Although it’s not your traditional “game”, Life is Strange marks an experience that no other form of media can replicate.
Editor’s Note: This review has been updated to cover the entirety of Life is Strange season 1.
It’s impossible to talk about Life is Strange without first talking about the genre it belongs to. The Adventure genre in gaming feels like a lost art of sorts. Once immensely popular in the 90’s, they vanished in the wake of a market hungry for action-heavy titles. Now that games have come to mobile platforms (iOS and Android), an ecosystem for lower precision titles exists, creating a window in time for the genre to reemerge. In the past 5 years Adventure games have become a thing again, but with mixed reception from the gaming audience as a whole. When Telltale Games released The Walking Dead in 2012, it was praised by many journalists and fans as a Game of the Year contender, whereas others chose to not recognize it as a game at all. As the name implies, Adventure games are more about exploring and interacting with the environment rather than reaching a “goal”. Many of them have no premise of winning or losing, concepts used to define games for decades. One could see the genre as a giant interactive novel. At their worst, detractors use the phrase “walking simulator” to describe the gameplay loop employed in these games. As you can see, the Adventure genre is a unique snowflake in the world of gaming. With all of the table setting behind us, let’s get on to the review.
Do you remember what high school was like? For many it was the best of times. For many it was the absolute worst of times. The player assumes the role of Max Caulfield during her senior year of Blackwell Academy, a school renowned for science and art. Although she was gone from Arcadia Bay for five years, many aspects of the town remain the same. Max has a knack for photography which forces everyone to acknowledge her despite her quiet nature. In a digital age, she still chooses to use a retro analog camera to better capture her style. As you might guess out of a high school setting, talent paired with an introverted nature leads her to bullied by the worst type of people.
By this point, you might be wondering what the gimmick is — there has to be a gimmick, right?! Turns out Max gains the ability to rewind time! Imagine if a professor asked you a really tough question in a class filled to the brim with elitist teens… What if you purposely missed the question, waited for him to correct you, and then rewind time with knowledge of the actual answer. The benefits become apparent immediately. The downside is also immediate when you get pompous a** people like Victoria (pictured above) giving you a hard time for knowing things. As Max, you explore Blackwell Academy and the Arcadia Bay area to investigate a missing person case. Along the way she teams up with Chloe (old-friend-gone-bad-girl) and others to gather evidence. Max has to do all of this while keeping her new-found ability a secret to everyone but Chloe. The people you meet throughout your travels hit every high school stereotype one would expect: the jock, the creepy janitor, the entitled rich clique, the crooked principal, etc. As you’d imagine, each one of these characters is a different shade of annoying by design, but when set in the backdrop of a high school they all blend together nicely. The writing and voice acting is well done most of the time, but occasionally an “off” line is thrown into the mix causing the player to raise an eyebrow. There’s also a supernatural end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it plotline that slowly crawls to the forefront as the story progresses.
The gameplay loop has two major phases: exploration and conversation. During the exploration phase of the game, the player traverses and interacts with the environment to gather info, overcome obstacles, or find non-playable characters to chat with. As the game doesn’t have any irreversible fail states, much of the exploration is left up to the discretion of the player. Information can help lead the player to a desired outcome during a conversation, but that might not be apparent until much further down the road. Obstacles get in Max’s way from time-to-time, giving the player a chance to engage with the rewind mechanic. The first solution you find often is not the ideal one, so there’s an incentive to approach problems from a few different angles before locking into a solution. Along the way Max can take photos as a small added bonus for the player to do.
The other major gameplay component (and arguably the meat and potatoes of the experience) is the conversation system at play. Max converses with a plethora of people throughout her journey to solve the case of the missing person. When she engages in conversation with someone, a set of responses to choose from appear on screen. It’s through this mechanic which the game promises a unique experience for every player. Characters remember what you say to them and react in due time. The ripples flow in different patterns; some effects are seen immediately, while others may take hours to play out. More often than not, the game allows you to the rewind to the beginning of the last conversation, allowing the player to preview a glimpse of what’s to come through every outcome. This turns out to be a blessing and a curse. You can preview the immediate outcome of every path, but then you’re left second guessing the long-term ramifications of your actions. Believe it or not, it makes the decision-making process even harder.
From a technical perspective, Life is Strange holds up well. The game has a stylized look, providing a colorful world to juxtapose the rather bleak story playing out in front of you. Characters (for the most part) maintain a realistic anatomy while staying true to the trope they represent. My biggest gripe is that the hair in specific seems inconsistent with the rest of the art style. Lighting is well done and helps the photography theme employed by the game. Environments are usually very detailed, creating a large sandbox for the player to explore. Audio design also engages the player’s senses. Ambient conversations can be heard while passing people in the hall and mix into the overall noise of the environment. Many characters are represented by the music they listen to, providing them with even more of an identity through the audio.
The strongest merit of Life is Strange is how it engages the player through the narrative. While it doesn’t challenge the player in the traditional gaming sense, it challenges them on a social level and on a moral level. It forces you to step back and assess situations through a high school point of view. Many of the people Max interacts with are moody, confused teenagers. Each one of them is part of a social bubble they’re trying their best to fit into, coloring the way they interact with their surroundings. We were all there at one point in time; some of us still are. With Max as the conduit, the player needs to translate what we want to say into highschoolese (TM) to get their point across. Max also engages in conversation with adults throughout her journey. Yet again, we need to modify what we’re saying as adults have a tendency to zone kids out. Let me tell you, that s*** is frustrating even when it’s happening to you in a video game.
If you allow yourself to be immersed in the game, it will hurt you. When making a decision for what you see as “the greater good”, you’re bound to hurt someone you view as a friend. Making a bad decision sucks, and you’re left living with the consequences of your actions. You will feel like a bad person when things don’t go how you planned. The climax of chapter 2 is one such example; the outcome I got frankly left me at a loss of words. Up until the very end everything seemed great, but then the game swiftly and relentlessly pulled the rug from under me and I was left staring at my screen in silence. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit reset. Ultimately, I did none of these and decided that this was my story and I could do a subsequent playthrough at a later date. Even if I do, it won’t erase what happened from my memory. This will always be my version of events.
As you’d expect, the stakes grow higher in reach and consequence as the plot moves forward — giving me pause on more than one occasion. You learn quickly that everything’s fun & games until somebody get’s hurt. I would find my self rewinding key decisions multiple times as I tried to process which of these Catch 22 outcomes was “better”. One of the most amazing aspects of the later chapters is that the choices being made still feel realistic and relatable despite components of the world being completely surreal at that point. One such choice comes in episode 4 and I was not ready at all. After experiencing a true Sophie’s Choice moment, I think I stared blankly at the screen for a handful of minutes before allowing my decision to really set in. The episodic nature of Life is Strange plays to its favor, allowing the player to consume the plot in digestible chunks and devise a game plan going into the next scene. Personally, I tried to take a week between chapters — this gave me just enough time to really let that feeling of shame kick in for all the bad choices I made. Every episode lives on its own merits, playing an integral role into the overarching narrative. The middle segment, Chaos Theory, came up the shortest of the five sticks; its final moments sets up for an amazing segment later in the season, but otherwise the rest of that episode was largely forgettable. The concluding chapter, Polarized, ended up as my personal favorite… It’s been a long time since a game left me speechless as the credits roll.
Overall, Life is Strange sets a high bar for what an Adventure game should be in 2015. The immaculate care put into creating the characters that populate the world is a rare sight in video games. The thematic importance placed on photography and the fleeting nature of life is commendable as well. The game’s greatest accomplishment, however, is the ownership it gives to the player over constructing their own story. In other Adventure games, I would reset to get the results that I wanted with no hesitation whatsoever. With Life is Strange, I want to live with my consequences. I want to see how my story resolves itself. If the player allows themselves to be invested in the game, he or she will have a piece of work they helped produce — a work to be looked back on with happiness and sadness; pride and shame; triumphs… and failures. Regardless of how the story pans out, you won’t leave indifferent.