Life is Strange, an episodic title from DONTNOD Entertainment, is such a game. It sets out to revolutionize the genre. What separates it from TellTale’s games, which take place in pre-existing fictional universes like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Borderlands, is that it’s an entirely original story with it’s own world and characters.
The story follows Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an eighteen year old girl who returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay five years after moving to Seattle in order to attend Blackwell Academy’s prestigious photography program. When she moved Max left behind Chloe, her best friend, and the two haven’t been in contact since.
One morning in mid-October, after a rather traumatic experience, Max suddenly finds herself with the ability to rewind time. Soon afterwards, she starts to slowly reconnect with Chloe, and gets pulled into a web of conspiracy and mystery that involve the town’s upper class, high school cliques, and an impending mystical tornado that threatens to destroy the town.
Like adventure games before it choice is a central aspect of Life is Strange, where dialogue with other characters and important decisions impact the outcome of the story. Max’s time travel ability adds a new dimension to this dynamic, allowing her to rewind and redo conversations and decisions.
Now, one would think that this makes all choice meaningless if you can just try again. However, the opposite is true. While the rewind mechanic does allow the player to see the outcome of certain decisions, the time powers have limits, and while the immediate outcome of choices are revealed, the long term implications are still shrouded in mystery. And, at certain moments in the story, this dynamic makes these moments all the more dramatically resonant, radically changing the game without changing the basic plot.
Here’s a quick example.
At the end of the game's second episode something big happens. For the sake of spoilers I won’t go into any further detail, but rest assured it’s a major event.
This occurrence can end one of two ways depending on player choice and attention to detail. Though the story isn’t changed radically from that point on, the next episode’s tone is entirely different depending on what happened.
You’re either in a state of relieved emotional exhaustion, or in a spiral of misery and despair. Good times.
What Life is Strange does better than most games is creating atmosphere. Unlike the majority of games that place the player in the shoes of an empowered mythic hero or a gun toting soldier, Max, apart from her time manipulation abilities, is just a regular teenage girl, navigating the social and academic hurdles of high school.
The entirety of the games aesthetic, from the pastel brush stroke art design to the indie-movie inspired soundtrack perfectly recreates the tone of young adulthood.
Nostalgia is the word for it, and it’s a feeling that no other game seems to have captured.
Max is at a pivotal point in her life, one everyone has to go through. She’s no longer a child but not quite an adult, old enough to have regrets about the past, and still young enough to be terrified by the uncertainty of the future. Some of the best moments are the quiet, reflective scenes where Max flashes back to the playful days of childhood, or wondering whether friendship and the happiness she has now will really last.
The cornerstone of the narrative is the relationship between Max and Chloe, and that dynamic captures two old friends picking up where they left off.
It’s all a representation of teenage drama with all of the melancholy, joy, and eye rolling that high school hierarchies entail. Most of the characters, when first introduced, seem like nothing more than stereotypes and cliches. The mean queen bee, Victoria; Max’s dorky friend, Warren, who has an obvious crush on her; and Kate, the religious girl. As the story continues, layers reveal themselves and the characters take full form.
If there’s one criticism to make of Life is Strange, it’s the dialogue, which at times can be downright cringe worthy.
It’s full of what the writers clearly think is 2010’s teenage slang, but it’s layered on too thick at certain points, making it obvious that the game about American teenage girls was written by Frenchmen in their thirties and forties.
However, the voice actors do a great job of compensating for the sometimes spotty script, bringing believability to their roles. By the time the game enters its third episode the writers have reigned in the lingo for the most part, going so far as to tease themselves for the cringe worthy slang terms.
At it’s core, Life is Strange is less a game and more an interactive piece of fiction. There are certainly nail-biting moments of intensity but never from a need for reflex or quick button reactions. Imagine a sci-fi teen drama with you in the driver’s seat. Thankfully, this time you have a rewind button.