Over the past couple of days I’ve been playing through Life Is Strange, the French-developed episodic adventure game. I’d heard good things about it.
And they’re entirely justified. Playing the game has been, a couple of niggles aside, one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve had in quite a while.
There might be light spoilers throughout this post. I’m not going to discuss key plot points, even though there are multiple endings and approaches – but just be warned that you may learn a little more about the game’s mechanics, say, than you might want to before you’ve played it. It’s cheap (the first episode is free to play) and if you like narrative in games you should enjoy it.
The game – a third-person graphic adventure, presented in five episodes – revolves around Max Caufield, a scholarship student at the snotty Blackwell Academy. She’s a budding photographer – Polaroids only, thanks – and early in the game she’s troubled by a vision of wholesale destruction. After escaping class and witnessing a shooting, she discovers the ability to wind back time for brief periods. This allows Max to alter the outcome of conversations and actions; people can be warned of upcoming danger, accidents prevented, or embarrassing moments eliminated.
It makes sense that the developers’ previous release was Remember Me. That game, a not-bad sci-fi adventure set in a futuristic Paris, revolved around memories and changing them to rewrite history and alter character behaviour. The changing-outcome mechanic is more polished here, and works reasonably well – though playing through an exchange or event several times to ensure an optimal outcome can drag a little at times.
It’s telling that the game’s immediate precursor was science fiction, because Life is Strange is, despite its grungy student overtones, unfolds as something of a sci-fi tale; the framework allows it to coil back on itself, to pull the narrative apart and allow for improbabilities that a straight-told story would not. That description probably sells it short, though; there’s a lot of unexpected genre introductions (generally handled well) in the game as it goes on. I’m particularly fond of some of the late-game weirdness, but the thing that sticks out the most is the quality of writing.
See, the larger story – about saving a town, or saving people, or saving yourself – is well served, but the real importance of the piece is the way it captures the social life of a late teen. The awkwardness of the age shines through from the main character’s shyness and lack of confidence, to the false bravado of the rich kids. The efforts of being a teenager and the differences wrought by distance are examined, most comprehensively in the relationship Max has with her best friend, Chloe. Their relationship is one of the more believable I’ve seen in games, and felt more true to life than I’d seen in a while.
(Sure, the game’s supporting characters are drawn pretty well (when they’re not sterotypes, like Wise Homeless Lady or Neck-Tatted Drug Dealer) but it’s the teenage stuff – particularly the charting of friendships, and the guilt that’s shot through them – that shines.)
The worlds of Donnie Darko and Twin Peaks are influential on the game. Most obviously, it borrows the former’s interconnected-worlds-dicking-with-fate approach, and the latter for the world-building; Arcadia Bay, Oregon is a town in an imagined Pacific Northwest, the oceanside version of Dale Cooper’s woody enclave. There’s lots of little nods to this sprinkled throughout the game – FIRE WALK WITH ME graffiti probably the least subtle – and the dev team wears other weird fiction loves on their sleeve. (One character has an attending physician named Anton Phibes, and there’s a raft of Lovecraft references found throughout.) It’s a nice reference-hunt for geeks, at least.
Technically, the game plays well and looks good. I played it on PC in 4K though it’s available on current- and last-gen consoles, as well as for Linux and OSX. The Unreal 4 engine looks great: there’s a real Hipstermatic feeling to the scenes; lots of bokeh and softness, befitting a tale in which photography features so heavily. I didn’t experience stuttering or graphical oddity, even at 4K, but occasionally character posing would look a bit weird or puppet-like.
The lip-sync work is a bit ropey, but that’s forgivable: the game’s art style is not hyper-realistic so it’s excusable. The character models suffer from shiny or helmet hair on occasion, but there’s a feeling of seeing a moving illustration (though with less homage to the static than is found in a Walking Dead game, say). There’s a distinct feeling that the game has acceptable pathways throughout the scenes – you can’t go off-map as you might in a more open world environment – but it’s not mood-breaking.
(There were occasional fumbles with the controller inputs, too: a particular mechanic, later on, required a change to keyboard to be completed, though this could be because I was using a Steam Controller rather than anything else.)
As the story heads towards its finale, I felt a lot of the conversation interactions became much more guided: you couldn’t choose to leave on particular notes, and the game would insist you learned what it wanted you to learn. This sort of sheep-dogging is inevitable, I suppose, and was echoed in some of the later action sequences, which sometimes seemed to have only one solution.
The problems I mention aren’t really deal breakers. They’re just niggling annoyances over the course of a 10-15 hour game that manages to tell a great story while keeping an eye on characterisation. I have long liked adventure games, and this one tells a great story, and has several properly shocking moments. Don’t let its teenaged cast fool you: this is an adult tale, and some heavy topics are covered – so heavy that there’s support contact information advertised at the menu screen.
It felt the game offered was a lot more leeway with story – even if that actual variation is illusory, as there’s really only two endings with the game, I believe – than in some Telltale games. Certainly, there appeared to be more opportunities to choose, and to Dontnod’s credit, these often weren’t revealed to be Moments Of Important Decision until the episode was complete and the choice stats page loaded. I really like some of Telltale’s games, and think they’re a good method of conveying stories – I am a Choose Your Own Adventure kid after all – but Life is Strange felt a little like a graduation, or an improved iteration of some of what Telltale does.
Seriously, you should probably just play this thing. I had a great time playing it, and while I see there’s probably timeline flaws – if you could bother to sit and chart them – the successful execution of the game and story override that. I haven’t played something that swept me along so completely for a while, and it does so without open-world sandboxes or multiplayer: it did it with simple action and consequence.
When I posted on Facebook that I was playing the game, a friend mentioned they were trying to forget what had happened in the story so they could experience it afresh. That’s a pretty decent advertisement, and I share the sentiment. I wanted to find out what happened in the end, but didn’t want to leave once I got there.
If you haven’t been inside Max and Chloe’s world yet, you should give it a whirl. It’s as bitchy and emo and cautiously joyful as any teenage tale I know. Just watch out for the darkness – and the right moment for a snapshot.