Game review: Life is Strange (mild spoilers)

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Video games offer player choice – something that no other entertainment media could. Theoretically, `player-choice’ games like Life is Strange allow the player to participate in the story, not just watch it. `Your action influences the outcome of the story,’ so say a hypothetical marketing blurb. But the true reason why player choice makes Life is Strange great isn’t how players determine the outcome of the story (the possible outcomes are fairly limited/fixed), but rather how allowing the player to make decisions is itself a storytelling technique. It helps immersion, and that’s what makes Life is Strange so great.

[Spoilers for Mass Effect 1 and Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1 follow. Mild spoilers for Life is Strange.]

When we really think about which of our choices really influences the story, we quickly realise that many of these choices are illusions. Choosing between the death of Kaidan or Ashley in Mass Effect 1 isn’t really significant other than having the other surviving character appearing occasionally throughout Mass Effect 2 and 3. Choosing to save Carley at the expense of Doug in The Walking Dead merely delayed Carley’s death an episode later. Of course it’s impossible to make a game that accommodate all our choices – the amount of scripting, voice acting and programming increases exponentially with every choice the player makes.

But the way choice helps in games like this is to help us think about the story a little harder than we would while watching a movie or TV show. It makes us feel more emotionally invested. We share the guilt that Max, the game’s protagonist feels when she makes mistakes because we are the ones who made them.

The game opens with Max Caufield having a premonition of a tornado destroying a lighthouse before suddenly waking up in the middle of a class. Later in the day she reunites with Chloe, her childhood friend who is now a rebellious badass who keeps getting into trouble. Oh, and also, Max discovers that she has an ability to rewind time.

Max’s abilities ostensibly makes Life is Strange a time travel story, but its time-travel aspects sometimes feels more like the plot acknowledging the player’s abilities to reload a checkpoint and replay the same scenario differently, as we already do in many other games. While interacting with another character, sometimes Max (we) chooses the wrong dialogue option and the character responded differently to what we hoped, we could turn back time to try saying something differently, sometimes with extra options unlocked based on information we learned just before turning back time. This isn’t any different than, say, in Mass Effect where we might reload a save to just play out a scenario differently.

For the majority of the game, that’s as far as Max’s time travel abilities affects the story, save for a few occasional plot points that drive the story into the next act. There are no Interstellar-esque plot twists, grandfather paradoxes or any other time-travel tropes that would normally occur in a story involving time travel. The time-travel aspect is present, but mostly persistent in the background. It’s not shoved in our faces outside of the above-mentioned rewind mechanics. Because of her abilities, she knows of the impending tornado that will hit their town in the near future. Otherwise we are mostly seeing the story of a young woman studying in a boarding school who reunites with an old friend.

Aside from conversations, you’ll spend the majority of the time exploring the environment. Be it the grounds of Blackwell Academy (Max’s boarding school), the dormitories, or Chloe’s home. In this aspect the game is similar to the Telltale games. You’ll find some clickable objects where Max can either comment on it, or do something with it to advance the plot or just something that adds to the atmosphere – like turning on some music.

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Most of its main story is about Max reuniting with Chloe, and together they investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, who’s Chloe’s other best friend and also attends Blackwell Academy. Actually, most of the story elements remind me of Veronica Mars, where we have adventurous high school student cleverly sneaking around the school to investigate a crime. Perhaps it’s more fair to say both Life is Strange and Veronica Mars draw their ideas from Nancy Drew.

The game addresses the issue of bullying in a fair amount, and it does treat this important social issue with some fairness and respect, though sometimes in an awkward way. There’s a student in Blackwell who’s a victim of bullying. We get to see how it affects her and her friends around her. If we let Max snoop around the victim’s room, we get to see how each of her two parents address her bullying. One is judgmental of her, while the other is supportive and understanding. But the only way we discover this was to snoop around the victims’ stuff – the game addresses bullying via invasion of the victim’s privacy…(?)

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The point where the game really shines is where it takes the time-travel powers away from us. This occurs during a spoilery point of a story, sufficiently long into the game where players are starting to take her rewind abilities for granted. All of a sudden we are forced to be careful in making our choices. During this event, a character questions whether Max – and, by extension, the player – really cared about this person. Because for several hours before this scene some players might have been playing without emotional investment. They might have making conversation choices and rewind conveniently until they get what they want without bothering to get to know the characters who are Max’s friends.

As I played that scene, I `failed’ in the sense that I got the `bad’ outcome of the scene. I felt guilty for not really getting to know some characters, even though I thought I genuinely cared about the things that happened to them. Apparently I didn’t care enough. This is precisely the same guilt that Max must have felt within the context of the story. In this instance, the game’s superficial choices and rewind mechanics seeped into the emotional consequences of the story.

Nevertheless, the execution wasn’t completely perfect. One way to get the `good’ outcome was to use knowledge obtained by snooping into people’s emails, basically invading their privacy in different ways. Also I agreed with Errant Signal’s video (WARNING: spoilers discussed in the video) that Max’s sudden loss of ability is a plot contrivance. It is indeed contrived from a writing standpoint, but the buildup to that moment, combined with the player being accustomed to the game mechanics that’s suddenly pulled out from under them worked beautifully. At least it works well for the `bad’ outcome branch that follows, which results in having the player’s guilt resonate with the protagonist.

The voice acting for this game is fantastic, especially Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch as Max and Chloe, respectively. They breathe life into the characters that are otherwise poorly animated at times. That’s fine by me, as someone who doesn’t really care about high-fidelity graphics, and anyway the game isn’t really going for a tone of high photo-realism in the first place. Nonetheless, there’s one jarring moment where a character’s facial animations completely stop. And they looked creepy when they speak without moving their lips. It’s a bug, and not a big problem, as it only happened to me once during my entire playthrough.

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As far as characters go, Max has adequate depth to distinguish herself from being the `silent protagonist’ blank slate, though there are enough empty spaces for players to fill in, such as the guilt following the [spoiler] event I mentioned above. Chloe could easily be the fan favourite among many players. She starts out as the rebellious young woman archetype, but her thoughts and actions are informed by the baggage of a childhood tragedy and her friendship with Max. She’s very human, flawed and prone to make stupid decisions. Some may cringe at her dialogue, as it is unlikely that real teenagers speak the way Chloe (and Max) do. But the writing does give some great moments.

I really hope episodic games like this becomes a trend, as I hope to see more of it. Video games is a highly flexible medium, being able to offer entertainment in the form of puzzle games, combat games, strategy games and storytelling. Games offer many unique storytelling mechanics (Gone Home, Papers Please, or To the Moon). But with Life is Strange in particular, the storytelling format with (voice) acting, cinematography and editing are more akin to traditional film and TV. These traditional techniques, when combined with gameplay mechanics and player interaction serve to tell the story even more effectively.

Overall, I really loved Life is Strange. I might even say I liked it better than most Telltale games, which presumably are the leaders in the narrative-driven episodic games. Here’s hoping for more games like these from Dontnod Entertainment. Maybe Dontnod and Telltale could be the Marvel vs DC of the video game world.

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