What We’re Playing: Life is Strange
Mark: Life is Strange is a completely charming episodic graphic adventure game by Square Enix, the Japanese company best known for the Final Fantasy roleplaying series. The game has won plenty of awards and featured in multiple Best Of 2015 lists. A ‘time-travelling teenager girl simulator‘ is the best short description I’ve seen.
The game was released periodically in 5 downloadable parts over January to October 2015 and then released in early 2016 as a physical game, along with a concept art book and the soundtrack. Playtime for me was around 15 hours from beginning to end.
Set in a small seaside town in northwest U.S.A, you play as Max Caulfield, a young woman with newly discovered time travel powers. To investigate the recent disappearance of Rachel Amber, Max teams up with her BFF, Chloe.
In Life is Strange, you really live inside the story, with the gameplay consisting of fetch quests, making environmental changes and branching choices that affect how the story unfolds.
The story is equal parts Donnie Darko and Veronica Mars, with a dash of Twin Peaks for good measure. If you like any of those, you’ll enjoy this game. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, stop reading now and switch to your favourite streaming service for many hours of goodness.
Fantastic soundtrack and visuals
The music and art direction are what really made the game for me, connecting me with the game’s strong emotional core.
All of the textures in the film were hand-painted, in a style the art director has described as ‘impressionistic rendering.’ Max’s time travel ability manifests through her camera and photographs. Visually this is expressed a number of ways: through flaring (not JJ Abrams style), ‘burning’ the screen like a negative, use of black and white and contrast and shifting negatives (or layers if you’re a child of the PhotoShop generation. These really capture the otherworldliness of what’s going on in a thoroughly consistent way. Like a sustained metaphor.
The modern indie-folk soundtrack and score were produced by Jonathan Morali, of the band Syd Matters. The star-studded lineup of artists includes Mogwai, Alt-J, Amanda Palmer and Australia’s own Angus and Julia Stone. I’m still listening to the album two weeks after finishing the game.
Combined, the visuals and music centre the player in an early-college frame of mind, and, despite the escalating events as Max and Chloe’s investigation continues, the game stays rooted in the perspective of a young woman trying to find her place in the world.
This fan-made video, using video cut-scenes from Episode 2 under Crosses by Jose Gonzales, arguably the best song used, gives you a pretty good idea of how it all fits together.
Technical and story-arcing issues
Life is Strange isn’t perfect. There are problems with lip-synching the animation and dialogue, particularly in the earlier episodes, which at times lifts you out the otherwise gorgeously rendered world.
The use of language has also come under criticism, the game’s male French writers apparently failing to land authentic or accurate American college slang. To be honest though, that’s not a dialect I’m fluent in, so I didn’t really notice.
One thing I would have really liked to see is a wider set of narrative arcs and choice consequences. While the choices I made as Max (I opted for the ‘stick up for the vulnerable at all times’ approach) affected what characters said to me later on, my choices only affected the texture of my experience. The major beats of the story are locked in stone.
The final act is particularly linear; funneling you into one of two choices for an end sequence that my structuralist brain had known was coming for at least an hour. Again, I didn’t mind this so much: I was completely absorbed in the narrative by this point and was glad that I got to choose how the story ended.
It’s a choice I resented not being able to make in The Last of Us, a game with very different gameplay (basically Resident Evil without the conspiracy) but a similar feeling narrative and emotional core.
For me, the linear, two-choice ending doesn’t leave a lot of replay value for the game, except maybe for completionists, who are likely to want to play back through to find the more obscure Polaroid taking opportunities on offer.
All this isn’t that much of an issue at the end of day though. The game’s creators are trying to create an immersive narrative, and the choices you make allow you to tailor that experience. Sure the consequences aren’t deep, but you get the right amount of ownership to keep you playing.
Well worth the time and money
Should you pay money and play Life is Strange? Yes you should. The game is interesting and innovative, a refreshing change from the majority of mainstream gaming experiences.
While I usually get sucked into well-crafted worlds and mythologies (Witcher 3 is a good recent example) it was refreshing in this game to not have to work out which reflexive combination of button-mashing was going to get me past the Big Bad so I could watch the end sequence.
Life is Strange works because of its characters and strong emotional core. Tackling themes such as bullying, friendship and coping with loss, this is the type of immersive narrative experience that I want more of.
If you’ve got suggestions of other games like this, let us know.
PS: If you’ve already played the game (or can’t be bothered) the Honest Trailer for the game is pretty much spot on!