I feel nostalgic. Like a box of old photographs, the images from my past come swirling back into focus. A baby blue ’56 Chevy. A huge bag of popcorn. A bubbly date in a tight pink, angora sweatshirt. And--above all--the distant screams of a helpless murder victim. Okay, so maybe I’m flashing back a little too far. I’m only twenty-four, soon to be twenty-five, and never owned a hot rod or sat at the drive-in theater with a blonde bombshell at my side. But I do clearly recall the incessant ethereal mumblings of a satanic priest and the distinct sound of slicing flesh and screaming victims. B-movies have been the very staple of coed entertainment for decades, a teenage treat made even more popular by “new wave” drive-in movie complexes during my father’s youth in the 1950s. Unimatrix Productions, run almost completely by one man, Christopher Brendel, plans to keep the B-movie tradition alive with its first, quite teasingly successful adventure game. Lifestream is a nostalgic hearkening back to better times when psychological and supernatural crime capers ran amok--when the dark, crawling fog and moody piano solo foreshadowing some unknown impending doom meant more than intelligent characters and dialogue. Yes, this game understands, like its predecessors, that all it needs is a hook; we’re suckers for atmosphere. And Lifestream’s got plenty of it, even though the game’s hook does eventually tear a few gaping holes in its ozone layer.
You begin the chaptered game as John Holton, a real son of a priest--literally. Your Father of a father, Randolph Holton, is missing and now you are one of the only people in this claustrophobic world in search of him. Since you are his son, however, you cannot make yourself known to the outside world. Catholic Priests devoted to complete celibacy cannot have children, not even test-tube babies. Thus, John Holton, our main character, is a walking “no-no.” This startling opening factoid draws in players and immediately yanks attention to the story--not to puzzles or to voice acting, just story.
As the story progresses, however, the player discovers that the Lifestream, a secret and esoteric occult mystery, has--in fact--not been so refreshing for everyone, including, but not limited to, Randolph Holton. I must admit that I am partial to movies, books and games that delve into the abstract realm of occult traditions and ritualistic beliefs, so it is of no surprise that Lifestream’s opening sequences would spark my interest. What is a shocker, however, is that I found the story more intriguing than the plot from Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, another well-received adventure game focused on the mysterious realm of the spiritual and supernatural. Sure, in both games, you play two specific characters at different moments, but the effect is so much more powerful in Lifestream. The story in Brendel’s game progresses much like a Dan Brown novel: short, concise and intriguing chapters, present to past to present time shifts as the narrative follows John and his father Randolph, and cliff-hangers--the very substance of entertaining cheese.
To be absolutely sure, many of the games I review for Adventure Gamers do not beckon for me to play them, or call me in the middle of sleep, begging me to carry on the story. In fact, the opposite is often true: I must usually force myself to sit at the computer to chug along the same boring, pre-calculated Adventure railway. With Lifestream, however, I came back for more because I wanted to. Each step a player takes in the game is another step deeper into the heart of the story, not the usual puzzle-heavy adventure game leap around it. I remember sitting down for dinner, pausing with the fork only half-raised and thinking, “Hey, I wonder what that Piano at the church has to do with the crystal in my pocket?” And I was eating perfectly grilled porterhouse steak at the time.
Like any good B-movie, the plot in Lifestream is rather implausible, sometimes predictable, often warped and full of Australia-sized holes. But also like any good B-movie, the sprawling, too-big-for-its-britches story is made fascinating and captivating by the consistent brooding mood from chapter to chapter. If Lifestream had a middle name, it would be A-T-M-O-S-P-H-E-R-E. Whether intended or not, each breath of air is fresh in this game. The low-budget feel in just about every niche of Lifestream makes it all that much moodier, from its simplistic and repetitious piano solos to its overly dark, grainy and drab environments. Traveling the muted paranormal world in first-person perspective, clicking here and there to turn, watching a transition scene that shows you moving or getting a closer look at the carpet is actually quite lovely. In fact, it provides the game with an authentic, gritty quality that lacks in many other more recent third-person adventure games featuring the paranormal, such as Midnight Nowhere.
While the game’s varying bits and pieces, its music, its graphical presentation, and its dialogue would all crumble under pressure if they stood alone, Lifestream as a whole works quite well because its individual, B-movie-grade gears turn and click in harmony. The church hallways look like prison cells. Character animations are stiff. Colors are muted. Music is overly intense at moments and completely subdued the next. Dialogue is self-evident and often repeated. Yet, together it all feels good, like you have just broken your South Beach diet by chomping into your first Super Sized crate of grease-dripping fries. Lifestream is that guilty pleasure without the fear of raising your cholesterol or losing your girlish figure.
B-Movies are called B-movies for a reason, however, and Lifestream, without a doubt, falls into this category and also suffers from many of the genre’s same problems: a convoluted story, random tidbits of information, odd jumps in logic, and--last but not least--the infamous “how the heck did that happen” effect. These aforementioned issues relate, in particular, to the game’s endearing puzzles. Let me be positive and first say that there is heart and adoration in each puzzle; it is pleasing to know that a wide variety of brainteasers reside in the meandering paths of Lifestream. Players will have to use inventory objects to open sealed cabinets, and unlock nearly non-existent closets. Yet, players will often have to sit and smack their brains over peg games, slider puzzles and other “Cracker Barrel” variety puzzle-puzzles.
Many of these puzzles, however, are often shrouded in a type of low-budget gloss that, in fact, makes solving them more complicated than need be. The game, in a sense, hands the player soup can after soup can, but never affords, per se, to provide a can opener. For example, I had unlocked a long-awaited box sitting on my cot and found two very important objects, one of which was a piece of parchment. I then strolled around the church for an hour as I wondered what to do next, searching for a puzzle, a character, a cut scene, a Lifestream maybe. It was not until I got frustrated that I stumbled onto my next metaphorical soup can and its can opener: Out of frustration, I randomly set one inventory object on the parchment in my possession and, voila, a new puzzle had awakened. Such unintended puzzle challenges stem from low production values, and a lack of nuance. So, play through the Lifestream expecting a tightly woven, intricately threaded tapestry of the occult, and you are bound to be disappointed. But dive into the shallow Lifestream head first expecting a crudely meandering, yet entertaining storyline will leave you quite satisfied, especially in the realm of puzzles.
Occult flicks are usually dark, captured on grainy film and grisly. Lifestream is no different. Usually, I truly like the dark; it engulfs you in a sense of mystery and wonder. It can ignite your imagination or even evoke a passionate fear. Or, in the case of Lifestream, it can cause you to smack face first into walls or miss the most obvious blob of gray ever plastered next to a religious painting. Yes, the overall darkness of the game actually hinders a player’s ability to complete a puzzle since a subtle keyhole blends in perfectly with the wall at normal brightness levels on computer monitors. Even the official walkthrough for Lifestream suggests turning up the brightness in order to see this well-shrouded and utterly important slab of gray. When I skimmed through the digital pages of the walkthrough and read about this far-too-hidden chunk of stone, I literally yelped, “Oh, come on! No way.” You know you’ve done it before too…when you saw that movie where that guy who was supposed to be dead came back to life and managed to follow that one family all the way back home and hide in their basement for months without anyone ever noticing, right? Well, that’s B-movie magic that makes passively watching such films a very brainlessly enjoyable experience. When it comes to adventure games, however, where players must be active participants, such obvious and sudden forehead-slapping revelations only cause indigestion. Realizing that you had just wasted two hours roaming around your daddy’s mansion in search of a hidden crucifix that will not come into play for another five chapters can make your lips curl.
Lifestream features a considerable amount of character interaction, considering its short twelve-hour--at most--lifespan. There are not many characters, and there do not need to be. There are not many dialogue trees, and there do not need to be. There are not many intelligent conversations, and, again, there do not need to be. However, there ARE many chances to interact with characters, but—oddly enough—there do not need to be. I will admit, that in such a dark, dank story, running across another life form in an adventure game can be refreshing and break up the monotony of twiddling thumbs and mumbling to your monitor. Yet, some interactions between characters are forced and far too convenient. During one of my roaming moments in Randolph Holton’s house, I came across a Priest who just happened to be in the home with me. As time progressed, he unlocked doors. And, of course, he just happened to find me and unlock the right doors at the right time, a true B-movie convenience.
When I ran across this Father Grandl for a third time, one might think I would have slapped him silly with my new, extra large rosary. Instead I smiled; I smiled wide, in fact, from ear to ear. “Why?” you may ask. Because the voices of Father Grandl, Randolph Holton and his “no-no” son John Holton are performed by John Bell, a professional and distinct voice actor who is also featured in The Mystery of the Mummy and The Arrangement, among others. Without a doubt, he is the highlight voice throughout the game, providing enough zest to the characters to make them interesting, clear and individual. The game, for those moments, shines brighter than others with lesser talents. But…then Randolph Holton must meet and speak to Father Dan and Rose, smacking the player straight across the face and violently shaking him awake to the reality of low-budget adventure game-making. Let’s just say, it is like watching an Ed Wood B-movie featuring Bela Lugosi. John Bell, like Bela, is the only one who makes the dialogue worth listening to.
However flawed the game may be, Unimatrix Productions and Christopher M. Brendel have brought a little piece of drive-in movie theater memorabilia to the PC with the release of Lifestream. All the ingredients exist to create a solid wedge of cheese, not too stinky and not too gourmet: a complex and sometimes convoluted story, a new twist on everyday characters, an all-too-obvious villain, convenient plot points, and an occult overtone. The game’s strength is its ability to establish and maintain an eerie and methodical atmosphere; a Monet picture of a game that does not require you to look too closely in order to “get it.” In fact, the game begs you to keep your distance because the harder you look to fill in the gaps, the uglier the Lifestream becomes.
Plain and simple, Lifestream ranks higher than many games because I wanted to come back to it again and again. It is that B-movie you never expected to rip your eyes away from the gorgeous, blonde bombshell sitting next to you. So I suggest you grab a bag of popcorn, pop in the Lifestream, and enjoy the surprising entertainment. Oh, and make sure to snuggle up real close with someone you love for those moments when you lose track or lose interest in the story. Because until Lifestream rips your eyes back to the screen or startles you with some sudden bloody death, you can just make out…like in the good old days.
A surprisingly moody piece about esoteric organizations and human nature that never takes itself too seriously. Brendel’s low-budget adventure game will permeate players minds and have them contemplating the existence of the Lifestream even as they shower at six a.m. in the morning.