A review of Life is Strange
If you told me three months ago that a video game about a teenage hipster with the ability to travel in time would become one of (if not my favourite) video game, I’d have asked you how you found an advanced weather report for hell. After playing Life is Strange’s first two episodes though, I have to admit that I would have been wrong. Absolutely, positively “hella” wrong. And I’m glad about that.
I’m glad about that because I enjoy Life is Strange. For a long time, I couldn’t understand why that was – after all, I’m pretty sure I’m not the target audience for a game such as this, it’s not as quick as the games that I’m used to playing, and to be honest, despite its science fiction inspired concept, Life is Strange is very much a slice of life game. After some thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that what sells Life is Strange to me is the depth and scope of its narrative, and the way it blends common tropes together to play to the narrative’s strengths. This itself is nothing new, of course – Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead (2012) and The Last of Us (2013) already used horror and survivor film staples to tell their stories, and Bioshock Infinite (2013) blended Science Fiction tropes and Biblical themes of redemption in order to tell its story – but what I think sets Life is Strange a part from those games is that it embraces the fact that it is at heart a slice of life game and the “normality” that comes with that.
It sounds like an odd thing to say about a game about a time traveling teenager, but this is a strange game. When playing both episodes, it quickly became apparent that the supernatural element – Max Caulfield’s (Hannah Telle) ability to travel through time and the tornado approaching Arcadia Bay – is secondary to the immediate and realistic issues that she and her friends are facing. This is especially true in Out of Time. Those threats were still there, obviously (in fact, they intersect with the realistic issues several times in the second episode) but so far removed from normality that Max (and us) really doesn’t know what to do about them. Do you know how to stop a tornado? I don’t. I can barely work my hoover.
We can see, by way of her research during the opening section, that Max is trying to understand what’s happening to her, but no real answers are given, and “realistic issues” quickly take priority; they have to. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but these are important issues, both personal and social, that warrant immediate attention. They’re the kind of issues that do happen and must be discussed because if they are not, then bad things happen.
Some people have said that tackling these issues makes the game seem cliché, but I vehemently disagree. I say tackling these issues head on makes the game so much stronger because it gives the audience realistic issues which are part of the international discussion and by forcing the audience to confront these issues then it opens a dialogue. This itself aided by the fact that, although they might sometimes seem like stereotypes, the characters that go through these issues are very well written and do seem very “real” – lip-synching issues and sometimes over-slanged dialogue aside – and so you do feel very empathetic towards them and want to find a way of dealing with these issues and help these people. Or at least I did.
In another, more technical sense, organizing the game into an overarching myth arc and allowing the supernatural elements to bleed out slowly while Max deals with the realistic issues implies escalation – the idea that everything going on is leading up to a grand finale. There’s still a self-contained story in each episode, of course, but ultimately each episode works better as part of a whole. This is a common way of organizing a narrative on television and was used to great effect by television shows such as Lost (2004) and Battlestar Galactica (2003). Despite the fact that Life is Strange is a video game, it works extremely well here, where other plots can be weaved through the season concerning the peripheral characters as well as the main ones – allowing for greater scope.
By scope, I mean the idea that more is going on than what we’re seeing. Life is Strange does this excellently. When playing through the episodes, you always get the idea that while things are happening to Max, things are happening to the other characters too; we may sometimes find ourselves involved in their issues and story arcs and they may affect the larger narrative (as happens in Out of Time) but we’re not intrinsic to them, and there will be developments when Max isn’t there. There are numerous examples of these ‘scope narratives’ throughout the game and in my view finding them is one of the most satisfying parts of the larger unfolding narrative. Not only does it give us an idea of the size of the web of intrigue at Blackwell Academy, but it also adds to the sense of realism that makes Life is Strange a treasure of a game.
Episode 2 – Out of Time begins the day after Chrysalis left off and quickly sees the game’s narrative diversify. While the main focus is still on Max and Chloe, Out of Time sees a greater focus on peripheral characters, too. It’s here where we can see the game’s scope and where it tackles those important, realistic issues that I mentioned. For the most part, I think it handles these issues well and treats them respectfully: there’s no victim shaming from Max, the representation of someone who has gone through extreme trauma is done respectfully, and once these issues come to ahead we are shown that they are being dealt with. I think there’s a risk with dealing with issues such as the ones being explored in Out of Time in that if those issues aren’t being handled well or respectfully, then it can take away from the overall quality of the work. Thankfully, I don’t see that here. In Life is Strange, and Out of Time in particular, I see a game that is smart enough to realize that it has difficult to issues, a game that does so exceptionally well, and a game that is all the better for it. I don’t want to go as far as to say that I enjoyed Out of Time more because it dealt with these issues, but it was refreshing to see these issues be tackled in a medium that more often than not seems apathetic to them – and to see it done well. It’s not in the game itself, but I thought it was very responsible of Dontnod to set up a talk page for people who were affected by the issues in the game. If I didn’t think it already, that alone would have told me that Life is Strange and Dontnod has heart.
In Out of Time you’ll start to see the effects of your decisions in the first chapter and there is a considerable amount of escalation in terms of danger; your choices in the first episode will start to have a distinct effect on how the this episode shapes up, and if you’re not very, very careful something will happen in this episode because of the way that you dealt with those issues. It’s a difficult thing to confront and talk about, and to some it might feel anvilicious (or a lesson on social ethics), but personally I think that some anvils need to be dropped.
In terms of character development, Life is Strange favours showing a character from multiple points of view and allowing the audience to make up their own mind. I think the best example of this is Chloe Price (voiced by Ashly Burch). In Chrysalis, Chloe was the friend that Max abandoned, the victim of assault, the girl who never got over her father’s death, the young woman whose friend/lover disappeared and the cool hipster punk. We still get that a little in Out of Time, she is also Max’s fan, the rebellious teenage daughter and the person with no sense of gun safety.
It’s risky to show multiple (and sometimes unflattering) viewpoints of a character that you want your audience to empathise with, but to Dontnod’s credit these viewpoints aren’t contradictory. Most of the criticisms levelled against Chloe in Out of Time are arguably justified and by showing them the game has added to the overall depth of Chloe’s character, and we gain further insight into her character. Because, ultimately, Chloe is all these things: she is the kick-ass punk who would make Calamity Jane quake in her boots, but she’s also the young woman who never got over her father’s death, who’s trapped in a cycle of loss, stuck in a place she hates, with only the sound of her own thoughts for company. Now that we have all these viewpoints about Chloe – both good and bad – we’re much better prepared to judge her actions. Although the game doesn’t gone into quite as much depth with the other characters as it has Chloe, it does handle the other characters in a similar manner.
In terms of gameplay, there’s definitely escalation from Chrysalis to Out of Time. In Chrysalis, the gameplay mostly consisted of dialogue exposition and relatively simple puzzles – understandable for the genre, but not too inventive either. In Out of Time there are a lot more of these puzzles, they’re much, much more complicated, they have to be done quicker and, like the dialogue options, the way you solve these puzzles will have an effect on how your game will turn out. I for one found these puzzles enjoyable, but frustrating – especially the part of the game where you are tasked with finding beer bottles for a target range. Dontnod could have made this part easier, but on another level I’m glad that they didn’t because with the relative ease of the puzzles in the first chapter, to be challenged and frustrated was a breath of fresh air.
With that being said, in my opinion the game does have what could be considered a fault: its lip synching. To put it honestly, at times it downright sucks. Now, to be fair, at other times it works much better. I for one don’t care; the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at regardless, but for others it might be an issue. There’s nothing they can do now, but Michael Koch, the game’s co-director, told Eurogamer during the EGX Rezzed 2015 that it is something that they might work on if Life is Strange gets a second season.
If you do care about lip-synching, then you should at least find solace in the game’s gorgeous locations and art style. In a noticeable shift from Chrysalis (which took place in the late afternoon/early evening), Out of Time takes place in the early morning, giving previously vested locations a refreshing change of colour hue and style and introduces new locations, further opening up Arcadia Bay for exploration. Like everything else in Life is Strange, Arcadia Bay is beautiful. Dontnod did a fantastic job in recreating the Ray Bradbury/Stephen King vibe and moving it to the American Pacific Northwest. In Out of Time, we explore two new areas: the Two Whales Diner area and the junkyard/train tracks which were so prominent in the trailer at the end of Chrysalis. Both of these areas are exceedingly well designed, if sometimes frustrating (in the case of the junkyard), and I really hope that Dontnod can continue to put this much detail and attention into future new locations.
From whichever way you look at it, there’s a lot to love about Life is Strange: Episode 2 – Out of Time. It’s got excellent character development, a myth arc that is not only rich but also able to draw the audience in, a beautiful style and some excellently frustrating gameplay. It’s a game that grabs you by the heart-strings and pulls you dangerously close to the train tracks and expects you to approach its difficult subject matter like an adult. Admittedly, there are some issues with lip synching, but it’s easy to look past that. When I wrote my review for Chrysalis, I did so with the notion that the game would be a small to medium hit at most but I’m extremely happy to admit that I was absolutely, positively ‘hella’ wrong.
I’m glad to admit that because Life is Strange is a game that deserves your time, and if you haven’t played Episode One – Chrysalis or Episode 2 – Out of Time yet, you really should as soon as possible. The clock is ticking.
- Engaging narrative and unique handling of character development makes for a great story. Rich and visual style and soundscape. Increased emphasis on varied and challenging gameplay.
- Lip synching could have been improved and level design made simpler in one instance. Some issues tackled in-game might upsetting.