Life is Strange | Principal Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | Developer: Dontnod Entertainment | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Adventure | Year: 2015
Life is Strange is a narrative-heavy adventure game with a very clever gimmick. High school photographer Maxine Caulfield discovers that she has the power to reverse time; heroically undoing ills and injustices with only herself as a witness to reality’s flux. Max using her powers for the betterment of the wider world is a distant concept in the early stages of this episodic adventure, and much like the genre’s best; the sort of weighty, character-driven themes that make its story so exciting and special will start revealing themselves just as the audience gets settled in.
For a game that’s primarily about making decisions during tense moments, having the ability to rewind and change the outcome of your actions is a fantastic idea. Not only that, rewinding time allows Max to avoid social infractions and thus manipulate her high school peers into liking her. As an early experiment of newfound abilities, this introvert’s power fantasy is extremely compelling. It also makes the carefully chosen moments when time can’t be rewound even more dramatic than usual.
Crucially, Max’s time travel power doesn’t feel overused. The impact of her meddling with the time stream has enormous storytelling potential that, aside from a slightly languid second episode, builds serious momentum as the gameplay hours fly by. This is especially important given the serialised feel that the developers shoot for, with episode recaps and licensed indie music further enhancing their “as seen on TV” aesthetic.
There is also some clever stuff achieved with the theme of time travel. Normally a dicey proposition for any story looking to make a lick of sense, the writers make it work here with the aid of some genuinely fresh ideas that went a lot further with the concept than I would have predicted at the beginning.
The gameplay itself bears a significant resemblance to Shenmue, as well as modern point-and-clickers like Grim Fandango and especially The Walking Dead (2012). It’s a perfect setup for those who enjoy hearing their protagonist think, as Max traverses a snug 3D world, commenting on every interactive element and dialogue choice with her trademark shyness.
And it’s a world painted with fairly broad colours. Maxine’s friends seem to fit every high school archetype that you could imagine, though Max herself emerges as a likeable hero, however unlikely that label may seem for a super introverted teenager who stares longingly out of windows, whilst plastering her dormitory wall with agonisingly artistic Polaroids. There are instances where the sheer geekiness and hipster angst feels bit on the nose, but the beautiful voice acting (for the primary cast anyway) carries it well.
At the centre of this drama is a conspiracy that makes the script’s chief influences easy to spot. The style is reminiscent of Alan Wake (another noticeably Lynchian adventure), but whereas Remedy’s narrative got bogged down with repetitive shooting galleries and obscurantism, Life is Strange feels more direct and crucially, more open with its character motivations. The impact of the narrative is always put before gameplay, although it’s equally vital to mention how such an approach might annoy some players.
Life is Strange has puzzles and filler-iffic fetch quests, so whilst it doesn’t satisfy that intolerant description of “walking simulator”, there can be long periods of downtime where players are invited to mellow amid the scenery and occasional mundanity of Max’s world. Again, some people may find this boring, but I think the softer gameplay wins out here because it allows more time to focus on Max and her relationships.
And relationships, or perhaps relationship, is what really matters here considering the immense focus and clarity with which players are introduced to Max’s best friend and deuteragonist, Chloe Price. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on female peer bonding or anything, but I still think the relationship between Max and Chole is responsible for the game’s most engaging scenes, forming a reasonably accurate simulacrum of how two intimately close friends might behave towards each other.
The progressive writing really helps this follow through by building up the pair to be more than just a couple of standard video game heroines. I admit the dialogue contains way too much swearing for my tastes, but it can’t quite spoil the genuineness that allows M&C to transcend their archetypes. Even with her NPC status, Chloe is arguably the bigger star as she gets an especially resonant opportunity to vent her anger at the world, whilst not sacrificing her femininity, nor the love and compassion she feels for Maxine.
Chloe is a complex video game character, and you’ll find that some of the most stressful decisions you’ll make as a player are when Max must balance her own feelings for Chloe in the wider context of the current objective. The writers often place Chloe in danger, which is a sneaky trick for generating drama, but then these moments wouldn’t feel half as important were it not for how achingly real she feels as a character.
Life is Strange is not the most ebullient tale and neither is it always so consistent. The final episode is mainly to blame for this because it’s the point where the absorbing time travel puzzles fall away and the story choices become more linear. I certainly can’t fault episode 5 for lacking creativity in the final stretch, but it presents a lot of stuff that feels goofy rather than climactic. You even get an egregious stealth sequence thrown in there, which is the sort of rinky-dink nonsense that Fahrenheit was doing ten years prior! It’s no wonder the episode is titled “Polarized” …
Fortunately these are rare missteps in what is an otherwise engrossing experience that will surely leave a sympathetic hole in your stomach by the end. This is one of those games that you’ll immediately want to share and discuss with others. The heartbreaking romance; the theories behind Max’s gift; or the sure-to-be-divisive ending; whichever beats are sticking in your memory, Dontnod Entertainment has given you plenty to chew on here.
The industry is no longer short on story rich adventures like Life is Strange, but few have managed to tackle the themes that it does with such grace. Whether its now complete season or official prequel become beloved classics or not, it’s nice to see further proof that not every great video game needs to obsess over murder and mayhem.