With 2018 just having begun, I was mad enough to start playing three games at the same time, and one of them was Life is Strange, which I finished just yesterday. Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game developed by DontNod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. DontNod will be releasing Vampyr this year, a game I am very much looking forward to. Judging from Life is Strange, the very first game of that French studio I have ever played, I am very confident it will hold up to my expectations.
In Life is Strange, each episode will leave you with a lot to think about. The reason for that is the choice-based gameplay. Did I do or say the right thing? What consequences could one action or other have in the past, present or future? Those are the questions you will be asking yourself constantly, and finding the right answers will keep you on your toes.
An episodic adventure
Life is Strange features the following five episodes: Chrysalis, Out of Time, Chaos Theory, Dark Room and Polarized. If I were to describe the central conflict of the game, it would be the question of how far you are willing to go to save a friend. Your very best friend, that is. There are also other themes, like bullying, teenage angst, taking responsibility, being considerate instead of thoughtless, the abuse of power, the value of observation and, in general, growing up.
Each episode follows heroine Max – never Maxine – Caulfield, a photography senior at reknowned Blackwell Academy in picturesque yet fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and her best friend, Chloe Pryce. Max, a self-described nerd, though I confess that I don’t quite get what is supposed to be nerdy about her, is a quiet person, observant and considerate, who feels the need to comment each and every event, which I found annoying. Apart from that, she’s a great character. Be careful to make consistent choices, though, or that will come back and haunt you. Consistent meaning, for example, that you are either always telling the hard truth, or never, in order to not hurt other people’s feelings and push them over the edge.
Her friend Chloe Pryce is a punk and troubleseeker, who dropped out of the academy years ago. As we soon learn, she was not always like this. In fact, it was the death of her father, William, who perished in a car accident when she was fourteen, that brought that change about.
This incident is, actually, one of the pivotal elements of the overall story. The other is the disappearance of a fellow Blackwell student, Rachel Amber, who was Chloe’s very close friend.
As the game progresses, the relationship between the two girls, who seemed inseperable in the past, grows strong once more. It is clear that Max wants her old friend back and she will try everything she can to make Chloe happy. So, when she finds out that she can rewind time, she sets out to make a very major change in the past, that will unfortunately cause a literal time tornado.
Using the characters to influence the story
I appreciate multidimensional characters very much, as much as character development. While, usually, character development is pre-determined by the events driving the story itself, character development in Life is Strange depends on the choices Max makes. There are both little choices and fundamental ones, but to get an inkling of what consequences they might entail for each of the characters apart from Max, you have to get to know them, observe them and talk to them.
Do you choose to trust David, Chloe’s stepfather, or don’t you? What advice do you give to fellow student Daniel, who is struggling with his artistic approach? Do you stand up for Abby, or not? Depending on those and similar choices, the characters as well as the story will develop in a different way. Take William, Chloe’s father, who is a very sweet man in one past/present/future and aggressively bitter, underneath the surface, at least, in another.
Some choices affect the current episode directly, others will affect future ones. Which is why you should be mindful of the choices you have made in previous episodes and act consistently in the next ones. For example, there was one choice I made in the last episode that was at odds with one I had made, I think, in the third episode. And during the ending that was highlighted in a quite disturbing way.
Making choices is hard, but awesome. Some come back to bite you, others will result in really good things happening. But then, life is all about choices and consequences, as each one of us learns by growing up, and, sometimes, life is indeed strange.
Life is Strange is, for the most part, not a fast-paced adventure. Instead, it takes its time. For example, you can spend minutes chilling in comfortable, companionable silence alongside Chloe and listen to the awesome soundtrack, before you continue your adventure.
The game is actually designed to play it slow, with numerous observations and opportunities to explore, locations to discover and re-discover. Since Max is a photographer, she’s got an eye for detail. Follow that intuition and investigate every highlighted clue.
Interacting with people means observing them as well as speaking to them. Observation will give you clues abouth their current mood and that will help during conversation. As mentioned before, Max is able to rewind time. Rewinding means you can get back and say something different or do something different within a limited period of time. Beware, though, the central choices in the game cannot be reversed. You have to carefully think about the possible consequences first.
During conversations, characters often mention story-related clues. By rewinding and asking them about that clue directly, you will open up new opportunities.
Rewinding time affects the world around Max, but not herself. For example, there is one situation where Max investigates a junkyard and she steps into a small, enclosed area to pick something up, when a pile of junk starts sliding and blocks the way out. By rewinding, time jumps back to when the pile of junk was still intact, while Max herself remains standing inside the enclosure, the item she needed to get already in her bag. Knowing how her powers work is essential. There are a lot of situations where you have to place items or Max herself just the right way to succeed.
What I didn’t like
Remember, there are two central elements driving the story onward: saving Chloe and finding Rachel Amber. In the very beginning Max saves Chloe’s life thanks to her rewind powers. She will continue trying to save her throughout the game, saving her becomes an obsession, really, no matter the consequences to all the other people in Arcadia Bay. Yet I found myself questioning that obsession a couple of times. Why, I asked myself, is she so obsessed with Chloe? Yes, they were best friends, but it is obvious they have not been in touch.
Also, it is quite disturbing that Max hangs out with Chloe’s family so much but interacts with her own parents only via text messages. Parents are instrumental to their children’s character and social development, as this game proves. But Max is not affected by her parents, ever, nor does she ask their advice. Instead, she is influenced by Chloe’s interaction with her father William, very much so, and it is obvious she adored William. Strange.
Also, Max is smart and a dedicated friend, while Chloe is reckless and often thoughtless. In most cases, Max is the voice of reason, who cautions hot-head Chloe. But in the penultimate episode Max lets Chloe charge ahead instead of simply calling the police, which would have been the sensible thing to do, not on one but on two occasions. The fact that there is no choice offered in both situations felt jarring and forced. And it also was a dead giveaway of how the episode would end, which I found disappointing. The last episode and the ending were excellent, mind you. Weird, but great.
What I also didn’t like was the fact that Max comments absolutely everything she observes, from graffitis to statues to pictures. Some comments are helpful, since they drop hints concerning clues and choices. But for the most part they emphasize that she is a teenager still desperately trying to find her place in the world. I easily could have done without those. Actually, I am guessing you can turn those off in the options, haven’t checked, though.
Life is Strange is an excellent, emotional and clever game with great storytelling and characterization. I really like the episodic approach, especially since each episode is so loaded with mystery, adventure, interactions, meaningful choices and emotion. If you are generally into series á la Dishonored, Deus Ex and The Witcher, where the choices you make affect the story, you absolutely have to play it.
Keep on playing!