Life is Strange is a story about regret. It is about second guessing yourself. It is also a story about life as a teenager, and when you think about it, isn’t that what being a teenager is? Constantly being in doubt about yourself over the smallest little detail? Over if-onlys and might-have-beens?
Life is Strange follows the story of Max Caulfield, a budding photographer and teenager who returns to Arcadia Bay, her place of birth in order to study under her dream photography mentor. She also reunites with certain characters from her former life. And she discovers she can rewind time.
That discovery is the key to Dontnod’s take on the Episodic Interactive Story. At first glance, its gameplay mechanics are almost identical to any of Telltale’s offerings out there. You play through someone’s life, solving puzzles and playing through quick time events. Through the whole experience, you are making conversational (or action-based) decisions that are said to affect the rest of the story. Max’s power however throws everything on its head. This time when you fail you don’t reset from a certain check point, but instead trigger your almost-at-will ability to rewind time for short periods of time (usually to 1-2 critical points prior to said failure). You can even use it to speed up past certain events, or learn information that will be valuable in future (or past, thanks to the rewind) conversations. It is this rewinding of time that makes Life is Strange so powerfully different from any other Interactive Story out there.
Because you are no longer beholden to one choice, you are able to watch how the results of either choice unfurls, and then rewind and choose whichever ending you prefer. This frees you from the sometimes agonizing thought that one option might be better than the other, which may allow you to make choices that resonate with you as a player, rather than the ‘better’ choice that some of us gamers have been habituated to choose. However, this also arguably weakens each decision you make. The power that choice has over a person is that of consequences. If one is able to upend any consequence, is that choice then significant at all?
That, in essence, is the fulcrum on which Life is Strange balances. Without going into spoilers (and like in any Interactive Story, spoilers are the worst thing to happen to a player), Max soon learns that any choice has consequences, and often picking what you think is the ‘better’ choice often leads to unforeseen circumstances. Sometimes in trying to untangle the weave of causality, you only end up unraveling it instead.
Dontnod takes it a step further. Instead of presenting two similar choices like most Telltale games (do you drive to point A or walk to point A?) some of the decisions in Life is Strange can lead to life-altering differences in the story, which has its good and bad points. While asymmetric consequences simulates life more accurately, this also means that there is a ‘better’ option for Max, or at least a ‘canon’ option, as evidenced by the different amount of work that Dontnod puts in to each decision. While this generally doesn’t negatively impact the story, I have to admit that in the game I didn’t rewind options that I felt strongly about, if only to protect my investment in ‘the true timeline’ (which I suppose is really a losing battle in a story about time).
While it would normally lead to some frustration, this second-guessing nature pairs well with teen life. After all, when you’re 18, don’t you feel both invincible AND crushed under unbelievable weight at the same time? When you are in a point in your life where the smallest misstep in a conversation with someone you ‘kinda maybe have a thing for’ could set off an avalanche of emotions and broken dreams, leading you to sing out loud on the floor of a darkened theatre… what wouldn’t you give to rewind time?
Max’s teen trials are made all the more impactful with Dontnod’s skill at both visual storytelling as well as music and song choice. It is unafraid to slow down, letting us walk through a school hall, or just sit on a bus as a song plays. These quiet times of contemplation anchor us into the story, allowing the player to form a bond with the game. It is also GODAWFULLY pretty. I am in love with its visuals. Arcadia Bay seems to be a photographer’s dream; permanently in golden hour with the crepuscular rays of the sun touching everything, lending and otherworldy beauty to the otherwise mundane. On the other hand when something is going down, thunder immediately sounds and the rain immediately pours. It is almost like the game is on perma-Instagram filter. The focus on photography and film is also seen (and appreciated in other ways). I especially like the double-exposure effect when Max rewinds time, or the burn-through when she is at her limit.
While this permanent Instagram filter throughout the game might not necessarily be believable, isn’t this how all teenagers view their lives? To a teen, the smallest act or the slightest word can either be the most beautiful, wonderful thing ever, or the absolute worst thing ever, inciting one to depression or even darker thoughts. In the same way, the people around you are either ‘your besties forever’, or demonized. Never mind if your friend is actually the one at fault, or your enemy actually has a reason to behave that way. You are blind to the subtleties. Teen life is a life without gradation, and while I was playing it, Life is Strange was surprisingly able to dredge up similar feelings in an old codger like me. It was these small vignettes in the game that I treasured so fondly.
Which is why I didn’t particularly appreciate the way the story took such a quick turn to the extreme in later episodes. Again trying to avoid spoilers, but it is one thing when you consider what happens in a party as ‘the end of the world’. It is something else entirely when another event could actually lead to The End Of The World. Strangely, I felt like I could care more when the stakes were refreshingly small. When the stakes grew I felt like I lost some sense of scale and relation. It didn’t help that the asymmetric payoff mentioned earlier rears its head here, and that convolutions in the timeline can greatly affect the people or events you had invested heavily in during your playthrough. It is one thing when holes in time or plot or character are displayed in ‘timey-wimey’ shows like Doctor Who, I can usually shrug it off due to the feel of the show. These similar flaws are much more stark in Life is Strange, purely because of how seriously you treat the game.
However, while these flaws may affect the game, they do not in any way damage it so adversely that it becomes a bad game. Quite to the contrary. The fact that I get so annoyed by things I would ignore in other games or shows demonstrates how well Life is Strange was able to insinuate itself within me. It is quite possibly the best game that left me thinking this year.
It just so happens that two weeks ago, I made a statement that Tales from the Borderlands was the best game to come out this year. Some readers commented, asking if I had played Life is Strange. I am glad they asked, because if they had not, I might not have had the pleasure of such playing through such a rich experience.
Just so we’re clear, Tales from the Borderlands and Life is Strange are BOTH must play games (especially if you like games more for the story and experience, less for the actual gameplay). However… is one BETTER than the other? That is a very difficult, and very personal decision to make.
Tales from the Borderlands is more internally consistent. It has snappy writing and I love all the characters. There were moments where I LAUGHED, and moments when I CRIED. I believe that I derived more enjoyment out of Tales from the Borderlands, but that is a very personal opinion. Also, while Telltale exhibited a lot of polish, Tales from the Borderlands did not do as much to progress the genre. On the other hand, Life is Strange may have its strange plots and annoying (not because they were meant to be) characters, but it is a very brave and pretty fresh take on a genre that has been done a lot recently. It will have inspired many more people to sit down and think, I truly believe that Life is Strange has the opportunity to become a classic.
Personally, I mentally pictured both games as what I felt their movie analogues were. Tales from the Borderlands is solid and entertaining. It is a crazier Firefly had Joss Whedon gotten a better budget. On the other hand, Life is Strange is flawed, but evinces so many emotions that I thought I had long said goodbye to. It has caused me to sit, and think, and to word vomit out this post, which is definitely longer than a lot of my other posts recently (and I still have more to say). It is Amelie, or a Kaufman. Are both good? Yes. Is one better than the other? Who can say?
Just get both.
Life is Strange is out (and has been out) for PC and Console.