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Life is Strange Ep1-5 Review: A Story Worth Playing

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(Beware: This will be a long overview Eps 1-5)

We’ve all had moments we wish we could do over: Maybe we said something we immediately knew was harsh or rude; perhaps we witnessed an event that would’ve been preventable if we’d known about it. But time marches on, despite our vain attempts to grasp on to anything that will anchor us, help us believe for a moment we are not mere objects battered by forces bigger than us.

The main difference between adulthood and childhood is the recognition that time matters: adulthood is a constant useless attempt to reach a golden period of time that will never exist; childhood is the attempt to escape immunity adults (should) provide us. In Life is Strange, this immunity is transformed into an ability - but we still have to deal with its consequences. It’s a story that exists in that twilight between comfort and fear, between childhood and maturity, between life and death.

Life is Strange is both about a single moment and all. As Max Caulfield, players take on the role of an awkward, nerdy young woman who finds her talents in photography leading her to a prestigious school - back in her home town. Her return means isolation from the adults meant to be providing that immunity - instead, it’s now an ability. Max suddenly finds herself able to rewind time: This means when an event happens, you can rewind and make a different choice to see that decision play out. It’s a third-person, narrative-heavy experience that players of Telltale Games’ work will be more than familiar with.

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This main feature of controlling time, however, differentiates it; the constant rewind-and-play is obviously tying into recording the world - documenting is of course central to photography and the game is soaking in photography themes. Whether it’s loading screens or how the colours fade, the game is constantly reminding you of capturing the world - of how photographers don’t just press a button, but find an angle, look for a moment, capture it, develop it using devices, and frame it. The idea is simple but powerful: the world changes based on how we choose to view it. A picture showing a crying person is different to a picture of the same crying person but zoomed out, so we see they’re about to be given an award.

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Image by James--C

Max’s return is haunted by various figures: the town of Arcadia Bay is dealing with disappearances of young people. Chloe, Max’s best friend from years ago is obsessed with the latest case. Though the game doesn’t explicitly state it, Chloe’s relationship and passion to find the latest missing woman, Rachel Amber, seems to be one of a lost lover rather than friend. Whatever the true nature of their relationship, there is clearly love.

And thus, Chloe and Max set off to solve the mystery of what happened to Rachel Amber and uncover all the horrible secrets of their small town. But not before Max has a vision of an oncoming storm that will destroy everything.

To say anything more about the story would mean ruining the game.

The plot is at once fascinating, unique and beautifully-told and yet also cliched and irritating. The path to reach the end has moments of joy and wonder and beauty, tapping into friendship and love we so rarely see: Two women, talking about why the other is a great person and why they can conquer the world. There are no doubt many people who can identify with Max and Chloe.

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But the game unfortunately has stereotypes it finds hard to shake off, as if the creators watched some American TV and just put some of those stock characters in. We have the aggressive, veteran soldier stepfather of Chloe, herself a paint-by-numbers snarky rocker; we have the eventual reveal and motivation of the villain, with a monologue so cliched I predicted almost every word; we also get a portrayal of Evil Rich People as… just plain old Evil. And so on.

Chloe, in particular, I found incredibly annoying. She is supportive of Max, but quick to take on a position of being hated. She finds fault with others quickly, ready to construct a narrative of being targeted by those who claim to care. Max saves Chloe’s life numerous times and yet Chloe somehow manages to assert Max as not really caring. It’s a childish attitude that doesn’t seem to fit the character Dontnod were aiming for.

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Thankfully, Max is handled wonderfully: though she is Every Awkward Nerd, she also has moments of strength (while tied to a chair, she glares at the killer and swears at him), seems genuinely capable of talking with strangers and is remarkably gifted - but not to the point of being regarded as world-changing. She is a character I loved spending time with and, when she finds herself with god-like powers reacts as maybe many of us would, both in awe and fear of themselves.

The game isn’t dependent on puzzles but it does develop narratives according to smart use of its central Rewind feature. For example, during a conversation, you might discover a fact that can open up a new avenue. Here’s a non-spoiler example: When speaking to a fellow student about her toy drone, Max was initially unable to play with it. Rewinding time, I found out the model and make of the drone, rattling it off to the fellow student - the student was so impressed she let Max have a go.

This happens constantly - and as the game continues, you encounter more devastating repercussions. This does mean seeing characters die then live again, as you make different choices to prevent their death or injury. That sense of watching someone die and die and die gets overwhelming - but no doubt is the point.

Initially episodic, all five are now out. It will take you a good amount of time to complete, with each episode taking about four hours. You will grow to know and engage deeply with some characters: indeed, almost all of them become more fleshed out and interesting by the final episode (except for the very boring villain). There are moments that will stun and I’d cried about four times in my time with this game.

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The graphics are nothing to write home about but are functional and serve the game. There are noticeable sacrifices, given that this was a semi-Indie title: Lip-syncing is literally not functional, as devoting time to that would’ve cost unnecessary resources; unimportant character models are bland; and sometimes textures were extremely rough. However, the environments are almost always excellent, with small touches and details that make them feel alive. The voice acting is superb, even if the writing isn’t always on par with delivery. The relationships and focus on women’s stories was refreshing, hopefully putting Max into the category of badass female protagonists (I found her more interesting than Lara Croft).  

Life is Strange is an example of how we can use game mechanics to tell stories. We learn so much from interacting with the people and environment by playing, even if you are given minimal kinds of interaction. Too often stories are told as “By the way” cutscenes, rather than as part of play.

Life is Strange hangs on a moment and wants to tell the story of everyone in this small town. But it also wants to be important and meaningful. It’s a dichotomy central to its own theme of twilight, of being in two worlds and two spaces and knowing that at some point, you need to make a choice. This is the mechanic central to the game: you could always go back, but, at some point, you need to make a choice to move forward. No choice leads to pure happiness, however, only a compromise of priorities.

This is an experience definitely worth paying for, telling stories in ways we rarely get. We get to experience stories of genuine love and friendship - tied together by some boring villainy- even though the game is, itself, very dark. I loved my time with Max and in Arcadia Bay - and here’s hoping others do, too.

Tauriq: Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Twitter | Facebook

Cover image credit Redeye27


"Life is Strange is an example of how we can use game mechanics to tell stories"

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