Games: Cat Quest, Life Is Strange (season 1)
This is the 2017 RPG where you are a cat going on adventures in a land of cats.
I often joke about a project's "originality capital". The joke is that a project can only "afford" to be creative about so many things, and then it runs out of capital. So if a movie has a wildly original narrative structure, welp, there goes your budget; now everything else has to be by the numbers.
Cat Quest is a single-player RPG that unabashedly spends all its capital on two things: (1) filling the game with adorable cats, and (2) filling the text with groan-worthy cat puns. And with that, the cupboard is bare, and the rest of the game is as generic as possible. There are the usual fetch quests, the usual "kill more things to get more power to kill more things" grind cycle, the usual assortments of magical whatsits that make your punches punchier and your magic magicker. There are the usual arbitrary cutoff points that make it so that getting to level <x> unlocks region <y>, which in turn lets you kill bigger things to get even more power to kill even more things.
Even if you've never played this game, you've played this game.
But the cats are adorable, the puns are relentless, and the game adopts a consistent tone of pleasant silliness. You know if you're down for about eight hours of this or not.
The very strange thing is, I think there's actually some decent storytelling in this game. I say "very strange" because, only some time after finishing the main quest, I realized that the game had really just been a story about a cat that loves its human very much — and if I can't be moved by that, then truly my heart is a stone. And they put in the work to do some good world-building, and the story is actually well-constructed, with interesting surprises.
And again, this feels *weird*, because when you're playing it, the story feels like chaotic garbage. You can't even really follow it — it's just so many random names and arbitrary events being thrown around. And here's what's especially weird: most of the storytelling is done via characters literally telling you the story via exposition-dumps. It is the most direct, cut-and-dry way for them to get this surprisingly-decent plot across to you — like reading a wikipedia page, spaced out through eight hours of dialog.
And somehow, that direct info-dump led to "I have no idea what's going on", and only later thinking, "Wait, there were things to really like about that story."
I suppose part of the problem is that character-exposition-dumps are the most inactive, lifeless way to tell a story, so it's hard to resist peevishly clicking past the latest guardcat telling you about some ancient cat legend. And part of it, too, is that there's a lot of arbitrary garbage in the story — forcing you to do <x> number of fetch quests before you can, say, learn to walk on water. (And yes, "cats walking on water" is a thing in this story — more arbitrary weirdness.)
In any case, just treat it as a slight, pun-filled romp, and assuming you don't mind stretches of arbitrary grinding and minimal challenge, you'll have fun with Cat Quest.
Life Is Strange (season 1)
This is an episodic choice-based walking simulator about a teenage girl who discovers, during a school shooting, that she can briefly rewind time. Meanwhile, her town harbors dark secrets, and she's having persistent visions of an oncoming tornado...
Yeah, "choice-based walking simulator" is not my best phrasing. I mean basically a Telltale-style game. ("Great, what's a 'Telltale-style game'?) So, it's a walking simulator, in that the main mechanics are to explore your environment, solve simple puzzles that old Infocom geeks would scoff at, and gradually piece together the story from the objects and documents you find. But it's choice-based, meaning that the game often offers your character choices — sometimes trivial (bacon or pancakes for breakfast?), and sometimes deeply significant (in many cases, literally life-or-death).
I liked this game a lot. After the addictive nightmare of The Talos Principle, I loved getting lost in an addictive game that felt like it was *rewarding* my time with competent, engaging storytelling.
At its best, it was like Freaks and Geeks meets Photopia.
No, it wasn't nearly as good as Freaks and Geeks at actively rejecting teen-drama tropes and stereotypes, but it feels like it has a similar goal: it wants to place itself in the lived experience of being eighteen. It wants to sit in those awkward conversations, in not knowing who to hang out with at lunch, in tentative and uncertain attempts at romance, in dreams and goals that feel simultaneously stupid and all-encompassing.
Photopia, on the other hand, was one of the first great "puzzle-light" games in the interactive fiction community. In retrospect, it's sort of the text-game equivalent of a walking simulator — if I recall correctly, Photopia barely even *has* puzzles. Instead, it uses the text-game format to let you really *live* in the story, exploring details about the world around you, interacting with NPCs, giving a simple event the weight of lived experience.
Again, Life Is Strange, at its best, had both of these qualities working together. You were seeing a version of teen life that lacked the aspirational sheen of any number of teen soaps, and you were experiencing it in a first-person perspective that gave you a strong connection to the story down to its most mundane details.
And it was almost like those 'grounding' traits were doing battle with other aspects of the story.
For example, the writing is... not unassailable. Most of the students in Blackwell Academy at least start as complete teen stereotypes — the jock, the punk, the cheerleader, the nerd, the good Christian girl, the mean girl, the mean-girl minions, and on and on and on. But I think that's forgivable — if you have a large cast, it's often *best* to start with quick archetype sketches, and then deepen the characters from there (see also: the LOST pilot). That said, Life Is Strange rarely bothers to add much nuance to those initial impressions. And in the few cases when they do — like when they explore Victoria's insecurity — those traits are often just other aspects of the same, known stereotype.
The graphics put everything pretty firmly into the uncanny valley, with vaguely floaty body language and almost no facial articulation. It's kind of like watching full-screen Sims with a peculiar penchant for wobbling. And honestly, the dialog is analogous to the graphics — out of whack, off-key, uncanny-valley. The kids reference 80s and 90s pop culture that would make perfect sense for a 30-something screenwriter, but not for somebody born when, well, Freaks and Geeks aired. "Hella" gets used way more than anyone of any age would or should use it.
And the plot goes nuts. Yes, there's time-travel. But then there's a crazy drug-dealer, and natural disasters, and a serial killer, and a rape video, and alternate timelines... if you tell someone the plot of Life Is Strange, you suddenly feel like you're recounting a telenovela as written by Hunter S. Thompson.
And I feel like the clearest 'battle' is between those aspects that ground the story and the gonzo plot elements that start with a school shooting and only get gonzo-er from there. In the early episodes, the tone and the immersion can make the crazy stuff *feel* normal and convincing. But, around the time the multiple moons appear in the sky, it's hard to keep buying into the story any more. Yes, it's still fun, but you're acutely aware that you're watching a story.
That said, I loved how they ramped up the time-travel powers over the course of the game. If this were strictly a puzzle game, then Max would just be able to reverse bits of time, and that mechanic would power the whole game start to finish — you'd just learn different things to use the power for, and internalize different tricky techniques you could do with it. (Think Portal, but with time.) But this is a narrative game, so Max has pretty much whatever powers serve the story. And I really dug the slow progression of things (here we get into more serious spoilers), from reversing time, to stopping time, to straight-up time travel.
And there's a similar ramp-up to the story itself getting fractured and surreal as the time-travel gets more powerful. I loved the alternate-timeline scenario, and I loved all the narrative-fracturing games in the last episode. Doing Inception-esque time travel within time travel within time travel felt like a natural exploration of that power, and I absolutely adored the hard turn into a complete surreal tone-poem towards the end. Nothing made any narrative sense, you were just slipping through tweaked variations on story elements that you'd already experienced. Yes, I get that they were saving money by re-using existing assets, but it did a perfect job of putting the entire series back into your head and making you wonder what it all added up to.
What I liked best about this game was how it reminded me what it was like to be young. My teenage years seem so, so far away now that I just remember bits and pieces — brief images and cringing embarrassments — and mostly it's lost in a smear of "I was sad all the time and read a lot." Sure the game was clumsy in places, but it often put me back in my *own* past, recalling growing up in a small town in Kentucky.
And it was neat, too, to see the contrasts — what it's like now to grow up always connected all the time, and with the looming specter of school shootings. I was amused that I kept expecting a big reveal to be that one or both of the leads was gay, and then realized no, they could both be more fluid with their sexuality, because they weren't growing up in the south in the early eighties, with everyone desperately performing their gender against a constant background hum of gay panic.
I often feel like the whole *world* is in the throes of that giant killer tornado, but maybe the kids are alright.
In any case, for its flaws, I was moved by this more than any game I've played since Gone Home, and any media of any type since Lady Bird. I cried a lot, but in a good way. The first season is $20, and is well worth your valuable time.
For next week: I'll be on the road (Maine!) so I'm not taking in a lot in the way of media, but I have a lot of stuff to catch up on. There are a couple more plays I prep-read for The Well-Made Play. I've finished the first seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Mister Robot, so I need to write about those, as well as the comic The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. I'm currently reading The Final Days, the Woodward and Bernstein book about the end/collapse of the Nixon presidency.
 "Ah, now *everyone* in fake-Astoria, Oregon knows what it's like to have astigmatism."
 Weirdly, that sort of slippery, dream-logic anti-storytelling is something that improv excels at, but I've never seen that sort of abstract non-narrative deployed in a narrative improv show. (Spirited came close.)
 ... itself frequently beset by tornadoes.