A review of Life is Strange
In the trailer for Life is Strange’s third Episode, Chaos Theory, we are asked the question ‘What if a great power would do more harm than good?’
The answer, we learn from playing Chaos Theory, is that sometimes harm can come from nothing but good intentions.
It’s an answer that’s upsetting, but also breath-taking in the way that Chaos Theory delivers it. It’s the answer that makes me want the next episode now, the answer that truly moves Life is Strange away from being the beautiful little curio that Xboxachievements.com described it as and towards the critically acclaimed classic that Game Reactor said it had the potential to become.
There’s been a lot said about Life is Strange. I called it art, others have called it cliché. Both of those descriptions are true to an extent, but I’m going to add another and call it my pick for Game of the Year. The reason for that is simple: Life is Strange is ambitious enough to be different and deserves that kind of recognition and praise. And in a world of dozens of sequels with little differentiating one title from another, being ambitious enough to be as different as Life is Strange is should be applauded.
You could say that there are better looking games out there and perhaps there are games that could be said to have better dialogue (although I’ll defy anyone to say that they didn’t smile at the partner in crime pun) but there are almost no games in the west that try to tackle and explore the kinds of issues and themes that Life is Strange tackles and explores. And even if you think that the game sometimes fails, you have to admit that there are few studios who seem as willing to go places in terms of experimenting with story presentation and gameplay as Dontnod Entertainment.
It was well documented that Dontnod had to search for publishers when trying to get Life Is Strange published because they were insistent that their game would reflect their vision and that it’s protagonist would be a teenage girl. It shows their dedication to their vision and it’s a good story, but it’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about the repercussions of death and the repercussions of time travel.
They’re relatively common narrative tropes for a story such as Life is Strange to explore, but you’d be surprised by how rarely they are tackled in video games. To my recollection, the only other game that explored the morality of time travel to such an extent was the first person shooter Singularity (2010), and almost no other game has explored the effects of suicide or death in the manner that Life is Strange has. You could say that there’s a reason for that, that games are meant to be fun, but I’d argue that for any medium to grow and gain respect then it has to tackle serious issues.
And Life is Strange does tackle serious issues. Extensively.
In my review of Life is Strange‘s first episode, Chrysalis, I said that Life is Strange tackles the theme of nostalgia. At the time, I meant that Life is Strange explored nostalgia as a neutral emotion, something that hurts but feels good too. In Chaos Theory, we see Life is Strange exploring the original definition of nostalgia, the ‘pain from an old wound.’ We see this through our discussions with Chloe, and her take on their childhood and the way that it has shaped her life. Through dialogue, it’s clear that while Max will always remember that time in her life as a happy time, for Chloe it was only the beginning of a horrible five years.
This, in turn, is connected to the events of the last episode and Kate Marsh’s attempted suicide. Just as Chloe knows that her mother feels guilty for her William, her father’s, death, we can see (through Max) that nearly everyone at Blackwell feels guilty for Kate’s brush with death. We see the heart-breaking effects of death on loved ones like post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt and let those effects guide us towards the episode’s conclusion.
Admittedly, you as the player don’t have any choice in the matter, but I honestly doubt that anyone would have done any differently. After playing the game and walking the same steps that Max Caulfield did in those final ten minutes, seeing what she saw, I can’t blame her for doing what she did because if I were in her position, I would have done the exact same thing. And I’ve seen The Butterfly Effect (2004) at least twenty-five times.
The fact that Max changed what she did and may have to think of a way of returning to her old world only adds to the complexity of the narrative. In a weaker story, more complexity would have been a dangerous thing, but here it only adds to the sense of mystery and unpredictability. It’s near-impossible to guess how the game is going to end now, but whichever way it does, I’m very excited about the journey.
I’m also excited about the further experimentation in different forms of gameplay in Episode 3. Much like Out of Time, Chaos Theory includes time-sensitive puzzles, as well as logic and interrogation mini-games, but it’s experiment with stealth near the beginning, when Max and Chloe have to sneak around Blackwell Academy, is my favourite new gameplay feature. Admittedly, it’s just a modified form of the train mini-game from the last game with a moving sentry, but both times that you’re required to be stealthy it’s a welcome change after the predominately straightforward previous chapters. It’s times like this when the game moves away from its basic gameplay mode whilst managing to support its incredible story that Life is Strange is most enjoyable. I would have preferred to see more or longer stealth sections in this chapter, but I can understand that doing so would have perhaps damaged the story, and the story must come first.
But if the story has to come first, then graphics and design come second, but as usual being second place in this game isn’t a hollow victory. Chaos Theory, like Chrysalis and Out of Time, is beautifully realized, both in terms of level design and music design. It’s fresh but familiar at the same time. This could be because of the fact that many of these areas aren’t new (they’re a return to and slight redress of areas visited previously), but honestly, that doesn’t matter; every area of Life is Strange is absolutely gorgeous to look at, from Mr. Jefferson’s classroom to the Price household. In Chaos Theory, the new pool area, with its beautiful underwater lighting effect that makes the whole pool glow, is particularly beautiful, but other levels worthy of note include the night time section set in Blackwell Academy and the scenes set in both versions of the Price household.
In terms of music, Chaos Theory more than continues the trend set up in the previous episodes. Life is Strange’s soundtrack has consistently been fantastic but its use in Chaos Theory takes it to a whole new level in terms of helping to re-enforce Life is Strange’s nostalgic and melancholy mood. Although there are only two songs used in this episode, Bright Eyes’ Lua and Mogwai’s Kids Will Be Skeletons, both suit their situations perfectly. The former helps to set up a tender, somewhat romantic moment perfectly. The latter, meanwhile, helps to set up one of the most unexpected cliff-hangers in the history of video games, with its gentle and hopeful melodies only heightening the growing sense of unease until those shocking final minutes.
If this game does have one failing in my eyes, it is a graphic one, unfortunately. At several points the character models ‘stop’ (creating a dead eye effect) and the lip synching is still sketchy. I’m rather indifferent to the lip synching issue, personally, but I would like to see more body language from the character models in the future.
In my opinion, Chaos Theory is an exceptional chapter in an exception story. It manages to not only continue the story set up in the previous episodes, but also intensify the drama and make the game all the more unpredictable. As noted in Chaos Theory’s launch trailer, Life is Strange won both the Meilleur Jeu D’Aventure GC 2014 and the Destructoid Best of Gamescom Editor’s Choice Awards and I for one hope Life is Strange receives more awards in the near future, because so far (barring a few graphic issues), Life is Strange has been nothing short of exceptional.
- Fantastic storytelling, a willingness to experiment with gameplay, excellent visuals and an inspired soundtrack combine to make for a fantastic third episode.
- New gameplay sequences could have been longer and characters could have had more animations when static.