No spoilers. Unless you consider my reaction to it at spoiler.
It was only last night that I finished the game, and I don’t usually write reviews so quickly, but I have to write a review in order to be able to focus on anything else. I have all these strong feelings, and I need to express them.
Life is Strange is a decision-based story game, not unlike Telltale games or Quantic Dream games, with dialogue options that play out much like what you’d expect from Mass Effect. It focuses on an unpopular girl who is beginning classes at a prestigious art academy in Arcadia Bay — a fictional Seattle-esque small town. She is shy, angsty, very observant, and has a difficult time fitting in with her classmates. The story is about her realization that she has been given a supernatural power and follows her controversial decisions on how to use it. With this ability to travel backwards in time, she will attempt to help others, uncover the mysteries of the town, and reveal consequences of altering the fate of those around her…
I’ll begin by describing my brief history with the game. When the first episode was released on Steam, I picked it up since it was pretty cheap and the premise seemed interesting. I spent a weekend night with it, but was rather disappointed by its end. I didn’t like how short the episode was, and I felt like I barely had time to get used to the time travel mechanic before it was over. The writing, characters, and dialogue also bothered me. I ended up not very impressed, and basically dismissed the idea of playing the remaining episodes. When they eventually came out, I was uninterested.
Then, a week ago, I realized I was in the mood for a good story and thought back on this game. Having had nearly a year-long break from the game and having heard many compelling testimonials from sources I respect, I decided there may have been potential here after all. It seemed to be a title significant to the gaming community and to pop-culture, and I wanted to be informed before I write it off so quickly. So I decided to buy the rest of the episodes and play through them somewhat quick; that way I can at least have my own opinion of the game, and hopefully it would quell my longing for an emotional story…
But upon re-completion of Episode 1, I found myself primarily back where I was a year ago. The writing and characters bothered me, the hipsterisms were aggravating, and I still found the gameplay lacking. Yet, this time I was determined to continue… And I’m glad I did.
From the start of episode 2, continuing through episode 5, the game very gradually, increment by increment, becomes more interesting, more compelling, more emotional, better-written… just plain better in every way. By the middle of the third episode, I had given up on moving through the game quickly. I was enjoying taking my time, because it felt worth it. I searched out and triggered all of the dialogue opportunities and all of the main character’s laments on objects and people. The environment of the game started to come alive, and I was surprised to see it was stirring me…
Before I go any further, let’s talk about the characters. There are a lot of them when I really think about it, but I’ll go just through the most important ones:
Maxine is the player-character; a loner with a very active mind who likes anything art. She has a huge heart and offers care indiscriminately. “Max” is extremely nice and only gets nicer as the episodes go on. I can see where the developers tried to eliminate the possibility that an unrelatable main character might alienate the player. Max is extremely relatable and has a somewhat universal appeal, because she displays only the best qualities of people and doesn’t have any specific style. She never shows signs of corruption and maintains innocence throughout the whole story. She is morally flawless. This is an unrealistic character, but it is the type of character we usually enjoy controlling, because we like to see ourselves the same way. Players like to imagine this character as an extension of themselves, because they like to believe they are capable of displaying and utilizing the same qualities. Max represents the idea of “the everyday hero”, which we like to imagine we can be.
Chloe is Maxine’s childhood best friend. Upon returning to Arcadia Bay after a five year absence, Max finds Chloe has changed quite a bit since she last knew her. She has turned bitter due to the loss of her father, her reluctance towards her mother’s new husband, the disappearance of a girl she bonded with in the last year, and Max’s absence during a time when she needed a friend. She is completely the opposite of Max in terms of display of corruption. She causes fights, uses much profane language, drinks and smokes, seeks out ways to resist authority, and likes getting into any sticky/illegal situation she can find. She is a wildchild and a dropout, but ultimately the product of an unfortunate situation and the inability to find understanding for her fears and doubts. On the surface she is a postergirl for the punk-rock motif, and uses the most exaggeratedly hipster words and phrases, which is annoying in the first two episodes. But looking deeper, there’s a lot going on with her. She seems at first like nothing but a stereotype, and in some ways this is true. But people like this do exist. I think she is the most realistic character in the game and scores big points for the game’s characterization overall.
Victoria is the school bitch. She’s a mean girl and naturally butts heads with our protagonist. In the later chapters, she’s described to reveal insecurities, and of course morally perfect Max doesn’t hold a grudge. But throughout most of the story she’s so despicable that the revealed depth isn’t ever enough to make her likable.
Warren is the adorable friend-boy of Max. He’s dorky and a fanboy for cinema and science, but clearly with a heart of gold and the best intentions. He’s a bit morally infallible, like Max, but with enough spunk and humor to make him not seem flat.
Nathan is the school bully who uses the wealth of his family to demand admiration from people. He’s got mental problems, yet still fits in with the popular kids due to his irreverence to authority. He is the most prevalent of the story’s antagonists, but still a very one-note character.
Mr. Jefferson is the photography instructor for which Max has genuine admiration. He takes a special interest in helping Max succeed with her photography. It takes this character a long time to show depth, but eventually asserts himself as one of the game’s most important characters.
There’s at least five other prominent characters I could talk about, but that’s enough for now. Life is Strange has a wealth of characters that I didn’t really appreciate until the experience was over. Many of them are only there to serve a specific purpose and lack depth, but all of them play an important part to establish relationships and inspire themes.
Now that I’ve laid the groundwork, let’s get into the grit.
Specifically, my complaints with the game during both my plays through the first episode are this: the premise (including the characters and its setting) is all a bit unoriginal. Many, if not all, of the characters are filling traditional roles that have been established by numerous TV shows, books and movies. If you’ve read a book about an angsty highschool teenager, you already have most of what you need to know going into this. And the first episode doesn’t really break away much from it. Picture Smallville mixed with Stand By Me and Twin Peaks. The setting and its characters are all pretty much doing what they do and in the way we expect them to do it. Then add a ton of pop-culture references and hipster lingo (that only serve to make the game less timeless and shamelessly appeal to the now generation), and you have a pretty good idea of what episode 1 is like, minus the time-travel mechanic. I was also pretty disappointed with the way it made use of the time travel mechanic. How it’s used is very limited, and really only comes into play when there is a specific change to be made. I guess it was my fault for imagining all the possibilities that this mechanic could assert. The game is not some kind of free-roam have-fun-with-the-mechanic kind of experience, like Infamous or Watchdogs… I realized that quickly, but it wasn’t until episode 3 that I started to appreciate what it is.
The game doesn’t allow the kind of use of Max’s power that we might want, because it’s not that kind of game. This is a game where we are not so much in control of the story, but along for the ride. Much like Beyond Two Souls. And that’s what I realized in episode 3. The direction of the game started to shift in a way I did not expect; episode 2 was slower-paced than the first, and episode 3 was even more so. There is a moment where the two buds, Max and Chloe, lay in Chloe’s bed, and as they wake up, the “cinematography” lingers on the open window, the breeze, the sunlight, and overall calmness of the room before continuing the scene. This type of thing starts happening more often towards the story’s middle; I noticed how the game is slowing things down to live in a moment. And how often does this happen in a game? Has this ever happened in a game? I felt more like I was watching a movie than playing a game, and as I love movies, I continued the game with this mindset. Once I relinquished control over what I hoped the experience would be, it became something that was wonderful in its own right. And I believe the time it took to get there was just the perfect amount to wear down my complaints; it was only once I had accepted the experience for what it was did it start to get better and better and better. The story would still regress back to tropes or stereotypes occasionally (like big surprise Chloe’s foot gets stuck in the railroad track when a train’s coming)… But at a certain point, everything positive and original it was doing was much more in the forefront than anything else, and these in-between moments were very rewarding.
Around this time in the game, the relationships are getting more explored, the character’s exteriors are shedding off, the crass dialogue is falling by the wayside, the story is feeling more authentic as a result, and the story is seeping into me. Starting with the end of episode 3, the plot starts going to some really far-out, unexpected places and the twists become even more surprising than the directorial shift was. Episode 4 is the tip of the investigative aspect of the story and packs some punches. But it’s definitely the final episode that stretches the game’s potential to its most otherworldly, intense, thrilling point. I actually think the writing of episode 5 is amazing. It’s such a rollercoaster of emotions, it goes so many places you don’t expect it to, and it eventually wraps up the entirety of the preceding events into a singular point.
The climax is the best possible one for the story I feel, because it deals not as much with the investigation or the storm or the murder or anything else that we thought this story was about; instead it uses all this to provoke a simple moral, or message. It takes the entire length of the game to get to this point and even understand why this plot was the way it was, but it I found it very rewarding once it came. All great stories have a message — an overarching theme that transcends the surface-level plot — and sometimes stories like this are crafted as a way of making that message more palpable or more understandable. Considering how this game goes about its message, I have enough evidence personally to call it a great story.
As soon as I finished the game, I was overwhelmed with feelings. The final episode of the game is one of the most exciting video game experiences I’ve ever had. I played it in one sitting — there’s really no other way considering how it hooks the player. Amazing to think that I almost didn’t play it as a result of the first episode’s unoriginality. By the end of the experience, I feel this game is very original. It may use a handful of overdone tropes and characters to set up the story, but where it goes from there is far more important; the predictability completely ceases, and the characters don’t develop in any way other than for the better. And the way the game moves with slowly paced direction, keeping emphasis on small moments and the varying personalities, I haven’t experienced before; even other story-driven experiences like Beyond Two Souls keep mostly to defining moments. The game has its share of flaws, but I’m actually happy to look over them considering the end result. I have reason to believe there is beauty here. It’s present in the way I felt during episode 5’s credits.
Life is Strange is one of those gaming experiences that I will never forget. It was emotional, thrilling, and gripping, everything I want a game to be. It’s not so much about the gameplay, it’s about the story, and its success depends on the player realizing that. I will forever remember what it was like being in the thick of this story and how it made me feel, and it’s been added to my mental short-list of titles that remind me why I love games — one of those few experiences I will look back on to determine how video games fit into my life, and why I play them.
My rating for 2015’s Life is Strange for PC is…