with Life Flashes By is how personal it is, how un-detached from its creator. The moments where the dialogue is weakest -- most preachy, most thematically on-the-nose, most self-aware -- are the moments where I felt like I could have been reading a post on Deirdra Kiai's blog. It's honest, thoughtful writing about topics I happen to care about, but it is not always exactly fiction. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She also contracts for story and design work with game developers from time to time, and will disclose conflicts with story subjects if any exist. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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