Review: Life is Strange: Episode One – Chrysalis (2015)

Dontnod Entertainment's latest project is a tour de force of interactive storytelling. Life Is Strange plays to its artistic strengths and keeps the player entertained and excited for the next chapter.

With the success of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (2012) and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain (2010) and Beyond: Two Souls (2013), story-based video games are seeing a renaissance in popularity. Life is Strange, created by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix, is yet another. However, to simply classify Life is Strange as a video game would be to mislabel it. In fact, the most apropos description would be as an interactive fiction because Life is Strange is closer to a cinematic experience than one would expect from a video game.

Is that a bad thing? No. In fact, the experience of playing Life is Strange is unlike any game that I’ve played in a long time, perhaps ever. And that endears it to me. In a world of Call of Duty clones and hundreds of Pokemon sequels, I’m glad that there’s something new being added to the gaming experience, even if that something new is itself something very, very old. You see, the strength of Life is Strange lies in the fact that it is so much like a movie, and like the best movies, it is heavily and equally indebted to Popular and High Culture. Which, if you’re as big a culture nerd as me, is like finding a masterpiece on Netflix on a quiet night in.

We are introduced to our character, Max ‘Maxine’ Caulfield (Hannah Telle), when she wakes up at the foot of a lighthouse at the beginning of the game. Max has no memory of how she got where she is, or when she is. Instinctively, she gets up and makes her way to the lighthouse. There’s heavy storm blowing. Max reaches the lighthouse only to be suddenly returned to her photography classroom, with no idea of what just happened.

So begins Life is Strange Episode One: Chrysalis and the strangest day of Max Caulfield’s life.

“It was very refreshing to have a video game that had a (relatively) normal, well written teenage girl as its protagonist.”

It’s a very strong and gripping opening, one that reminded me of the best work of Stephen King. In retrospect, I see that also it helped to introduce the player to the gameplay system and the narrative system that the game works on: Max, except for her powers, is a normal, 18-year-old girl. Her only power is to manipulate time. She cannot fight her way out of most of her problems. She and the player have to use their reasoning skills to solve her problems.

And I thought it was very refreshing to have a video game that had a (relatively) normal, well written teenage girl as its protagonist. There was debate in regards to her dialogue and how it seems dated but I would argue that it’s another facet of Max’s chief theme: nostalgia, or more specifically: saudade. As a photographer, Max freezes time, but she herself is dragged forward. Her way of speaking, her camera equipment, the fact that she looks younger compared to all the other girls around her, and probably her power – all of it is an extension of her unconscious struggle against time. During one particularly memorable sequence, she even quotes Thomas Wolfe’s famous novel when, looking at a painting of her hometown, Arcadia Bay, she says, “You can’t go home again, said Thomas Wolfe.”

The trouble is, as Max points out, she has gone home again, and it’s every bit the existential nightmare that Wolfe imagined. Not only has Arcadia Bay become a realistic nightmare for her, but for the people that matter the most to her. And, what’s more, in a very real sense, it’s Max’s fault.

Max’s very human flaws gave Life is Strange an appeal of realism. These aren’t the flaws of the angry demi-god or the hallucinating special forces officer, these are the flaws that we all have to deal with. And that’s another part of the game’s charm; Max is the true everyday hero, the everyday hipster loner that a lot of us think we are: the person who wants to do what’s best but is dogged by indecision and inability to do anything.  What makes her the hero – and I think what makes a lot of people heroes in their own right – is that she when she can, she does do something. She will try to help out anyone she comes across – whether that’s to make them feel better or whether she needs to save them from being killed.

The first person that Max consciously tries to help is someone whose life she indirectly ruined when she left Arcadia Bay for Seatle, her old best friend Chloe Price (Ashley Burch). In many ways, Chloe is the yin to Max’s yang: where Max is introverted, Chloe is extraverted; where Max surrounds herself with artistic references, Chloe and her scenes are filled with references to television shows. When playing the game, I counted references to The X-Files (1993), Breaking Bad (2008), House M.D (2004), Twin Peaks (1990), Broadchurch (2013), The Twilight Zone (1959), True Detective (2014), Quantum Leap (1989), The Sopranos (1999) and Parks and Recreation (2009).

“Not only did [Chloe] complicate the parallel story of the missing girl, Rachel Amber, with a special revelation until Rachel suddenly disappeared, but she’s also the emotional centre of Life is Strange”
In the game’s backstory, Chloe and Max were very good friends until Max’s parents moved to Seattle and Chloe’s father, William, passed away on the very same day. Since then, Max hasn’t contacted Chloe in five years and the differences between the two women is a major source of tension in the story, not just because of the alienation between the two young women but also because of the events caused by Max’s exodus. But what’s so interesting about this is the fact that despite the fact that they’ve diverged so much, there’s an underlying impression that they still enjoy each other’s company, despite the fact that so much time has passed and both women have changed so much. Their reunion really did feel like two old friends meeting after a long time apart. It’s kernels of realism like that which make Life is Strange the joy that it is.

Like Max, Chloe is a very well-written character, and her appearance roughly half-way through the first episode breathed a very welcome breath of fresh air. Not only did she complicate the parallel story of the missing girl, Rachel Amber, with a special revelation until Rachel suddenly disappeared, but she’s also the emotional centre of Life is Strange. Chloe is Max’s only real friend at the school, the person who will help Max with whatever she needs, someone who deserved a better lot in life, and someone who drastically needs help. The problem is that Chloe lies or conceals information, and so even though there’s hope of real reconciliation, we can’t trust what she says yet. And I for one really wanted to trust Chloe. Her’s and Max’s friendship seemed genuine and very well written, and even if the first episode fails the Bechdel and Mako Mori Tests, I still enjoyed this positive representation of a relatively normal friendship between two women in a video game.

If there is a weakness in the writing so far, it is the fact our first impression of many of Max’s classmates at Blackwell Academy seem to be rather stereotypical. Victoria (Dani Knights) is the academically gifted rich mean girl, Nathan Prescott (Nik Shriner) is the murderous rich boy, Kate Marsh (Dayeanne Hutton) is religious and bullied because of it, Mark Jefferson (Derek Philps) is the kind of teacher that would do those godawful philosophy exercises that you see on Facebook, etc. The only people who seem to be friendly with Max are Warren Graham (Carlos Luna), the ‘friendzoned’ guy, Dana the cheerleader, Juliet the journalist and Kate Marsh, who during the time period of the game seems to be going through a period of depression. This is not to say that these characters have been lazily written because that’s not true – we are, after all, only at the start of the game. Because the stereotypes are so prevalent in cinema and television, we have the unfortunate habit of basing our opinions on the stereotypes and not on the character who, I believe, are meant to subvert these stereotypes. Hopefully, the game will continue the character development and we’ll see Max’s Blackwell classmates develop in later episodes.

“[With regards to gameplay] it is best to look at it as an interactive narrative experience as opposed to a video game”
Gameplay is a difficult issue to talk about when discussing Life is Strange. As previously mentioned, it is best to look at it as an interactive narrative experience as opposed to a video game, and yet for any game to be ‘fun’ (as opposed to a storytelling medium) there must be challenging gameplay. The gameplay is spartan, with only a few controls to move Max and interact with the world or other characters in a certain way, with the most common commands being talk and look. One notable feature is the time travel command, which can be used in all sorts of situations, from saving someone’s life to saving face in a conversation. And time travel has always been fun in video games. Always.

In many ways, it’s similar to those old point and click games mixed with Remedy’s Alan Wake (2010) – itself an ofen ignored gem; you have limited control over this limited world, and you’re just going to have to live with that. The gameplay does give you more options than you might think, but even then, it still doesn’t play like a ‘normal’ video game in terms of actions. Max’s time travel powers do give the player much more options in gameplay and narrative, but if you’re used to games such as Grand Theft Auto V (2013) then you might be frustrated by Life is Strange‘s gameplay limits. But – and I think this needs to be clearly stated – the core of Life is Strange is the story. The gameplay only exists to tell and shape the story. I’m sure there are things the developers wanted to do, in terms of narrative, but couldn’t due to the game’s engine, and that’s fine because as it exists so far the story is excellent.

And as the gameplay is spartan, so too is the game’s art style. The game doesn’t run on a graphics engine that emphasises realism or pushes next-generation systems to their limit, instead it uses a graphics engine that emphasises the artistic nature of the game, with textures that were hand painted, based on ‘hipster’ and ‘indie’ art. The effect of this is a heavily stylized graphics engine that both complements the narrative and is utterly stunning in its own right. The best way of describing it as artistic realism: a stylized representation of the real world. And Life is Strange is art; to push the boundaries of formality, I was honestly stunned by the scenes set outside and terrified during the tornado sequence.

“[Despite not running] on a graphic engine that emphasises realism or pushes next-generation systems to their limit, instead it uses a graphics engine that emphasises the artistic nature of the game.”
Further complementing the strengths of Life is Strange‘s exquisite narrative and art is the game’s soundtrack. Mostly acoustic indie-folk, the music for this episode mostly seemed to consist of diegetic music that either Chloe or Max were listening to at the time. The choice of music managed to suit the various moods of the game perfectly. This choice of music contrasted immensely with the orchestral/electronic music that we’ve become accustomed to in video games. It was so fresh, so unique, and yet so realistic. So impressed was I by the music in the first episode that I had to seek out the various songs on the soundtrack and buy them.

I’m reminded that Roger Ebert, the late, great film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, once declared that video games can never be art. I believe that if Roger had lived long enough to play Life is Strange then he might have re-considered that point of view. The game’s story, art direction, and soundtrack are utterly beautiful, so beautiful in fact that if Life is Strange had been released as a movie it would get much more applause than it is likely to get as a video game. Like any good film, each time I replayed the game I got something new out of the experience – ironically because I was able to play it like a video game and do different things each time. The sad part is that because gamers are at heart mostly a conservative bunch, a game like Life is Strange, with an excellent soundtrack, story, and art direction but with gameplay designed to serve the story at the expense of choice, it’s never going to be the hit that it deserves.

But for me, I absolutely adored playing the Life is Strange Episode One, and I think everyone who is potentially interested in such a game should play it. I strongly recommend it to anyone who thinks they might like it. There are faults, sure, but the strengths are so much bigger, and with a premier as strong as Chrysalis, they really don’t amount to anything close to a hill of beans.

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