Nobody knows what they’re doing.
The first thing I did in The Way of Life was accidentally quit the game.
In fairness, I had some idea regarding the icon above the door indicated “exit”, but I got a head all full of self-righteous steam and wanted to see whether or not the creators had truly been that obtuse about the player’s initial relationship with what appeared to be the game’s hub. Typically in HUD-minimal experiences, you can trust your old friend “ESC” to be the key that brings the pause screen a-runnin’, leaving only game-world interactions within the experience itself.
Diegetic system elements usually come with some degree of warning, usually in the form of a big sign saying “Exit Game” or an alert reading “Are you sure?”. Instead, I’m staring at my wallpaper because I opened a door.
Much like real life, we’re not off to a great start.
The fine print says nothing.
The Way of Life is not a “good” game. It does not offer profound truths and it does not offer them with artistic, ludic execution. There is little reason that you should play it, save perhaps for a powerfully hungry curiosity and an obsession with academic deconstruction.
Or, perhaps, if you’re a friend of the creator.
At the same time, I don’t want to be particularly mean to this game. It feels like a freshman effort from somebody who’s getting a handle on a personal philosophical framework and game design in general. With learned lessons and a greater attention to truth and beauty and life and gameplay, perhaps the next thing to come from this team will be more powerful and engaging.
(Perhaps some of it was lost in translation.)
So let’s talk about The Way of Life as a “nice try” worth encouraging, offer some critical points, and maybe mention a few things that have done it better.
Presented as isolated vignettes from the perspectives of a child, an adult man, and an elderly man, there are three main themes to explore: dreams, nightmares, and conflict.
The game mechanics of these themes are rendered extremely poorly. One plays like an open-ended version of Superman 64, forcing you to spend five minutes ever-so-slowly following the trail of each and every energy collectible in the skybox...only to activate a scripted choice.
Every nightmare scenario plays like a slow and imprecise platformer that demands enduring commitment through endless non-iteration, promising no reward and sometimes punishing you arbitrarily. The rest are aimless, ambiguously-communicated fetch quests or unintuitive games of Simon.
What’s worse, you’re never entirely certain that you’ve achieved a fail or success state in these “missions”. And not in a way that suggests that there are multiple interpretations to failure or success in life itself, but rather that there’s little-to-no implicit feedback that you’ve engaged or exhausted the content fully. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure, you simply have to return to every page and try a different choice just to see if things shake out differently or even shake out at all.
Sometimes that can be worth it. Like The Stanley Parable or (for some) The Path, there can be experiences that are defined by challenging notions of choice and exploring every nook and cranny of the experience itself. Or in the case of something like Antichamber, philosophical themes and quotations can be married beautifully to the mechanics and challenges of the game itself.
In this case, however, it’s simply not worth it. The themes and the mechanics have zero relation to one another. Where the story is a parable, it’s a collection of watered-down, fortune-cookie wisdoms not even bothering to ask you to care. Many of those wisdoms presume life experience in such a universal way that they would probably alienate - or be considered pandering by - a great many people, even if they were well-executed.
Where the game is a work of interaction, it’s a fragmented flurry of “what do I do?” or “I get it already” inputs.
There’s a strong ludonarrative dissonance at work. It’s a DVD of a mediocre movie that keeps pausing and instructing you to press play every 15 seconds, only sometimes you don’t press play quite right and you find yourself back at the menu.
Did I do it right?
I like the aesthetic. It reminds me of Grow Home, and even The Witness a little. Sure it’s probably born of technical limitation, but that’s not a crime. Knowing your limitations and playing to them can demonstrate powerful choice and vision.
In all other things, The Way of Life is lacking. I give it a break because English clearly isn’t their first language. I give it a break because it has a warmth and is sincere, though naïve. I give it a break for its failures, because it had to reach for them first.
Somewhat technically broken (the game froze several times) and with misguided design, The Way of Life is a testament to both a tedious “don’t care” and an encouraging “give it another shot”. We don’t have to malign it. But we don’t have to want to play it.