Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
I’ve been playing Life is Strange, and so far I’ve only cleared the first episode. But I’ve already seen quite a few moments where the game does some interesting things with immersion. The main character is so weak, and yet so filled with personality: she can’t be represented as a simple silent protagonist. In a world filled with flamboyant heroes, sometimes the subtle quiet ones are the hardest to do properly. Dontnot certainly tried, but when it comes to immersion, all it takes is one break to ruin the experience.
WARNING: Spoilers ahead, but they are all things that happen very early on in the game.
The Good: Hallway NPC Collisions
During the title sequence, Max goes out into the school hallway and heads to the bathroom. This scene is powerful and Dontnot knows it. But what makes this scene really amazing isn’t all the detail scattered around the environment. It’s one small inconsequential thing, and it’s done through a simple game mechanic: NPC collisions.
There are two groups of NPCs in the hallway, stationary ones and moving ones. The stationary ones are set pieces who you can look at, and Max will make some comment about them. However, the moving ones are randomly generated and spawned, and you can’t interact with them. They just move from one end of the hallway to the other.
Now the craziest thing happens: when the moving NPCs bump into you, they push you aside.
This might seem insignificant, but NPC collision behaviors are a big trend in modern gaming. When you’re playing as Geralt and romping around Temeria, or you’re Rico Rodriguez flying through Medici, you’ll notice that people move for you. They get out of your way. You’re the big strong hero, and those little peasants aren’t even worth your time.
If you play games like Witcher 3 or Just Cause 3 often, you might have taken their NPC collision behaviors for granted. You might decide to take your time in the hallway scene, examining every little object or person you can find. And you might be unexpectedly pushed aside by a random dude walking by.
When you’re Max in the hallway looking at your destination, you realize that you have to avoid the people in your way to get there. That’s a really disempowering experience, and it’s a strong way to pull the player into Max’s perspective. It’s annoying, but it’s not too annoying – it’s just the right amount for building character.
The Bad: Paint Bucket Puzzle
Around 30 minutes later, you get to the game’s first actual puzzle: a bunch of mean girls are blocking the way to your dorm, and they won’t let you in. There’s a handyman painting the outside of the dorm, and in order to solve the puzzle you need to sabotage his paint bucket so that it falls on the mean girls. However, they’re too far away from the bucket, so you need to get them closer by turning up the pressure on some nearby sprinklers and forcing them to move.
So let me get this straight. First, you need to spray water on them. Next, you need to spill paint on them.
Those are horrible, horrible things to do. Out of all the petty high-school things you could do to someone, spilling paint on them is one of the worst.
Do you really need to get back into the dorm that urgently? School just ended. Why not hang out with all the friends you made in the courtyard? Maybe give your parents a call? Are you so desperate to go to your room that you would intentionally spill paint on a bunch of girls?
Of course, this doesn’t justify the behavior of the mean girls. They shouldn’t have been blocking your way in the first place. But that doesn’t mean you can just spill paint on them. That’s victim blaming for a cruel and unusual punishment.
And Max isn’t even sorry. When she goes to talk to the alpha mean girl after spilling paint on her, the player has the option to either mock her or apologize to her. Great. But if you choose to apologize, then Max regrets her decision and thinks “Victoria probably played me. I should have played her,” showing how unapologetic she is (although to be fair, Max is just as unsure of herself with either decision).
How messed up does someone have to be to think that spilling paint is an appropriate response in this situation? Fortunately, the burden is lightened by another plot device: Warren’s flash drive. You have to get into your room so that you can get the flash drive and return it to him, so if you act a little too extreme, you’re justified because you were doing it for someone else. A perfect proxy defense, especially because Warren doesn’t actually care about getting his flash drive back.
Max seems to see the world in black and white: bad guys and good guys. Anyone who’s mean to Max is bad, and anyone who’s nice to Max is good. It makes total sense for Max to have this kind of perspective. Many high school students are like that. Every bullied kid wishes they had the power to do unethically cruel things to their bullies, and you’re living that power fantasy.
But if the player doesn’t feel the same way that the character does, there’s a disconnect. All you have to do is step back and think “Whoa there Max, I don’t think this is a good idea” and the immersion is broken. The game doesn’t give you a choice. You have to spill the paint to proceed. Why can’t you just keep rewinding and talking to Victoria, changing your approach each time until she lets you in? Is the paint bucket really your first answer when problems come up?
When I got to this area, I didn’t even realize that there was a puzzle. I figured that I should just go chat with some people in the courtyard and wait for the mean girls to get bored. Then the game suddenly stopped everything and forced me to rewind until I realized that I had to do something horrible in order to proceed. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to see Max the same way.
Conclusion: Stick to the Little Things
Immersion shouldn’t be about the big quests and long-term goals. It should be everywhere, in all of the little things scattered around the world. Life is Strange had an amazing attention to detail in the hallway scene, but the paint bucket puzzle might have been too blunt.
Games with branching authored narrative structures have always had problems with immersion. If you want to choose an option that the developers didn’t create, then you’re just stuck. But maybe immersion isn’t always about the epic consequences of every decision you make. Sometimes, immersion can be as simple as a push in the hallway.
With all that said, there are people who played through both of these scenes without losing their immersion. If you were one of those people, great, you got to enjoy the game to its fullest potential. Meanwhile, I’m going to be very careful with my words if I see you near a paint bucket.