I don’t usually bother with spoiler warnings, because most of the stuff I play has been released for YEARS by the time I get around to writing about it, but this one is different, so: POTENTIAL STORY & GAME PLAY SPOILING SPOILERS AHEAD. SERIOUSLY. LIFE IS STRANGE IS AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD PLAY IT AND NOT RUIN IT FOR YOURSELF.Okay, now that’s done, I can begin. Having warned people off spoilers, I sort of spoiled LIS for myself a little by watching Let’s Plays of the first two episodes, because I was undecided about buying it. But episode 2 (along with Daft Souls‘ comments on it) convinced me. And as it turns out, even with my slow internet, the episodes take a maximum of 5 hours to download, which is fine. Hopefully this will be true of Telltale’s stuff too as I’m now sold on the format.
Life is Strange opens like one of those quirky nineties teen dramas that don’t really exist any more – Dawson‘s Creek, My So Called Life, Party of Five. The jangly guitar music with earnest vocals, the sunlit high school corridors, the tribal student groups, LIS evokes a school experience that no longer exists (and perhaps never did) and yet, to gamers of a certain age, is instantly recognisable.
I was already painfully aware of LIS‘s biggest flaw – the truly dreadful dialogue (it came as absolutely no surprise that the entire writing team are male. No teenage girl speaks like that.) Maybe something was lost in translation (Dontnod are French) but the overuse of ‘hella’ made me instantly dislike Chloe, and it was a dislike I never entirely got over, even though she’s voiced by the eminently likeable Ashly Burch. It seems Dontnod were aiming for their own linguistic style as seen in Buffy or Clueless, but the attempt is a poor one.
The thing I found particularly refreshing about this first episode was how little handholding there is. Once you’ve been shown a particular mechanic, there are a few minor on-screen prompts, but mostly it’s up to you to take advantage of protagonist Max’s time-winding powers. Another nice touch is the system at the end of each episode that lets you know firstly how your key choices compared to other players and secondly, all the minor choices you may have missed. (I’d missed virtually all of them in this initial playthrough, which is great for replay value!) This willingness to let players miss out on things is also well-handled in the story too. I assume it’s possible to meet Frank in this episode (or at least discuss him) but I didn’t, and was left wondering who the hell he was in the closing credits. Rachel Amber’s situation, which later becomes a key plot point, could also quite easily be missed in this episode (although fortunately I at least managed not to drop the ball on that one.)
This is where LIS really starts to come into its own in ways that aren’t immediately obvious in a Let’s Play. I’ve never seen a game use stillness, silence and slowness so effectively. Heavy Rain tried, but LIS has it down. Ep 2 is also the point where you start to realise how the gradual sketching out of the characters; the text messages they send to Max, the conversations they have with her and each other, the notes they leave outside their dorm rooms that Max passes each day and the social media pages they update on the tablets she snoops on combine to create surprisingly fully realised characters. (Yes, I know, even with all that hella-ing) In fact, the world of Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy as a whole are, if not entirely realistic, then at least convincing. Both the school and the wider town create a sense of a living, breathing world far more deftly than many other story-based games.
Warren in particular provided me with a level of realism I don’t think I’ve ever felt in a game, (not even Mass Effect!) He’s Max’s friend and she clearly likes and values his friendship. But there’s a question mark over Max’s sexuality. It’s unclear just how close she and Chloe were five years ago and there are several hints their split may have meant more than just friends temporarily parting ways. I was trying to play Max in a way I felt was appropriate to the story, her implied character and my own preferences, and that put a question mark over Warren. His eagerness to stand up for Max in episode 1 indicates his interest in her may go beyond friendship. They have similar likes and interests so how to walk the line between ‘leading him on’ and being his friend? He seems like a nice guy, but then ‘nice guys’ are often the first to cry “Fuck you, you friendzoning Bitch!”. I’ve never given so much thought to accepting a cinema invite in a game world.
Then there’s that huge MOMENT. The bit where you can prevent a character’s tragic death if only you’ve paid attention to her life enough. (I had not. Roll on replay.) This entire scene feels so important, so huge and yet Dontnod make the wise decision not to drag it out, moving on swiftly while your stomach’s still left behind on the top of that building.
In fact, the only downers in this episode were the complete misuse of the word ‘steampunk’ (Dontnod seem to think it means ‘Punk who likes old cars’, unless it was just a joke that went over my head) and an even worse abuse of dialogue. A modern-day fisherman, who we already knew was a fisherman, because he was wearing waders and spoke about the day’s catch actually uses the words “By Neptune’s beard!” unironically, just to make sure we know what a salty sea dog he is. Good grief. It’s like they just can’t help themselves.
It wasn’t until this episode that I finally realised I could use Max’s power in way more situations than I thought, even when it wasn’t signposted. This completely opened up the game to me and the fact I still missed a few things shows how big a world Arcadia Bay actually is. There was also the further development of established mechanics. Already owing many of its ideas and stylings to Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect, LIS drew heavily on Groundhog Day for this episode, even referencing it directly. This provided another inventive use of Max’s powers, a different form of puzzle and was just plain fun! I spent quite some time tormenting Frank – getting him to slip in beans, throwing beer on him, mocking him and then winding back so he was none the wiser.
Again the subtlety and respect LIS has for its players’ intelligence is a great strength. The slow, creeping realisation that the spate of bird deaths and strange insect behaviour may be down to Max using her powers, the time given to exploring the emotional aftermath of the previous episode and the juxtaposition of Max’s joy at her successful alteration of the past with the horrific impact that alteration has on the present (future?!) makes these familiar time-travel tropes seem fresh and exciting. THAT ENDING. MY GOD, THAT ENDING!
What we’re left with is a game with fun mechanics and high replay value that also has that rarest of videogames gems – a compelling story and intriguing characters. Viewing the percentage figures of player choices actually gave me hope for humanity. It sounds a strange thing to say, but gamers are often perceived as a cruel, entitled lot and yet here were statistics that showed when given the choice between harming and helping, the vast majority of players went with the altruistic option. (And there’s the added bonus that some of those who chose negatives were likely purely replaying to see how their differing choices affected things)
As the game clearly takes influence from the two other big ‘teen with time-travel-powers’ stories, Donnie Darko and The Butterfly Effect, my guess is that Max’s final choice will involve self-sacrifice, although I’m currently undecided as to whether that will take the form of protecting Arcadia as a whole, or some of its inhabitants more specifically. In terms of Rachel Amber, I think she’s something of a red herring. Frank’s behaviour had me convinced that not only is she not dead, but that he knows where she is (and may be closer to home than we think – who is the fashion-conscious woman staying in Sam’s shed if not her?). Although of course the reasons for her faking her disappearance will likely be interesting – I’ve got my eye on Mr Jefferson regarding that… Where Chloe is concerned, I think the reason for Max’s five-year split from her is because their relationship was actually more serious than mere best friends. Although, the new, alternate timeline may render all of this irrelevant – who knows?
All I know for sure is, it’s a hella long time until the next episode. Hella.