After the surreal vision of a hurricane tearing towards the town of Arcadia bay, the introverted Max Caulfield discovers that she can reverse time. Life is Strange largely takes place in Blackwell Academy, a school in an isolated American town with many filthy rich students and a girl who has mysteriously gone missing. Calling the characters and locations cliches may be a disservice, but they will certainly be familiar to any viewers of the television show Veronica Mars. The first instalment of the episodic game wears its influence on its sleeve, and lovingly emulates the television show format, though is is questionable if this is the the essential, or even best way, for the narrative to be told.
The game has a pretty diverse cast, though it is starting to feel like you can only have a female protagonist in a game if they are a pale brunette. The dialogue is often filled with hip discussion of art and films with sprinklings of trendy and sometimes not so trendy phrases. The writing ,while providing a few cringes, largely fits the characters. References can become more egregious if they take you out of the experience, as they did for me when the camera focuses on the number plate of a run down truck reading TWN PKS. This happens very irregularly and doesn’t end up hampering the experience.
It is important that games aren’t just blood soaked shooters, but it is always a struggle for developers to give a narrative about everyday life good game mechanics
The time travel mechanic in the game has been seen before, notably for me in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, a two dimensional puzzle game. The inherent complexity of a three dimensional game means that more intricate puzzles cannot have the same clarity. Games including Prince of Persia: Sands of Time might get around this to an extent with exaggerated labyrinths to scale through, but the mundanity of Life is Strange’s setting is yet another obscuring factor for the puzzles. In this first episode puzzles are simple and won’t give players much trouble which is pleasant, but not rewarding.
The time travel mechanic makes the game essentially unlosable. You cannot even make a decision you are unhappy with, as you are free to go back and try any option before you settle on what you do.
Max is already a well defined character with strong opinions and tastes and at many times control is taken from you for her to perform on her own. Adventure games set in a zombie apocalypse or science fiction romp explore extraordinary circumstances and place focus on the exterior: the plot and the world. In a game where so much attention is put upon the everyday and the interiority of the characters, you are always reminded that you are not Max.
This would be fine, but in a game where your only real agency is making decisions as her, this feels very strange. If you do make a decision a voice over informs you why she made the decision, not why you did. But before the decision is made you are on your own. For example, one student asks you to name the photographer of ‘the falling soldier.’ I am not Max, I don’t love photography and I don’t go to her art school. This task took me right out of the game and all the way to Google. Max, or at least the way I wanted her to be played, would know the answer to that.
Saying what I want her to be like is potentially problematic in the context of this game, because of how well defined she is as a character from the outset. In Mass Effect you feel justified for forging the character, who fundamentally is still their own person, into who you want them to be. You determine not just Shephard’s decisions, but also their gender, sexuality and who they fall in love with. A Mass Effect character becomes a blend of you and Shepherd, but it seems that Max will always be Max.
There is a high production value throughout the game; the graphics a cut above other adventure games and environments and dialogue are very detailed. The way sound is implemented borrows from film, at times, in organic and interesting ways. At some points music transitions from pseudo-diegetic to part of the soundtrack in a way often seen, but not in videogames. Max puts in her headphones, silencing the crowded school corridor and she walks down it, voicing in her head her thoughts on other characters and introducing them to the player. This is a familiar trope made fresh by the ability to walk down the corridor at your own pace and choosing which people you hear about. On the other hand, when control is taken away at the end of the game for you to watch a sickly emotional montage, as is often done in television, it feels anything but fresh.
An entire show should not be judged on its pilot episode and it remains to be seen if Life is Strange will become even better. I have focused on game design more than narrative because of the episode’s introductory nature, but meeting the characters and having the mystery teased to you is a pleasure and is better experienced than described.
The possible flaws of the adventure game genre are irrelevant for those who enjoy the genre and the low pressure and filmic format of the game make it accessible to non-gamers. Whether the story is most aptly told as a game or not, it is entertaining and well made.
Available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One and Xbox 360