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Life Flashes By: a LimboInteractive Game Review

May 23, 2011

A Day In The Life of Charlotte
by Lee Edward McIlmoyle on Thursday, 02 December 2010 at 09:31

Being a somewhat frivolous review of the video game, Life Flashes By

Okay, before I start this, there are a few caveats. First of all, I worked on this game. I didn’t create it, or direct it, or write it, or guide it in any way, but I did work on it in my capacity as a graphic designer, and as a voice extra. So I’m invested in this game. Second, I know Deirdra personally. In fact, she’s a very dear, close friend of mine whom I don’t mind admitting I love dearly, and want to see succeed in all of her endeavours. And finally, I’ve been a tester for this game from back when it was still in the early developmental stages, so I’ve got a fair bit more background than most. All of which goes to say, it will be very hard for me to write a completely impartial review of this game.

The respectable thing to do would be to present my credentials (of which I have none) and then write something almost hyper-critical to make a point about how unbiased I am. To which I say, fuck that. I’m fair, but I’m biased as fuck, and everybody knows it. So what? I don’t write many game reviews, so it’s just gonna have to be something that folks who insist on unbiased media representation are going to have to pass on.

That out of the way, let’s get to the game itself. First off, I liked it. I mean, really liked it. I’d even go so far as to say I loved it, but I actually did work a little on this game, and am a bit critical of my own contributions to it, so I’m inclined to give it a less than perfect score. That said, it’s still in open beta, so I may yet get a chance to fix the things that bother me about it, if I work fast enough.

Now, let’s get something straight: this isn’t a big budget game production. There was some seed capital invested in it’s development, but I promise you, it wasn’t anything like an even modestly-financed commercial game. So if you’re expecting the kind of production values that you’d see in, for instance, Monkey Island, you’ve got the wrong idea. Also, if you’re a fan of Deirdra’s various early comedy games, you’re probably going to have a bit of a rougher time with this one. There’s comedic dialogue writing, to be sure, but the story is actually a somewhat sad one, taking place on the cusp between life and death. In tone and content, it’s more closely aligned to her more recent experiments in interactive dialogue gaming. You might say that Life Flashes By is a natural outgrowth of the tiny vignette projects she did in the years before and after Chivalry Is Not Dead (2007), her last fairly meaty comedic video game production.

Charlotte Barclay, a modestly successful author of serious fiction, has a possibly fatal car accident on her way to an event related to her writing career, and winds up experiencing a strange, Capra-esque trip down memory lane… that is, if Frank Capra were alive today and making films for Janeane Garofalo. Her spirit guide, a spritely faerie creature named Trevin, talks her through various key character development stages throughout her fortyish years of life. He tries to glean some insight from her living condition to give her some perspective, and perhaps even some closure, on the disappointments and uncertainties of her past.

With such weighty material, it should come as no surprise that Deirdra’s natural comedy writing skills take a bit of a back seat this time around. Where sarcasm and silliness would be found sprinkled throughout much of her older work, this piece is far more barbed and poignant. As mentioned earlier, there is still a certain dry wit to be had, but Life Flashes By isn’t silly or frivolous. It’s important, and it comes bearing the message: be thankful for your life, and don’t regret the roads you didn’t choose.

Now, I suppose I should discuss the game itself. Life Flashes By is an original, cartoon-based, dialogue-rich graphical interactive fiction game. There are no puzzles, no weapons, no confusing or confounding gameplay mechanics, no levels or battles or end bosses to defeat. If that sounds disappointing, perhaps you should take a miss on this one. What you get is a series of vignettes (think of them as instances, if it helps 😉 ), starting from the bottom of the tree of Charlotte’s life, and working your way up through her life from childhood to adulthood. It stops at various points in her life to examine certain key events and the choices that arose from those circumstances, and as an added bonus, leading to events taking place in alternate realities where Charlotte chose to take the path untravelled in her current life.

This is actually a really neat idea, and I think it sets Life Flashes By apart from not only most of Deirdra’s previous work, but apart from most video games as well. Very few games ever so much as dabble in the pursuit of existentialism, and here Deirdra has explored more than a half dozen scenarios that could have played out quite differently, had Charlotte chosen to accept certain conditions at various points in her life that she ultimately chose to turn her back on.

The key game mechanic is dialogue, which should come as no surprise to fans of Deirdra’s more recent work. Where certain of her more recent games have attempted to make dialogue something of a puzzle in itself, Life Flashes By offers choices that, on the whole, change very little, except that certain choices lead to a more pleasant and harmonious game as a whole. In the end, it’s really a matter of taste, but for those that found Charlotte a bit too abrasive, I’m inclined to say your own choices may have had something to do with that.

The character artwork and animation were, as usual, provided by Deirdra herself in her signature cartoon style. However, Deirdra very early on decided to give this game a more polished, accomplished look and feel, and to that end enlisted the illustrative talents of Marcela Roberts (I had to stop writing to do a quick replay of the game to get to the credits sequence; you might want to add a button or at least post the credit list somewhere on your site, dear), whose art style actually complements Deirdra’s own remarkably well. It adds a level of depth and detail that some may have felt was lacking (ooo, I hate using that word here) from some of Deirdra’s previous works, and yet doesn’t take the look too far in a direction that wouldn’t suit Deirdra’s character animations.

The other real bonus is that Deirdra decided to dive head first into the world of voice acting, enlisting the aid of several talented performers (and one pretty dodgy one *cough cough*) to breathe life into her characters. I had long wondered what effect voice acting would have on Deirdra’s games, and here, I am happy to say, is a prime example of indie ingenuity paying off. While not all of the voices were as clear as one might hope, there was rarely a moment that utterly confounded me; and for those unsure of what they just heard, Deirdra very thoughtfully included subtitles for those who care to use the option. Said option has to be selected, at least in part, because a certain over-opinionated graphic designer may or may not have suggested to Deirdra that not everyone wants to read subtitles, and shouldn’t be subjected to them by default. *runs and hides*

Well, it’s been over a week since the game was first released, and the reviews have largely been quite positive, I gather. However, I’ve kept Deirdra waiting for my review just a bit too long, so it’s time to wrap this up.

First, for those who have no idea what I’ve been talking about, the game can be found here:

Second… well, there is no second, or if there was, I’ve conveniently forgotten it. More time for you to go play Deirdra’s game.

You’re still here? It’s over. Go home.

Trevin, Charlotte, and some git hitting on an alternate version of Charlotte.

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