Saturday, April 9, 2022

The "Return to Monkey Island" Announcement

On April 5th it was announced that a new entry in the Monkey Island series of adventure games, "Return to Monkey Island", has been in development and is due for release in 2022. For the first time in over thirty years the game is being designed and written by series creator Ron Gilbert and one of his two collaborators on the first two games, Dave Grossman. M'colleague and I recorded some thoughts on the announcement which can be heard here:

I wanted to add something that only occurred to me after recording: that this is, in a manner of speaking, a "Return to Monkey Island" in multiple senses. The game may (or may not) involve player character Guybrush Threepwood's return to the fabled Monkey Island. But it's also a return to the franchise and is also Gilbert's (and Grossman's) metaphorical return to "Monkey Island" as in the series itself. And this leads me to imagine that there's a good chance that the game is going to be just as much about the idea of what a text or series of texts is in the hands of its original creators as opposed to continuations by others. But perhaps I'm overthinking it and it won't be about that at all.

Speculation is rife online about how this new game is going to fit in the game's admittedly messy storyline. Publisher Devolver Digital is marketing it as "the long-awaited follow-up to the legendary Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge" and also as "a new game by Ron Gilbert that picks up where Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge left off". However, Rob Gilbert has also tweeted that "MI3 doesn't go out of canon. We were very careful about that. Murray is in this game." The inclusion of this fan-favourite character from non-Gilbert-developed instalment The Curse of Monkey Island suggests that the game is set after that sequel. However, I have seen many people online assuming that it is set between LeChuck's Revenge and Curse.

Personally I doubt that the game has been designed to be a mere bridge between the second and third games, and that it's much more likely to be a continuation of the storyline that doesn't contradict anything from the non-Gilbert games without referring to them in any detail. It's noteworthy that Devolver are using terms like "follow-up" and "picks up where Monkey Island 2 [...] left off." They're not saying "a new game set between Monkey Island 2 and The Curse of Monkey Island." I have a suspicion that the new game is going to still be, technically, set after Tales of Monkey Island and will simply treat the intervening games as more of a digression, returning to the story as it was set up at the end of the second game. Are Guybrush and LeChuck really brothers? Are they really children in an amusement park (and perhaps games three to five were merely a continuation of the fantasy)? What is the secret of Monkey Island? And does any of it really matter? I have a strong suspicion that the answer will be "no", and that the game will poke fun at fans who have taken the storyline of this silly series of comedy pirate games so seriously for the last three decades.

The Secret of Monkey Island created a fantasy that captured the imaginations of adventurers all over the world. LeChuck's Revenge gleefully tore it down. Perhaps a third game in this story will propose a resolution to this conflict. Perhaps it will encourage us to return to Monkey Island in the sense of going back to the idea that we shouldn't worry so much about what's real and what's illusion, and just enjoy the ride.

Friday, March 4, 2022

"Who's Lila?" and Lynchian mystery


Who's Lila? is a point-and-click adventure game with an emotion mechanic heavily influenced by the works of David Lynch. It's about four and a half hours of gameplay and I liked it. Can I get into the analysis now?

Full spoilers for Who's Lila? and potentially a bunch of David Lynch films follow.

Initially, Who's Lila? appears to be an experimental adventure game about the role that facial expressions play in how we interact with the world. Saying something while frowning will contain a wholly different meaning to saying it while smiling or with no expression at all. We are seemingly controlling a possibly-neurodivergent young man named William Clarke who struggles to convey how he feels and must force his emotional reactions when interacting with others. A standard play-through of the game's narrative establishes a few mysteries: what happened to Tanya Jennings, who was last seen by William himself? Why, when William receives a phone call early in the game, is he referred to as "Lila"? And, indeed, who is Lila?

It seems from following the game's directions that Tanya was a young woman William knew; he murdered her and dismembered the body. Lila is William himself or something inside William. In the end William is arrested and enough evidence found to convict him of the crime.

However the game does not have one storyline but many: when you confront Tanya's friend Martha, who is assisting the police, on the roof of the school, it's possible for William to get thrown off the building by Tanya's boyfriend Graves and end up in a surreal other-world. It's possible, after being arrested, to confess to the murder, frame Graves for the murder, or confess to being Lila and not William. It's possible to not bother going to school at all: to go to the train station instead and confront Strupnev, the last other surviving member of the Lila-summoning cult of which William was a member. It's possible to explore the burnt-out ruins of the cult's headquarters. It's possible to take the bus back in time to the night of the party at which William and Tanya first met. Each of these storylines has its own end, after which the game returns to the menu screen. Apart from some information conveyed in some storylines which grants the player knowledge of how to find others, and a few items carried from one storyline to the other, many of the storylines can be played in any order.

As this might indicate, the game touches upon a number of philosophical ponderings: the nature of time and possibility; the concept of identity as merely a momentary perception of the self on the part of one's own mind; whether consciousness and ideas have an existence in and of themselves which humans merely access or perhaps imitate. The most central, however, is implicit in the game's title itself: who's Lila?

"Augmented Reality" elements of the game suggest that Lila the character is a kind of sentient idea which feeds on human attention, summoned by the cult of which William was a member. The game of course mockingly addresses a number of other common analyses of such characters, such as that Lila is a demon, or a ghost, or a representation of the character's inner psyche. Detective Yu, whose name is an obvious pun, seems to represent a player who wants the mystery to have clear answers. In that sense Lila is the game itself, which "feeds" on players playing it, thinking about it and discussing it. But speaking to a hidden character in the game reveals that "Lila is the mystery of who Lila is."

Before I go into this it's worth discussing the overt influence of the works of David Lynch on the game. This influence is not at all subtle. There is a Blue Velvet poster on Martha's bedroom wall, and William/Lila hides in her closet like Jeffrey does in that film. The bin area outside William's building resembles the yard behind Winkie's in Mulholland Drive. And at several points William encounters a silent character who resembles but is not quite identical to himself, identified as "The Stranger", whom the game's developer has compared to the Mystery Man from Lost Highway but is evocative of the many doppelgangers and not-quite-doppelgangers throughout Lynch's works (the latter always being more effective, in my view, than the former)[1]. And these are just the ones the developer has acknowledged on social media; there are plenty more. For instance, the creatures like Lila appear to travel through plumbing the way Black Lodge entities use electricity in Twin Peaks. Further, at one point seemingly the "real" William is encountered by the player (seemingly as Lila) in the form of a hissing, clanking mechanism not unlike the presentation of Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks' third season.

Throughout Lynch's work there is always a sense of something which is more intuitive than it is explicit. In some interviews Lynch refers to this as "think-feeling" and associates it with "dream logic", the idea that things which would not conventionally make sense in the cause-and-effect, object-permanent world of what passes for waking reality are accepted unquestioningly and appear wholly natural and correct in dreams. That is why when people watch Lynch's films they often try to piece together "clues" to explain what is happening in some rational, waking-world way. For example there is a conventional interpretation of Mulholland Drive which perceives the first two-thirds of the film, about Betty and "Rita", to be a mere dream on the part of Diane in the final act, an interpretation I largely reject. Similarly Lost Highway is interpreted as a parable about jealousy, and Inland Empire as a metaphor, much like Mulholland Drive, for the exploitative nature of Hollywood. And despite the fact that I have stated that I reject at least one of these (partly because it is just an effort to explain the story's events and not actually an attempt to contemplate its ideas), this is not to say that these interpretations do not lack validity, that the films do not address these points at all; they do. But the dreamlike nature of the presentation has a greater scope than those themes, which I think is not always grasped.

It is that reaching for a solution, an explanation, an interpretation which is one (but not the only one) of the main purposes of the dreamlike elements, because by resembling a dream Lynch conveys in his films the impression of things implicitly, intuitively, making sense, even if to the waking mind there appear to be gaps, omissions or inconsistencies. An enthralling intrigue is created by the feeling that things almost make sense, that there is key to all of this that, were it merely discovered, would put everything into place, like the dénouement of a detective novel. It is that feeling that these things make sense, that they must make sense, but it is not clear why, that gives truly dreamlike narratives their impact.

And thus the answer to the question "Who's Lila?" is that Lila is the mystery of who Lila is. The mystery is the answer, it is the point. The question is its own answer. And thus Who's Lila? functions effectively as an interpretation of more or less any Lynchian mystery without, despite its heavy and often overt influence, being a Lynchian mystery itself. This is not to say that the game is not Lynchian at all, regardless of influence; it is, but it's much more willing, perhaps even eager, to explain itself than one of Lynch's own works, a few ambiguous elements notwithstanding. I was probably enjoying the game the most during my first couple of plays-through in which, as far as I could tell, by a wholly dreamlike reckoning it seemed that William, Tanya and Lila were all the same person, and no further explanation was necessary.

It may seem a bit trite to simply say "the mystery is the point", and this arguably does not in itself fully address the impact and significance of Lynchian mysteries, but it is at least refreshing to experience a piece of media which is willing to state that rather than trying to either explain things neatly or, by contrast, explain them away metaphorically or symbolically. There's more to go into concerning how the gameplay extends outside the game itself, with the augmented reality elements, the "Daemon" program which can run alongside it, and even the online sharing of hints and datamining being part of the gaming experience, and that's not even getting into how the game's visuals and control scheme relate to the experience. But others will, I think, explain that better than I can right now


[1] A particular highlight for me was noticing in the interrogation scene that, when William is shown Tanya's photograph by the police, Tanya, who at all other times is shown as being exactly identical to Lila, is here shown as strongly resembling her but not actually looking the same.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Hindsight: A 2020 Cinematic Retrospective


Understandably, I really didn't see many films in 2020 (let alone 2021) so this is a short one:


Films I'm interested in but haven't seen as of writing:

Palm Springs

I've heard this is good even if it's a Groundhog Day ripoff. Redlettermedia didn't rate it though. Who knows. I don't want to have to subscribe to Amazon Prime in order to watch this.


I heard this was good. Just never got around to seeing it.

Wonder Woman 1984

Apparently this sucks, which is a shame since the previous one was decent. I still wouldn't mind seeing it.


Films I actually saw:

The Assistant

A rather uncomfortable-to-watch representation of workplace sexual harassment and the exploitation of young women in Hollywood, all framed through the experiences of an office assistant who notices what's going on but is powerless to do anything about it. An interesting way of framing the narrative and pretty chilling. Definitely recommended.

Horse Girl

Alison Brie plays a woman with an undiagnosed mental illness who thinks aliens are trying to communicate with her and possibly travels through time. She's good value as always and the nature of events is left sufficiently ambiguous to have a degree of mystery. The dream-hallucination sequence near the end is a particular highlight. I also enjoyed her character's obsession with a fictional paranormal mystery drama called Purgatory which appears to be a cross between Bones and Supernatural. Rather amusing.

The Invisible Man

An interesting take on the concept, presented as a story about gaslighting, stalking and controlling behaviour, with a satisfying ending. Probably the only unnecessary part is the explanation for how the villain's invisibility works. Elizabeth Moss is a little typecast in the role of "woman who is treated like crap by man or men" but she's a good fit for these parts. There are some decent twists, it's compelling and it takes an old idea and updates it effectively for modern issues. Another highlight.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

A decent-enough sequel to the original two Bill & Ted films. Full review here

I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Creepy film slightly let down by spelling things out too much. My thoughts in full here.

Favourite of 2020:

I saw so few films it's hard to say, but oddly enough I feel like Horse Girl was the one that stuck in my mind the most. But it, The Assistant and The Invisible Man were all good watches.


Worst of 2020:

I actually can't award that this year because of a lack of trashy superhero films and/or exasperatingly bad Star Wars sequels/spin-offs. Probably a good thing.



This is all I got so far:


Interested in:

Palm Springs


Wonder Woman 1984 (apparently this sucks)


I saw:

The Assistant

Horse Girl

The Invisible Man

Bill & Ted Face the Music

I'm Thinking of Ending Things


Best? Dunno.

Worst? Dunno.


Happy 2021!

Sunday, October 31, 2021

"Halloween" Retrospective

Recently I've watched or rewatched every film in the entire Halloween franchise, and immersed myself in some behind-the-scenes content, so clearly it's time I gave my completely original thoughts on the subject.

Halloween (1978)

Needless to say, the original and the best. While a bit slow by modern standards, the film benefits from taking its time to set up the characters of Dr Loomis, Michael and Laurie, and to establish the spooky October atmosphere. Most importantly, something most of the others forget, we get to know Laurie: she's a smart student but shy; she has a crush on a guy named Ben Tramer but she's too nervous to ask him out; she has two friends named Annie and Lynda who seem to push her around a bit, but she gets along well with younger kids, like Tommy; she likes to follow the rules and seems to be afraid of getting in trouble, such as in the smoking scene. We get to know Laurie, and all this is interspersed with the haunting scenes of Michael following her around Haddonfield. The way the film is shot enhances the menace of the Shape, the music of course fills the night with anticipation, and Donald Pleasence brings the touch of old-school class that these films always benefited from. A classic for a reason.

Halloween II (1981)

While one of the better sequels, this one suffers from the fact that, unlike the original, there isn't really a clear protagonist. With Laurie confined to a hospital bed for the first two-thirds of the film and Dr Loomis on a wild goose chase trying to figure out where Michael is going, it's not clear who we're meant to follow. Jimmy the paramedic is likeable and seems to be set up in some respects as the hero, but the film never really commits to it; he slips in a pool of blood and knocks himself out for the finale, which is back to Laurie and Michael. That being said, the understaffed hospital is eerie, the death of the trick-or-treat-er on the street is shocking, and the ties in to the origins of the Halloween tradition are intriguing. Pleasence is again great and the young cast are fun to watch, but other than Jimmy the hospital characters are pretty forgettable and you're just waiting for Michael to kill them. The gruesome deaths seem to be an obvious attempt for the film to rival its own pastiche, Friday the 13th, and are in some respects perhaps needless; more understatement wouldn't have gone astray. The revelation of Laurie as Michael's long-lost sister is pointless and doesn't add the drama that Carpenter seems to have thought the script needed. It's a decent sequel, but a bit routine.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

The one that has nothing to do with the rest of the franchise, this is nonetheless an entertaining cosmic horror story which presages Carpenter's own In the Mouth of Madness (1994), with a mystery in an isolated town leading to the discovery of an apocalyptic plot, and a satisfyingly dark and pessimistic ending. I don't know that Tom Atkins is quite the leading man that some Carpenter fans seem to see him as, but Dan O'Herlihy is great as Conal Cochran, and there is an atmosphere of dread and emptiness which compensates for the limitations of the leading characters. This definitely justifies its place as the hidden gem of the franchise; the shots of kids all across America trick-or-treat-ing at dusk is the stuff that this franchise should be made of.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

I didn't expect to like this one at all; in fact, I didn't even intend to watch it, but I'm glad I did, because I definitely fall into the camp of those who think that this is the best of the sequels. What makes all the difference in the world is that Danielle Harris and Ellie Cornell are so sympathetic and likeable as Jamie and Rachel. Even though I think the idea of Laurie being Michael's sister is stupid, the idea of Michael having a niece is interesting regardless of who her mother is, and the image of this remorseless killer hunting down an innocent child is, appropriately, horrifying. Pleasence makes a welcome return as Dr Loomis, the police are sensible and take Michael seriously, and when things get out of control with the mob they don't get too ridiculous. The image of the crashed ambulance in the river is fantastic and says it all. I don't know, with the ending, if they seriously thought Jamie would replace Michael as the killer, but I think anyone who thought it would go that way was kidding themselves. What it really comes down to, however, is that, like with Laurie in the original, we get to know the characters: Rachel is a girl trying to have an ordinary life; there's a guy she likes but he's not faithful to her; she wants to be protective of Jamie, but finds it challenging to understand her problems. Jamie's a little kid who has lost her parents and knows that her uncle is a serial killer; she's bullied by the kids at school and is afraid of Halloween; she wants to be part of the family with Rachel and the Carruthers, but it's hard to fit in. We don't even need Michael Myers for any of this to work, and that's why it does work. Easily the best sequel.

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

Obviously a weak entry, it's mostly worth watching for, once again, Loomis and Jamie. Rachel gets killed off too early and while I didn't find Tina, Samantha and Spitz as annoying as some do, I don't care much about them either. At first I thought Tina was meant to be the girl who picks up Rachel and Jamie from school in the fourth film, but it turns out she's a completely different character; too many perms. That girl was meant to be Lindsay from the original, too. Anyway, Loomis' confrontation with Michael is enjoyable, although I don't quite buy this film's explanation that Michael has a rage he is trying to contain. Once again you feel for Jamie in her plight, and Tina's sacrifice is a decent moment. All the "Man in Black" stuff is unnecessary of course and the film should have cut it. It's more or less what you would expect from a rushed sequel to the fourth film.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

Despite having only so far seen the so-called "Producer's Cut", this is the one where I don't really understand what they were going for. The opening and closing have all this guff about a cult trying to use Michael Myers to bring balance to the universe through ritual murder or something, whereas the middle just seems to be about Michael being annoyed that Laurie's uncle's family moved into his house. Paul Rudd gives a weird performance as Tommy but he's Paul Rudd, you can't dislike him too much. Kara is an interesting concept for a character as a single mother moving back in with her parents, but doesn't have much to do; Danny seems pointless. The biggest problem is the way Jamie is used, i.e. to have a baby and then get killed. Putting aside the vulgar implication (or outright fact, in the Producer's Cut) that her uncle Michael is the father of her child, it's a bizarre way to use the character who was the hero in the previous two films; the sixth film should have been about Jamie finally dealing with her uncle, not weird stuff about cults and the invention of a whole new Strode family. Donald Pleasence's last outing, while undignified for an actor of his caliber, is at least elevated by his presence, while Danielle Harris' absence severely detracts from the film, although given how bad Jamie's role is in this film it's probably better that she wasn't in it. The idea of an insane psychiatrist trying to control Michael is interesting, but it's not handled well here and wasn't handled much better in the 2018 film. This is a bad film but the non-cult-related parts are at least watchable as more Michael Myers antics.

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

The first film to ignore the sequels, Jamie Lee Curtis makes a welcome return as Laurie, but the film itself is pretty mediocre. All the best stuff happens in the opening, with Michael attacking Nurse Marion's house, bashing in a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt's face with an ice skate, and absconding with a car that he later replaces in a spooky scene at a rural rest stop. Everything else, however, falls a little flat. As would happen again in the 2018 film, this film's Laurie feels nothing like that of the original or even the sequel, with Ms Strode, or "Tate" as she calls herself here, just seeming like a hard-drinking Jamie Lee Curtis who has panic attacks. The setting of a private boarding school in a Californian Spanish villa compound feels very artificial and lacks the ambience of the earlier films' suburban menace. The supporting cast are all pretty forgettable and the entire thing feels very "Nineties", with a bright lighting, lots of wide shots and an orchestral soundtrack. The best bit is almost certainly Laurie decapitating Michael with an axe; the rest is pretty routine and for a film that wanted to ignore several previous films it commits some of the same sins.

Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

It doesn't really bear mentioning that this is one of the worst if not the worst film in the franchise, with a completely arbitrary premise and no interesting or likeable characters. In fact the most likeable character in the whole thing is probably Michael himself, as the scenes where he is on screen are really the only times the pace picks up. The idea of filming a reality show in the Myers house, while believable for the time period, offers nothing in terms of interest, and none of the characters are, once again, portrayed in enough depth to make them sympathetic. Sara is almost devoid of personality. Other than that, seeing a young Katee Sackhoff get decapitated and some of the ridiculous Busta Rhymes one-liners are really the only spare moments of ironic amusement in a deeply tedious film.

Halloween (2007)

Rob Zombie's remake of the original is visually appealing, with effective cinematography, colour and lighting. I also don't find the characters as annoying as some people make them out to be. The problem is that once again there's no one to root for; we don't meet Laurie until about an hour into the film, and she's just an ordinary girl without much detail afforded to her personality. The film is more interested in Michael Myers, but by depicting him as having the psychopathic traits characteristic of real-life serial killers, like abusing small animals and perhaps confused sexual urges, the film ultimately doesn't work when, after the first act, it transforms him into the mute incarnation of death characteristic of the original. Zombie wants Michael Myers to feel like Michael Myers, but by doing so he renders the first half of his film pointless, because we can't see that kid in the character of this faceless killer. The final chase in the Myers house is boring and we don't care enough about Laurie to want to see her win. It's a messy remake with some interesting ideas mishandled, and it's mostly carried by its visuals, not its writing or character direction.

Halloween II (2009)

This sequel to the remake only makes the flaws of the remake worse, as the focus is now on the boring Laurie, whose trauma at the events of the first film and horror at discovering her familial relationship with Michael lack impact because, again, we don't get to know her well enough as a character. The film needed more scenes like Laurie eating with Leigh and Annie Brackett (played well in the previous film and here by horror alumnus Brad Dourif and franchise stalwart Danielle Harris) and fewer extended dream sequences of Rob Zombie's wife, and Laurie being chased around a hospital by a grunting, roaring Michael. I had trouble getting through this one because I found it so boring. It only really picks up at the very end when Loomis arrives to confront Michael; other than that, and again the strong visuals, I don't feel like this misery-fest has much to recommend it. I watched the theatrical cut, and supposedly the director's cut is better, but I doubt I could face watching this again any time soon.

Halloween (2018)

Pulling the same trick as H20 by ignoring previous sequels, this time every sequel altogether, the 2018 film works by making Michael more mysterious and therefore more threatening, but the characterisation of Laurie isn't, in many respects, massively different to that in H20, nor is her relationship with her child. We see the effects of trauma, but it could be handled differently. The point I've laboured throughout this article is once again true here, that the new characters aren't given enough characterisation to make me care. I want to care about Karen and Allyson, but all we see about them is their relationship to Laurie and her past. We don't get to know them well enough in themselves. The podcaster characters and the Loomis-replacement psychiatrist are slightly ridiculous, feeling like caricatures in a film which is notionally trying to ground itself in the relative realism of the original. The ending confrontation in Laurie's house, and the scene of Michael's senseless massacre in the neighbourhood, are the best bits of this somewhat awkward reprise.

Halloween Kills (2021)

I've reviewed this in full here, but suffice to say that this is more of the same as the previous, struggling to find interesting characters outside of Laurie and Michael, and delivering a weak and inept message. Like the film before it looks nice and has a fairly strong atmosphere, but it's mostly worth it for the gore effects, the presentation of Michael, and the flashback scene to 1978, and that's mostly going to be of interest to horror fans and fans of the franchise specifically. Yet the film tries to be more than that, tries to have something to say about society, and doesn't really succeed. It's messy, as these films often seem to be when they try to do too many things at once.

"Halloween Kills"

To celebrate the spooky season this October, I made it a personal project to watch a horror film every day for thirty-one days, the only rule being that none of them could be horror films I'd seen before. I watched a variety of pictures from the history of cinema, ranging from classic black-and-white Universal monster classics such as The Wolf Man and Son of Frankenstein through the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties and beyond up until the present day. About a third of the films I watched were instalments of the Halloween franchise, of which previously I'd only ever seen the first. Now I've seen all of them — every single one, with the exception of some different cuts — and I intend to do a rundown of the entire franchise as well. But to cap it off, film 31 on the 31st of October itself was the latest instalment in the franchise, Halloween Kills, the sequel to 2018's Halloween.

I only saw Halloween (2018) for the first time a few days ago, as of time of writing, and while well-made I felt like it suffered from the same problem that most of the sequels excluding perhaps Halloween 4 suffer from, which is the lack of characters about whom I really cared; you end up watching the film to see how Michael is going to kill people, and not because you particularly care if the notional protagonists escape or defeat him. I understand that the film wanted me to care about Laurie's daughter in that new timeline, Karen, and granddaughter, Allyson, but probably due to the fact that it was trying to introduce new characters as well as bringing back old ones and reintroducing the premise of the entire franchise for new audiences I felt like we just didn't get enough time to get to know them. I wanted to see Michael and Laurie, and that was about it. Laurie, incidentally feels absolutely nothing like the character from the original Halloween; I know the experience and forty years would change her, but c'mon, she's just a grumpy Jamie Lee Curtis in a wig and makeup to make her look more haggard than she actually is. A different film might have been able to get me to care more about the new characters, but I wasn't that invested in them, which I felt was the film's biggest drawback. Its greatest strength was probably the way in which, by ignoring every previous sequel, it took the character of Michael Myers back to his origins as a motiveless, unreasoning personification of senseless violence and meaningless death, which made the character disturbing in a way he probably hasn't been since the original in 1978.

I knew going in that Halloween Kills had not had a great critical reception, but for films like these that doesn't mean much; Halloween II, III and 4 all have bad reviews while also being, while not as good as the original, reasonably strong horror films in their own right. Obviously horror enthusiasts have their own tastes about these things and a lot of horror viewers don't go in expecting anything too groundbreaking. The worst thing a horror film (or indeed any mainstream film, really) can do is to be boring, which several of the later sequels (Resurrection and the second Rob Zombie one at the very least) are. Halloween Kills is relatively engaging in this respect, but it falls into the same trap as the ones I mentioned before of only really working when you're anticipating Michael's next appearance. Laurie spends the entire film convalescent in the hospital, and the majority of the other characters come across as buffoons who go out in hunting mobs trying to track down Michael despite the fact that they seemingly also know that practically everyone who ever runs into him ends up dead. This was a problem in the 2018 film as well, actually, in which a lot of Michael's mystique seems to be based on his presence in popular culture in general, having appeared, kitchen knife in hand, in a film fairly regularly, every few years, for four decades. Within the narrative of the 2018 film, however, as is pointed out, he's a criminal who murdered five people forty years previously and one more person fifteen years before that. He's not the unstoppable force of evil he's seen as being within that film's narrative unless everyone in Haddonfield has been watching the Halloween franchise.

Similarly, in Halloween Kills, the narrative seems to exist in complex conversation with the franchise as a whole. We see a flashback to 1978 to explain what happened in this new timeline's version of events; Michael was caught after he went back to his old house. Yet we see footage of Annie Brackett in a bodybag taken from Halloween II, the event in this timeline being represented by an image from a film the story of which didn't happen, and this film seems almost to set itself up as the deliberate antithesis to Halloween II. In that film, Laurie was taken to the hospital and Michael hunted her down because, as a result of late night drunken desperation on the part of John Carpenter, she was secretly his long-lost sister. In this film we spend plenty of time at the hospital but Michael never goes there because he has no reason to; it's pointed out to the audience very clearly that Michael doesn't care about Laurie at all and instead wants, for whatever inscrutable reason, to go home. But Michael being drawn back to his own home was already done in Halloween 5, 6 and Resurrection; it feels to me as if there's not that much new storytelling that either can be done or the writers feel capable of doing. The angry lynch mob accidentally killing the wrong person was done in Halloween 4 as well.

Halloween Kills thus becomes one of the many instalments of the franchise in which you come to see Michael, reflecting his own pop-cultural scion Jason Voorhees, killing stupid people in increasingly ridiculous ways, in this case impaling them with broken halogen lamps, squeezing eyeballs out, and in one case even hitting a car door into a woman's face so that she accidentally shoots herself. This, coupled with a flashback to 1978 featuring a recreation of the original Michael Myers costume and some very effective practical makeup work to turn an actor into a near-perfect lookalike of the late Donald Pleasence, makes the film at times feel more like a fan-appeal picture than anything really interested in conveying the heavy-handed messages it depicts and then has its characters spell out onscreen, which is to say that mob justice is not real justice, that taking the law into your own hands usually only makes things worse, and that fear and reactionism only play into evil's agenda. I'm not against the idea that the film imagines, as Laurie expounds on in the finale, that Michael is evil incarnate, he's the town's fear and short-sightedness reflected back on itself, but this didn't need to be spelled out, and it becomes somewhat absurd when we start seeing Michael taking out crowds of people in the open street on his own, making him seem less like a Bogeyman or Angel of Death and more like a supervillain. As soon as he emerged from the burning building at the start to confront the firefighters I couldn't help but think "1978 Michael would have ducked out the back door and snuck away into the woods while no one was watching." We also sort of see Michael unmasked again in this film, and I don't think the stunt performer's face works in these scenes; he just looks like a grizzled action man, akin to the antagonist from Don't Breathe, when the 1978 film deliberately depicted him unmasked with an "angelic" appearance to further unsettle the viewer. For a film so slavishly devoted to recreating elements from the 1978 original, I'm surprised that Halloween Kills (or its precursor) didn't depict Michael unmasked like an ageing Botticelli angel, with waves of curly grey hair and a sculpted jawline. Funnily enough, the stunt performer who played Michael in the 1978 flashback, as far as I can tell, retains something of this appearance, but we don't see his face.

Halloween Kills benefits from good direction and strong visuals; it's a nice-looking film, Michael is intriguing and the gore effects are pleasing if one is a fan of such things, although some of the kills are, I think, a bit too brutal for a trilogy supposedly going back to the original's understated roots. But there's not that much for Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie to do and the task of leading the film, which largely falls upon the characters of Karen and Allyson, is a problem because the characters simply aren't that compelling for the reasons I've stated before. The recast middle-aged Tommy is somewhat believable but is more frustrating to watch than enjoyable because of his rash decisions, and it's amusing and somewhat exasperating to see poor Nurse Marion get killed by Michael in yet another timeline reset just as she was in Halloween H20. It's actually somewhat weird that they got back the original actors for Lindsay, Marion and Sheriff Brackett from the 1978 film but not the actor who played Tommy (apparently they considered Paul Rudd to reprise it from Halloween 6, which would have been funny, but he wasn't available). Obviously that guy who played Tommy back in the day isn't the leading man material they would have wanted for the Tommy role but as far as I know he's still around doing conventions and stuff so it is odd that they bring back several cast members from the 1978 film but not him. I know I'm not the only one to say this but they really should have found some way to get Danielle Harris into this trilogy; it seems like no one's been more of a consistent ambassador for the franchise than her despite the fact that the two different timelines she was in are no longer "canon".

Taken on its own, Halloween Kills is a decent slasher/gore film, a not very subtle or elegant "message" film about violence and mob rule and a fairly weak character piece. I haven't even spoken about Hawkins, Cameron or Lonnie (another recast character from the original) because there just doesn't seem to be much to say. For such a messy franchise this doesn't really help; it feels like it's in a love-hate relationship with the Halloween legacy, wanting to do its own thing but also wanting to pay tribute to the original and re-do the sequels with its own vision of what's "better". We all know Michael Myers will never die, so it only leaves me curious about Halloween Ends in the sense that I wonder to what extent the franchise will continue, just like Michael himself, to wander around only to wind up where it began.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

"Life is Strange: Wavelengths"

In my review of Life is Strange: True Colors I complained (as many people have) that, as someone who comes to Life is Strange significantly for the slice-of-life (is strange) stuff, I would have liked more of that and less plot-driven investigation of the game's central mystery. I guess maybe this was intentional because it feels like a huge chunk of that element was reserved for the additional Wavelengths DLC, which was released a few weeks after the main game.

In Wavelengths, you play as Steph, fan favourite character from Life is Strange: Before the Storm and supporting protagonist of True Colors, over the course of her life working at the Haven Springs record store, Rocky Mountain Record Traders, and its attached local radio station, KRCT. Even though it's set in 2018, Wavelengths feels like the ultimate game for the pandemic lockdown era; in the course of its three-to-four-ish-hour runtime you, as Steph, spend your entire time in said radio station and record store. With the exception of the ending cutscene, you see and interact with absolutely no-one in person, all of your human contact occurring via phone calls, text messaging, dating apps and a video chat. Time, lockdown and and budgetary limitations aside (it's a bit weird that you never serve customers in the game), this is all strongly tied to the game's central exploration of the self-perpetuating effects of loneliness and the causes of self-destructive behaviour, as encapsulated in the character of Steph and her tendency to run away from any situation in life which risks becoming too serious, permanent, or intimate. I've heard it rumoured that at some point in the development there were going to be more face-to-face interactions and/or scenes outside the store and booth, but the lockdown made this impossible; if that's true, I don't think the game really suffered from lacking those elements, and is probably actually stronger as a result of it.

On the surface, Wavelengths is your usual Life is Strange fare: you wander around your environment, interact with objects to hear the player character's thoughts on them, communicate with characters (in this case purely electronically), solve simple puzzles and make choices which shape your experience of the story. And yet in some respects Wavelengths really invests in how this kind of gameplay evokes the experience of undertaking routine, predictable tasks as you perform these actions in order for Steph to do her job. This isn't exactly something new in video games, but it uses it to really capture the slice-of-life element to which I referred in my opening. Ever imagined what it would be like to run a local radio station? Well, a lot of it involves queuing music, reading boring ad copy and sitting in a small room waiting for time to pass.

I have to admit that Wavelengths, and Steph's presence in the main game, were two of the things that motivated my interest in True Colors, and I thought it was a sensible choice to take a beloved but relatively fringe character from one of the spinoffs and elevate her to a bigger role. Being able to actually play as Steph and get inside her head is better still, as the game deliberately takes what we knew about her and complicates it. Before the Storm presents her as an imaginative student, wise beyond her years with a variety of interests and a big heart. True Colors presents her as charismatic and confident, to the extent that I almost felt that the Steph of True Colors was difficult to recognise as the same character from Before the Storm. So Wavelengths really goes into examining how Steph changed over the nine years between when those two games take place, and how her struggles to deal with the experience of loss shaped her approach to life.

Initially, I expected Wavelengths to just be a humorous "here are a few days in the life of Steph" thing where you hung out at the radio station, listened to indie music and said silly stuff on the air. But it actually goes into a lot more than that about what it's like to feel unsure of yourself and your life's direction, to push people away, and to carry around unresolved grief. I really didn't expect this relatively short piece of DLC to have as much emotional weight as it did, but I honestly found it quite powerful, perhaps moreso than the main game, in which the central drama was so totally foregrounded in the marketing.

A bit like Before the Storm's "Farewell" DLC, Wavelengths differs from the main game in that there's no mystery and the narrative is pushed forward not by any kind of plot contrivance but rather by the characters' own trajectory. In this case, it takes the shape of understanding why Steph is who she is, in a way tied into the original Life is Strange (a game in which Steph didn't actually feature, as she hadn't been invented yet when that game was made). The game begins by asking if you've played the original, and if so whether you chose to save the town or not. I've obviously played the original multiple times and chosen both endings at least once, but originally decided to go with the "didn't save the town" (i.e., saved Chloe) ending, and I certainly did not expect that to feature the way it did, with Steph in that decision's course of events dealing with the death of her mother in the storm implicitly caused by Max Caulfield's use of time travel in the original game. The second time I went with "saved the town", in which Steph's trauma is instead the murders of Rachel and Chloe.

I think the first option I chose was a pretty clever move on the part of the developers because one advantage the "Sacrifice Arcadia Bay" ending has always had is that it doesn't really show you significant consequences for Max's choice. It's implied that everyone in the town was killed (and Life is Strange 2 confirmed that very many of them were) but you never really saw the consequences of that unless you played Life is Strange 2 or now; here I was transposed from the shoes of Max, sacrificing the town to save Chloe's life, in the original, to Steph's, dealing for years afterwards with the thought of her mother having been killed in the freak weather event of the original game.

As a way of exploring more from the original game's narrative I really think this was a pretty decent move on Deck Nine's part, as you find Steph scared of getting close to anyone for fear that she will lose them unexpectedly like she did her mother (or Rachel and Chloe, but more on that below), and with even her friend Mikey from Before the Storm being pushed away. We see via text message that Steph does socialise with Gabe, Ryan and Charlotte from True Colors, but by setting the entire game inside the record store we get the sense that that's where she spends a lot of her time, shut away from everyone, keeping them at a distance, on the other side of the glass, caught between staying in Haven Springs as part of some seemingly half-hearted effort to get a new start and feeling the pull to again run away and do something new (which moving to Haven seems to have been in the first place).

Like all of the Life is Strange games it's testament to how well they engage with a certain kind of player (like myself) that I can have so much to say about a four hour piece of downloadable content, but the empathetic writing and the simultaneous presentation of what seems like an escape from reality with the less pleasant causes and consequences of that escape are more than powerful enough to make the experience worth contemplating. Wavelengths succeeds in this real-life stuff while also expanding upon what was only implicit in True Colors, namely that Steph was flaky and tended to drift from place to place, avoiding putting down roots. This explains why. And I wonder if this was set out from the start, and is why we were given less stuff about her backstory in the main game, or, if what I've heard is true, that the decision for the DLC to be about Steph's life was made later in the game's development, and that it's just a happy accident.

Wavelengths takes place over four seasons, starting in Spring shortly after Steph has decided to stay in Haven Springs and ending in winter on New Year's Eve of 2018, a few months before Alex's arrival in the main game, which is shown in the final cutscene. Each season is about thirty to sixty minutes of gameplay depending on how slowly you choose to take them, as you're free to wander around the record store, banter on the air and chat with the girls Steph rather futilely matches with on a dating app. It's all pretty mundane stuff, but that's what I'm here for. Spring is basically an intro to the radio station's mechanics: playing and queuing records, answering the station phone, helping people make decisions by rolling a D20 and reading ad copy, that Steph can choose to either take seriously or mock. Summer starts building upon the game's themes, with the last day of Pride Month causing Steph to reminisce about the experience of growing up as a gay woman in the northwest of the USA. Autumn (or Fall if you prefer) becomes much more somber, with a more direct representation of the consequences of Life is Strange the first on Steph's life. I have to say that the developers did a pretty good job here of demonstrating how the events of the first game might have impacted a character who hadn't been invented when the first game was developed, and I sure as hell felt bad for her. Finally, Winter concludes with Steph maybe finding a little solace after the rather difficult feelings brought up by the previous season, although still dwelling, appropriately, on the lonesome image of her popping champagne by herself at midnight, alone in the record store.

I like to play Life is Strange games slowly, one chapter or episode a day whenever I'm coming to one fresh or doing a replay, and while Wavelengths realistically is too short for this to be a sensible approach if you want a big hit of gameplay and/or of the character in one go, I did find it to be quite evocative of the "nostalgic" experience of life that the series has always captured so well, in which you know the ending is coming, and you want to see it, but at the same time you don't want it to end. I felt pretty deflated when Wavelengths did end, not because I didn't like it but rather because I enjoyed my time as Steph and wanted more, just like I did with True Colors proper. In fact, I think I probably enjoyed Wavelengths more than the main game given its slice-of-life focus and intensity of the kind of indie music that has always been so fundamental to the franchise's atmosphere. Being able to actually queue up the records every season and have them play in the background is great, and the official album or single artwork for each release is even rendered in the series' distinctive impressionist-watercolour art style. I would have liked more songs, especially in Spring where the auto-DJ defaults to crappy country and western library music, but I appreciate that that was kind of the point, and as the game goes on and Steph customises the playlist further, the automatic music becomes much more in keeping with her style.

Another significant feature of this DLC is the return of Steph's friend Mikey, also from Before the Storm, with whom she plays tabletop RPGs, this time over video chat, another pre-emptive retroactive nod to the years of lockdowns and working from home. It's good to see the character return and he's used effectively to demonstrate Steph's genuine and lasting friendships and how she doesn't always need to run away. There are also very, very brief voice cameos in Steph's recollections of Chloe and Rachel, both voiced by their Before the Storm voice actors, but this is pretty perfunctory, not that I really expected more. I think it's better to keep this stuff limited, especially as Steph is a character retconned into the story by the prequel; this implies that after Before the Storm she and Mikey would hang out with Chloe and Rachel sometimes but seemingly left before Rachel disappeared (and, depending on your choice, Chloe was murdered). It's a nice touch without going into too much detail if you haven't played the original game. I think either way it works, although the version in which she lost her mother to the storm is probably a little more believable than the loss of two friends with whom, by the time of the original game, she was presumably (had she been invented yet) no longer closely in touch.

I suppose Wavelengths gives True Colors the greater longevity and development of its secondary characters that I thought it needed, but despite featuring one of the same characters and taking place in part of the same setting it almost feels more like a separate experience in its own right, independent of the central game. I think it demonstrates a direction that the series could continue on further, i.e. focusing more on the day-to-day and exploring characters' lives in detail, and working that into a narrative in its own right. In the event that Deck Nine makes another Life is Strange game in a few years, I wouldn't object to it taking a healthy dose of inspiration from Wavelengths. I've played it through twice now, and I feel that there's probably still more optional dialogue I could unearth, but it kind of feels melancholy to think that now I really, truly have completed True Colors. I don't even want to finish writing this review because that means it's really over. Life is Strange is notorious for leaving its fans with that feeling, and this is no exception. I return to the same question I asked of True Colors: what do these games offer us that is missing in our own lives? And would we really be happier if we could be like Steph, feeling isolated and alone in a small-town radio station? What do we actually want, and where do we want life to take us? If something like Wavelengths has so much appeal, I think it speaks more powerfully than ever to the series' connection with the desire for what is simply a more emotional life, and a more emotionally experiential one, in which we can feel something, rather than just being.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

"Life is Strange: True Colors"

Shouldn't it be "Life is Strange: True Colours" in the PAL market?
Spoilers, for the entire Life is Strange series, obviously.
Anyway, I've always intended to publish a review of the original Life is Strange, one of my favourite story games (or pieces of interactive fiction) of the last decade. Yes, there's very little challenging gameplay, and the ending feels a bit rushed, and some of the dialogue reads like what middle-aged French men think American teenage girls talk like, but it has great atmosphere, strong voice acting and likeable characters. Some people don't like Chloe and I always found Max more relatable, but ultimately I thought that Life is Strange was moving and a lot of fun. That being said, I completely understand the school of thought that says that a huge part of the game's appeal is that it's a kind of "emotional intimacy simulator" above anything else which is why it has such a cult following and weirdly large fanbase of adult men. Nonetheless, having played the first game and enjoyed it as much as I did, naturally I played the sequel (by the same developers) and the prequel (by different developers), and now it's time for True Colors, the not-quite-second-sequel, developed by the developers of the prequel and featuring one of their characters.

True Colors, developer Deck Nine's second foray into the Life is Strange franchise, has the same strengths that I think form a big part of the series' appeal overall: nice atmosphere, good voice acting, and strong characters. It also has the same problem that their previous entry, the prequel Before the Storm, had, namely that it feels a bit unfulfilled and leaves you wanting more, the latter not necessarily being a bad thing, but like Before the Storm it feels like it could have been bigger. It's almost certainly the nicest-looking of the series so far, although given the tiny budgets of the original game and Before the Storm that isn't too surprising, but I still think lighting, environment and music-wise the original game had the best atmosphere.

A lot of reviews I've read have already pointed out the same things that I was feeling about the game: that it looks nice, that the characters are good but it feels like we don't spend enough time with them, that the gameplay is pretty simplistic, that the twist is stupendously obvious and predictable, and that the game feels very eager to evoke the beloved original game. It certainly feels like the game is trying to be conspicuously unlike Life is Strange 2, with that game's child protagonists, rotating cast of secondary characters, and heavy representation of American racial politics. In True Colors you stay in one place, the small cast of supporting characters is entirely consistent from the first to the last chapter, you play as an adult and you can romance one of your friends. The most political message in the game is the uncontroversial "big ruthless mining corporations are bad". The community in which the game is set is very "liberal" as Americans like to put it, with a local marijuana dispensary and and seemingly a pretty clear acceptance of LGBTQIA people, but that seems to have finally reached the point in at least some parts of America where it's no longer questioned by the average person. You play as a young woman of Asian heritage, but this scarcely comes up; it's almost completely confined to the background. And all in all, for better or worse, it feels rather safe, not interested in evoking anything like the divisive second game.

And to focus on the negatives first, I think the biggest problem with True Colors is that it's trying to feel like Life is Strange the original, without that much of its own identity. You're a young woman who is an outsider but with connections in an atmospheric small town with a dark secret under the surface. There's a murder, and you try to investigate. One thing True Colors seems to try to expand upon is Life is Strange's nascent theme of corporate greed and ruthlessness, the dangling plot thread of the original game's malevolent Prescott Foundation here replaced by the payoff-and-coverup-happy Typhon Mining Company. And the theme of governmental corruption is present here as it was in Before the Storm with the police and town council under the thumb of the criminally negligent corporation.

All this probably wouldn't matter if it weren't for the fact that, as I've said, we just don't get to spend as much time with the characters as might be beneficial. To be fair, I don't have a huge amount of patience for long, story-driven games if I'm not engaged with the characters and story, and I rarely am, but the thing that has always separated Life is Strange from other narrative-heavy games in the market is that, apart from the element of one character typically having some kind of supernatural power, and some sort of mystery or crime to investigate, they're all fairly grounded in real-world slice-of-life stuff which, as a boring overeducated man in my thirties, I find entirely more interesting than fantasy and science fiction adventures.

True Colors at its best maintains this; some of the most enjoyable parts of the game, in my view, are simple things like showing the local bar proprietor that, despite your lack of experience, you've got what it takes to check on the regular patrons; or hanging out in your apartment playing foosball with your friends; or rocking out at the annual town festival. All of this stuff, along with an extended Live Action Roleplay sequence, are where the game really shines, and I can't help but find myself wondering whether a Life is Strange game really needs a central mystery (murder or otherwise) or even too much of a supernatural element. Before the Storm certainly downplayed the latter, with vague suggestions of Rachel Amber having some supernatural potency, and Chloe's intense and disturbing dreams, being the only intrusion of the otherworldly into a fairly grounded narrative. I find myself wondering whether True Colors would have been better if it had just been the story of Alex Chen's life in Haven Springs, Colorado, and what that was like after ten or more years in the foster care system.

That brings us to the details of the game proper, which I've avoided going in depth with in my ruminations to this point, namely that in the game you play as Alex Chen, orphan and supernatural empath, who is reunited with her brother Gabe after eight years of separation, in the paradisal town of Haven Springs, Colorado. Gabe has lived in the town for a few years while growing up and trying to find Alex; he spent years in juvenile detention after stealing a car in his teens, which caused them to be separated. On Alex's first day in town, however, Gabe is killed in a landslide caused by mining blasting while they're trying to rescue his girlfriend's son, Ethan, and Alex spends the remainder of the game trying to determine why the blasting happened even after Gabe had called in to stop the detonation.

The problem with all this is that it's very predictable. And a story doesn't have to surprise me to be good; of course not. But the fact is that yes, the mining corporation was negligent, because they were desperate to cover up another accident that happened twelve years prior before the inspectors arrive, an accident which involved your (and formerly Gabe's) boss/landlord, town hero Jed Lucan, who was blatantly obvious even from the first trailer of the game as being the main culprit. When I played the original Life is Strange, as predictable as it is in hindsight, I was completely blindsided by the revelation that the affable but allegedly somewhat unprofessional photography teacher Mark Jefferson was the true villain, to the extent that I recall audibly saying "Oh, shit," when he was revealed at the end of the penultimate episode as the culprit. With this in mind, it was all too obvious starting True Colors that Jed was in a similar position to Jefferson: the seemingly trustworthy, warm, welcoming figure who turns out to have a dark secret made all the more obvious by how personable and nice they are. And I kept saying, out loud, as I was playing, "There was a mining accident," "Jed is the real killer", "Jed's behind it", and of course I turned out to more or less be right.

The reason I spell all these spoilers out is not to rag on the game, because I still really enjoyed it. The problem is that I think we needed more of this "normal life" stuff and less of the mystery, because, and I hate to say it, it's not that interesting. Arguably, Alex needs closure over why Gabe was killed, but other than that it's not particularly intriguing. It's already clear that the mining company is negligent and desperate to present itself as a positive force in the community despite that. The game shows us, as others have pointed out, images of things like Alex spending time with her new friends Steph and Ryan (Steph having been a fan favourite side character in Before the Storm) and other goings-on around town, and like many others I found myself wishing that I'd had the opportunity to see those moments rather than focusing, as episode two does for instance, on the investigation into the misdeeds of Typhon. Maybe that would have turned the game, as some have argued, into a "dating sim", but who cares? Even though probably the main theme of the games tends to be about what motivates us to use power, and what is really meant by the idea of using power "for good", I think the appeal of Life is Strange has almost always been its atmosphere and representation of real life relationships to a much greater extent than the mysteries. That being said, I understand that in the past, when Life is Strange games were released episodically, there was much fan speculation about what was going to happen next in the plot, which drove enthusiasm for the series; I only came to it after the original, the sequel and the prequel were all fully released, and thus I was able to play them all sequentially without waiting. So that's never been something I've expected of the series, and in any event it seems like players are almost always disappointed when they spend months speculating and the plot resolution typically ends up being something a lot less intricate and grandiose than they were anticipating.

It feels like much of the filling-in about character backstories is fleshed out through unlockable diary entries linked to the collectible character memories, which, as I elaborate upon further below, I didn't even realise were in the game until near the end of my second playthrough. I knew the memories were recorded, but not that you could click on them to get diary entries about them. I wonder if this was intended to be in the game proper but they didn't have the time or money to do cutscenes or interactive sequences for them, or if they were always intended to simply sit in the background because the developers couldn't figure out how to fit them into the game. 

True Colors also sells itself, as so many modern adventure games in the interactive fiction mold do now, of having "choices"; it's always been the complaint that in Life is Strange the choices that you make don't really shape the plot much, they just sort of affect your relationships with the game's characters to a certain extent. And I think that's fine because back in the original Life is Strange I felt that your inability to really shape events beyond your relationships with the characters was kind of the point; Max could change time, but she couldn't change people, only exploit her abilities to manipulate them in a way about which she clearly feels guilty. But that's the thing; Life is Strange the first's mechanic was time travel, an element which none of the subsequent games have had. So there's no reason in subsequent games for player choice to be such a big deal. In the original the whole point was you could agitate over your choices depending on what you thought was the best outcome, second guess yourself and revert them, only for the game to show you that it often didn't really matter, or that often there was no "good" outcome, just one set of consequences or another, and that the only real power Max needed was the ability to accept the consequences of her decisions.

In True Colors, Alex's power is that she can see and experience the emotions of others, to the extent that if they're felt strongly enough she's effectively able to read their thoughts, and become overwhelmed by other people's feelings. Obviously, a bit like Max's ability to see what the consequences of her decisions will be and then go back, Alex's ability to clearly identify what others are feeling and why potentially gives her the power to manipulate people. And yet one of my most satisfying parts of the game was when I was offered the choice to either take away the overwhelming anger of Gabe's grieving girlfriend Charlotte or leave her to deal with her grief, and of course I chose the latter, because it seemed to me that is was neither Alex's responsibility nor her right to take Charlotte's feelings away from her. That was a choice that I felt made sense because it related to how Alex used her powers. It seemed to be saying that often the best way to use power is to not use it at all. On the other hand, taking Deputy Pike's fear away from him in the fourth chapter works out for the best; is it supposed to be that his fear is holding him back, while Charlotte's anger is a necessary part of her grief? I'm unsure. In any event, at many other times the "important" choices aren't related to this and seem like they'd fit more in the original time-travel-driven storytelling of the first Life is Strange, because they didn't tie into Alex's power. Life is Strange 2, by contrast, worked in having choices because it so substantially affected the relationship between Sean and Daniel. The choices in Before the Storm always felt the most pointless to me because we know ultimately that they won't avert anything that happens in the original game. But the idea of a game about "player choice" and its consequences still seems so tied to the original game's grounding in time travel that it seems to be presented as an important gameplay mechanic and narrative device in all subsequent games, including this one, simply because "that's what Life is Strange games have" and not because it tied into the first game's wider themes and techniques. And I can't hold Deck Nine, developers of True Colors and Before the Storm, solely guilty of this, because Dontnod did it too in Life is Strange 2, and they were the developers of the original game. The artifice is particularly obvious in this game which, unlike all of the three previous, was released in one go, with the effect that the chapter divisions, featuring a page comparing the player's choices to that of others as a percentage, feels arbitrary, and almost like the game was divided up into five chapters simply because "Life is Strange games are in five bits with a choice breakdown at the end of each" even though this game didn't have an episodic release schedule.

And given that True Colors is notionally about our experience of emotions (fear, sadness, anger, joy), it feels like the game could have spent less time worrying about consequences (something far more relevant to the time-travelling Max of the original Life is Strange than the emotion-reading Alex) and done a lot more with exploring how our emotions define us; why is it okay for us to take Pike's fear but not Charlotte's grief? To what extent does Alex potentially manipulate Ryan or Steph into developing feelings for her by reading their emotions and then knowing exactly what to say (something Max's doppelganger accuses Max of doing through time travel in the first game, incidentally)? The idea that Jed is so in denial about what he did during the mining accident that his emotions are buried beneath Alex's notice is interesting, but worth exploring to a much greater extent. What's the connection between emotion and thought? There's a lot more that could be done here, and given that the Life is Strange series has thus far not shown an interest in direct sequels, it's a shame that we presumably won't see Alex's story explored further.

Once again all of this just seems like I'm ragging on True Colors or that I didn't like it, which isn't the case; rather, I'm frustrated, because I feel like this is a game with so much potential that just doesn't get completely fulfilled. As I've said, visually, the game is very impressive, the voice acting is top notch and the characters are really enjoyable to watch. As someone who essentially likes Before the Storm despite its numerous flaws, I was pleased to see the return of fan-favourite character Steph from that game and to see her used in a more substantial way. The other main supporting character, Ryan, is well-acted too, although I didn't connect with him as much after the first episode. Sometimes the consequences for the game's mandatory plot elements feel refreshingly realistic, like when Alex steals corporate data in Chapter 3 and then, appropriately, gets arrested for it at the end of Chapter 4. And I was also pleased to see that the game, as other recent-ish narrative games like Night in the Woods did, has games-within-games, for that element of skill-based challenge which these no-lose story-driven adventure games of the modern type (i.e. without inventory puzzles) otherwise usually lack.

I think the best parts of the game are when you're wandering around Alex's apartment above the bar and walking through the town of Haven Springs proper, getting to know the various residents and helping them out. Another standout moment is in the third chapter in which you cheer up Ethan by going LARPing with him, a logical extension of the amusing tabletop roleplaying segments in Before the Storm. A similar enjoyable sequence is when Alex and Steph perform the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun", as overplayed as it is, at the Spring Festival, because this is the stuff that the appeal of these games is made of, just like iconic scenes from the first game such as Max reminiscing at Chloe's house. That's what makes Life is Strange memorable, and this game certainly has its share. If only there were more.

One thing I noticed about this game is that it's arguably less surreal than the original or Before the Storm; its dream sequences, for instance, are much more like Sean's dreams about his father in Life is Strange 2, as Alex recalls her childhood and speaks to Gabe as if he were still alive. They're much more conventional than Chloe's bizarre and disturbing nightmares about her late father in Before the Storm, or the Lynchian dream sequence in the final episode of the original Life is Strange. That being said, another appealing moment was in the final chapter of the game in which Alex dreams that she's back in her psychiatrist's office from the beginning of the game, only for it to be revealed that the psychiatrist is just a tape recorder sitting in an empty office chair. There's also the amusing sequence in which, while LARPing with Ethan and tapping into his emotions, Alex sees the world through the eyes of a child's imagination, and they really are fantasy heroes on a quest in a magical land and not just running around the park wearing silly hats. I could have done with more moments like this in which the artifice of the world, reflective of the extent to which the mining company has clearly tried very intentionally to turn the town into an idyllic refuge, is made clear. The exploration in the final chapter of Alex's childhood is quite harrowing, but I think, as others have suggested, it might have worked better had those moments been interspersed throughout the game. I think it's very easy to miss, for instance, that it's implied as early as the first chapter that Gabe originally came to Haven Springs looking for their father, and that it's not pure coincidence, as it seemed to me at the time, that the late John Chen met his end in the very mining accident for which Jed was responsible. In fact, this is outright stated early in the game, but only in Riley's online memorial post for Gabe, and in the diary entries connected to Alex's unlockable memories which I only realised even existed as readable content at the end of my second playthrough. Anyway, In particular, I think the use of these dream sequences is a bit anticlimactic because the one about Alex's mother's death is captured much more neatly in the optional dialogue about the photograph in the first chapter of the game, and that the stuff about Alex's life in the orphanage, the climax of the dream sequence, is all stuff we already know if we've bothered to read the game's flavour text, i.e. that Alex was moved into foster care multiple times but always ended up back in the group home. Incidentally, I don't know how the foster care system works in the USA, but is it really realistic that Alex is still living in the group home at the age of 21? Don't people become adults at 18 in the States? Wouldn't she have been moved on? Anyway, it feels to me like the only really essential part of the flashback sequence is the scene revealing that Alex and Gabe were actually abandoned by their father, and that the rest was a little overdone.

This discourse is becoming very long, so let's finally talk about endings. Life is Strange had two endings. Before the Storm really only had one with very minor differences depending on your final choice, but that was arguably appropriate given that it was a prequel. Life is Strange 2 had multiple endings depending on how the player had driven Sean's relationship with Daniel; I must admit that when I played it I got an ending I didn't expect (Daniel helped Sean escape to Mexico and then turned himself in to the authorities). In any event, I could see that True Colors was going to go the way of having a fairly unambiguously happy ending (although I kind of wondered if the game was going to pull the rug out from under me at the last minute, but it didn't). It all depends on whether you choose to stay in Haven Springs or leave, and if you chose to be with Steph, Ryan or neither. In my first playthrough, being the Before the Storm apologist that I am, I naturally chose to get close to Steph throughout the game and, given that I didn't think Alex would much fancy living in the town where both her father and brother had been killed, at the end she and Steph left for a life of adventure. Seemed sensible enough. The only shortcoming was that Ryan was left alone, but given that I didn't connect with him that much anyway I didn't see that as too great a loss. So the ending felt a little insignificant. In my second play-through, I chose to stay in Haven (still with Steph) and there wasn't much more to see than what Gabe's memory describes to you in the flash-forward you see before the choice is offered. Even though you can fail to convince the local community that Jed tried to kill you, you can't fail to cause Jed to confess, which seemed really odd to me, because this is something that does actually relate to how the game explores emotions, with Alex unpacking all of Jed's feelings about the accident. So at the end of the day, the conspiracy between Jed and Typhon is revealed and justice is more or less served. At least Steph sticks up for you no matter what. It kind of feels like the True Colors developers, having had such success with the fans with Steph in Before the Storm, didn't want you to ever see her in a bad light, but as I've said I don't think choices ever actually need to be that important in the game except where they relate to the game's central premise, so I thought that was fine.

But I'm left at the end of this thinking: what is it that Life is Strange games offer their fans and is that what they set out to achieve? Are they intended to be mystery dramas offering some kind of meditation on the consequences of our choices and how we manage and utilise anything about ourselves that might be extraordinary? Or are they slice-of-life emotional intimacy simulators that appeal because so many of us are so starved for, or unable to see, the depth and beauty that might exist in our real lives? And is the former what their developers want them to be, while the latter is what they've become? Is it really the fault of the game if it leaves us with a sense of longing because for a little while it was so good at allowing us to pretend that we were another person with a stranger (and more emotionally connected) life than our own? Surely in that regard it's a success.

Indeed, I suppose it's testament to my appreciation of True Colors that the first thing I did after finishing it was to play it again; you can easily get close to thirty hours of gameplay out of two complete run-throughs if you take your time, and given how much dialogue there is that can only be seen on one play-through or another this definitely pays off. That was more or less what I did with both the original Life is Strange and Before the Storm as well, although I've only played Life is Strange 2 through once; I found it too dark to want to repeat. The game almost certainly is too expensive for the amount of "content" in it, and the fact that the Steph DLC (unreleased at time of writing) requires an additional payment. But while I don't expect a Life is Strange game to offer the "40 hours of gameplay" that seems to have become de rigueur among a lot of AAA video game players, I do wonder if it's time for the franchise to step up into a more 25-ish hour base game experience with more of the slice-of-life stuff that clearly a very large part of its target market is in for. I don't know, really. A lot of story-based games aren't actually that long. Is True Colors really as short as people are saying, or does time just fly when you're getting to pretend that you have feelings?