[Writer and designer Emily Short examines the odd narrative arc in Big Fish's "supremely creepy" casual life sim Life Quest, where enemies are high school rivals, trophies are babies, and the spouse is just in it for the money.
Usually the creepier aspects of gameplay worldview have to do with means rather than ends. You're, say, protecting the Earth from invading monsters (good) but you have to slaughter a bunch of their human servants along the way (dubious). You're building a global restaurant business (neutralish), but in order to succeed you have to sell diseased meat and rape the environment (bad).
Then there's Life Quest
is a casual life sim game that offers about three hours of gameplay and treads some of the same territory as Kudos
. It puts its supremely creepy elements right up front, in the explicit goals: your whole purpose in life is to show up old rivals before your high school reunion.
One by one, these rivals turn up and tell you what life dream they're trying to accomplish next, and you have to try to accomplish the same thing faster. This is the motivation for everything you do, from buying a new sofa to taking a yoga class to growing into a job that pays more than $20 a shift.
The framework -- beat first this rival, then that one -- provides perhaps useful new-player guidance during the early phases of the game. It is an unsurprising way to make casual gameplay out of a simulation that might otherwise be daunting: casual games often have an annoying way of telling the player not only what
to do, but how to do it.
I'm not crazy about the framework, though, because it removes most of the interesting choices from the game. I find myself hoping the high school rivalry thing is Life Quest
's tutorial. It isn't. That's the whole game.
A sense of narrative dissonance kicks in early. My rivals are making me do things that aren't what I or my character would prefer to do next. At first, though, it seems sort of harmless. Sure, I'll go to yoga class with my old frenemy. It'll be good self-motivation for exercise I should get anyway. People do do that kind of thing in real life.
But I Don't Want To Move To Suburbia
The sense gets substantially stronger when my rival tells me that my next challenge was to give up my condo in the city and move out to the suburbs, where I'd be paying more money for a house with a longer commute time. That doesn't strike me as a great deal. It also isn't the sort of thing I think my character would be into. I've developed her as a fashion-loving, career-oriented urbanite. Moving out to cul-de-sac country doesn't fit her.
Clearly it is a mistake to think about this too hard, but I ask myself what kind of person would define herself so completely by other people's opinions that she'd buy a house she can't afford and doesn't want to maintain, in a part of town she doesn't like and doesn't want to live in.
I try ignoring the challenge, deliberately losing the competition so that I can focus on other tasks within the simulation. That doesn't work, though. Despite the sandbox-like promises in the marketing description, in reality Life Quest
is brutally linear. If I don't do the tasks set out by my rivals, I can't unlock useful new locations in the game. I'm simply not allowed to break out and do my own thing. If I miss the deadline on a challenge, the game doggedly waits for me to accomplish my assigned tasks after
the deadline. I get fewer points, but that's still the only way to level up.
This scheme progresses from unappealing to deeply creepy when my high school rivals challenge me to start a family.
In order to satisfy some guy named Amir, from whom I am destined never to hear again, I take a break from my job, go to a dance club, and dance twice with a short-pants-wearing dope named Trevor. Trevor asks me out. We go on four or five dates. After seven days I am allowed to propose. After three more (to give ourselves time to rest up from the arduous planning of a wedding ceremony never described or depicted), Trevor and I have a baby.
I name the kid Pete. The game may well discard that particular input string, because Pete's name doesn't ever appear again.
Pete's gender is not left up to me (the one plausible aspect of a wholly implausible simulation), but it turns out not to matter any more than his name. The only thing the baby does -- ever -- is appear in a status window listing my life achievements. It doesn't require new clothes or toys or a crib, need babysitting, or keep me up nights.
It doesn't grow older, doesn't attend school, doesn't need or bestow love. It is less relevant to the gameplay than my pet or even my stereo, since those at least in some way modify my happiness and the amount of refreshment I get from sleeping. Pete is literally nothing
but a status symbol.
My Catastrophic Marriage
Trevor is not quite as low-maintenance as Pete. Trevor's image appears in the status window, and next to him is a heart-shaped meter, the Love-O-Meter, that slowly drains away over time. To refill it, I must go on dates with Trevor, just like the dates before we were married.
What Trevor likes is to have money spent on him. He likes restaurants and the movies, and he likes it when we go shopping and I buy him a new outfit. We go shopping exactly once, so I can upgrade Trevor's short pants and ugly shoes to something I don't mind looking at. It feels creepily like Trevor is a doll, not a partner. And it's not like I can spend money on other kinds of upgrades to Trevor, like putting him through law school.
Dates with Trevor are a dreary waste of time.
By the end of Life Quest
, I am actively trying to get rid of Trevor. His disembodied head's periodic blinking in the status window gives me the creeps. He only married me because I took him out for a couple of nice meals; I only married him because a classmate told me to.
Cheating seems like the best bet. I try to go clubbing without him. I try to put new personals ads in the paper. The game will not allow either: I am locked out of the mate-seeking options because of my marital status.
So I try a crueler course. I deliberately neglect Trevor. I stop going out with him. I work stupidly long hours. I come home temperamental and surly. I eat out alone at restaurants. Even though I now have the best possible job as CEO of my own company, I return to school and get every single degree offered by the university just so I'll have more to do away from the house.
Trevor's Love-O-Meter drops to zero. Underneath his head, a status sentence says he is "starting to look elsewhere". This seems promising. But he doesn't go.
Maybe, I think, he's sticking around for the material comforts I provide. After all, he loved me 200 points less that one time I forgot my wallet and he had to pick up the check at The Stuffy Truffle. I bet it's all about the money for him.
So I try moving us back into a tiny little apartment in the bad part of town. No luck. He stays there. In the status window. Love-O-Meter at 0. "Thinking about leaving." But still smiling, still blinking.
As far as I can tell, the only negative result from the catastrophic neglect of my marriage is that my spouse won't provide me with any more babies. And given that babies, in Life Quest
, are less interesting than collectible plates, I have no reason to want another. I didn't want the first one, come to that. I only got it so I could beat Amir.
Now, I realize that the purpose of this game is not to make anyone think. I understand that it is meant to be harmless fun. And, to be fair, it kind of is. The art is perky and the pets are cute.
But there is a negative feedback loop between the fiction and the rules. The gameplay is frustratingly linear. Annoyance with the linearity encourages the player to consider the fictional explanation for why (viz, that we must keep up with the Joneses, and also with the Smiths, Bakers, Ramirezes...). That explanation does not stand up well to being considered, which in turn encourages the player to revolt against the goals and prod at the gameplay, which is frustratingly linear, which...
: I played a copy of this work that I purchased at full price. I have had no commercial affiliations with the publisher at the time of writing.)
[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.]