I’m on my eighth reincarnation. This time around, my strengths are my health and my charisma, though my wealth is nothing to sneeze at, either. I decide to live a reckless life–I cheat on my spouse, I choose danger over peace, and I treat myself to the finer things in life. My spouse dies young and I move to Alaska with our adopted child, taking on a job as an insurance underwriter to keep us afloat under my extravagant lifestyle. I make it to age 78 and look back at my achievements, but most of them aren’t very interesting other than the time I chose breast implants over having a child.
This is A New Life, a life simulation game that strips away the frippery and boils life down to choices. In the beginning, you’re presented with a randomly generated character, a name, a gender, and some stats that can be increased by spending karma or rerolled entirely. Once you dive in, you’re presented with choices that shape the person you’ll become, some of which will help or hinder your stats. Painting might make you more cultured, while smoking your first cigarette will hurt your health. Health is easily the most important, as it determines how long you’ll live and what kind of ailments might trouble you along the way.
Which, unfortunately, is A New Life’s biggest flaw. Most of it feels arbitrary: If I want to get a high score, I should choose the things most likely to raise my health. There’s little incentive to choose anything that might harm your health–a small boost to charisma or adventurousness has little effect, and there’s no payoff, unlike in real life, to choosing cake over healthier fare. Every other skill will wax and wane, especially wealth, but that, in turn, affects your health when it dips too low. The other stats shift, but only seem to affect your happiness and its impact on your final score rather than having noticeable effects throughout the game.
The choices themselves seem arbitrary too. Sometimes you’ll choose between things like “carton box” and “kitchen utensils,” or “clouds” and “screwdriver.” Most of them are out of context and, as a result, ambiguous–it’s hard to feel like your choices carry weight when you don’t understand what they’re doing.
At one point, one of my characters had to choose between civil rights or taking a sexy selfie–I chose the latter and was docked an intelligence point for it. A New Life might be making a statement, but it feels more like it’s judging me; you could take a sexy selfie at a civil rights protest, if you were so inclined, but the binary nature of these choices feels reductive, and the penalization for taking a selfie seems like a dig at millennials, particularly women, as that’s what the icon depicts.
Conversely, some choices carry too much weight. A choice between paintball or a finding a girlfriend inexplicably made my character gay. Responding romantically to men and women seems to confuse the game, as kissing and dancing with characters of multiple genders seems to settle your orientation, represented in the top left-hand corner, as lesbian, gay, or a simple gender icon. There’s a lot to unpack there–the conflation of gender with sexuality, the lack of designation for hetero and bisexuality, the lack of flexibility–but A New Life doesn’t dive deeply into anything, including its representations of sexuality.
Rather than being a game where you explore different paths in life, A New Life feels more like a series of different ways to rack up a high score. That doesn’t make it bad, per se–though it does have an unpolished feel at times due to some glaring typos, and some very suspiciously recolored art of characters like Bugs Bunny and South Park’s Cartman–but the stories you create through each playthrough feel no more profound than a round of Angry Birds. The binary choices make for the occasional tough decision, but for the most part they lack the nuance to create character. There’s a seed of something interesting in A New Life, but ultimately it was never the game I wanted to pick up and play if something else was available–it’s acceptable for a quick bus ride or a ten-minute distraction in a waiting room, but the experience never goes deep enough to grab me as a fan of RPGs and games like The Sims.
A New Life is not without merit, but don’t expect this life simulator to give you a taste of what it’s like to be somebody else.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.