Creates a compelling story from mundane circumstances
Strong character interactions
Abandons its best aspects as the game progresses
Multiple plot threads left unresolved
Life is Strange is flawed, but this paranormal coming-of-age story is nevertheless refreshing proof that small stakes can still feel important, given strong characters.
We took a look at the first episodde of teenage-girl-simulator Life is Strange back in January and thought it was pretty damn decent. Now, nine months later, the entire first season (five episodes) has been released and Max Caulfield’s story wrapped up.
That means it’s time for a proper review. I revisited the game this past week and played through all five episodes back-to-back. Here are my thoughts.
Freaks and Geeks
When Telltale first released The Walking Dead, I remember I had this feeling like, “Sure, dialogue and/or choice-driven stories work pretty well when the stakes are life-and-death, but I don’t think it would be near as compelling without the threat of the apocalypse.”
Life is Strange is the game that tries to prove me wrong. You play as Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a teenage girl at the prestigious Blackwell Academy—a private boarding school in small-town Arcadia Bay, Oregon.
The game takes heavy inspiration from Telltale’s style of adventure game—half the game is walking around and listening to Max comment on her surroundings, the other half made up of lengthy choice-ridden dialogue sequences. Complete with its own “That Was An Important Decision” indicator.
And for the most part, you’re a teenage girl with teenage problems. Bullies. Suicide. Overbearing parents. Absent parents. Trying to figure out how to stand up for what you believe in. Trying to figure out what you believe in. Navigating cliques and drama. Hanging out with your best friend Chloe.
There’s a level of artifice to it—a feeling, sometimes, of “Do kids actually talk like this?” (And the subsequent “No, no they don’t.”) It’s not so much an accurate appraisal of teenage-dom as it is someone’s earnest recollection of what it felt like to be a teenager.
But the ideas are real. If Life is Strange doesn’t completely capture its subject matter, it at least hits on truth enough of the time. Feelings of insecurity, of “playing at adulthood,” are powerful and not often-explored in video games, given our tendency towards trying to escape those exact same feelings through supercharged power fantasies.
Life is Strange has its flaws. The game’s usage of slang is particularly questionable, sometimes cringe-inducing. And the cast is maybe six or seven characters too large, with a few who just…do nothing. They exist apparently to exist, or are short-shrifted after a strong set-up in the first two episodes.
I was surprised, though. Life is Strange makes the mundane compelling, episode after episode. Looking through old photographs. Listening to Max talk about her childhood or comment on how she’s outgrown bits of pop culture. Eating pancakes at the diner. Swimming in the pool after curfew with Chloe. Standing on a beach watching the sun set. Or—trying to keep this spoiler-free—seeing how the smallest of actions can have big consequences. These are the game’s strengths.
Back to the future
The irony is that these menial glimpses of “real life” are the most compelling part of Life is Strange, and it’s the more game-y pieces that fall apart.
Moving through Life is Strange’s five episodes, we simultaneously move further and further away from Max-as-Teenager. The low-key character study of earlier episodes is steadily supplanted by two larger stories: 1) Max’s ability to rewind time and 2) The disappearance of another Blackwell girl, Rachel Amber.
Max discovers the time travel ability early in the game and, to its credit, the game makes good use of it. Since this is a choice-driven game, you’re given the ability to make a decision on how events play out, then rewind and see how the other option plays out, then decide. It’s the type of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too plot branching players usually get by save-scumming, but codified into the actual game mechanics. And I like that.
But like I warned when I looked at Episode One in January, the time travel in Life is Strange makes more sense as a game mechanic than as a plot device. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny—at all. Any rules about Max’s ability are largely arbitrary, held to only until the moment the story calls for them to be broken. Plot holes abound. And the mystery of how or why Max was granted this ability? Never properly addressed.
It’s fortuitous she got it when she did, though. Rachel Amber’s disappearance is a near-constant presence in Arcadia Bay, her face staring out from dozens of Missing Person posters. There’s something wrong with Blackwell Academy, and Max dons her deerstalker cap to try and uncover the school’s darkest secret.
Life is Strange doesn’t pull punches. There are some truly depraved moments in the story, the likes of which I’d expect more from Condemned than some twee game about high school kids. And what’s worse: Some of those moments are avoidable, if you make the right choices. Knowing you caused something horrible is far worse than knowing it was destined to happen.
The denouement fizzles, though. Despite some incredible sequences, Episode Five is largely on-rails and nullifies many of the choices you’ve made throughout the earlier chapters. Numerous characters are relegated to supporting roles and are never given a proper ending. And the villain? Life is Strange abandons its trademark subtlety and knack for writing morally-gray characters, turning the villain from a “real” person into a caricature.
It’s not that Life is Strange ends on a particularly bad note. It merely doesn’t measure up to what came earlier—in part because it stops focusing so much on Max, The Troubled Teenager and starts focusing on Max, The Video Game Character Who Needs To Save The World. And the latter’s not as interesting.
After wrapping each episode of Life is Strange, a bar of text would crawl across the screen saying “The next episode is out now!” which seemed a bit redundant since I’d already obtained the whole game. But after finishing Episode Five, the line changed to something like (paraphrasing from my potentially off-base memory) “If any of these themes resonated, let us know.”
The themes. Not the time travel. Not the Rachel Amber plot. It’s clear that developer Dontnod understands that what makes Life is Strange special is Max and her experience as a teenager. And the experiences of the other kids in her life—their insecurities, their private confessions, their feelings of love and betrayal and loneliness and murderous rage. It’s a cacophony of emotion, a time where the days pass slowly and each is either the best day of your life or the end of the world.
At least, that’s Dontnod’s idealized fiction of being a teenager.
The rest—what we’d I guess call the “main story”—is forgettable. What I’m left with now, what I’ll return to when I think of Life is Strange, is the small(er) moments: Fond memories of Blackwell, of watering my plant or watching Blade Runner with a friend or laying in bed listening to Bright Eyes.
Normality can be poignant. Low stakes can feel high, given the correct context. Escapism is optional. This is Life is Strange’s legacy, regardless of whether it always followed through.
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