Gaming Your Emotions: Life is Strange and the Graphic Adventure Genre

I have always been far more intrigued by emotional appeal and the effects of good storytelling than by explosions, violence, or action. Perhaps that is why I was never a big gamer growing up. Now, before you eviscerate me in the comments, I am FULLY aware that games are much more than the three things I listed above, but what I am saying is this: in entertainment, I was looking for emotional appeal, and I got that mostly from movies.

All of that changed this past August, however, when I played a game called Life is Strange.

Life is Strange is an episodic Graphic Adventure game by a small production company called Dontnod Entertainment. The game revolves around a high school senior named Maxine (Max) Caulfield, who suddenly discovers she has the ability to ‘rewind’ time and alter the events of the past. The vast majority of the game is spent making decisions for Max which will ultimately affect events that occur later in the game (a staple of the Graphic Adventure genre).

I won’t go into the details of the story from there (you should play it for yourself!), but suffice it to say, I was hooked. I played the entire 14-hour story, all five episodes, in about three days. I never game that way. I was a recluse, sealed away in my dark basement with cans of 7Up piled around me, wearing PJs and headphones and only leaving to eat and (occasionally) socialize. But my time as a hermit got me thinking: why did this particular game affect me so much? And did it have the same effect on others?

I had to investigate.

life-is-strange

After finishing the game and wiping literal tears from my eyes (seriously, it’s great, play it), I took to Google to see if other people shared my experience. The results, it turned out, were astonishing. Of course, not everyone shared my experience, but it seemed like quite a few people, more than one might think, were deeply and truly affected by this game.

But, as amazing as Life is Strange is, why is it not the explosive hit that so many lesser other titles are? Shouldn’t everyone want to play this incredible, life-altering game?

The issue lies in the type of game that Life is Strange is. Graphic Adventure games lack much of what the general public wants from video games: they are lengthy, they lack action, they are dialogue and cut-scene driven, and they tend to tug at the heart strings more than the adrenal glands. They are, in many ways, video games’ answer to weird, arthouse cinema (which, incidentally, happens to be my favorite kind of cinema…). But is that a model that can still be profitable?

For the developers, yes. For the gaming industry as a whole? Of course not.

According to an article published on mcv.com, Life is Strange sold more than 1.2 million copies worldwide. This is a fantastic achievement for a little-known indie game from an even lesser known developer. But that achievement can seem minimal when compared to the successes of genre-giant Telltale Games, whose Graphic Adventure adaptations of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and The Wolf Among Us have enjoyed massive critical acclaim and financial gains.

the walking dead promo art

But there is always another perspective. Yes, Telltale achieved a huge victory with The Walking Dead, their most successful game, selling around 8.5 million copies and bringing in more than $40 million. However, the newest Call of Duty game sold 21 million copies and brought in $840 million. So while The Walking Dead was a huge victory for Telltale, it barely ranked in the greater gaming industry. That is not necessarily a bad thing, however. As long as these games keep making money for their developers, we will keep seeing them.

What it does mean, though, is that these games aren’t going to be the huge hits we want them to be quite yet. Graphic Adventures are amazing, and people should play them, but they haven’t quite reached ‘water-cooler conversation’ status. We have a tendency to believe that, when something is really good, people should just naturally flock to that thing (we can call that the Netflix phenomena). But that’s not how pop-culture works. You need staying power, you need big money behind you, and you need a solid reputation. Telltales’ reputation is solid, yes, but it’s being shaken more and more as Telltale wades into the mainstream.

Like I said, none of this even remotely spells doom for Telltale or any other Graphic Adventure developer, but perhaps we should reign in our expectations just a tad.

So enjoy your trips to Arcadia Bay, fight your way through the hordes of Walkers, and brace yourself (winter is coming). After all, maybe we shouldn’t be so anxious for these games to explode into popularity. Graphic Adventure games are, after all, about you. Your experience, your adventures, and your emotions.

What you decide to do with that experience after the game is over, is entirely up to you.

Carrsan T. Morrissey

6 thoughts on “Gaming Your Emotions: Life is Strange and the Graphic Adventure Genre

  1. Personally I have grown to love this type of game. Graphic Adventure games give you more sense of control, but like you said they also tug at your emotions more so than an action game would. The first game of this type that I played was “Until Dawn”. I didn’t even have the controller and I was pulled into the story and all the emotions that went with it. I also have “played” “The Walking Dead” game (when I say played I mean I sat on the couch and made the decisions while someone else had the controller). I really like the story aspect that you don’t get with traditional games. In Graphic Adventure games you can start over and potentially have a new game each time depending on your decisions. It also can become a group affair involving multiple people making decisions, thus making game play much more entertaining than watching one person play. You can’t do that to the same degree in other traditional games. In all, I really hope these companies continue to produce games based on both already existing media and original content.

  2. My foray into this style of game was the first Walking Dead, which was introduced to me from my roommate at the time. He knew I didn’t like the TV show, but he insisted that I at least try this game out, knowing that I enjoy story-driven games like the Mass Effect series. My reaction was similar to yours in the sense that I could not stop playing until I finished all of the episodes, with the only difference being that I was stress-drinking Coors instead of 7UP.

  3. Personally, I am not a huge fan of games like this. I have never really played games like this. I do see games like this on the rise though. Same goes for sports games. I’m not a huge fan of them, but they are not going away. Maybe it’s just because people do not want to watch movies, but they want to be apart of the movie. No wonder VR is on the rise right now. People want to be the character, but also want to relate to the character.

  4. I liked the way you tied this one up neatly in the end by saying this type of game is “about you” the gamer. Personally, I’m a big fan of this style of gaming. I like stories and this makes them even more interesting by making the audience part of the story. I’m a novice comic book fan in that I follow the Walking Dead series, Deadpool, and own all of the issues for Fight Club 2. The comic book culture is very big but it will never be “mainstream” and I have a feeling most of the people in that culture don’t ever want it to be. I think this new genre of gaming may be the similar in that way.

  5. These kinds of games kick-ass. They are easy enough for anyone to play, but involve a level of depth and interactive that can be compelling. The original walking dead series was my GOTY 2012, and that’s a story and experience I will never forget.

  6. Great article Carrsan! What is next for Graphic Adventure? I had not noticed that there were games of this such, such as episode driven. When you dive into sales, you notice the difference between the larger companies and smaller. Would you might say that “gamers” of this culture want it to stay more down to earth so you’re gaming experience is more personal?

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