Life is Strange

Maxine Caulfield has come unstuck in time. After witnessing a blackmail attempt gone lethally wrong in the girl’s bathroom of her high school (bear with me), eighteen year-old photography student Max discovers she can rewind time to any point in her near past. She uses this power to prevent the murder, saving the life of Chloe Price, an old friend from childhood with whom Max has long drifted out of touch. Chloe is investigating the disappearance of her best friend Rachael Amber, and armed with Max’s new time-traveling powers the two girls set out to uncover the truth, rekindling their old friendship along the way.

Life is Strange is a narrative-heavy adventure game, with an emphasis on choice and consequence rather than conventional gameplay. It’s kind of a hybrid of a TV show and a videogame, released in five episodes over the course of 2015. The obvious gameplay antecedent is the hugely successful Walking Dead game, although I should admit I’ve never played it and don’t have a huge interest in that series, so Life is Strange was my first exposure to this style of game. I would say I broadly enjoyed the experience, although I found it very uneven and not without faults. However, at only £15 for a digital download, I would definitely recommend this game, and despite its roughness I really enjoyed my time playing.

So what is it that works for me about Life is Strange? For one thing it felt very fresh to me – a lot of the games I’ve played on Playstation 4 so far have been big-budget action adventure games squarely aimed at my demographic, all of which play quite similarly and draw from familiar sources. Life is Strange is similar to Walking Dead in terms of gameplay, but aesthetically and thematically it owes more to cult TV and movies like Twin Peaks, Donnie Darko, and The Butterfly Effect. The graphics use an expressionistic, painterly style that favors colour and emotion over photorealism, with a palette taken straight from an angsty teen’s Instagram filters. The soundtrack is heavy on the acoustic guitars, and sometimes painfully indie, but I really appreciated that the development team bothered to license actual tracks for the game, helping to feel more like a TV show. The onscreen prompts and icons are rendered as the doodles that Max fills her journals and schoolbooks with, a small touch that I found infinitely more charming and expressive than the cold, utilitarian prompts many games give you – even Life is Strange’s gameplay furniture was taking me deeper into the head of the character I was inhabiting.

Another thing that I thought was very fresh was the subject matter itself – although hunting for a missing teenage girl in small town America is incredibly overplayed, Rachael’s disappearance is mostly a device to get Max and Chloe to reconnect with each other, and their friendship is surprisingly nuanced. Chloe is an archetypical troubled teen, complete with blue hair and a sleeve of terrible tattoos, understandably seething with anger about her father’s death in a car accident and her mother Joyce’s subsequent remarriage to David, an authoritarian Iraq war veteran. Chloe is loud, impulsive, and often difficult to like even as you sympathize with her. Max is withdrawn and shy, likely the follower to Chloe’s leader when they were younger, and far more comfortable behind a camera than in front of one. Max left their town, Arcadia Bay, five years ago, and clearly made no effort to keep in touch with Chloe during that time. The girls’ friendship rekindles and grows over the course of the game, and the final chapters throw up some very tough decisions regarding Chloe that work because of the amount of time the writers spent on the pair. Both girls are excellently voiced and the thoughtful exploration of a female friendship is a real delightful novelty in videogaming.

The actual gameplay itself is mostly well-pitched, with a mixture of environmental exploration, puzzle-solving, and interactive conversations. Max’s rewind power is the main innovation over a game like Walking Dead, allowing the player to reverse time during a scene at any point. Although the gameplay never reaches the mind warping heights of Braid, the time-traveling puzzles are satisfying. Max remains in the same physical space while time rewinds, which is the solution to some puzzles, and she retains any knowledge she gained or items she picked up. I particularly enjoyed carrying information back in time with me, as this is something I’ve never experienced in an interactive story before. Once Max has let a scene play out once she can deploy her knowledge as a new option in conversations after rewinding, which you can use to scare, flatter, or slyly interrogate characters. There were definitely moments where the gameplay fell flat: Episode Two contains a lengthy hunt for five bottles across a junkyard, which I think might be the single largest interactive environment in the game, and this piece of plot-irrelevant busywork felt like it took half the episode (there’s even a nightmare sequence during the finale that explicitly makes fun of this puzzle). The game is mostly gentle, focused on experiencing the plot, challenging enough to be fun without becoming frustrating. There are two tedious stealth sections, because of course there are, although fortunately they’re not very long. I think the most I was tested by the game was an action scene very near the end, where Max must face an assailant while tied hand and foot – death is close at hand, and since you can’t ‘fail’ in the conventional sense, rewinds always being available, the developers seem happy to let this confrontation play out as a fast-paced trial and error session, with no clue which combination of actions at what intervals will allow Max to survive. I was expecting a scene like this at some point, but I still found it annoying and jarring compared to the meditative exploration that makes up most of Life is Strange.

The time-travel is also central to the plot, and as is often the case with stories like this, problems emerge. I’d like to say first that I think the use of time-travel in a story heavy game with explicitly branching paths is a masterstroke, perfectly complementing the parallel universes interactive stories always create anyway. I’m skeptical with games like this as to how differently the story can actually go – you’re always promised a smorgasbord of options and snowballing decisions, but budget and time constraints prevent teams from developing a game with a hundred separate endings, and often the choices you make don’t matter a whole lot. Life is Strange, I’m sad to say, fell into this trap pretty hard. It’s not that it’s impossible to make choices that effect the outcome of episodes – several major characters can live or die depending on your actions – but late in the third episode, Max realises she can time-travel much further back into her past than she believed possible, and the story switches gears, with most of your choices up to that point being wiped clean by virtue of never having happened. I didn’t find this uninteresting – in fact the result of a new choice Max makes as a thirteen year old is one of the most moving and surprising scenes in the whole game, a section that had me pretty close to tears – but then this itself is erased by another time-jump, as I expected it would be. By the finale Max’s personal timeline seems to be disintegrating entirely, which again is interesting as a concept, but completely belies the idea that my choices in Episode One has any bearing on what happened during the ending. The final episode builds up to a single binary choice which anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko will have seen coming from miles away, and no action you take during the episode matters except this one decision.

My dissatisfaction was compounded by the fact that one ending to Life is Strange felt like the ‘real’ ending, and the other… didn’t. The ending I initially picked, based on how I authentically felt about Chloe and Max’s friendship, resulted in a scene all of fifty seconds long, abruptly followed by the credits, which left many loose ends. The other choice results in probably the most upsetting and moving scene in the whole game, followed by a lengthy series of still images in which the knife is dug ever deeper. At the end we see Max sitting alone, visibly changed by her experiences. There is no contest as to which ending is superior, aesthetically or thematically.

It’s this unevenness that keeps Life is Strange from being truly great. Although I’ve praised the narrative so far, the actual dialogue itself is frequently misjudged, with some cringingly awful slang-speak from the teens (“Amazeballs” and “Go fuck your-selfie” were two highlights) and a couple of bizarre lines in the early episodes that made me question if the writers spoke english as a second language. The plot is a whirlwind of cliches, melodrama, and straight-up plotholes that are swept briskly under the rug (I ended the game without even being certain if some major characters were alive or dead, and others were written out off-screen without any resolution to their stories). If you’ve seen Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko then you’ll predict a lot of the beats before they happen, and the final act gleefully wallows in the serial-killer schlock you’ve seen done a billion times. There’s a twist at the end of Episode Four so ludicrous and lacking in foreshadowing that I actually laughed out loud, although I later discovered I had missed a few clues during the early episodes by not quite being thorough enough in my quest to interact with every single object and character – an example of the open-ended exploratory gameplay undermining what was intended to be a dramatic and clever reveal where the pieces came together. An action scene during the finale falls into a similar trap. As mentioned before, the scene is very difficult, and can only be completed with repeated trial and error; you have to restart the scene so often, and watch another character be murdered so many times, that it crosses the line from drama into comedy. I ended up howling with laughter as the character was repeatedly overpowered and shot dead, and I doubt this was the intended effect of the scene. Gameplay and story are working at cross purposes here.

I’ve mentioned the pleasing quality of the graphics already, and although the game is beautiful as a still image it’s frequently displeasing in motion, thanks to the appalling animation work. Digital actors – which is what this game hinges on – need exceptionally good animators, especially working on their faces, if they’re going to convincingly emote. Half Life 2, a game more than a decade old at this point, pioneered such techniques, and still looks great to my eyes today. The characters in Valve’s title emote; their expressions alter during conversations, sometimes very subtly. They don’t look ‘real’, but they sell me on the story. Life is Strange’s cast do not live up to this standard. I found them mask-like and sometimes downright unsettling. Their lip movements don’t even remotely match the dialogue they’re supposed to be delivering. Everyone’s hair is rigid and plasticine textured, even when submerged in water, or in the midst of the freak storm that strikes during the finale. I’m sympathetic to the fact this is an indie game and that the time-frame and budget are much smaller than studios like Valve work with, but convincing digital actors are so unbelievably crucial to an interactive story, and it’s strange to me that they fall so far from what they could be, and even stranger that the story worked for me regardless. The voice work is uniformly strong, and I think this is what sells the drama.

Ultimately, what drew me into Life is Strange is Max herself. Her voice work is stellar – essential, since you hear her voice a lot, both inside and outside her head – and her personality felt nuanced and believable. Her perceptions and memories are the only thing that stays consistent throughout the entire narrative, and I enjoyed the insight into her thoughts you get from looking at almost anything around you. I liked Max, and I wanted to experience her story. I liked guiding her through the episodes, trying to guess how she would react to the different characters, and watching her deal with some extremely heavy shit. Alongside the time-travel stuff, the plot doesn’t shy away from taboo areas like bullying, suicide, grief, victim blaming, euthanasia, and sexual assault. Max wants to help people, but even when you can rewind time, finding the sequence of actions that will punish the wicked and heal the innocent is much harder than it first appears. I felt that she learned something about herself as a moral actor, and became tougher and more confident, a long way from the polaroid obsessed wallflower we meet in the game’s opening. In a genre where the hero’s narrative arc often involves them getting better at fighting monsters, this was an enjoyable change.

The other characters, although seemingly a big grab-bag of teen movie cliches, also turn out to have deeper waters than may initially be apparent. The popular kids in Arcadia, a group of party-obsessed wreckheads calling themselves the Vortex Club, are snotty and unwelcoming, and if you reflect that bad attitude back at them then this is all you’ll ever see of that crowd. If you treat them with kindness, you may find yourself surprised by how characters like hipster queen Victoria respond. Some of the aggressive, authoritarian men in the story also turn out to have deeper and more tender emotions than they want to let on, and I accidentally treated some of these characters badly because I assumed they were clearly villains. It isn’t Shakespeare, but it goes to show that spending two minutes thinking beyond a cliche can work wonders in your narrative.

Overall, I think Life is Strange is a classic example of something being more than the sum of its parts. It’s a story-driven game with often awful writing, that still managed to make me tear up, a mess of cliches and inconsistencies that still had me eagerly hitting ‘next chapter’ even when it was two in the morning. I downloaded it out of mild curiosity and ended up playing the whole thing in three days flat. At its best Life is Strange gave me experiences no other game ever has, experiences I didn’t think videogames were even interested in even trying to provide – a stand-out moment is when Max awakens in Chloe’s room, having spent the night there for the first time in five years. Low morning sun pours in through the attic windows, bathing the room in golden light. A soft guitar track gently plays as Max looks up at the ceiling, Chloe still asleep beside her. You’re surrounded by teenage ephemera – pot smoking apparatus and band posters, skate stickers all over the wall. You’re in control, and Max won’t get up until you choose to – but the game is perfectly happy to let you lie there, cocooned in music and sunlight, the camera panning slowly across the room. It feels like being young, somehow. I don’t know how they did it. Games often claim to be cinematic, but sometimes I think they’re aping the wrong movies.

Life is Strange isn’t a masterpiece. I rolled my eyes at least once per chapter, and two of the supposedly dramatic climaxes elicited laughter. Most of my narrative choices felt irrelevant, and the ending seemed strange and half-baked. However, I think it’s a fascinating game, one that I responded to far beyond my expectations. Most games never touch me, despite budgets far larger and writers more familiar with the nuances of the english language. This one did, and that’s not something I say often. If you felt remotely interested by this game, I’d urge you to try it for yourself.