Life is Strange is awkward, but uplifting in a depressing way.
gameplay 80 / story 95 / graphics 77 / sound 90
What if you could know the consequences of all your possible actions? Would that change how you would react? Is it enough to give you justification for what you would choose? Could all your unused choices come back to haunt you should you decide to move on afterwards? These are ultimately the questions that Life is Strange asks on the deepest level. Fitting, giving the setting is a preppy middle school with a serious hipster problem. Oh, and a time traveling teenager with more relationship problems than an episode of the Jersey Shore. Like middle school, however, things do tend to feel awkward and confused in more ways than one. However, if you can find it in yourself to get past that awkward phase, you’ll find that each moment you go through in Life is Strange is nothing short of impressive in how the scope is maximized by its simplicity.
So let’s cut to the chase: what is this game, Life is Strange, all about? Well, the game doesn’t define itself easily. It’s an adventure style game set in the episodic format Telltale’s The Walking Dead popularized in the past few years. Instead of following a man and a girl at the start of a zombie apocalypse, Life is Strange opts to try and place itself in our world. Specifically, a private middle school for artistic students in a town called Arcadia Bay. You play as Max Caulfield, one of the newest students at this school. She’s a fourteen year old amateur photographer (with a legit camera and not a cell phone) who’s just trying to make it through her life and contemplating the deep questions of “do I fit in?” or “why do I feel trapped here?” that most angsty middle school children feel. Max is possibly one of my favorite child protagonists in media. She feels like a fleshed out character instead of a middle school stereotype. What’s more, she doesn’t obsess over boys or tries to fit in with the popular kids either. All Max wants to do is put the world in pictures, watch a million movies, and keep the few close friends she does have.
Sure, there are other stereotypes in this game. The ultra science nerd named Warren. The alpha bitch named Victoria. The rebellious angsty best friend named Chloe. The damaged sociopathic bully named Nathan. The list goes on and on. At first, it does lean into what makes these types of stories so bland and uninteresting. However, as you progress through each of the five episodes, you find that all of them have some hidden depths. They go through characterization in a way I didn’t anticipate. It made me appreciate just how well thought out the plot was; how it only takes a few moments in their lives to turn them from stereotypes into people. Chloe, for instance, only rebels because her father died. Yet she isn’t totally heartless. Victoria eventually realizes what her bullying does to people. Warren has his badass moments to prove he’s not weak and defenseless. I would say more, but given that this game relies on its story to move forward, spoilers will remain unspoken.
However, things take a turn for the strange (I promise that’s the only pun) when Max discovers she can rewind time and change different events. This is the main crux of the story: Max wrestles with her newfound time travel powers. She figures out how responsible she should be with such a power. At the same time trying to figure out how to avert a self-prophesied natural disaster that’s going to hit Arcadia Bay while at the same time solving the mysterious disappearance of a local student named Rachel Amber. Yes, it’s a fantastical premise. However, it contextualizes the fact that this is a choice based game, where your dialogue options and actions have consequences down the road. This is similar to what you would find in The Walking Dead, any BioWare game, or even a Quantic Dream title. The plot makes changes depending on your choices. But they ultimately stay fixed on one set of events. There are enough small differences that take each moment and turn them from mundane to beautiful, in many ways. Sure, not a whole lot makes sense at times, but when you have a story that’s centered around characters and not the plot itself, this is a natural side effect. Your engagement depends on how much you care about everybody within the plot.
It’s also a pretty game to look at. The setting is somewhere along the Pacific coast, and everything looks beautiful. The shoreline along the coast, the autumn weather with all the multicolored leaves falling, the brown hue of the air. It just gives off a cozy, stay-at-home and curl up behind a blanket type of vibe, you know? The characters are all well modeled, even though the cell-shaded nature of the textures is a bit off-putting at first. It’s something you grow accustomed to, and actually gives the game a unique feel overall. The animations are all well done, with nobody moving in a jerky fashion. The only problem would be the lip-syncing, which looks as bad as the English dub of any Asian kung-fu film, at least until episode 4, where everything got fixed. If you can get past it, you’ll hear some well done voice acting from all the characters, and a calm soundtrack that fits the simple style of everything around here.
Speaking of simple, let’s get to the important stuff. How does the gameplay fair, seeing that this obviously is a game? Pretty well, believe it or not. Your main method of play is to walk, look, and observe/interact with objects in the world, as is the case with adventure titles. You can pick things up and solve puzzles to move forward, and unlike some other games, none of the puzzles follow an alien logic. The unique gameplay feature is time traveling. You can rewind and fast forward at will during some segments, especially dialogue. Outside of conversations, it allows for some unique puzzle solving, like figuring out how to open a door without blowing it up, or preventing people from taking certain actions due to them losing a key item, or reappearing in places you normally shouldn’t have without previously knowing how. Honestly, figuring these out is a lot more intuitive than it sounds, and can quite fun as you’re doing them. You can only rewind up to certain checkpoints, however, because a few of the puzzles do have a bit of a time constraint, no pun intended.
But the most important way to use time travel is through dialogue. When having a conversation, you have several choices on how to respond. These responses change the course of the game as you progress. However, these answers are set in stone after you pass through a certain checkpoint. This makes it possible to change your response to see what the other solutions are. While this might seem to diminish the impact of your choices, that’s only with the immediate ones. The far reaching consequences are what you should truly be more aware of. That’s what I ultimately applaud this game for. In other games, only the immediate consequences are what matters. The far reaching ones are rarely, if ever, seen in these kinds of games. Sure, you can choose which response feels best at the right time. Down the road, however, you will eventually ask “did I really make the right choice?” after seeing what happened. This is what kept me playing, and what makes the writing in this game so strong. It was even more awesome seeing how many people achieved similar results I did at the end of each episode.
But that’s not the only strength of this game, as it also tends to tackle some pretty taboo subject matter in our day and age, especially when it comes to video games. I’m just gonna cut to the chase here: the game deals with harsh bullying, drug usage, suicide, LGBTQ relationships, parental conflicts, and social division in a way that, honestly, is commendable. It might feel cheap at times, but that’s because they’re deliberately trying to get the point across. In an age where people brush aside these problems with the explanation of “they’re kids; they’ll grow out of it”, these messages are needed now more than ever. While it does it less than gracefully once or twice, the game spends the majority of its time tackling these subjects with grace and maturity. Especially given the fact that these are happening to middle school students.
Seeing as they are middle school students, let’s get this one topic out of the way: the actual dialogue. I don’t know if the writers have attended US schools, but a lot of what they wrote comes across as outdated slang. Oh sure, I still hear kids using “hella” a few times here and there, but the rest seems like a bunch of kids trying to sound cool and sounding dorky. Yes, this can be grating to some people, but for me, it made me feel oddly nostalgic. Back to my own high school days where I heard kids trying desperately to fit in and talk in a way that made them attempt to sound funny or cool. It reminded me of exactly what middle school was about from a social perspective: trying to find your comfort zone using an all or nothing style. It sounds awkward and annoying, yes, but then again, we were all there at some point in our lives. We may not remember it, but that feeling still exists, and we can only fondly remember how far we’ve come since then.
And really, that’s what Life is Strange ultimately strives to achieve: showing characters go through some stuff and seeing how far they come afterwards. Yes, time traveling teens don’t actually exist, but this world invites that kind of magical realism to point out just how differently things could turn out depending on our actions. It allows a different perspective on why people do the things they do, and how they react to the long-term consequences of their actions. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, weird, and yes, even a bit annoying. But that’s how life is for the most part, and ultimately, it’s all necessary and important. No small task goes unnoticed, and even the friendships change depending on how you act. It’s not about who’s saying what. It’s about who you’re trying to be, and what that says about you. In the end, all our lives are a bit strange when put under the microscope. The question is: would you want to change any of it to see what would have been different? Play the game, and decide for yourself. You’ll be better for it in the end.
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