Life is Strange and the Changing Face of Adventure Games

Life is Strange and the Changing Face of Adventure Games

Games that rely purely on narrative are more popular than ever—but are they moving in the right direction?

Whenever I write about "adventure" games, I feel the need to footnote the hell out of that particular genre classification. Unless you're, say, older than 25, it's a term with a meaning that's not entirely self-evident.

Back in the '90s (and earlier), when genres had strictly defined boundaries, "adventure" typically signified a game with little-to-no action that focused primarily on storytelling, with puzzles mixed in to give the player something to do outside of absorbing the story. In the brief period the traditional adventure game went fallow—roughly, the late '90s to the late '00s—experiences that typically eschewed story in exchange for pure action found themselves supplied with more narrative than the point-and-clickers of the past; the whole "adventure games are dead" period brought us games from other genres that easily had much more dialogue than anything LucasArts ever attempted.

Life is Strange might draw inspiration from Telltale adventures, but its puzzles do more than test your morality.

About a decade ago, Telltale made a risky gamble by investing in what many viewed as a relic of the gaming industry, and based on recent licensing acquisitions (like Minecraft) and their recent deal with major Hollywood studio Lionsgate, it's definitely paid off in spades. And while their business plan once focused solely on trafficking in LucasArts nostalgia, Telltale's current releases bear little resemblance to adventure games of the past; the traditional style of Sam & Max soon gave way to a new style that washes its hands of puzzles entirely. Take a look at Telltale's catalog over the years, and you'll witness the gradual phasing out of traditional adventure game mechanics—to my knowledge, the first episode of The Walking Dead stands as the last time we've seen anything close to a traditional puzzle in a Telltale game.

This change isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you. Telltale's modern adventure games are essentially visual novels—a genre that's been kicking around since before Lucasfilm Games even got its start—but without all that reading. These narrative-driven adventures follow the snappy pacing of (good) cinema rather than games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, which encourage players to explore on their own terms and soak up the atmosphere. The typical inventory-based puzzles are removed entirely, and replaced with QTEs and timed prompts that task players with making tough decisions quickly. Since the first season of The Walking Dead, this format has become Telltale's "house style," and a profitable one at that. Unlike traditional adventure games, Telltale's newest take on this format is extremely accessible to those who don't consider themselves "gamers," mostly due to how immediate and streamlined these creations can be.

Even as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of LucasArts '90s legacy, I didn't necessarily take issue with their new directive in game design; in fact, I was absolutely hooked on the first season of The Walking Dead, which proved Telltale's reinvention of the formula could work after the disastrous Jurassic Park: The Game. But just as old adventure games had their issues, Telltale's work isn't perfect by any means. While their technology and production values have only gotten better over the years, their output has become a little too familiar. True, it's unfair to expect more than a few branching pathways per episode—there's only so much a team can write, animate, and record dialogue for—but still, the Telltale experience has become very much by-the-numbers. The writing hasn't decreased in quality by any means—if anything, it's improved greatly—but I'm not feeling the pull I once did: While every cliffhanger in The Walking Dead Season One had me on pins and needles for the next episode, I've stalled out halfway through Season Two, and playing the first episode of The Wolf Among Us for the sake of writing this article didn't see me diving immediately into episode two after an admittedly game-changing plot twist.

Telltale's adventures strive for a style similar to addictive, serialized TV dramas—in that respect, they're doing a great job.

My Telltale fatigue is precisely the reason I was looking forward to Dontnod Entertainment's Life is Strange; based on previews, it seemed to take Telltale's formula in a direction that incorporated more gameplay—much like SWERY's D4 did this past fall. Unlike Telltale's adventures, which attempt to have every scene play out as it would on a serialized TV show or movie, Life is Strange opts for more of a slower and observational pace. In fact, it might be a little too laid back; most of the first episode involves protagonist Maxine remarking on everything in the world around her in order to establish the story's setting and characters. And instead of limiting its scenes to single rooms and a handful of "interactables," Dontnod gives players fairly large environments to wander around in, and plenty of items and background details to observe at their leisure. If Telltale is aiming for the pacing of something like Breaking Bad, Dontnod's work is closer to that of a Jim Jarmusch film.

Life is Strange's main mechanic lies in Maxine's time-controlling powers, which provokes a bit more thought on the part of the player than a Telltale production. Time travel makes for a perfect addition to any adventure game, simply because it prevents fail-states—the reason why so many so-called classics are difficult to approach from a modern perspective. Still, Life is Strange's first episode doesn't make its puzzles anything less than staggeringly obvious: Most of them involve immediately zipping backwards to opt for a different dialogue choice or performing an action before a certain event can take place. Walk into a room and see a poor little bird smash into the window pane? Rewind time, and open the window before this can happen—the cause-and-effect relationships here are always unquestionably direct.

I had higher hopes for Life is Strange, and I'm hoping Dontnod gets a little more ambitious with its time travel antics in adventures games, because there's still room for puzzles that don't grind pacing to a halt. 2010's Ghost Trick—a DS adventure by Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi—operated on a very similar time-travel mechanic: Every "level" sends you back to a handful of minutes before someone dies, and, even if your actions can't save them, each replay makes you more and more familiar with the intimate details of how each of these little vignettes play out. Of course, you don't need to look at such a puzzle-focused experience to see how developers can modernize the adventure game experience while keeping players engaged; some of Telltale's last LucasArts reboots, like Sam & Max Season 3 and Tales of Monkey Island, managed to strike a perfect balance between old and new. Sam & Max in particular felt like a true evolution in its final episodes with the way its "Future Vision" mechanic acted as such a non-insulting hint system: Activating it would often show you the outcome of puzzle solutions, tasking the player with figuring out the steps in between.

LucasArts vet Ron Gilbert's upcoming Thimbleweed Park already feels like it'd be right at home in the golden era of adventure games.

That said, the more traditional form of adventure games hasn't exactly disappeared. We have slightly modernized remakes like Grim Fandango and the upcoming Day of the Tentacle, of course, along with plenty of other projects which use crowdfunding campaigns to gauge demand. Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion fame) will soon be bringing us Thimbleweed Park, which is basically indistinguishable from a late '80s Lucasfilm game, and a simple search for "adventure" on Steam reveals enough homages to point-and-click classics for a single lifetime. Still, it doesn't have to be an either/or proposition; there's plenty of room for a game with Telltale production values and puzzles that focus on more than the consequences of moral actions. Whether or not a publisher can figure out a way to make this kind of experience profitable, though, is another question altogether.

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