Teen Girls and Supernatural Horror: Until Dawn, Life Is Strange, and Oxenfree Mini-Reviews (w/spoilers)

Until Dawn

It reminds me a lot of L.A. Noire — which is not a good thing. Just as Team Bondi once did, Supermassive Games is so pleased with their motion capture technology despite adding so little that it becomes irritating. They assume, as many videogame developers do, that “cinematic storytelling” not only involves being derivative of a passive medium — to the point it’s just a slightly interactive, elongated movie — but borrowing characterization and plot devices wholesale without an original approach to the material. It doesn’t deconstruct the stereotypes that make up slasher movie casts or the various tropes used in them, despite Peter Stormare breaking the fourth wall to mock the player for participating at all.

There is a trend in gaming that I wish would end sooner than later, which I shall call “False Choice Syndrome.” Until Dawn is a perfect example of this as evidenced by its grandiose, unskippable intro that proudly proclaims each decision made will cause a cascade of changes making each playthrough indistinguishable from the last. This has already been obvious for a while with other titles but it needs to be stated again: this is a lie. While characters can permanently die due to failing quick-time events and choosing one option over another, all superficial at best or meaningless at worst, the story progresses the same way regardless. To be continually given the promise of branching narratives and for each attempt to falter is exhausting at this point. It would be impressive to finally get such a game, some day, but I doubt — with how much time and resources are necessary to truly accomplish that — it will happen any time soon or as a big-budgeted mainstream title.

Life Is Strange

This game and Until Dawn aren’t that dissimilar: they’re both graphic adventure games that are heavily iterative of cinematic works and use branching narrative as a unique selling point that’s rather overstated. Hell, they even share the same visual motifs involving butterflies (’cause A Sound of Thunder) and Native American spirit animals.

Yet I found Life Is Strange, for all its noticeable flaws, an endearing experience than an exasperating one. The voice acting and dialogue may be more stilted while the graphics are far less photogenic and animations a bit clunky, but the characters and the setting exude a personality of its own that Until Dawn severely lacked. The teenagers look and sound like teenagers as opposed to 20-something actors portraying such, with many individuals having lives that exists outside of the events in the plot, and (most importantly) has something to say. Though issues such as cyber-bulling, abortion, and date-rape aren’t explored in-depth — it’s hard to not appreciate and applaud the acknowledgement of such topics, especially in a videogame, while treating it with earnestness than outright camp. Hannah Telle’s performance itself as Maxine Caulfield (love the Catcher in the Rye reference, BTW) may be awkward at times, but it works as Max is an awkward teenage girl who’s (like her namesake) often conflicted about the actions of herself and others. She feels like an actual person in a way that none of Until Dawn’s cast does.

Even the supposedly branching narrative, coupled with Max’s inexplicable ability to rewind time, is practically a subversion of such gameplay when not hampered by it. So many story beats and one of two endings — which I feel should have been the only conclusion, choice be damned — suggest that the need to have such mastery over the world and demand it change to your whim is actually quite selfish, if not incredibly dangerous, and ultimately futile. Many of the alterations Max makes to the space-time continuum, as ostensibly benevolent as they may be at first, are later proven to take its toll on reality itself as birds die mid-flight and fall to the ground or whales beaching themselves en masse. An attempt to (more or less) revive Chloe Price’s beloved late father comes with the backlash of Chloe ending up quadriplegic and her parents suffocating in financial debt due to medical bills. It’s evocative of Carnivàle, that wonderful yet short-lived and underrated HBO series, where the ability to heal the wounded or dying functioned by siphoning the life force from everything else around the person — at one point leaving an entire field of crops to dry up and die so a little girl could walk again. There is this sense of a natural order and even trying to bend it without breaking is impossible, that every infraction to the rules comes with an exponentially worse cost.

It comes down to the line dividing allusion and homage. Until Dawn makes allusions — to ScreamSaw, and I Know What You Did Last Summer — that simply reference the material without trying to have an identity of its own. Life is Strange wears its many influences on its sleeve — whether it’s Donnie DarkoThe Butterfly Effect, or Twin Peaks — but uses those references to create its own sense of self than to slavishly imitate, thus functioning as homage.

Oxenfree

Though I may not like Until Dawn, I will give it some credit: it understood how cinematography worked and the importance of switching between different angles for the sake of pacing. I can’t say the same about this game.

What. So. Ever.

To be stuck with a continuous wide shot of scenery, even if they’re beautifully painted landscapes, felt like staring into infinity. The fact characters move at a sluggish pace through fixed pathways only made it worse. When coupled with an incredibly brief gameplay length and the expectation of players to have subsequent playthroughs — it turned the one and only strength, well-acted and clever dialogue, into a flaw. Since it suffers from the aforementioned “False Choice Syndrome,” this flaw is made unbearable when it becomes apparent your contribution to these conversations yields so little affect. You would think, for a game as short as it is, Oxenfree could actually cause each decision to effectively change events within the plot accompanied by numerous endings. But, unless having a different line of narration actually counts (it doesn’t), events will always play out and end the same way.

The whole package feels woefully insubstantial. Even the plot is full of good ideas that are poorly executed with set-ups that have no pay-off, somehow leaving with more questions even as it tries to answer them, and only one of the characters (Clarissa) has much depth to them while the others are fairly one-dimensional. I could be more forgiving since this is from an indie developer, but that would be both patronizing and dishonest on my part. Night School Studio, especially with Adam Hines’ involvement, obviously has the talent to create a game with heart and wit in spades as well as doing something interesting or new — but Oxenfree is not that game. Not by a long-shot.

[Originally posted on 7/23/17 @ Medium.com]