Reviews by Eloquence

5 stars
A brilliant text adventure without the frustration of a parser

So, what is your robot going to look like? Will it be a box with eyes on wheels, a flying furry puppet, a spider-robot with 360-degree vision? Make your selection and be presented with—another screen of text.

Choice of Robots is a game by Choice of Games, a company that should not exist. At least not if gaming followed the conventional history in which video game genres are forged in the fire of one generation of computing hardware, only to be wiped out in the avalanche of the next. Text adventures? They have gone the way of the dodo and the cathode-ray tube, surely.

Not quite. In 2009, Choice of Games released “Choice of the Dragon”, a text-based adventure game that became a smash success on mobile devices. Since then, they have released more than 100 titles under the “Choice of” label. The company has also made its game engine available under a license that permits noncommercial use, and they publish an endless flow of user-created titles.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of “Choice of” games if you haven’t played one. So go ahead, and try the damn dragon game in your browser. While the games share similarities with “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebooks (“to attack the dragon, turn to page 69”), they offer a much larger number of choices, track internal variables, and do other things that computers can and books can’t. One thing they don’t do: trying to parse text input (“GET LAMP”). If you’ve ever played an old school text adventure, the parser is the one thing likely to drive you bonkers, because typing the exact words the computer expects can be a stochastic nightmare.

An example screen from the game showing a few paragraphs of text followed by three choices.
Just a few paragraphs of text, next choice. A bit more text, next choice. The formula works beautifully to get you to read a book without realizing it. (Credit: Choice of Games / Kevin Gold. Fair use.)

Robots then! Choice of Robots author Kevin Gold knows 01 thing or 10 about them. An Assistant Teaching Professor at Northeastern University, he “received his PhD from Yale University in 2008 for research on how robots could learn the meanings of pronouns and other abstract words from examples.” Choice of Robots isn’t about pronouns, though—it’s more about fulfilling that fantasy of “conquering Alaska with your robot army” that you’ve always had. OK, you also do get to pick your robot’s pronouns.

You start the game designing your robot and then walk down your chosen path, to achieve your destiny as a reclusive robot tinkerer or a power-mad corporate overlady. Yes, those are the only two options. Just kiddding.

The game beautifully adapts to your decisions. If you want your Alaska fantasy, that’s what you’ll get (hey, no judgment). If you want a love story, that’s what you’ll get. If you want a tale in which hyperintelligent robots become good-natured shepherds of their obsolete human builders, that’s probably also what you’ll get, but ask your robot supervisor.

Aside from the romantic options being fairly limited—this ain’t a robot dating sim—none of these paths feel underdeveloped. Gold’s writing draws upon the real world (let your professor introduce you to the military-industrial complex), on myths and legends (dress up as Hephaestus at a party), on literary references (quote The Tempest at a funeral), and much more. It does so while staying lighthearted and unpretentious, even as Gold’s PhD ever looms in the game’s byline.

Choice of Robots may make you think about what the future holds, but most of the philosophical ground it visits is well-traveled. It’s in the nature of the game to not be morally prescriptive. In other words, you can be clearly quite evil, if that’s how you want to play it. As an interactive story, it’s a masterclass that’s sure to keep you entertained for a few hours. To send your flying muppet into the world, it’s well worth the six bucks.

4 stars
An engaging tragedy about forbidden friendship set in a fantasy world

The Last Birdling is a visual novel by indie developer Marcus “InvertMouse” Lam released in 2017, two years after Cursed Sight (review). It tells the story of the secretive relationship between two girls, a human named Tayo and a birdling named Bimonia. The birdlings are winged humanoid creatures that once dominated the wild—but after a great war with the humans, Bimonia and her mother may be the last birdlings alive.

Tayo is shown with an angry expression as she swings her arm across a table, spilling herbs and tea.
As a young woman, Tayo is drawn further into the conflict between birdlings and humans. (Credit: InvertMouse. Fair use.)

A a child, Tayo befriends Bimonia in the forest near a human settlement. For both girls, their growing friendship is a chance to escape their protective and demanding mothers, and to experience the joy of discovering the world through the eyes of another. But humans still view birdlings as dangerous monsters. If Bimonia is spotted by the townspeople, the result will almost certainly be bloodshed—and Tayo will be branded a traitor for becoming a birdling’s friend.

As the player, your perspective alternates between the two protagonists, and you are prompted to make many small choices. As Tayo, do you swallow a rotten herb offered to you by Bimonia, even though it may make you ill? The effect of these choices is limited until the end, when the nature of the relationship between Tayo and Bimonia leads to one of five endings.

Regardless of your decisions, this is not a cheerful tale. While the game is generally not visually explicit, it includes textual descriptions of violence, death, and sexual assault.

A well-crafted tale

Technologically, The Last Birdling is a solid title that showcases InvertMouse’s growing mastery over the visual novel format. The characters are visually expressive and the game is well-paced, offering beautiful chapter transition screens as the story progresses. As a player, it’s easy to visit the different endings without re-reading old text.

The game attempts a fair bit of worldbuilding, including a glossary that fleshes out concepts touched upon in the story. The quality of the writing is sometimes uneven, but never distractingly so. As in some of InvertMouse’s other stories, the characters do have a tendency towards self-loathing that gets a bit tiresome.

The Last Birdling is a better title than Cursed Sight in almost every respect, but in spite of that, I found it less emotionally impactful. The ambiguous relationship between Bimonia and Tayo pulled me away from the characters to the larger themes of the story. As a result, even the most tragic events packed less of a punch.

Nonetheless, The Last Birdling is a good story. I would recommend it to fans of the visual novel genre, if you’re in the mood for a fantasy tale about forbidden friendship that visits some dark places. At $5 it’s a small price for a labor of love by a storyteller of maturing talent.

3 stars
An unimaginative case for a more creative world

In Arrival of the Fittest (review), biologist Andreas Wagner made the compelling argument that life “finds its way” to solutions by way of neutral mutations. Through incremental changes, proteins can change shape gradually without losing their original function. As a population diversifies, natural selection can then identify those protein variants that have acquired entirely new, useful functions.

The book challenged a naive view of evolution, in which the vast majority of genetic mutations cause harm, and a small percentage of them confer an immediate survival benefit. The truth is that life needs to “play around” with neutral mutations to navigate the landscape of possible changes that may make a species more or less suited for survival.

In Life Finds a Way, Wagner applies this “landscape thinking” to all types of creative problem-solving. The first half of the book focuses on the concept of fitness landscapes, a limited but useful visual metaphor for how well-adapted specific genes (and the creatures they inhabit) are to their environment. The peaks in a three-dimensional landscape represent high levels of successful adaptation to the environment:

Visualization of a population of individuals evolving to become better suited for survival, i.e. “climbing a peak” in the fitness landscape. (Credit: Randy Olson and Bjørn Østman. License: CC-BY-SA.)

Natural selection marches steadily uphill. What prevents a population from being trapped on a small hill that represents an evolutionary dead end, an adaptation of limited usefulness that can’t be improved? Wagner breaks down how genetic drift (changes in frequency of specific gene variants), genetic recombination through sexual reproduction, and horizontal gene transfer in bacteria help individuals in a population slide or jump across the fitness landscape.

Wagner shows how potential energy landscapes in physics can similarly be used to map the possible configurations of molecules or crystals, and how gravity, thermodynamics and other physical forces push nonliving matter into stable (and often beautiful) configurations that represent valleys in the landscape.

Of mountains and molehills

In the second half of the book, Wagner applies landscape thinking to human creativity. He encourages us to visualize the map of creative solutions to a given problem (even if that “problem” is the composition of beautiful music) as a landscape with peaks and valleys. What does it take for a creative mind to climb mountains and avoid getting stuck on molehills of mediocrity?

The author enumerates many tools creative minds can use to traverse the landscape of ideas without getting stuck, including:

  • dreams

  • play

  • travel and exposure to other cultures

  • work with people from other disciplines

  • drugs.

As a positive model for cross-disciplinary work, Wagner cites the Santa Fe Institute, a renowned cross-disciplinary think tank where Wagner is an External Professor. (One way I hope they won’t be a model: even though the institute was only founded in 1984, its seven founders were all men, something Wagner does not remark upon.)

Into the badlands

Wagner harshly criticizes the obsession with standardized testing in the United States, and the rigid education approaches of South Korea and China. In his critique, he revisits familiar generalizations about “Western” and “Eastern” cultures, and seems to see “Eastern” cultures trapped in rigid uniformity, while situating the pinnacle of individual freedom in the United States.

Nations that want to nurture creative minds, Wagner argues, should reduce the negative consequences of failure—whether it’s for scientists applying for a research grant, or for entrepreneurs starting a business. Creative societies should be accessible to immigrants with diverse backgrounds, and recognize the benefits of diversity and individual freedom.

While Wagner pays lip service to the dangers of inequality, his analysis is stuck in a neoliberal frame of reference. Much more could be written about how an effective welfare state, a vibrant democracy, and alternatives to exploitative capitalism and intellectual monopoly rights (copyright, patents, etc.) are necessary to reap the benefits of human creativity for all people.

Instead, Wagner repeatedly cites Silicon Valley as an example for innovation, with the implicit assumption that the way to make a better world is to create more corporations like Facebook, Apple, and Tesla.

It’s worth remarking that Life Finds a Way was written before the COVID-19 crisis laid bare the utter incompetence of many “Western” governments, including the United States, in managing a pandemic. The landscape of ideas about COVID-19 is dotted with the creative edifices built by anti-vaxxers and ideologues, and landscape thinking alone seems like a very limited tool for getting humanity out of the badlands.

Thankfully, Wagner’s flurry of societal prescriptions is as brief as it is unimaginative. What we’re left with, then, is his argument to apply landscape thinking beyond physics and biology, providing an intellectual foundation for the value of letting our minds roam. That’s all it is—a foundation, one which I do hope other writers will build on.

5 stars
Endless war against monsters, played out as chess with upgrades

Damn the Vek! Too stupid to communicate with, but smart enough to seek out human civilization wherever it is. In every timeline, the plague of giant insect monsters is close to wiping out what’s left of humanity. They breed underground and tunnel their way to the surface, only to bring death and devastation.

Insecticide won’t kill these bugs dead, but a squad of piloted battle mechs might. Or might not. Fortunately for the multiverse, humanity has learned how to travel between parallel universes, to attempt to rescue as many timelines as possible from the Vek.

Once more Into the Breach then, with another squad! Released in 2018, the second title by Subset Games after FTL cemented the tiny indie studio’s reputation for excellence. It takes plenty of inspiration from legendary turn-based strategy games (Advance Wars especially comes to mind), but still feels fresh and unique.

Much of this is due to the tightness of gameplay and mechanics. Assemble your team. Click. Pick a scenario. Click click. And: you’re in the fight. The map fits on one screen. You place your units. The enemy moves. The enemy starts to attack—and now it’s your turn.

Gameplay animation that shows a player unit targeting an enemy (an AI-controlled robot that is aiding the Vek for reasons unknown).
A member of the Zenith Guard, a charge mech, finds its target. (Credit: Subset Games. Fair use.)

Depending on your squad and each mech’s buildout, you can destroy units, push and pull them, create hazards, create shields, and more. The array of skills turns every round into a small puzzle. How will you prevent the enemy from damaging your units, or killing civilians in a building, or destroying strategic targets?

Miscalculate, and the Vek might end up taking down the energy grid—game over. It’s permadeath, sort of: you can take one of your pilots to the next timeline. Too bad for this one.

An Honest Roguelike

From a limited number of ingredients, the game cooks up a fresh set of scenarios for you on each run. Some maps are especially difficult to beat without taking some hits to buildings; any damage you take to the energy grid carries over to the next map. You have to make some strategic choices between battles—which battles to fight, which upgrades to install—but most of the game is tactics, tactics, tactics.

The difficulty level is not quite as punishing as that of FTL or other roguelikes that celebrate starting over as part of the fun. At normal difficulty, you may notch your first game victory after a few runs, perhaps even on the first try. The Vek are as stupid as they are relentless. But the game will produce enough brain twisters to keep you coming back.

When you manage to shove a nasty Vek into the sea, or cause a chain reaction of monsters killing each other, it’s quite the payoff. If that isn’t enough, the game rewards you with unlockable squads, experience points, upgrades, and ambient dialogue that never gets in the way.

An island leader presents a map and a mission-specific objective (save the train).
Mission briefings are terse, but there’s a large enough variety of objectives to keep things interesting. (Credit: Subset Games. Fair use.)

The Verdict

While it’s a very different game than FTL, it’s clearly built with the same design philosophy. The pixel art is more beautiful than FTL’s, but never extravagant; the UI provides help when it needs to and otherwise gets out of the way; moving your units feels as straightforward as moving the pieces on a chessboard.

In spite of the absurd premise and cartoonish physics (units can be encased in ice and unfrozen without damage), the game’s tone is mostly somber and dark; even victory is just a brief reprieve in an endless war played out across universes. The fun is in solving the puzzles the random number generator throws at you and kicking some serious Vek butt. If that kind of turn-based strategy sounds like your cup of tea, you can’t go wrong heading Into the Breach.

3 stars
Unpolished but moving tale of captivity and escape

Cursed Sight is a visual novel developed by Marcus “InvertMouse” Lam, an Australia-based indie developer. We meet the protagonist, Gai, at the age of 10 when he is sold by his parents to work as a servant for the king of East Taria, a fictional Asian kingdom. Gai becomes responsible for helping to protect the kingdom’s “treasure”—a young girl named Miyon born with dangerous abilities that King Lok is exploiting.

As the story progresses, Gai develops a friendship with Miyon and her caretaker, a young woman named Sasa. As Gai and Miyon grow older, they consider what kind of life may be possible beyond the captivity of the temple. Their decisions could cost them their lives, and they will certainly shape the future of the kingdom.

This is a mostly kinetic visual novel, meaning that you read it by clicking through it. There are 4 different endings, which you access through a couple of branch-points in the story where you do get to make choices.

Miyon is a young girl who is held captive to exploit the mysterious power of her cursed sight. Beautiful screens like this one are used as segways between different chapters of the story. (Credit: InvertMouse. Fair use.)

The art is lovely, and the music, while repetitive, fits the setting. The story is not voiced. The writing is decidedly mixed. Gai never quite acts his age (his 10-year-old version is too adult, his adult version is too childish); some paragraphs really needed an editor; anachronistic references and expressions distract from the setting. The most cringeworthy example is this one:

Miyon had opened up so much that I worried the other servants, or even guards, might become interested in her. I would fight them all in a cage at the same time if they dared touch her. Well, maybe after I attached a chainsaw to my left arm.

(Yes, that’s a reference to a chainsaw in a game that is meant to be set in the distant past.)

The game is at its strongest when it conveys emotions and builds its characters. I certainly became invested enough to finish the story and to get to all four endings, and the story moved me to tears a couple of times. While the game is only of average quality overall, there’s the kernel of something lovely here, and I look forward to playing more of InvertMouse’s games in the future.

4 stars
Gripping story about the role of AI, packaged as an imperfect game

Bad writing grasps at your attention like a man grasping at straws; great writing seizes your attention and doesn’t let go. Eliza is a computer game, and its writing is firmly in the latter category; it has a story to tell, and the moment it begins telling it, you want to know how it ends.

This is a visual novel, a genre in which you typically click your way through an illustrated story and make a few choices along the way. You play as a young woman named Evelyn who, after a period of depression and burnout, starts a job working for an AI-based counseling service called Eliza (in homage to the 1966 chatbot of the same name).

Evelyn works as a proxy, a human face for the AI. Proxies are required to faithfully read their lines to customers—”don’t deviate from the script!” Some of the people Evelyn meets as a proxy are looking for treatment, some just want a person (or a machine, as the case may be) to talk to. The game uses this conceit to explore deeper questions about the role of technology in a capitalist society.

As an undercurrent, Eliza explores the culture of the tech industry. There’s the startup founder with the grand vision of “ending human suffering”, who seems to harass every female staff member he hires. There’s the idealistic young engineering manager who is starting to raise questions about the privacy practices of his employer. And there’s Evelyn’s friend Nora, a former programmer who is now freelancing and making electronic music.

Evelyn (right) meets her colleague Rae for a cookie-baking session. (Credit: Zachtronics. Fair use.)

The game offers small choices throughout, but their effect tends to be very limited. In fact, when you act as the AI’s proxy during counseling sessions, the game deliberately takes away your choice to say anything other than the dialogue generated by the AI, occasionally forcing you to say “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question” as if you yourself were an algorithmically constrained chatbot. It’s player frustration in service of the story.

At the end of the game, Evelyn must make a defining choice, which leads to one of several endings. The game does not punish or reward you for your choice with a “good” or “bad” ending; instead it concludes the story in a manner that suits the character you’ve chosen to become.

Eliza took me about 6 hours to complete, and that includes exploring the different endings. The dialogue is fully voiced by a cast of experienced voice actors. Backgrounds and character sprites are visually pleasing, but the graphics are completely static—facial expressions or poses don’t change, even when the dialogue suggests that they should.

The Verdict

Eliza falls a bit short on the “visual” side of being a visual novel due to its use of static images; as a game, some players will find its linearity and long sequences without significant player choices overly limiting. But as a story about the role of AI in society, it is gripping and timely. If the theme interests you, I recommend the game without reservations.

4 stars
Solid tower defense title with some interesting mechanics

Every once in a while, I’m drawn to the tower defense genre, where you must dispatch with waves of enemies by building stationary defenses that fire on anything that moves in their proximity. It’s real-time-strategy reduced to the barest explodey foundations, with all action often taking place on a single screen. Unsurprisingly, the genre thrives on tablets and other mobile devices.

Cursed Treasure 2 differs from the stock formula mainly in two ways: You play as an evil overlord, and your enemies are trying to steal your stuff (gems in this case). If they steal all of it, you lose the level. That gives the player a more active role in the proceedings—you have to always keep one eye on those gemstones to prevent your enemies from absconding with them. If you have enough mana, you can summon a meteor to smush your opponents, or you can strike terror into their hearts to deter them.

After winning a level, you can play it in “night mode”, which restricts your placement options for towers to add a bit of difficulty; between levels, you can spend experience on assorted power-ups. All in all, the game offers enough variety to keep things interesting for a while—I put about a dozen hours into it.

Fighting one of the bosses in the last level. (Credit: Armor Games Studios / IriySoft. Fair use.)

The downsides:

  • There’s no story to speak of, and some of the English text on the screen would have benefited from copyediting by a native-level English speaker.

  • The game crashed once on me, and it forget its savegames a couple of times (restarting the game again made them re-appear).

  • By the time you’re really comfortable with all the mechanics, the game is over; unless you’re a dedicated completionist, night mode just doesn’t offer enough to pull you back in.

Still, you can often pick this up for a dollar, and it’s a solid game with a decent Linux port. Recommended if you’re like me and occasionally just want to fill your screen with things that go boom.

5 stars
An emotionally demanding story that rewards those who stick with it

Life is Strange (reviews) established the team at Dontnod Entertainment as talented storytellers and worldbuilders. The game was a joy to explore and offered meaningful player choices that elevated it above the status of mere “walking simulator”. The story it told had a definitive ending; what, then, could a sequel have to offer?

While Life is Strange 2 occupies the same universe and is structured in a similar episodic format, it tells a completely new story, setting the series up as an anthology—think Fargo or True Detective, not Stranger Things.

The second season is about a 16-year-old kid named Sean Diaz and his little brother Daniel. After a traumatic incident, Sean and Daniel find themselves running away from home and wanted by the police.

As the player, you control Sean’s actions and define the kind of relationship you will have with your brother, and with the world you both inhabit. Will you and Daniel steal food to survive, or beg for scraps? Will you attack those who wrong you, or forgive them? Will you trust in the kindness of family and strangers, or face the odds on your own?

The story takes place in America under Donald Trump, but the writers make a point to include moments of love and tenderness alongside the darkness of racism and prejudice that Trump represents.

A story told by Sean to his little brother sums up the events so far at the beginning of each episode. In the story, Sean and Daniel are “wolf brothers”. (Credit: Dontnod Entertainment. Fair use.)

Warning: The text below contains spoilers.

Like the first season, Life is Strange 2 has a supernatural element. Early in the game, it becomes clear that Daniel possesses significant telekinetic powers. As the player, you coach Daniel on when and whether to use his powers, but you do not control them directly, and your choices are not reversible.

Life is Strange 2 improves on the first game’s graphics, which is especially noticeable during the sequences where you explore natural environments like the forests of Washington and Oregon, or a canyon in Arizona. Like the first season, the game is fully voice-acted. Unfortunately, I felt that Gonzalo Martin (Sean Diaz) often overacted his part, which is significant because he’s the main voice you’ll be hearing throughout the game.

Besides making choices and occasionally solving small inventory-based puzzles, you also get to collect souvenirs on the road, which you can inspect in your backpack later. Moreover, Sean Diaz is an aspiring artist, and at various moments you can sit down and draw in your sketchbook. You don’t directly control the pen, but you can choose between different ways Sean sees the world: Is a room you’re trapped in a prison, or can you already see a stairway to freedom?

In the last episode, you and Daniel briefly explore a canyon in Arizona, showcasing the game’s significantly improved graphics. (Credit: Dontnod Entertainment. Fair use.)

The first Life is Strange ultimately presented the player with a choice between two very different endings. Life is Strange 2 builds towards a similar choice, but the endings depend not just on that one decision, but on the cumulative effect of your actions so far. For my playthrough, this worked really well. I felt that the ending corresponded beautifully to how I had chosen to act as Sean. That’s a rare feat for a game.

I enjoyed the game, and recommend it. Like the first title, it depends heavily on the chemistry between two characters—in this case, Sean and Daniel. I did not find those characters quite as compelling as Max and Chloe in the first game, partially due to the voice acting, and partially because playing out an at times strained relationship between two siblings is just more emotionally exhausting.

I would rate the game 4.5 stars, rounded up because the team at Dontnod clearly poured their hearts and souls into this game. If you’re looking for mindless escapism completely detached from reality, this is not the game to pick, but if you invest yourself in its story and characters, the game rewards you with a narrative arc that truly feels like you’ve made it your own.

5 stars
How animals mastered the art of not getting lost

Small biological miracles occur all around us. Birds, dragonflies, moths, or butterflies you observe during a hiking trip may be in the middle of migrations that require them to navigate distances of hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. A honeybee feeding on the nectar of a sunflower in your backyard may later share its distance and direction with the hive by way of a complicated waggle dance.

In an age where many of us rely on computers and satellites to tell us where to go when we travel off our beaten paths, these feats of animal navigation are all the more impressive. To find their way, animals rely on the sun, the moon, and the stars; on sound, sight and smell; even on superpowers we lack, like the detection of subtle variations in the intensity, inclination, and declination of the Earth’s geomagnetic field.

In Supernavigators, David Barrie reveals the navigational tools and methods utilized by animals ranging from insects to humpback whales. He compares them with navigation strategies employed by humans, from Polynesian voyagers to the Long Range Desert Group, a British reconnaissance and raiding unit in World War II.

Barrie is no stranger to the subject of navigation. His previous book, Sextant, focused on the use of the titular instrument for celestial navigation, and the author is an experienced sailor. Like many popular science books, Supernavigators is not just about what we know, but also how we know it. Barrie visited and interviewed many scientists, and he even accompanied a scientific expedition studying the long-distance seasonal migrations of bogong moths.

Monarch butterflies travel up to thousands of kilometers as part of their seasonal migrations. To navigate over these large distances, they are aided by a time-compensated sun compass sense. (Credit: Paul Mirocha / Fair use.)

Journey Into Minds

Knowing how animals find their way across vast distances may seem like a problem of elimination. Given an animal’s ability to see, smell, listen, feel, or sense, which sensory inputs actually matter for a long-distance journey? To test competing hypotheses, animals are deprived of vision or smell, displaced, confused with false sensory inputs, placed in funnels, tagged, tracked, and sometimes even mutilated.

One pattern that emerges from the many experiments described by Barrie is that animal minds—even those of insects—are complex, and animals often make the best use of all navigational information available to them. A subtle change in geomagnetic inclination may be no less important than the smell of coastal vegetation, the direction of the wind, or the movement of stars around the Northern Star.

Towards the end of the book, Barrie briefly criticizes the long history of anthropocentrism in biology, which essentially reduced animals to stimulus-response robots categorically distinct from humans. He reminds us that we are animals, and appeals to us to not let our own navigational skills atrophy. Becoming literate in the “language of the Earth” is a way for us to remain connected to our planet, and to treasure the richness of life on it.

The Verdict

Supernavigators made me say “wow” out loud a few times as I read it; this is testament both to the fascinating subject matter, and Barrie’s ability to convey it. I appreciated the simple sketches that illustrate some navigational concepts, and the brief anecdotes at the end of each chapter that are meant to show how little we still know about animal navigation. While the book would have benefited from some more synthesis and a bit less repetition, if you are interested in the subject, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 4.5 stars, rounded up.

5 stars
A stop in Arcadia Bay belongs on every adventure gamer's itinerary

You are Maxine “Max” Caulfield. You are 18 years old. You live in Arcadia Bay, a seaside town in the US state of Oregon. You’re a student at a private high school with an arts and science focus. No matter whether you’re at school, at home, or at play, you and your Polaroid camera as inseparable. Perhaps one day your pictures will catch the eye of Mark Jefferson, a famous photographer who teaches at your school?

This is the seemingly ordinary setting of Life is Strange, a narrative adventure game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published episodically through 2015. The game is played in a third-person 3D view, rendered in an artistic style situated firmly between painterly and photorealistic. While not up to today’s technical standards, the game world is still beautiful and immersive.

Your experience as Max starts with a nightmarish vision of destruction. But it was only a daydream; you’re in school, and Mr. Jefferson is asking you about the technical process that gave rise to the first photographic self-portraits. It’s only after a dramatic encounter with a childhood friend, Chloe Price, that things really get strange. And what is the story behind the disappearance of Chloe’s friend, Rachel Amber?

Max in Chloe’s room. The game lets you explore its rich environments at your own pace, taking in every detail if you want to. (Credit: Dontnod Entertainment. Fair use.)

In terms of gameplay, Life is Strange has much in common with classic point-and-click adventure games: You spend a lot of your time exploring, talking to other characters, and solving small puzzles. There’s no unlimited inventory—occasionally a puzzle may involve finding an object and carrying it from one location to another. There is one additional game mechanic (spoilers ahead):

Warning: The text below contains spoilers.

You discover early in the game that you have a limited ability to reverse the flow of time. This often allows you to try different decision paths and compare outcomes. It makes for a world that feels real and responsive (decisions have consequences) without painting you into a corner.

The game is fully voiced, and it’s a joy to poke at objects in the environment and listen to Max reflect on what she sees in the world around her. If you sit down on a bench, you may be rewarded with some additional wide angle camera views and narration. If you prefer to rush through the story, you can do that, too.

Life is Strange is not a perfect game (some scenes overstay their welcome, for example), but I still consider it a masterpiece in interactive storytelling. It’s a joy to explore Arcadia Bay, thanks to the excellent art direction and attention to detail. The wonderful chemistry between Max and Chloe invests the player in both characters.

The first episode of the game is available for free, and you can often pick the whole game up for under $5. Thanks to Feral Interactive, there is an excellent Linux port, as well. If your computer is not a potato and you enjoy narrative adventure games, Life is Strange is one title you won’t want to miss.

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