Watch “House of Cards.” Get past the second season of “Game of Thrones.” Don’t miss “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” And you saw “True Detective,” right?
Overwhelmed? Curious? I’m both. There’s simply not enough time to watch all that needs to be seen — or play all that needs to be watched. For all the talk of original television programming on Netflix, Hulu, Yahoo and now the PlayStation Network, there’s one narrative medium that’s been overlooked: games.
Video-game consoles, long home to the streaming services of your choice, are now mass media hot spots. Which is why Sony’s launch Tuesday of “Powers,” its superhero cop series for members of its PlayStation Network, doesn’t seem overdue so much as anticlimactic. It’s a nice perk if you own a Sony video-game console but likely unnecessary when it comes to the machine’s mission to dominate your living room.
That’s because already playing on consoles all over are games that act more like interactive television series. Some of the best shows I’ve seen in recent months are episodic games — Dontnod Entertainment’s “Life Is Strange” for one, and recent adventures from Telltale Games such as “Tales From the Borderlands” and “The Wolf Among Us.”
Don’t worry about not mastering a controller. Dialogue rules a show-meets-game like the sci-fi teen drama “Life Is Strange.” And even though they feature animated characters rather than in-the-flesh actors, don’t write them off as not for you. Think games are toys? That’s an outdated cliché. Video-game characters are increasingly relatable.
“Do I look any older?” says Max of “Life Is Strange” when directed toward a mirror. “Just more stressed.”
Granted, Max is an anomaly, a shy 18-year-old girl in a format still overstuffed with machismo and guns. It’s no wonder developer Dontnod references HBO when discussing the game. Playing as her is awkward — not because the game is awkward but because being an 18-year-old is awkward.
“Life Is Strange” captures all the mixed-up emotional turmoil of spending your first year away from home for school. The heart of the game — Max discovers early on that she has the ability to rewind time — only heightens the nervous mood. Every interaction with another character becomes a test lab, as conversation trees are unraveled and then erased, all in an effort to give Max some sort of competitive edge.
When her intimidating photographer professor references a John Lennon lyric, players can hit the rewind button and have Max drop the allusion first, thereby earning some respect. It feeds into not only a game’s natural inclination to second-guess every action, but also gives the player the illusion of shaping the story.
An episode of “Life Is Strange” should take about two or three hours to complete, and I look forward to saving future releases — five episodes are planned — for a weekend of binge playing. The first episode plays out like a pilot, with Max discovering uses for her ability to rewind time, and some premonitions that things are going to get mysterious.
There’s some brief action, but these moments aim for tension rather than wanting to test our reflexes. One early scene, the consequences of which have yet to play out, has Max witnessing a school shooting and then finding a way to prevent it.
No good deed goes unpunished — the edginess is ramped up when Max, caught by surprise by the principal after the incident, struggles to not explain a shooting that didn’t happen because she’s in fear of her powers. It’s evidence of how some of the toughest puzzles we face are those that come about in daily conversations. I exhausted every dialogue possibility in what appears to be a failed attempt at preventing harm to Max’s reputation.
Though it’s a relatively inviting game, there are still aspects of “Life Is Strange” that will be foreign to non-players. At times the dialogue is forced because Max needs to, essentially, give directions to the player. And how I longed for someone like Sofia Coppola or Diablo Cody to have written Max’s teenage slang.
There are also aspects that simply feel like a game. Sometimes it’s a nuisance: Telltale’s games will occasionally force a player to repeatedly press a button to perform an action such as opening a heavy door. “Tales From the Borderlands,” inspired by a popular gun-based franchise, is heavy on such button mashing, but the ragtag group of bandits have personality to spare.
Other times, however, the freedom that comes from a game is liberating. In “Life Is Strange,” one can zone out during a photography class lecture to focus, instead, on Max’s notebook or photos. It’s the sensation of hitting pause on a television show to explore the different facets of a character’s personality. For those willing to invest the time, it fosters an intimacy. I chuckled, for instance, when I saw that Max described her teacher as “pretty hip for his age.”
Even such freedom may be a little odd, as when Max takes her sweet time exploring the dorm rooms of her peers and no one seems to notice when she, say, picks up the tablet of someone standing near her. But if we can suspend our belief to enjoy a car parachuting out of a plane (admit it, we were all impressed by the “Furious 7” trailer), then Max can get the benefit of the doubt when she’s creeping around.
Besides, it’s early days. Video games as a medium are relatively young themselves, and it’s only in recent years that narrative-driven games have risen to prominence.
They’re not going to replace scripted television or film, nor is that the hope. This feels different — and new and exciting.
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