January 2015 heralded the arrival of “Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis” and who could have foreseen the impact this gem from DONTNOD and Square Enix would have on players and the issues we would face during the adventure, released episodically throughout the year. Take Heavy Rain, Back to the Future and any teen focused soap opera and you have a grasp of what Life is Strange entails.
Time travel powers are awesome and you will spend much of your first play through talking to people, getting a reaction, rewinding time and repeating until you reach a conclusion that best suits you. Time travel makes mental manipulation so easy, though it’s all for a good cause, or bad depending on the type of person you want Max to be. An extra feature is the percentage list at the end of every episode depicting how many gamers choose to react in key situations. It’s interesting to compare your choices with friends and you can also see the overall percentage of decisions made and obstacles overcome or failed with players worldwide. As in life, people respond to different stimuli differently. How you react to a situation is dependent on perspective and opinions of right and wrong. Using this method the game makes you question your outlook by confronting you with touch decisions.
Though the threat of the tornado constantly looms like a force of nature (obviously), it pales in comparison to the storm of tragedy that grows around Max and her friend Chloe as dangerous secrets are revealed. In fact, by being drawn back into Chloe's’ life, Max opens the door to a world many don’t understand, even more, people choose to ignore and some people have the misfortune to fall into. As the peril increases the focus shifts away from their personal social problems to the dark and sinister underlying mysteries of Aradia Bay that make up the games heavier and more confronting themes: Abuse, Depression, Suicide, Murder, Euthanasia, and Loss.
You can make an impact in everyone's lives whether big or small and every little victory motivates you to strive forward towards the big finish.
Meet Max Caulfield, the heroine of our Modern Interactive Drama based in the failing fishing town called Arcadia Bay. She’s a retro chic teenage photography student who’s been away for five years and has returned to her roots to study. The story progresses at a steady pace. Episode One starts simple and in a small familiar location most of us can relate to: In a classroom. With nothing to do but distract yourself from the teacher's lecture, you are introduced to the games play style through conversations with classmates and learning a little about the goings on at Blackwell Academy.
It isn’t until a bit later while taking a picture of a butterfly in the girl's toilets (as you do) that you really come to grips with the meat on the bones of the gameplay. Secluded and hidden, Max witnesses her childhood friend Chloe gunned down, inducing enough anguish to awaken Max’s time-tastic powers, causing a reflex re-wind. Rushing back to the loo, you must examine the environment, find the tools necessary and figure out how to use them, just right, to avert an encore of Chloes‘ toilet trauma. From that moment on things begin to escalate, slowly, but enough that the intensity will have you hooked. The drama and suspense continue to climb through events like winning a photograph competition, to finding a missing person, to unraveling futuristic visions of an impending Tornado. Jinkies.
With a few problem-solving elements thrown in, there is usually more than one way to accomplish a task but with decisions and consequences being heavy dynamics in your experience, weighing the pros and cons of every alternative will become second nature by the time you finish Episode 1. The devil is in the details and the details are dialogue heavy. You will need to understand that every character has been created with very distinctive personalities. There is the constant pressure of “how will this affect the future?” when deciding how to approach or respond to a specific topic. Someone may disagree in the short term but you’d be surprised how standing up for what’s right can affect your relationships with peers further down the line.
There are action, suspense, and cliffhangers but it isn’t all melodrama. The quieter moments provide a nice opportunity to explore the world around you, uncovering hidden photo ops and learning little tidbits of information about enemies and allies alike. You can totally get caught up in Max's passion for photography, unlocking trophies and capturing that perfect Kodak moment.
CONTEXT AND THEMES
The strongest moments in the game that leave the biggest impressions are surprisingly the times when Max’s powers are suddenly out of commission, forcing you to rely on your wits and memory without the safety net of a “Rewind.” Unable to retrace your steps and change your mind, as we become accustomed to while playing, the consequences of previous actions mild and major really slam home hard and the results of your deeds in those vital moments are permanent. Literally and chronologically powerless, you must use your empathy, logic, and some strong recollection skills to see Max through certain trials. In these gripping moments, you catch yourself imagining how it must feel to be in that position, having a friend in trouble, needing help yet uncertain if there is anything you can do. Pressured into action, to do something, anything, before time runs out. Depression has been a very real issue spouting from the intensity of a modern social media being used to facelessly harass and bully people and this is tackled very tastefully within the story.
There is also a section in the game that deals with disability, providing an opportunity to look meticulously around the home of one of Max's friends. By exploring the house you get a picture of how difficult it can be to cope with the real life situation and how extortionate the medical bills can be. The evidence and details are not thrown in your face concerning parents, but it is undeniably there. They love their child, yet there is no denying how much has been sacrificed to keep their precious baby alive. By taking the time to look you gain a very real sense of the reality for these people. Sometimes there is a help, sometimes there is not. It raises a very serious question of how such medical cases should be treated. This section of the game is as powerful as it is detailed and serves as a harsh and significant lesson for the protagonist that, despite her power, there are some things that cannot, and should not, be changed no matter how much we may desire it.
WHAT THE GAME ACHIEVES
Life is Strange has a strong emotional hook. It’s easy to relate to these characters, questioning who they are and how to find their place in the world. The lip synching isn’t great, however, the voice acting is so exceptional you barely notice it. The language contains a fair few retro geek references, modern colloquialisms and though there is a lot of slang the use of language seems to define and clarify the day to day life at Blackwell rather than cause confusion.
While many games deal in escapism, and “Life is Strange” provides this to an extent, what makes it such a powerful play is its insistence on facing the gamer with possible situations and very real problems affecting our world at large today.
The ending, however, doesn’t match the quality of what comes before it. It undermines everything the player has been lead to believe and understand about the world we have been discovering regarding Max’s powers and chaos theory. No matter how you play the game, the finale just throws all the turmoil and struggle we have endured with these characters in our faces. The last episode, while brilliantly symbolic and existential, felt rushed and undefined leaving me confused and annoyed at the lack of regard for the quantum precedence that has been strongly established throughout gameplay. Even though the story has a definitive ending there is a big gaping hole where the resolution should be. That said, it isn’t the destination and conclusion that this game should be remembered for, but the whole intrinsic journey and the experiences that make it worthwhile. The whole game is a work of art and a proud piece of storytelling.
As the title suggests “Life is Strange,” mostly you can never figure how something is going to turn out and there are loads of things in this world that just don’t make sense no matter how you look at it. There is much you can take from this game if you open your mind to the deeper nuances. No matter many times you play it, no matter how dark things get, I think the strength of the friendship shared between Chloe and Max will stand the test of time and we can all take something from that.
|+ Story progression and character development||– Dissapointing ending|
|+ Emotional impact|
|+ Effective depiction of heavy themes|
|+ Powerful script and voice acting|