Life Is Strange
For the last few weeks I’ve been hooked on playing Life Is Strange. The game is a few years old now and I had episode one on the xbox for ages, I think since it first became free to play, but it wasn’t until I went on a bit of an achievement hunt that I finally started playing it.
I’ve had a mixed relationship with TellTale games in the past, I generally enjoy them but get quite bored and end up finding it a bit of a chore to finish them. The other problem, aside from their game engine being so old and broken that the games are glitchy as hell, is that all of their games that I have played are based on preexisting franchises so I find it really hard to get fully invested in the characters and story.
Life Is Strange is made by Dontnod Entertainment, a completely different studio. For people familiar with TellTales offerings the similar release model of five or so episodes building up a season of story and the fact that the game is all about choices you make effecting the future of the story will feel familiar but the game itself is pretty unique from anything else I’ve played in a long time.
I’m going to do my best to not spoil anything beyond the free to play first episode of the game but it might lead to me speaking in some vague, general terms. All I’ll say is that I feel that this game is pretty damn essential and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The story of Life is Strange follows Max Caulfield, an eighteen year old aspiring photographer who has recently been accepted into the prestigious art academy in the town she grew up in before moving away five years prior.
This is one of those games that has a diary written by the character as a mechanic for keeping a record of the actions you’ve taken and reminding you of what your current objective may be. I normally don’t bother reading any of this kind of flavour text in a game but after playing the game for a couple of minutes I found myself really wanting to know more about the person I was controlling so I ended up reading all thirteen pages of back story that is already written when you start the game. I didn’t refer back to it too much after that as I was playing out all the actions but I do think that doing so might have added an even deeper layer to the story.
As the game opens you are in a dream sequence and everything is going crazy. It seems like the entire world is coming apart and there is nothing you can do to stop it. You quickly wake up from your day dream in your photography class and are slowly introduced to the basic controls and a few of the other characters that populate the world of Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay.
I found myself engaged from the get go, I didn’t just power through, only hitting the key points that the game dictates you have to in order to progress the story, I was interacting with everything I could, the posters on the walls, the graffiti on the tables, the tripod in the corner, everything. I was curious about the forlorn girl sat by herself after class, I tried to be nice to her and comforted her, I didn’t try to ignore the hipster teacher asking if I was submitting a photo for the contest, I engaged with him and the popular girl who was clearly flirting with him, the teacher was clearly a character that Max admired and so I cared what he thought about her. I was trying to make life better for Max as much as the game would allow.
As I walked down the school hallways Max put her earbuds in and the games soundtrack started up. The music from a lot of modern folk/indie bands plays throughout the game and it fits perfectly with the pacific northwest, hipster, indie movie aesthetic that is prevalent throughout the entire thing. I’m listening to songs from the soundtrack while I write this and it is really relaxing.
I was still looking at all the things I could interact with and learning more about the world, the popular kids had the elite ‘Vortex Club’ and seemed to host a lot of parties, there were a bunch of missing persons posters for a female student who went missing some time ago, the science teacher was a sassy social activist and the principle was a jerk.
I found that I was also looking at all the characters in the halls and learning a little bit about each one from Max’s inner dialogue, who she liked, who she felt sorry for, who she thought was a dick. Most of the characters started out as pretty typical archetypes so it was easy to agree with all her feelings. I’m happy to say that as the game progressed a lot of these assumptions were subverted and some, maybe not all, of these side characters ended up being a lot deeper with more surprises up their sleeves than I would typically expect.
It is when you take Max into the rest room to wash her face that we first get introduced to a few key mechanics and characters in the game. You have the option of interacting with something written on the bathroom mirror and whatever you choose it will have ramifications in the future. You also are able to take a couple pictures, one is optional and unlocks an achievement, these optional photos are the only collectibles in the game and I’m very happy about that as they are something in character for our budding young photographer. The other photo isn’t optional but leads you into the corner of the room out of sight of the guy and girl who come into the rest room. The guy you recognise from class, he’s pissed and ends up holding the girl at gunpoint. You don’t get a good enough look at the girl to recognise her and before you do, bang! She is shot by the clearly unstable guy in the letterman jacket.
At this point you wake up with a start back in class, totally confused as to what just happened. As the player you realise what is going on and start to get to grips with the fact that this appears to be a game that is going to involved time loops and maybe correcting mistakes you make along the way. Max is still wildly confused and presumes it was all a dream but then, if thats the case how come she now knows the answer to the question in class that she previously didn’t?
You progress through, much the same as before, thinking that if this is indeed a time loop then maybe you can do something to stop that girl being shot dead in a cruddy school bathroom. It is when you get there as fail to save her again that you realise you have the ability to rewind time manually! Game changer, literally.
From here you basically have all the mechanics of the game and the story plays out how you determine it. Sure it is scripted and certain things will happen no matter what, but I really felt like the choices I was making, whether or not I rewound and made a different choice only to rewind and go back to my original choice, were crucial and effecting every aspect of the story. There are certain times when you’ll have just two options as to how to let things play out. These ones really alter the story and how characters will feel about you, act in the future and sometimes whether or not they will live or die! The stakes are very real in this game which is surprising considering you are playing a character that can literally change the past.
Near the end of the first episode you meet the girl with blue hair you saved in the bathroom and you realise that it is actually your childhood best friend, Chloe, from when you grew up in this small seaside town. She has changed a lot in the time you’ve been away but the two of you quickly reconnect. It turns out that the missing girl, Rachel Amber, was someone very important to Chloe and Max promises to help Chloe find out what happened to Rachel.
The episode closes out back at the lighthouse from the dream sequence at the start of the game except a tornado isn’t about to destroy the town. No, it just starts snowing really early instead!
I love this game, I love these characters, even the ones I hate. I can’t think of a time when I have been emotionally effected by the story in a game as much as I was in Life is Strange. I said before that I think this game is essential, that is the case not just for the interesting story and mechanics in the game but for the issues it handles and how deftly it does so.
The obvious strong female leads, coming of age and dealing with consequence of action themes are there from the start but as you go on they tackle bullying in multiple forms, physical, mental, cyber, among others. It tackles how older generations, parents, teachers, authority figures, treat younger adults. There are drugs of various degrees of seriousness seen being used and the consequences of that. And then there are even more serious topics such as abuse, suicide, mental health, kidnapping, rape and murder. None of them feel light or ‘video gamey’ in anyway. We’re so used to running around blasting bad guys away left, right and centre in games but when someone dies in this it feels a lot more heavy. The developers were very wise to include links to support groups on there website and at the end of each episode of the game they direct anyone who is effected by the content of the game to check them out and seek any help they need. I love this and really hope that people were inspired to do so.
I was left dazed and a bit of an emotional wreck at a couple of different times throughout the game and there were moments when something would happen and I would, out loud, be saying “Oh no! No no no no no, I cannot let that happen!” As I try everything I can to alter the outcome. There were also moments of great catharsis, one in particular had me echoing exactly what Max was saying to Chloe when she asked if I was alright, I wasn’t just alright, “I am awesome, we are awesome!” I won’t say anymore, but it is something you really need to experience.
One quick thing I should have mentioned before but don’t fancy going back to edit in somewhere more relevant; the choices in this game, way more than in the Telltale games, felt a lot more akin to the choices in a legacy board game such as Pandemic Legacy or Charterstone. I don’t really know why, maybe it is because I play just as many tabletop games as I do video games these days.
I really hope you’ll go and check out Life is Strange if you haven’t already. I’m about to start the prequel game that just finished up its release cycle, I hope it lives up to the main game, but if it doesn’t I’ll just be happy to get to spent more time with these characters.
This one went long, but that just shows how much this game meant to me. Tomorrow will be a short post more than likely, until then…
Here is most of the kitty cat who sat like this the whole time I wrote this.