LIFE IS STRANGE IMPRESSIONS
By Aaron Bishop on February 1, 2015
s a big fan of Remember Me and Dontnod Entertainment, I’ve been excited about their next episodic project, Life Is Strange, ever since it was announced a few months back even though I had no idea what it was about. Now that I’ve played through episode one, I can tell you that it’s a very story driven game filled with puzzles, and branching dialogue that usually lead to varying degrees of regret. Think Telltale.
Step inside the mind of Max, a teenage girl moving home from Seattle to finish her studies at Blackwell Academy. There she’s attending a photography course taught by world-renowned photographer Mark Jefferson. From here on out photography becomes integral to the story, the dialogue, several gameplay mechanics, and even a hefty portion of the achievements are tied to photography as well. I should probably admit that I took several photography courses in college and developed an even stronger passion for it thanks to my awesome instructor. Dontnod have secretly stolen my heart.
Life Is Strange hangs on themes of teen angst and the troubles of adolescence. It also does a fantastic job of splitting the students of Blackwell up into cliques, each with their own drama, style of actions and lexicon that can at times merit a facepalm. Phrases like “hella cool” always seemed stupid to me, as did the Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls level of unnecessary bitchyness, but the game doesn’t boast about how edgy and hip it is, it merely mimics our annoying reality.
One of the key differences that sets Life Is Strange apart from a Telltale game is how it immediately puts you in Maxine’s shoes. In The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us the characters are typically developed in layers; the player makes decisions that start to define who they are for that playthrough, but some of those decisions aren’t always right. Those games, while appearing open-ended, do in fact have a very linear story that almost always puts its hand on your shoulder and points you in the opposite direction when you’re trying to do something the story won’t allow. In Life Is Strange, Max is already a well-defined person who has her likes and dislikes, her passions, her fears, and her past. I found it much more immersive and believable to learn about Maxine’s life than I would’ve had trying to shape her into someone else. From the beginning it made the narrative feel much more free-flowing as I tried to think like Max and make decisions that she would make. This method of story-telling and gameplay made it nearly impossible to not start immediately growing an attachment to her, her life, and the world she lives in. All with the welcomed burden of making those tough decisions.
The bell finally rings and her photography instructor talks the students out the door. Stepping out into the hallway she can hear the murmurs of people talking about her, but slipping in a pair of headphones her world melts away into music where she can be alone. Before leaving, she wants to freshen up and wash her face, but while in the bathroom an event occurs that changes her life forever. This is really where things get turned on their head.
Through the incident that unfolds, Max meets her old best friend Chloe. After spending five years in Seattle, Max has come home to a very different Chloe who has fallen down a slippery slope of drug use and violence. It’s here you’re presented with a number of choices that can either help Chloe feel like she has a friend again or keep your perfect record at school in hopes of getting a scholarship.
That’s not to say that Life Is Strange is a linear game with predetermined choices that turn out the same way regardless. I honestly felt like the entire world was influenced by my every action. Even something as simple as reading a poster on a wall, or leaving a cupboard door open, can alter how things play out. Nor is that to say it’s an entirely sandbox narrative. Certain things have to happen in order for the story to progress, but how it progresses can grow in any number of ways.
Which is really where Life Is Strange shines. A mechanic introduced early on allows Maxine to rewind time and watch as different events unfold based on the different sets of actions you made. Unlike The Walking Dead where you’re given a few seconds to make a decision and then forced to live with the consequences for the rest of the game. It’s a mechanic I love in a game like The Walking Dead, but in Life Is Strange, seeing alternate outcomes adds another layer of depth that you can play with over and over; seeing how minute details can alter dialogue options or even help you escape death. It really has to be used to understand and enjoy fully.
The art style, while similar to Telltale games, isn’t comicy or cel shaded. It feels cemented in reality while retaining a minimalist vibe. This paired with its photographic themes contrast quite nicely, and more often than not make for interesting, well composed and well-lit areas, and immaculate screenshots. It’s also worth mentioning that the soundtrack is fantastic, not just for how well it matches the game, but for its impeccable timing and pacing throughout.
I’m really looking forward to where this game is going. The first episode is about an hour to three hours in length depending on how quickly you play through it. Some of the main objectives don’t take all that long but if you visit every nook and cranny, and read all of the copious posters, sticky notes and text messages to flesh out the backstory, it could take you a little longer.
My biggest complaint right now is, because of how immersed I felt for those short two hours, that I wish it was an RPG with a little more freedom to come and go and really get to know who Maxine is beyond her timid demeanor. That said, the first episode does leave you wanting more, a lot more, and with four more episodes left to savor, that’s not a bad thing.
Stay tuned for a full review of Life Is Strange when the final episode comes out. For now though, based on what I’ve played, if you like episodic and adventure games, definitely give it a shot.