['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Big Fish's casual life sim Life Quest.]
Usually the creepier aspects of gameplay worldview have to do with means rather than ends. You're, say, protecting the Earth from invading monsters (good) but you have to slaughter a bunch of their human servants along the way (dubious). You're building a global restaurant business (neutralish), but in order to succeed you have to sell diseased meat and rape the environment (bad).
Then there's Life Quest.
Life Quest is a casual life sim game that offers about three hours of gameplay and treads some of the same territory as Kudos. It puts its supremely creepy elements right up front, in the explicit goals: your whole purpose in life is to show up old rivals before your high school reunion.
One by one, these rivals turn up and tell you what life dream they're trying to accomplish next, and you have to try to accomplish the same thing faster. This is the motivation for everything you do, from buying a new sofa to taking a yoga class to growing into a job that pays more than $20 a shift.
The framework -- beat first this rival, then that one -- provides perhaps useful new-player guidance during the early phases of the game. It is an unsurprising way to make casual gameplay out of a simulation that might otherwise be daunting: casual games often have an annoying way of telling the player not only what to do, but how to do it.
I'm not crazy about the framework, though, because it removes most of the interesting choices from the game. I find myself hoping the high school rivalry thing is Life Quest's tutorial. It isn't. That's the whole game.
A sense of narrative dissonance kicks in early. My rivals are making me do things that aren't what I or my character would prefer to do next. At first, though, it seems sort of harmless. Sure, I'll go to yoga class with my old frenemy. It'll be good self-motivation for exercise I should get anyway. People do do that kind of thing in real life.
The sense gets substantially stronger when my rival tells me that my next challenge was to give up my condo in the city and move out to the suburbs, where I'd be paying more money for a house with a longer commute time. That doesn't strike me as a great deal. It also isn't the sort of thing I think my character would be into. I've developed her as a fashion-loving, career-oriented urbanite. Moving out to cul-de-sac country doesn't fit her.
Clearly it is a mistake to think about this too hard, but I ask myself what kind of person would define herself so completely by other people's opinions that she'd buy a house she can't afford and doesn't want to maintain, in a part of town she doesn't like and doesn't want to live in.
I try ignoring the challenge, deliberately losing the competition so that I can focus on other tasks within the simulation. That doesn't work, though. Despite the sandbox-like promises in the marketing description, in reality Life Quest is brutally linear. If I don't do the tasks set out by my rivals, I can't unlock useful new locations in the game. I'm simply not allowed to break out and do my own thing. If I miss the deadline on a challenge, the game doggedly waits for me to accomplish my assigned tasks after the deadline. I get fewer points, but that's still the only way to level up.
This scheme progresses from unappealing to deeply creepy when my high school rivals challenge me to start a family.