Life is strange. A fitting title for a game that attempts to capture the strangeness of every day life within extraordinary circumstances. Through the course of this first episode, it is hard not to be impressed by the grounded approach of Dontnod’s narrative drama.
Max Caulfield is the protagonist of Life is Strange, who attains the ability to rewind time through a visual interaction with a blue butterfly. While there is no exploitation for how she is chosen to attain these abilities, the mystery behind this is better left unsaid. When Max comes to the realization that she can relive moments she had previously experienced, she sets out to fix mistakes and save the people closest to her. Much like films of the same vein, such as The Butterfly Effect and Predestination, alternating events fated to occur can lead to permanent repercussions. This game brings up thought provoking questions within its ordinary setting and characters, albeit wading amongst some rocky dialog.
The game opens with a dreamlike sequence about a massive tornado aways off from the seaside cliffs the fictional town of Arcadia Bay. Max stands in awe of the tornado’s destruction before she wakes up within the confines of Blackwell Academy’s photography class. Her photography professor, Mr. Jefferson, is heckling the students about a photography contest that he hopes they will all enter. Once free from the class she stumbles to the bathroom to regain her composure, only to be the witness of a murder. In witnessing this altercation, she reaches out and time rewinds back to Mr. Jefferson’s class. It is here that Max begins to walk the fine line of altering decision-making that sets the stage for the four episodes that follow.
Through actions and conversations with the game’s wide array of characters, every word and action seems to have a weight that matches the intensity of Telltales’ episodic The Walking Dead series. The big difference between the two is that in LiS, you have the option to rewind time to change a decision after it is made. Max will respond with guilt or doubt about a decision that will urge you to see how another path might have played out. There is something realistic about making a decision and having to live with it, but this game allows for the ability to see how different things might have been if you had said something another way. LiS’ saving grace is the time control mechanic that exemplifies narrative branching paths far and above any other episodic series to date.
The fascinating part about playing through a decision based game is that the results of your actions do not become clear until further episodes, as one character might be an ally as opposed to a friend. Chrysalis scratches the surface of what extensive detail the plotting and writing could be capable of if handled right.
Many critics seemed to have indifference about the use of dialog within the game, calling it both laughable and unrealistic at times. During multiple conversations throughout the episode, there is a frequent use of the word “hella.” This seems to be a youthful lingo that is unique to this universe and Chloe’s favorite word to throw out in moments of sincerity or fear. While it may seem like a silly word, ask yourself this: was it not long ago that people were using the word “groovy” on a regular basis? Calling something “groovy” now sounds fictional in 2016. “Hella” is being used here in a similar fashion by a bunch of seniors in high school, which does not seem too farfetched or out of place.
Now while the storm is revealed to be a sort of endgame for LiS, there is more subtlety to the series that is sprinkled within the big moments. Every decision is going to lead to the end or the survival of Arcadia Bay, but exactly how this will become apparent is not going to become clear until further into this story. The subtlety that I speak of here are the characters and small moments with them because you are invested in it all from the get go. Student social media bullying, gun violence, and the abuse of authority are all fascinating themes that are introduced quickly and captivate the player all the way until the end of the first episode.
Max Caulfield must make choices that will determine the fate of those around her and is forced to live with the consequences. She is believable in every sense of the word and the characters around her are presented with a sense of realism I have no experienced in a video game outside of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Each character has motives, each character has emotions, each character has pasts, and each character has a future depending on our heroine.
At the close of the episode, it is revealed that the most important piece of this game comes in the form of a missing girl named Rachel Amber. This will be the biggest mystery of the five episode series and we already begin to build a list of suspects who might have had it out for this missing Blackwell Academy student. I’m curious to see how the suspicions develop in the episodes to follow and where my expectations will meet reality.
Episode 1 is about connections and self-discovery. Max is a girl who is meeting all these people and maturing through these interactions. She begins to discover that she has the power to change people’s lives, for better or worse, and comes out of her shell in the process. While these powers of time control seem like a dream come true, they become a heavy weight above Max’s shoulder in ways that she has not felt before. Her character has never lived through loss the way that her best friend, Chloe, has. Chloe lost a father in a car accident, had her best friend go missing, and lost contact with Max for five years. It is hard not to relate to her struggles and hardship. Finding out these histories for characters allows them to become more real and transcend the polygons on the screen.
It is with these performances and fantastic writing that LiS transcends some of the high school stereotypes that appear within the first episode’s two hour run time. The closing shot sets the groundwork for a brilliant series that could very well be the most heartfelt episodic experience to date. While it seemed unrealistic to dig through someone’s room for personal information and clues right in front of them, this investigative mechanic helps to establish this universe on its own terms. This game lends itself to be the closest thing to a television-esque presentation, and along the ability to change how the story unfolds, allows it to become unlike anything else in gaming. I’m looking forward to where these decisions take me in Episode 2 – Out of Time and the consequences that will come in the wake of them.
Final Score: 9
Life is Strange succeeds in creating an engaging universe and presenting questions waiting to be answered, even if it struggles at times to overcome its own video game elements.
- Phenomenal story
- Realistic characters
- Heavy choices that actually matter
- Important themes for young adults
- Television like presentation
- Unrealistic investigative mechanic seems gimmicky at times
- Blatant high school stereotypes can be distracting