pop culture | no politics
I love traditional first-person shooters, puzzle games, and platformers. But I’m always on the lookout for a game that is brave enough to think outside the box and be a genre-defining experience, something so unique that it results in a game that I can’t stop thinking about long after I put the controller down. Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange is one of those games.
The plot is centered around Max Caulfield, an introverted student at a private high school who has a natural eye for photography. While daydreaming in class one day she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, to undo events that range in severity from a simple broken camera all the way up to the death of her fellow students. Teaming up with her childhood friend Chloe, Max decides to use her newfound powers to discover what happened to Rachel Amber, a student that has recently gone missing. Life is Strange's story is full of friendships, unsolved mysteries, and even supernatural events. It feels a bit predictable at times, but is well-executed enough that it doesn’t pull the gamer out of the experience. There’s a late game twist that I’m sure M. Night Shyamalan would love that kind of feels forced and out of place, but it’s far from being a deal-breaker.
The real strength of the game lies in its interesting characters, from the shy and awkward Max to the rebellious Chloe, everyone feels really fleshed-out and multi-dimensional. At first glance it appears that the game is populated by the simple teenage stereotypes found in a sitcom or slasher film, but you quickly learn that the skateboarding stoner and popular cheerleader have a lot more going on beneath the surface. The game does a great job of knowing how and when to reveal more about its characters, and there were quite a few times that I regrettably learned something important about one of them hours after making a decision that directly affected their life.
Casting the protagonist as an aspiring photographer was a brilliant choice for a time-traveling adventure. By its very nature photography is about stasis, about preserving a single moment in time on a piece of paper. Max’s adventures through Arcadia Bay are a stark contrast to that, as she rewinds time again and again in her quest to make everything perfect for her friends and ultimately herself. Almost all of the game’s trophies are unlocked by taking pictures of various subjects scattered throughout the game, so the act of photography remains in the spotlight throughout the course of the story.
The game’s aesthetic is very unique, it looks like the entire game was ran through a softening filter resulting in a dream-like appearance. The time-manipulation sequences and the transitions that reveal the fallout of Max’s actions are particularly well-handled. This fits the narrative well as a photorealistic style wouldn’t have fit the context of the game’s plot. The story is supplemented by Max’s journal, which is accessible via the PS4’s touchpad and is full of everything from her private thoughts to informative character bios. The voice acting is solid and the soundtrack perfect as every song sounds like something artsy teens would listen to. Performance-wise, Life is Strange runs smoothly and the load times are acceptable.
From a gameplay standpoint, Life is Strange is relatively simple. You spend a good part of your time walking around and soaking in the sights and sounds of Arcadia Bay, a small coastal town in Oregon. On-screen prompts point out the many objects Max can interact with, and while some don’t really serve a purpose most of them reveal important clues to the mystery she is trying to solve. For the most part, the time manipulation mechanic works. There are a handful of moments where it feels forced and gimmicky, but the developer almost always finds a legitimate reason for Max to use it within the context of the narrative. Time-travel is always a tricky situation to tackle in storytelling, whether it’s movies, the written word, or video games. When you introduce the ability to manipulate time into a story it can often result in an incoherent mess, but Life is Strange handles the situation with grace and poise.
Just like Heavy Rain, the Telltale games, and last year’s Until Dawn there are a handful of times where the player has to arrive at a certain outcome for the story to progress, and these were by far the most frustrating parts of the game. In these situations the time rewind mechanic is reduced to a reset button for a trial and error game, as I found myself choosing a dialog option, watching my decision play out to be the wrong one, and then having to back up time in order to try another choice. Given how slowly time rewinds this got old fast, I was really into the story and having to randomly enter a dozen passwords while trying to unlock a computer really took me out of it for a spell. Another brutally painful segment has Max trying to convince Chloe that she has the ability to manipulate time by correctly predicting a sequence of events. What could’ve been handled with a few dialog options ended up being a half hour’s worth of trial and error. The deep level of immersion was broken and it was a disservice to the game.
Another negative side effect to this is that the ability to rewind time often feels like a win button, which really diminished the drama of some scenes. Knowing that you have endless opportunities to back up and undo any mistakes you make certainly removes a lot of the tension from the situation. At one point the game introduces a story thread that offers the potential to limit Max’s powers, but it never develops into something strong enough to be a legitimate factor in the gameplay.
I applaud Dontnod for not taking the easy way out and shoehorning in quicktime events to make a story-driven experience feel more like a video game. And Life is Strange doesn't need that to work, there are plenty of things to look at and interact with in the game. From the various flyers and posters hanging in the halls of Blackwell Academy to the wildlife waiting to be captured by Max’s camera, this world feel alive and you feel like an active resident within in.
Comparisons to the Telltale adventure games are unavoidable, and there’s certainly a lot of similarities to be found between them and Life is Strange. But the latter doesn’t pressure you with a timer when making your choices. You’d think this would alleviate some of the stress of making decisions that will affect Max, her friends, and sometimes the entire town. But it actually had the opposite effect, when given an infinite amount of time to struggle with difficult choices, the stress of the situation was multiplied as I pondered the potential fallout of my pending actions. The game’s climax presents you with a choice that I found so difficult to make that I had to step away and agonize over it for a good 20 minutes. And that feeling of unease is a testament to how well Life is Strange connects its many characters together. At the end of the day this is a game about relationships and how strongly one person can impact an entire community.
It’s always refreshing when a game comes along that has the courage to push the boundaries of the medium, to tackle subject matters that might be considered too controversial to put in a game if you want it to sell. Life is Strange has the courage and conviction to tackle these issues head on, and manages to do so without feeling pretentious. If a high-quality story is important to your gaming experience this is a must-play game and ranks among this generation’s best.