Adventure Games: The Graphic Years

Another reprint from my blog Adrift in the Infosphere:

In early 1984, IBM released a computer called the PCjr. It was an attempt to create a low-cost entry-level version of the company’s expensive, business-oriented PC that would be cheap enough to gain IBM a place in the home computer market, then dominated by the Apple II, the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800 computers. It was expected to be a huge hit.

The IBM PCjr
The PCjr. It never grew up.

Only it wasn’t. It flopped. Big time.

Although it was in some ways software compatible with its big brother, which in two-and-a-half years had taken over the microcomputer market the way Hitler had taken over Poland in the late 1930s, the PCjr’s compatibility had been seriously crippled to prevent it from competing with IBM’s more expensive, grown-up models. Very few existing PC programs would run on it and almost none of the ones that people might actually want to use would. But it did have one feature that made it superior to IBM’s business models: state-of-the-art (by 1984 standards) 16-color graphics and impressive sound capabilities, with no add-on cards required. The PCjr was made for games, though unfortunately it wasn’t priced at game console rates.

And because it was made for games, IBM wanted games available for it when the product launched. They approached several companies about designing games that would take advantage of the PCjr’s flashy hardware and one of these companies was Sierra On-Line, the same company that had popularized if not quite invented the microcomputer adventure game with Mystery House on the Apple II. And since Mystery House had been the first game to combine graphics with adventure game mechanics, perhaps its designer Roberta Williams, along with the technical staff of Sierra On-Line, could create something far more ambitious that would take advantage of the Junior PC’s much superior video display.

The game they produced, King’s Quest, delivered on that promise. Unlike previous graphic adventures, King’s Quest didn’t use the bottom half of its screen for text and the top half  for a static image, like a page out of a children’s book. King’s Quest looked more like a proscenium stage on a computer screen, with colorful scenery and characters that could be guided through that scenery using the PC’s cursor keys. You still had to type commands using simple phrases a la The Colossal Cave Adventure, but you could actually see the results played out on the screen as though you were watching (and directing) a play.

King's Quest 1
King’s Quest. It may not look much now, but in 1984 this was the pinnacle of high-resolution adventure gaming.

The PCjr may have flopped — by the summer of 1985 IBM was stuck with a warehouse full of unsold models — but King’s Quest didn’t. Sierra went on to release eight games in the series for multiple computers, many of the later games modifying the interface so that the player no longer had to type in commands. So successful were the King’s Quest games that they spawned several similar Sierra game series, including Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory (an adventure game-RPG hybrid) and Leisure Suit Larry (a more sophisticated implementation of an early Sierra text game called Softporn Adventure).

Softporn Adventure
Softporn Adventure. Although she didn’t write it, that’s Roberta Williams, wife of Sierra publisher Ken Williams and designer of King’s Quest, on the right. This subsequently became…
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
…this. Yes, it was sleazy and included both bawdy humor and graphic sex. Nobody complained.

As computer power increased and audiences demanded more bang for their video game buck, Sierra complied, upping the visual resolution and number of colors as a new generation of home computers arrived on the market. The sophistication of the games increased too, with some fans regarding Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series as some of the greatest adventure games of the 90s, at least from Sierra. (Confession: I’ve only played the first half of the first Gabriel Knight game, so I have to take the word of others for its superiority.)

Gabriel Knight
Gabriel Knight: Apparently not interested in a high-stakes game of chess.

I’ll admit my bias against Sierra here. Although their adventure games were impressive by the technical standards of the time, the puzzle-solving was unimaginative, characters could be killed off suddenly and arbitrarily in ways that were far more frustrating than fun, and you could often find yourself locked in dead-end situations from which the game could not be completed, even though you were never informed of this. It was possible to spend days trying to solve a problem in a Sierra adventure only to discover that it was unsolvable because you’d neglected to pick up a screwdriver four scenes earlier in a location to which you could no longer return.

And yet Sierra had the legitimate distinction of creating a style of adventure gaming that revolutionized the field and saved it from the fate of text adventures in the mid-1980s. Furthermore, their proscenium-style adventures were widely imitated by other companies. And while many of the imitations, from companies like Accolade and Activision, were roughly comparable to Sierra’s titles, there was one company that took the concept and turned what at Sierra had been run-of-the-mill if technologically advanced games into masterworks of late 20th century computer gaming.

Yes, that’s my bias. And the rest of this post will be about it.

The Age of LucasArts

In 1987 Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, released a graphic adventure called Maniac Mansion. It was similar to the Sierra adventures, except that it ran on the Commodore 64, which is where I first encountered it.  It was a parody of low-budget horror films and, to be honest, I can’t even remember if I bought a copy when it first came out. I found myself drawn more to Lucasfilm Game’s second adventure, the 1988 Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, which I found surprisingly engrossing, much more so than the Sierra adventures I’d encountered up until that point. Zak McKracken had a subtlety of wit and puzzle design that made Sierra adventures look as though they’d been designed by sledgehammer. I was hooked.

Zak McKracken cover
Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders cover at by Steve Purcell. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts, now a division of Disney.

This is not to suggest that Zak McKracken was any kind of technological marvel. Perhaps to allow it to run on lower end machines than those targeted by Sierra, the graphics seemed fairly flat and crude, even by the standards of the late 1980s. (More advanced versions of this and Maniac Mansion were published a couple of years later for more powerful machines.)

Screen from Zak McKracken
Screen from Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. Note the menu-driven control system that eliminated the need for typed commands. Copyright (c) 1988 by LucasArts.

But the strength of Zak McKracken as an adventure game was its wit. The interactions between Zak and other objects/characters in the game, even the timing with which dialog appeared on the screen (there was no voice acting in the game), suggested a creative sensibility that placed less emphasis on the kind of expensive programming skills that Sierra brought to bear on its games and more on an intuitive sense of what was funny, what was challenging, and ultimately on what was compelling to the player. I found myself enthralled.

LucasArts made rapid leaps forward over the next two or three years with their games for the Atari ST, the Commodore Amiga and DOS PCs, games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (based on the film) and Loom (an innovative adventure that incorporated music into its problem solving). For me, though, the real breakthrough, the game that showed me just how much quality LucasArts was capable of shoveling into the confines of the graphic adventure format, was The Secret of Monkey Island, a game that remains available in updated versions today. You can even buy it for your iPhone.

I knew that Monkey Island, about a young wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood trying to discover the eponymous secret of the eponymous island, was going to be good when I spent a couple of hours working my way through the playable demo that LucasArts made available through online services like CompuServe. How good it was, though, wasn’t apparent until I bought the complete game and played it nonstop for two days.

The Secret of Monkey Island
The Secret of Monkey Island, when LucasArts adventure games went from being good to being great.

Monkey Island wasn’t just the funniest adventure game I’d played up until that time — I still laugh over the three-headed monkey joke — but had the most ingeniously designed puzzles (always fair and just challenging enough not to be frustrating), characters I actually enjoyed spending time with (including not only Guybrush but Governor Elaine Marley and the ghost pirate LeChuck) and a surprisingly effective romantic subplot. And the soundtrack, even on a PC SoundBlaster card, was possibly the best I’d heard up to that point in a computer game.

The Secret of Monkey Island was followed by a string of sequels (Monkey Island 2, The Curse of Monkey Island and Escape from Monkey Island), but also by a raft of LucasArts games that at least equaled if not surpassed the Monkey Island games in quality. These included Sam & Max Hit the Road, The DigFull Throttle, Grim Fandango and the Maniac Mansion sequel Day of the Tentacle, any one of which has a legitimate claim not only to being the greatest LucasArts adventure but the greatest adventure game ever. My vote is with Day of the Tentacle, which was such an insanely epic comedy adventure that it contained a complete, playable version of Maniac Mansion hidden inside it as an Easter egg, but other gamers will inevitably differ. Grim Fandango has a well-deserved reputation as Peak LucasArts and is currently available in a remastered edition.

Day of the Tentacle
The tentacles have their day.

The second half of the 1990s, though, saw the output of LucasArts adventures slow to a trickle. Escape from Monkey Island, published in 2000, was the last original adventure game from the company, despite promised sequels to Sam & Max Hit the Road and Full Throttle.

Other than a few new adventures imported from the European market, this was pretty much the death of the adventure game on the American scene, amateur interactive fiction notwithstanding. However, a few years later, graphic adventures would rise again from their graves, thanks in part to a team of designers who had formerly worked at LucasArts.

But more about that in the next installment of this post.

CONFESSION: I never got around to writing the next installment of this post. For more thoughts on LucasArts games and their design ethic as compared to Sierra’s, see the earlier post in this blog, “Methadone for Lucasarts Withdrawal: The Blackwell Saga.” I may yet get around to writing about the games teased in the penultimate paragraph, i.e., the Telltale adventures. But that means I’d have to go back and replay a bunch of the early ones, which isn’t likely to happen soon.

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Adventure Games: The Text Years

Not having an entry to add to this blog at the moment, I’m reprinting a post that originally appeared in my blog Adrift in the Infosphere:

What’s your favorite type of computer game? If you’re a typical gamer of the 2010s you may have replied CRPGs (computer role-playing games) like Skyrim or The Witcher, or their massively multiplayer online counterparts like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you like your action faster and more furious, maybe you’re partial to first-person shooters, like Halo or Call of Duty. If you prefer fast-action multiplayer battles, you may have said MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Or if you lean more toward thoughtful, turn-based exercises in strategy, you might have replied 4X (“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”) games a la Sid Meier’s long-running Civilization series. And if you don’t have much time for gaming but need a quick bit of relaxation during your downtime, you might have put in a vote for casual games like Bejeweled or Candy Crush.

But if you’re a long-time gamer, one who’s been playing for 20 years, 30 years, or even more, you might just have said … adventure games.

Tales from the Borderlands
Telltale Game’s Tales from the Borderlands: What adventure games looked like in 2015.

Adventure games have gone through many permutations over the last 40 years. They’ve fallen in and out of fashion, they’ve gone through multiple visual and gameplay styles, and there have been periods when they’ve nearly disappeared altogether. But after four decades, they’re still here. And it’s possible they’re more popular than ever.

In the early to mid 1970s, when microcomputers were still barely a blip on the computer hobbyist horizon, mainframe programmer and part-time spelunker Will Crowther logged on to a DEC PDP-10 and used his FORTRAN skills to write a computer game called, simply, Adventure. It was set in a huge cave not unlike Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which Crowther had explored. He wrote the game in part so that his daughters could play it and in part to indulge his love for Dungeons & Dragons. By all reports Crowther’s version was fairly rudimentary compared to later versions, but it caught on and spread from computer system to computer system. In 1976, a Stanford University graduate student named Don Woods expanded Adventure with Crowther’s permission into what became known as The Colossal Cave Adventure. Although it was too large to be played on most microcomputers of the period, it was widely available on mainframe and minicomputer systems. Here’s what it looked like running on a DEC PDP-10:

Colossal Cave Adventure
Colossal Cave Adventure: What adventure games looked like in 1976.

The Colossal Cave Adventure looks deceptively simple — you type in one- or two-word commands to move around in and interact with a world described purely through text — yet it created a remarkably large, surprisingly open world and went on to become one of the most influential computer games ever written. It spawned a long line of imitations that continues to this day, though you might not recognize most of its descendants based on the text screen reproduced above. If you’ve never played the Colossal Cave Adventure and you’re curious what it was like, here’s a simulation sponsored by the AMC-TV show Halt and Catch Fire.

The original Crowther and Woods version wouldn’t have run on microcomputers in the late 1970s because early personal computers weren’t powerful enough; they didn’t have enough internal memory and they mostly lacked disk drives. However, in 1978, a young Wisconsin programmer named Scott Adams (no relation to the creator of Dilbert) set out to prove that something very much like the Colossal Cave Adventure could be written on a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model I, a popular home computer of the day, and that he could do it in 16-kilobytes of memory. Yes, that’s not 16 gigabytes or even 16 megabytes — that’s 16 kilobytes of memory, where a kilobyte is 1,024 memory locations, each of which can store a single number in the range 0 to 255. To give you a sense for how much memory that is, the text in this blog post takes up about one and half kilobytes, but that picture at the beginning of this post (from Telltale’s second Walking Dead game) requires more memory than Scott Adams’ TRS-80 had in total.

Amazingly, Adams succeeded, writing a game called Adventureland that neatly mimicked the Colossal Cave Adventure without copying it and it ran, as planned, on a 16-kilobyte TRS-80. Adventureland was successful enough in the early gaming marketplace that Adams was able to spin off his own company, Adventure International, and market an entire line of adventure games for several different models of computer. Although no longer for sale commercially, you can still download playable versions from Scott Adams’ own website or play them directly on your browser using the links he supplies at that address.

Scott Adams' Adventureland
Adventureland: Still text, but no PDP-10 required.

Like the Colossal Cave Adventure, the play mechanics of the Scott Adams adventures were simple. You typed in one or two word commands, like “look” (to get a description of what was visible from your current position in the game’s world), “west” (to go in that direction) or “get sword” (to pick up any swords that you may conveniently have stumbled upon).

Even while Scott Adams was marketing his first adventure games, a small group of programmers at MIT consisting of Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling were creating their own, far more ambitious variation on the Colossal Cave Adventure. They called it Zork.

That name may or may not ring a bell. If it does, you probably just experienced a pleasant flash of nostalgia. Zork was witty, quite huge by the standards of late 70s games and had something that neither the Colossal Cave Adventure or Adventureland had: a parser that could read English language sentences and respond to commands longer than one or two words. Admittedly, it still couldn’t understand English as it’s normally spoken between human beings, but if you knew how to construct a command properly — say, “Pick up the gold sword on the wooden desk” — Zork wouldn’t get confused. Zork was the next step in the evolution of text adventures.

Zork: The Great Underground Empire
The first Zork game. Be careful. You might get eaten by a grue!

The microcomputers of the late 70s weren’t ready for Zork, but by the early 80s they were and the Zork programmers, following in Scott Adams’ footsteps, created their own publishing house to publish Zork and the sophisticated series of text adventures that would follow. They called that publishing house Infocom.

Like the word Zork itself, the name Infocom sends shivers down the spines of old-time gamers. Infocom was one of the greatest game publishers of the 1980s, perhaps of all time, and they produced adventure game after adventure game, every one of them just as sophisticated as Zork had been and some of them even more so. Infocom spent most of the 80s turning out one classic text adventure after another: more Zork games, Planetfall, Starcross, Suspended, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and others.

Yet even as text adventures were increasing in sophistication, so were the graphics capabilities of microcomputers. In 1980, a young programmer named Roberta Williams, became obsessed with the Colossal Cave Adventure when she played it at home on an Apple II computer serving as a terminal for her husband Ken Williams’ office mainframe.

Roberta Williams, game designer
Roberta Williams, creator of the graphic adventure Mystery House and a significant designer of early adventure games.

Williams combined the graphics capabilities of the Apple II computer with the mechanics of a text adventure to produce the game Mystery House, which her husband used as the flagship game for what would become one of the most successful game publishing companies of the 1980s and 90s, Sierra On-Line. The graphics for Mystery House were crude, but they were an early sign of the direction in which adventure games were headed.

Mystery House by Roberta Williams
Mystery House: Crudely drawn, but a harbinger nonetheless.

By the mid-1980s, purely text adventures had fallen out of fashion in the commercial marketplace. The graphic capabilities of home computers had improved to the point where nobody wanted to play a game that involved reading words rather than looking at pictures. More advanced attempts than Mystery House were made to create text adventures that showed pictures at the top of the screen while text flashed by at the bottom, but this was only a stopgap measure until somebody came up with a better way of combining high-resolution images with the puzzle-solving interactivity that made adventure games so alluring.

Text adventure with graphics
A text adventure with shifting graphic images at the top of the video display. Published by Telarium.

Text adventures never died, really. Nowadays they’re called interactive fiction (IF) and people still write them, primarily as a hobby, to share with other IF fans. To learn more, check out the Interactive Fiction Wiki to find out where you can download new games and collect tools that you can use to create your own. (I’ll write more about the current interactive fiction field when I get the chance.)

Even as the original Infocom games were thriving in the early 80s, though, the seeds for a radically new type of adventure game were being planted. Those seeds would take root at Sierra On-Line and the game designer who would bring them to fruition was the same person who created Mystery House: Roberta Williams.

I’ll talk about that in more detail in the next installment of this post.

Firewatch and Gone Home and Life Is Strange, Esther: These Are a Few of My Favorite Games (2016)

I stopped gaming for a while in 2015 because life had taken me to a strange place where it didn’t feel right to sit at my computer or my Xbox and live in some kind of world that didn’t exist in any way that felt meaningful right then. I stopped reading for pretty much the same reason or maybe because I didn’t have the attention span to sustain the concentrated suspension of disbelief that even a short story would demand. Maybe I was having a spurt of depression, that state where you suddenly find that you can’t take joy in anything. I’d been there before, but that was long ago.

So when the gaming urge reawakened in 2016, it did so with a vengeance. I’d been away on a personal voyage and the games must have been happy to see me back, because all at once they were so good. Sure, I played some mediocre games this year, but I didn’t play them for long. I also discovered games that touched me in ways that games hadn’t touched me before, reaching me at an emotional level I hadn’t experienced in the past. I don’t know if this was something new about games or something new about me that impelled me to seek out games with deeper, subtler levels beneath the surface.

It’s a bit of a lie to say that I hadn’t experienced this emotional connection with games before, but I only remember feeling it once, when I played Dishonored in 2012. I finished the game with chills running down my spine, realizing that what had seemed while I played it like nothing more (or less) than a brilliantly constructed mission-based stealth game had become something more. It was a game that not only allowed my moral choices to affect the game’s progress — games have been doing this since Ultima IV in the 1980s — but it was a game where I actually cared in the end about the wrong choices I had made and felt almost like crying at the realization I had made so many of those choices in a way I regretted. I’ve tried to play it again and make those choices correctly, but I’ve never been able to. The game makes it difficult and that’s probably how it should be. Why should it be easier to make the correct moral choices in a game than it is in real life?

This year I realized that my experience with Dishonored hadn’t been a one-off. There were other games that could offer me an emotional experience deeper than the exhilaration that I had usually considered the tipping point that pushed a game over the dividing line between being good and being great. I’m going to talk here about those games, the ones that affected me deeply — and perhaps a few that simply made me feel exhilarated.

These are my favorites among the games I played in 2016. Not all of them are from 2016; this just happens to be when I played them. But it was my year of gaming emotionally and that’s going to be the theme.

Firewatch

I don’t remember where I first heard about Firewatch. Maybe Steam was trying to push it on me in its running slideshow. Maybe I read about it at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Maybe I saw it mentioned on Electron Dance. For whatever reason I bought it and immediately started playing. It’s a short game and I finished it over the course of two or three evenings. I never looked back on the purchase with regret.

Firewatch both establishes and partially resolves its sublime confusion from the first moment, with a running text-adventure-style opening designed in the authoring tool Twine, where you make choices that essentially lead to a single conclusion: You met a wonderful woman, you fell in love, you got married and then, after a period of happiness, the end of your marriage and of your joy had entered your life as your wife began to display the first signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

That was when the game had me. I’d also lost a woman I loved to an unexpected illness that came on slowly and then took over our lives. There have been times since when I thought that she was the lucky one. She took death so well, while I had to figure out what do after it and I didn’t handle that nearly as well as she had handled death itself. In the game, your dying wife has gone off to live with her family in Australia and the game starts flashing between the text story and the three-dimensional life (designed in the Unity engine) you’ve chosen in your wife’s absence, working alone at a remote firewatch tower in a Wyoming national park. The juxtaposition makes it clear that you’ve chosen to handle the situation by running as far away from it as you can.

This doesn’t sound like a promising premise for a game; it sounds like the premise for a novel. But when I entered the firewatch tower and looked out at the beautiful, neo-impressionistic scenery I knew I was in good hands. I examined my new surroundings and began talking on a small radio with the director of the firewatch, a woman in a similar tower that I could just glimpse in the distance.

The view from your firewatch tower.
The view from your firewatch tower.

Firewatch combines that thing I love so much in games, exploration of an open environment, with something else: the slow growth of a relationship with someone who you only know by her voice. It’s that relationship that leads you to a gradual understanding of yourself and the choices you’ve made. There are also job-related missions to accomplish and a mystery to solve in the park, but they seem almost incidental to the emotional thread that runs through the game’s day-to-day routine. The voice acting, by Cissy Jones as the woman on the radio and Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer as your own character, is superb and you feel that you know both of them, even while, if you’re like me, you’re coming to know yourself a little better too.

Some people have complained about the ambiguity of the game’s ending, but that ambiguity is essential to the game: You’ve made a decision by then and whether you actually carry out that decision is irrelevant. What matters is that you’ve made it.

I’m not going to bury the lede. I’m giving this my Game of the Year award. I’ll try not to make it all downhill from here.

Gone Home

Gone Home, released in 2013 and set in 1995, isn’t as overt in its emotional themes as Firewatch, but they grow throughout what at first seems a simple exercise in exploration and mystery solving. Your character is an 18-year-old woman returning from a trip to Europe to her family’s new home, an old house somewhere in Oregon, and the mystery to be solved is why your family isn’t there to greet you. You solve it by examining objects in the house and solving a few simple puzzles, gradually piecing together what’s happened while you were away.

The house interior in Gone Home
Home is where the family’s missing

The game takes an interesting bait-and-switch approach that I won’t describe further so that it won’t be ruined for anyone and it cheats occasionally by rewarding you with brief voice narrations by your younger sister as you make certain discoveries, but your exploration leads to an unexpected emotional connection with people you, as the player, have never met. Like Firewatch it’s a short game and I played it in about the same amount of time, but once caught up in its mysteries I couldn’t quit.

Gone Home is a small game in its technical ambitions — it uses the ubiquitous Unity engine to create a fully realized, interactive, three-dimensional house and not much else — but within its limited confines it creates what feels like a genuine experience. And the resolution of that experience is an unexpected one, both in its solution to the mystery and the emotional impact that its resolution carries.

This is a small game. It’s a great game. You can find it cheap. Buy it.

Dear Esther

I’d heard Dear Esther, from 2012, described in advance by the sometimes derogatory term “walking simulator,” meaning a game where all you do is walk through an environment and admire it. It’s that, but it’s more, ultimately a great deal more.

You have, for unknown reasons, arrived on the shores of a barren island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. As you begin to explore it, and it’s a startlingly beautiful place to explore, you begin to hear snatches of a narrative from an unknown narrator speaking to someone named Esther, in the form of what seem to be notes addressed to a loved one and that turn out to be…well, let’s not go there.

The barren Hebridean coast
The barren Hebridean coast

Dear Esther turns out not to be a walk but a journey, one that the landscape and narration guide you gently through until the end, when it forces you through the culmination of your odyssey and you realize why you’re there, who you are, and what those spoken messages have been.

The heart of the game are the spoken messages themselves, read wonderfully by narrator Nigel Carrington, with a tone that implies both gravity and tragedy plus a paradoxical touch of joy. Like Firewatch, Dear Esther is about a tragic relationship that I found I could also relate to, but the ambiguity of its narrative make it nicely replayable as you try to parse out the deeper meaning of the poetic prose that early on seems metaphorical but gradually becomes more concrete.

Dear Esther is the shortest game in this list and it isn’t for everyone. But for me it was a powerful emotional experience, one that lingered on after it was done. I found myself staring at the closing screen for a long time — and there was nothing on it.

Life Is Strange

I played the first installment of Square Enix’s Life Is Strange, an episodic adventure game in the TellTale Walking Dead mode, when it came out in early 2015. I was ambivalent about it. I was impressed by its lovely, largely realistic 3D graphics (run on Unreal Engine 3) and the characterization of the viewpoint character, a high-school senior named Maxine “Max” Caulfield (a rather heavy-handed nod to The Catcher in the Rye). But its depiction of high school was uncomfortably realistic for someone, like me, who couldn’t have gotten out of high school fast enough, and its central gimmick — that Max discovers she can rewind time and remake choices that don’t seem to turn out right initially — struck me as a laborious mechanic, though at least it removed any need to save the game so you could go back and correct anything you felt you’d done wrong.

Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe
Max Caulfield and her childhood friend Chloe

When I came back to it a few months ago and played through all five episodes, it had somehow become a different game. I found that I identified intensely with Max, who has returned from Seattle to a private school in her small Oregon hometown, to attend a class in photography taught by a once-famous photographer who she yearns to learn more about her photographic hobby from. The second time I played through the first episode I lingered more on the character moments, especially Max’s interactions with the other students and with her childhood friend Chloe, who feels that Maxine abandoned her after Chloe’s father’s tragic death in an automobile accident. Chloe has turned from a sweet young girl into a surly, rebellious late adolescent and Max’s attempts to rekindle their relationship are some of the most powerful parts of the story. I discovered that when the game offered you the opportunity to simply sit on a chair and think that you should always take it, because Max’s thoughts opened a window into a seemingly immutable past that she felt she could never regain. I also discovered that the game is deeply felt and deeply moving.

And the time-rewinding mechanism turned out to be much more than a gimmick. It was a tool for exploring player agency in the context of a game genre — adventure games — that typically offers very little or at best, as in the TellTale games, the illusion of it. Photography also plays an important role in the game, much of which is about capturing the present and rediscovering the past. At times photography becomes almost a deus ex machina, but one used intelligently enough that it ultimately doesn’t feel like a cheat.

In the end, Max’s agency within the game pivots on a single, unrewindable decision, one that’s foreshadowed from the beginning, a decision that I wouldn’t dream of giving away but that sums up the emotional impact of the story in a single act. In its finale Life Is Strange turns out to be less about recapturing and possibly changing the past than it’s about determining a future and in a way its ending is as ambiguous as Firewatch‘s, if only because you’ve come to know Max so well that you want to know where she’ll go from there. But I’m not sure I really want to know. I feel I know her well enough now that I can imagine a better future for her than she’ll possibly have.

To be honest, Life Is Strange would tie Firewatch as my game of the year except that it wasn’t released in 2016. It was serialized entirely in 2015. But I give it a belated Game of the Year award for the year when I wasn’t really playing games.


I also wanted to talk here about The Witness, Tyranny, The Stanley Parable, Rise of the Tomb Raider (which I’ve already written about at some length), The Long Dark and Tales from the Borderlands (the most charmingly delightful of TellTale’s episodic adventures). But those aren’t as deeply emotional as the games listed above (though some come close) and I have to get back to writing things that will actually earn me money.

But I reserve the right to talk about all these games again, even the ones I’ve described in some detail. My head (and my unfinished drafts folder) are full of blog posts where they’d fit perfectly. I hope you stick around for them.