Weeks later from when I actually promised I would, here I am writing a review of Life Flashes By, Deirdra Kiai’s latest and possibly most ambitious game to date.
I played it through as soon as it was released and I admit that, even though I liked it, I didn’t feel completely blown out. Since it is a very particular kind of game, I waited until I could play it a second time and see whether the problem was the game or me.
I’ll say it immediately: it was me.
(Knowing well that my posts tend to be on the unclear, rambling and incoherent side, I’ll just link here to Emily Short’s review of the game, much better written and which I largely agree with.)
Semi-spoilerish review follows…
I feel it’s safe to say that, when we use the word ‘game’, there are automatically some expectations that come with it. Whether it’s action, adventure, RPG or tabletop, we kind of assume that there will be a semi-linear development followed by different outcomes, which can go from the basic win/lose scenario to the more complex multiple endings; we also tend to assume we will traverse through the story and, through our choices, affect the outcome.
LFB is not that kind of game.
In Life Flashes By you will visit important memories of the life of Charlotte Barclay, novelist, who is on the brink of death after a car accident and, as per rules, must thus go through a life review accompanied by a manic pixie guy.
Every time she completely relives a memory, a new scene opens depicting an alternate universe where things have gone in a different way.
As a player, you can choose in which order to visit -and revisit- the various scenes, and which conversations to have with Trevin, the aforementioned pixie. That will have no effect on the scenes themselves, or the ending, but it will give you further insight into the psychology and insecurities of Charlotte, her excuses for her past choices, her reactions to the fact that her life could have gone differently, that she didn’t have to be lonely, that the part of her that wants to be a writer is important but not all that defines her.
Now let me just make a small detour and talk of this vaguely Victorian browser game called Echo Bazaar. What does it have to do with LFB, you might ask. Well, in EBZ your possible actions are offered to you as storylets, a fixed choice menu that only changes as you ‘level up’, or opportunities, that come up at random.
As a player you are free to choose (or ignore) whichever path you want and, apart from a few stories you can only play once, you are never forbidden from retracing your steps and choose differently, even contradicting your previous choices. Sometimes you can even see which options are not available to you, either because you haven’t unlocked them or because of choices you made in the past.
I admit I was surprised when I found out that Deirdra Kiai had subscribed to Echo Bazaar only after writing Life Flashes By, because I was absolutely sure that the former had in some way influenced the latter.
Like many browser games, LFB offers the player lots of freedom of movement while, at the same time, little in the way of altering the game world. Like EB in particular, Life Flashes By allows you to retrace your choices and see how things might have gone differently.
In both games, this freedom means that the main effect of your choices is not to carve your way to an endgame but to shape the character that you end up playing.
Even if the ending is always the same, ‘your’ Charlotte will be subtly different for having visited the past before the present, for hopping in and out of conversations rather than listening to them from start to end, for talking with Trevin of this and that rather than staying silent.
I still think there are some faults here and there, particularly some not-so-subtle spots of authorial intervention about recent events that kind of grate even with the whole semi-biographical set-up of the game (though I admit, they stand up a lot more if you follow her blog or twitter). In the end, though, it’s definitely a well-crafted, original and engaging conversational game, and you should definitely give it a try.