Life is Strange Review: Lightning in a Bottle

One of the most peculiar games ever made, to my mind, is Life is Strange due to the simple fact that it’s individual elements are, when isolated, are nothing noteworthy, but when working together produce a game that is rather captivating.

It took the format of a choice based adventure game, borrowing greatly from the formula used by Telltale Games such as the Walking Dead, which at first glance is a questionable choice. The reason being that Telltale, the developers who had popularised it, had proved it could be very hit or miss: In 2015, the same year as Life is Strange’s release, they released Tales from the Borderlands which proved to be one of their more beloved games. However, only a year later, they’d release The Walking Dead: A New Frontier which failed to connect with fans across the board. Not only that but, because of how oversaturated this genre and format of game was becoming at the time, an online discourse had begun between players who were beginning to take note that there were very few choices that mattered in these games apart from the final choice; Consumers were noticing most of every choice in these games were an illusion designed to make you think you were playing a game, which was actually a really long movie. To make it worse, this conversation wasn’t just being had by critics or journalists, but by the average player base. Popular as it was, Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands did little to address this discourse as it is a very action orientated game and the only way to engage in that action was by engaging in quick time events… Quick time events that progressed the game even if you failed to engage with them. Thusly even the choice to press a button in time to trigger an animation was only an illusion, which did not bode well for the future of Telltale and it’s formulaic games.

But then along comes Life is Strange: An unsuspecting game with quirky writing, a scribbly art style and ham-fisted messaging – all of which worked together in such a perfect way that it captured the hearts and minds of a massive audience of young adult gamers more so than any other game of its type had since the original Walking Dead.

How?

Well for one, despite the plot being about a super tornado conjured by a time travellers inability to live the with consequences of their actions coming to wipe out a town full of innocent people, the story is just about two old friends rekindling their friendship. But that raises an important question: What is the difference between plot and story? Well a plot is what has to happen based on the circumstances of the world a story takes place within. But the story is comprised of the more intimate moments between characters that determine how the plot is allowed to happen, and how it concludes. For instance, in Star Wars, the plot is that Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, the Empire no longer had a means to control the galaxy through fear and thus they constructed a second Death Star to stop the rebellion from becoming more powerful, leading to a massive battle above and on the forest moon of Endor to decide the fate of the galaxy, which was won by the rebellion. But the story of Star Wars is one of a Luke Skywalker gradually coming to terms with the dark side (no pun intended) of his family legacy and refusing to let it define him, by not giving up on his evil father, and gradually inching him towards the light through their few shared moments together. And because Luke is so adamant about not giving up on his father, the rebellion is able to defeat the Empire for good… Y’know until Lucas sold the rights to Disney, at least. But I digress.

Whereas both Star Wars’ story and plot are full of gravitas, Life is Strange only has gravitas in the plot, while the actual story is fairly subdued – that is until the finale, of course. In my opinion this change of pace really aided in setting the game aside from others within the genre. Comparing the opening Episode of the Walking Dead Season 1 and Life is Strange really puts this on show:

In Episode one of the Walking Dead Season 1 the game opens with you in handcuffs, getting into a car crash, killing a zombie and running away from a horde of others. You take shelter in a house, pick up a little girl and relax on a farm for a bit and then some zombies attack the farm. So you leave the farm, get attacked by more zombies in a town and hunker down with survivors who want to euthanise a child, and then have to figure out a way to both settle the argument and get out of the town. You escape, get betrayed by a member of the group before being saved by another and then the episode ends on this sombre note that you can’t trust everyone in this group, despite what was accomplished in your time playing. The action and suspense is constant. Whenever a scene gets too quiet, like on the farm, the game throws something at you. This is true for a lot of Telltale games – Even the quieter ones like The Wolf Among Us, which is a detective game that opens with a fist fight between a werewolf and lumberjack you don’t know yet.

Cut to Life is Strange. At first you think it’s the same as the rest of them: You have a dream of a tornado destroying a town and then wake up in class. When class ends you go to the bathroom and see someone get shot, before discovering you have the ability to rewind time at which point you save them. Then nothing happens for the next thirty minutes apart from a single choice where you can either photograph security being mean to a student or intervene and defend the student, but even that doesn’t have a pay off until Episode two and is not mentioned again for the rest of Episode one. Then you are confronted by the guy who shot the girl you saved in the past and he threatens you. Someone intervenes and a fight ensues… Not a world ending fight. Not a “the world depends on this fight”. Not a werewolf fighting a lumberjack fight. Just a high school fight between two lads, that is mostly off-screen. You waltz away with the girl you saved in the bathroom – now revealed to be your childhood friend Chloe and nothing happens until the end of the episode, at which point you have another vision of the Tornado and realise it’s going to wipe out the town by the end of the week. It’s very slow paced, and yet it never stops moving.

It should be noted that although nothing of note happens for a lot of the episode, that doesn’t meant that nothing is happening at all. The vast majority of this episode – and indeed of all five episodes that make up Life is Strange – is worldbuilding. Enormous amounts of time is dedicated to not only setting up things that may not pay off until much later in the story, but also to character development. Sure, there aren’t five set piece battles with one-hundred quick time events to blankly stare at, but there is learning to be done. We learn that Max – the player character- is, while not a social outcast, hardly recognised by her peers. When engaging in many of the optional interactions, you see she is civil with most of them, and they are civil with her. But that’s about it. Very few of them feel like “friends” with the exception of Kate – the girl who was harassed by security – and your old friend Chloe. There is some reoccurring guy who has a crush on Max, but she postpones plans with him at least twice in this episode and this sets a trend for how she will treat him for the rest of it. We learn of a missing girl, Rachel, who was friends with Chloe. Speaking of Chloe, she’s angry at us because when we moved towns we failed to keep in contact with her after her father died. And now, just as her new and presumably more faithful friend Rachel has disappeared, we come back into her life.

In short it’s a game you can play while having a beer. You can kick your legs back and enjoy it. There’s no false danger or illusions. The game is aware that people view this format as akin to an interactive movie, and it plays on that. This is put on show in the minor puzzle solving segments that make us of the time travel mechanic, none of which are at all as self indulgent as any similar action segments featured in its contemporaries, which seem to fear the audience getting bored and thus throw false things for you to do into the game for no reason at all. And ironically enough, for a game that is somewhat self-aware of it’s movie-like, the actual gameplay surpasses most Telltale games that try to trick you into engaging with a game that will play itself. It’s not revolutionising the formula or anything, but it’s sure trying to keep to engaged a lot harder than most other games of its type.

I also feel that it utilises the illusion of choice better than its contemporaries. Because this game knows people are going to be watching it more than playing it, it allows the choices to be ones with emotional pay off rather than ones with direct gameplay consequences. For example, in Episode two, regardless of whether or not you try to shoot a guy named Frank when he threatens you and Chloe, you will still have a gun by the final episode. If you choose not to shoot him you keep the gun you already had and even if he takes it off you, you can still reobtain it later in the story or pick up an entirely different in a scene unrelated to this Frank side plot. So the choice exists to build tension. If you tried to shoot Frank, you’re going to have a hell of a lot more nerves and trouble squeezing information out of him during Episode four. The same applies if you got his dog killed during the third episode because, even though Frank won’t know that you specifically did it, Frank will bring up how strange it was the dog died and you will go on to learn that he rescued the dog from an illegal animal fighting arena. Again, there is little in the way of direct gameplay consequences here, but it is replaced with the same tension audiences might derive from watching a film, which is what many players have related these types of games to. By capitalising on this, Life is Strange somewhat, if not completely, mitigates the feeling that none of your choices mean anything, since weight of the emotional pay off you receive from them is tied to your investment and enjoyment of the game.

Good as it is, however, the very fact choice is an illusion is still somewhat detrimental to this game in a lot of ways. Ironically enough, the most important choice in the story wherein Max must choose to save Chloe from being shot or stay hidden at the start of the game is not something we can control. The reason being that those events have to occur for the story to happen, and thus we are left to revaluate that choice to let Chloe live or die in the final episode. So while removing the player from the choice in episode one is justified from a story perspective, it does still feel odd to remove player choice from a situation that takes place in what is the game’s unofficial tutorial section. But, you know, time travel has to happen.

But that isn’t to say that every choice in this game is false. In fact some of the biggest choices in this game are not the ones the game freezes and highlights to be of importance. No better is this displayed in Episode two when you visit Kate’s room. Kate is a girl who had a video leaked of her doing sexual things at a party online and who it is implied was sexually assaulted in some capacity afterwards. Needless to say she’s pretty depressed about it. But before you engage in conversation about it with her you are just left to explore her room and look at things to get Max’s two cents on the seemingly insignificant and meaningless details the developers put in the room.

Only they’re not insignificant or meaningless.

When Kate is on top of a roof threatening to jump to her death and only you can talk her down, there isn’t a time freeze or arbitrary binary choice about how to go about saving her. Instead you are given information about Kate – some of which is false and some of which is true – which you can use to calm her. Without guessing and getting lucky, the only way you can know what options to pick to save her are by having explored her room during the opening of the episode. If you do so, you’ll find a loving letter from her father, her favourite bible verse and other bits of trivia about her, all of which can be used to help save her. Not only does this drive the player to interact with the environment and world that the developers have crafted after this point, but it also drives you to become involved with the characters in a more intimate way. Because these segment of saving Kate isn’t just a lesson to use the “interact” mechanic more often, it’s a lesson in why you should engage with the game on its terms with the characters it has presented to you. And if you don’t, then the consequences cold be quite horrific.

Another example of the game using the interaction mechanic well is by using it to introduce the plot point that Rachel is a girl at the school who has gone missing. In a lesser game you would have been told this by another character, or your character would already be aware of it. But in Life is Strange you are left to wander he halls of your school during the opening segment where you organically come across this information. Yes, I am aware this is the most basic way they could have used this mechanic and that it is hardly spectacular, but when you consider the fact that the supposed holy grail of adventure games, The Walking Dead, is full of such meaningless “interactions” with the environment that you don’t never find a use for it unless the game specifically prompts that you’re now in a puzzle solving section, I think it’s quite good that Life is Strange encourages it’s use more broadly.

I think this harsh lesson that is taught to us in Episode two is why so many people like Chloe as a character. If you watch any let’s play or analysis of this game online, many will cite that Chloe is kind of an asshole, bad influence and a bad friend. Though I wouldn’t entirely agree, it’s also hard to deny that there isn’t merit to their arguments. And yet, in spite of all that, not only do you feel invested in Chloe’s struggles and motivations, but you become sympathetic towards her despite her manipulative grasp over Max. The reason is that because, if you don’t, you may have another Kate situation on your hands. The same goes for David, Chloe’s, step father, her mother Joyce, your annoying classmate Warren, the asshole Frank and everyone else in this game. You don’t just learn about them because the game forces you into scenes with them, but because it conditions you to want to learn more about the cast.

In fact it’s kind of great how real Arcadia Bay – your home town – feels, despite the fact there are only a handful of locations you visit. It certainly feels more real than Fallout 4’s Diamond City, Skyrim’s Whiterun and even Red Dead Redemption 2’s Valentine. The reason being that the people in it aren’t generic NPC’s repeating the same three lines of dialogue, with one or two spliced in with a quirky character trait, but actual characters with something to say. While not as vast, visually impressive or as engaging to explore as a town in an open world game, it certainly feels more genuine and thus easier to invest yourself in.

The result is that when you reach the final episode and you see a super tornado coming for where you live, you’re no longer merely looking at a generic town, but at a place where characters you have invested vast amounts of time and effort into live. And why is the tornado coming? Well it’s because you have been using your time travel powers to save Chloe from dying in every single episode of the game. Her destiny to die seems to be written, and your avoidance of it is what has been causing nature to go crazy and form a supernatural tornado to wipe out everything.

So the final choice is between allowing the tornado to wipe out a town full of developed and reasonably fleshed out side characters, versus going back in time and allowing Chloe – your (hopefully) favourite character – to die in order to prevent any of this from happening. In my opinion the choice is obvious: You have to allow Chloe to die regardless of the pain it causes to you and Max. If you don’t, not only does the tornado wipe out the town, you’ve prevented her death once more. Who’s to say the next supernatural event sent to kill Chloe won’t be an earthquake that levels a city? Or a flood that engulfs an entire coast? So long as Chloe remains alive, more and more people will be put in danger by her presence. She has to die. And indeed the ending where she dies is the most fleshed out ending to the game, to the point where it’s clearly the one the developers wanted you to pick.

I say this because the ending where she lives is highly disappointing. You get a cutscene of you and Chloe being sad. You drive down to the destroyed town, wherein everyone is dead, and then you drive away. It’s anticlimactic. Perhaps rightfully so because the story isn’t over until Chloe is gone? Even then, it is an ending where either Max hasn’t grown past romanticising her and Chloe’s childhood, or where there is no pay off for her learning to become a hero since she fails utterly in saving the town from danger.

But none of that can take away from what this game is: A coming of age adventure game about being a teenager. About nurturing a forgotten friendship. About what it means to be a hero – first in the most reserved way possible, and then in the most grandiose. About navigating college. About learning what a villain can look like. It’s a young adult game that isn’t afraid to dabble in mature subject matter: Murder, sexual exploitation and assault, grief, loss and the process of mourning. All of which is handled in the least subtle way possible, sure, but also in a way that takes itself seriously within the confines of it’s quirky universe. A lot of people say that the writing, specifically the dialogue, in this game is cringe, but I prefer the word cheesy. The vibes I get from it are a lot more Sam Rami’s Spiderman than they are Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Thusly it’s full of a lot of intimate truths and, for all the heavy themes it handles, manages to make you smile more often than it will make you cry. It’s a comfort.

That’s what Life is Strange is to me: A comfort game. Something I come back to every so often, despite knowing all of what happens, because it offers a tone and atmosphere that no other game in this genre of adventure games manages to capture – not even its prequel or sequel. With its music alone it wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve and is totally unafraid of being itself, and of what it wants to be. So yes, I would highly recommend playing Life is Strange.

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