When Life is Strange’s first episode was released in January 2015, I wrote that “an entire show should not be judged on its pilot episode.” The complete season, an episodic mystery-adventure game with time travel elements, has gone on to be a very consistent experience. No episode is particularly poor or wildly different. The plot is engaging and goes in plenty of interesting directions, though interesting is not synonymous with innovative: the narrative is comparable to most teen-crime shows.
Character development, no matter how well executed, inherently struggles to be as deep as that of a show since the game has to spend a lot of time with Max alone and so twists involving other characters may not be as impactful. Furthermore, protagonist Max never talks to her best friend, Chloe, about what she sees before she reverses time. Sometimes this makes sense and lets players react without being told how to feel. In a tv-show, however, these discussion would be the pay off. For example in one possible scenario Chloe does something morally unpleasant, but there is no dilemma or discussion had afterwards.
In contrast with writers including John Green and Joss Whedon, the game does not portray teens as witty-dialogue-machines. The cringe worthy slang does decrease after the first episode which is a relief.
There are instances of interesting imagery throughout the game, including a sequence where Max seems unable to reverse time far enough to change a tragic event and is forced to helplessly watch it several times. This haunting and moving scene fails to hit as hard as it could due to further events. There are some big set-pieces toward the end, but it is at these moments that the graphics show their limitations and resemble something thrown together in an ameture mod.
In the surreal abstract moments, Life is Strange fails to take advantage of its interactivity. Plenty of games, including Metal Gear Solid and Eternal Darkness, have succeeded in creating bizarre scenarios in a way unique to games. Despite some influences from P.T, this game takes the majority of its inspiration from film media and so, while they are enjoyable moments, they are nothing fresh.
I said last time that low pressure was a good thing, but not being stressed-out isn’t suited to the places the plot goes. The sight of someone pulling a gun on the protagonist’s friends should be scary but it isn’t, and even though the game establishes Max’s powers can be temporarily out of commision, it does not pull this card often enough. On the other hand, the time travelling mechanic feels more organic than the quick time events that most Telltale games use for interaction.
Players are asked to make decisions about Max’s love-life but Life is Strange is reluctant to discuss sexuality. Does Max want to date Warren or brush him off? Does she want to kiss Chloe? The player gets to decide these things, but these actions imply something about who Max is. When lead away from the prescribed area, Max will say: “I don’t want to go that way,” but she makes no such definitive statements about her more personal wants. The game could have gotten around this by developing her as character first and then asking players to help her reach her goals. If players want to help the pair solve the mystery of Rachel’s disappearance, why wouldn’t the player also want to help her in her romantic life?
It is curious that Max never seems to want to use her powers for her own ends. The only times she uses the powers are to help people in bare-bones side quests. The most natural use of her powers for her own shenanigans is breaking into a swimming pool, and she only does that because Chloe tells her to. She is a very weird high school student for being so solely focused on her mission – especially as, well, time isn’t an issue.
It is incredibly difficult and expensive to produce a game that branches significantly in the middle, but without the ability to do that, these sort of experiences always feel like compromises. The developers want players to forge their own story but can only really afford to give them that power at the end when there is no need to continue the story and that final decision consequently seems to be trying to make up ground by being as drastic as possible. The story would have felt more satisfying if the creators had just given the game a definitive ending. The game attempts to be filmic (or showic) but can you imagine Citizen Kane or Vertigo having a choose-your-own ending? It is possible, but such a story needs to be very flexible and tailored throughout, rather than throwing in such a monumental decision right at the end.
Overall, Life is Strange is a game worth playing. Enjoyable and successful in its attempt to create a tv-show-like experience even though it does nothing new. But the issues of agency I raised in my first review never go away. Those issues are interesting and talking about them can come across as very negative. The fact the game fails to an extent is not a deal-breaker, but it does fail in interesting ways and ways worth talking about.