For the last couple of weeks, once the girls are all in bed, I’ve been playing a strange little computer game that I discovered via a demo on the Xbox. It’s moved me to tears a number of times, taken my breath away every time I’ve played.
Now this sounds odd if you’ve not played this particular game, or genre, and especially for someone from my parents’ generation who probably don’t understand how someone can become a millionaire by posting videos of themselves playing games. I confess that not being a heavy gamer myself, even I used to find this concept strange when my daughter would spend hours watching Minecraft videos. So I wanted to try to explain this, but got bogged down there following several trains of thought so that’s going to have to wait til I can tidy it up. I also wanted to explain why specific scenes moved me so much, some of the key moments that make it so powerful, but that would spoil it for people who might play the game, so that will have to wait.
Graphical Adventures – games as interactive stories
The game I’m referring to is Life is Strange. It’s a sub-genre of computer games called graphical adventures, where you follow a story through one or more characters and frequently solve small puzzles or make choices that affect the game outcome. Usually there’s heavy use of “cutscenes”, which are short non-interactive segments that you watch like a movie rather than play. It’s an area of gaming which has become more popular the last few years, and more sophisticated as computer power has increased, giving an ability to render scenery and create realistic characters. Add to that an expectation of good writing (movie scriptwriters and novelists are often key figures in developing the story) and these can be very artistic and very engaging stories.
In some ways this genre feeds an appetite for interesting drama which movies often don’t satisfy, and TV programmes spoil by allowing viewers to binge. As this writer put it: “We still talk about television, but it’s not like it used to be. We’ll gather around Bake Off episodes like hungry cavemen around a vanilla-scented pastry fire, and we’ll get excited about new seasons of The Walking Dead and Hannibal and Downton Abbey, but the internet and new technology have meant that we’re no longer tied to a schedule. But because episodic games – like Life is Strange – are a novel format to gamers, we consume each morsel as soon as it comes out and discuss it ravenously in the hours and days that follow.”
Life Is Strange was released in five episodes, starting in January this year and finishing just this week. Each episode ran to a couple of hours gameplay, depending on how long you took to solve puzzles and explore the world. I only came to the game late, thankfully just in time to catch up with the first 4 episodes before Tuesday’s finale. By that point there was a whole library of articles and fan videos discussing the plot, characters, story arc, visual clues and the soundtrack. Again, this might sound ridiculous but it’s a reflection of how much thought and detail have been put into the game. There are now hundred of t-shirts and other items available (575 from this retailer alone) created from scenes in the game or from fan art of characters and locations in the game. It’s the kind of response normally reserved for the great books or movies of a generation.
Twin Peaks, Groundhog Day and Mean Girls all in one.
The story starts simply enough: your character is Maxine Caulfield, a photography student returning to her home town on the Oregon coast to attend a prestigious arts academy. After a vision of a hurricane destroying the town, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time to a certain point and change the outcome of decisions and conversations. There’s a mystery which emerges in the first episode, which you aim to decipher by asking questions, getting to know the other characters and solving small puzzles. This becomes the game mechanic, but it also forms a key element of the story, to do with choice and consequence. The episodic release allows for pause, with a “previously on Life Is Strange” reminder at the start, and a cliffhanger at the end of each. (although all 5 episodes have noe been released so you could binge if you wanted)
As the story develops, it becomes darker, with some harrowing scenes that are sensetively written and presented by the voice actors. There are a number of moments where your heart is in your mouth, where you are genuinely shocked, and others where you can sit agonising over the choice to be made, mainly because you have built up such an understanding and empathy with all the characters. There are moments in the game when you can just stop and listen to conversations in the background, or take in the scenery and the soundtrack whilst internally monologuing
The soundtrack is a representation of Max’s teenage tastes, lots of emo indie bands which I’d barely heard of. Each song is perfectly chosen for the moments in the story, edited with some of the most beautifully framed cutscenes, or their in the background whilst you explore the scene. It was the use of music in the opening titles (above) that got me hooked, where Max walks down the school corridor listening to her headphones and commenting on her fellow students. The songs are also chosen well to underline the current emotional state, and often provide foreshadowing, which make for great listening afterwards. There’s a Spotify playlist, and a number of videos for the main songs which uses scenes from the game. Here’s a spolier free video from the song at the start of episode 2, where you’re exploring Max’s bedroom, and when you pick up the guitar, she plays along with the song. Took me right back to being 18 again.
In the end, the game is a High School coming-of-age drama with time-travel, but becomes more than that because of the writing and the game mechanic itself. The story could possibly have been told through a TV programme, film or book, but becomes more powerful and meaningful because of your unique choices and your friendships. I cannot spoil the finale here, but all I can say is that the decisions you make for Max contribute to a morality tale about choice, consequence and determinism. It’s that deeper meaning and the response from players that might make it one of the “first great works of digital literature“.
HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS
If this has intrigued you, but you are definitely *not* going to play, here’s a great, and very moving analysis of the meaning behind the story. I am serious. Super spoilers. Here’s a slightly longer one that covers the summarises the story a little more. These fans also nailed the morality of a time travelling teenager back in April, a video that was so spot on as it formed a whole segment of the final episode.
The videos will also give you an idea of the gameplay and the beautiful artwork that’s gone into the game.
Over the years I’ve seen many of my favourite books made into film, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. About 5 years ago I mentioned a couple, and I intended to follow up with a description of some of them.
Since then, we’ve seen HBO in particular changing the game by getting excellent scriptwriters to convert series like Dexter, Southern Vampire Mysteries (True Blood) and Game of Thrones, as well as supporting the big budgets needed to fulfil the stories. Longer story arcs have become familiar to the viewer, so that longer novels or series of books do not necessarily need to be reduced to a movie format.
Here’s a few of my favourites that I’m still waiting for. There’s a few pie-in-the-sky ideas for potential actors or directors, but perhaps you’ve read them and have your own thoughts? Alternatively if you fancy something different, these are widely available, either on e-book or cheaply through Amazon.
Jill Paton Walsh – Knowledge of Angels
The story follows a shipwrecked mariner from a secular city who lands on a mediterrean island during the time of the Catholic Inquisition. His arrival challenges the religious order, who are bound by law to execute him if he will not recant his secular ways. The Mariners’ convincing rebutals, intelligence and good nature cause great troubles among the theologians. The situation is complicated by the discovery of a feral child, who the authorities try to use to prove the existence of God, the knowledge of angels.
This would be relatively cheap to film somewhere in the Adriatic, perhaps, would look lavish and has Oscar potential from a number of diverse characters.
It’s the kind of thing that would be perfect for Peter Weir, though perhaps Neil Jordan? Adrien Brody, Ron Perlman, Ben Kingsley would be perfect in various roles.
Jill Paton Walsh – A School for Lovers
On the back of the previous book, I checked out this romantic comedy, based on Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Lighthearted, yet far more intelligent and satisfying than so many of the tired romcoms that we see year in, year out.
Once again, relatively cheap to make, meaning you could easily attract some big stars. I could probably see Stanley Tucci as the “Puck” character, perhaps directing it as well? The other 4 (yes, you only need 5 main actors) could be anyone really, just have to be well matched.
Julian May – Saga of Pliocene Exile
Like many others, I was disappointed with last year’s Terra Nova, which shares a similar scenario, i.e. people are sent back to prehistoric ages from the future through a one-way time portal. But here, the ancient and future worlds are well thought out and described, and the “metapsychic” abilities have their own natural logic.
But it’s not just the fantasy and sci-fi, there are themes of deception and politics, of human resourcefulness, but also the psychological and sociological impact of being part of a globally connected community, or of being exiled or otherwise excluded from that.
With exotic aliens, castles, fearsome beasties, big battles and touching romance, it could be a great follow-on to Game of Thrones. It’d probably need a similar budget and probably a similar sized cast!
May wrote four more books that explored the development of metapsychic abilities in humans, and their eventual admission into a space-faring community of aliens. These allowed the story to come full circle but give the potential to extend the series or even shoot them as movies in their own right.
Maria Doria Russell – The Sparrow
When beautiful singing is heard from a distance planet, a small mission is sent out to make contact and explore (as you do). However when the sole survivor returns, it’s clear that some horror has occurred, and the book follows his interrogation in parallel with flashbacks to the coming together of the team and the mission itself. Like Knowledge of Angels, there are important spiritual and philosophical themes here which add weight to the sci-fi.
Out of this list, The Sparrow has come closest to seeing the screen, with 3 screenplays since it was first published in 1996, and Brad Pitt and Antonio Banderas attached at different points. The author writes here of her dilemma, which due to the nature of the story (not to mention the final reveal!) is more of a problem than for the other books in this list:
There’s a big market for science fiction action movies, but despite the success of films like “Moon”and “Inception,” there’s no market for science fiction drama. As one insider told me, “Not even George Clooney could get anybody to go see ‘Solaris.’”
I don’t want to spend the rest of my life apologizing to people who would feel betrayed by a screen adaptation that didn’t face up to the central issues of the story.
Russell may eventually get her way as another of her novels, “Doc” is being made into an HBO series.
Which of your favourite books are you aching to see, and who do you see being involved?