Life Is Strange
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
The kids in Life Is Strange are hella keen on youth slang. So much so, in fact, that they can barely get through a sentence without awkwardly inserting bare dollops of teenage argot. Occasionally this chimes cleverly with the game’s adolescent themes, such as when protagonist Maxine ‘Max’ Caulfield tries to be something she’s not in order to impress some skaters, and the dialogue is never anachronistic – nobody ever describes anything as ‘hip’. But for the most part, it just feels forced, the writers imposing their skewed perception of how young people speak onto voice actors who sound old enough to know better.
Which is a pity given how charming the game’s cast can be, regular bouts of awkward cant aside. Player character Max in particular is more often appealingly naturalistic than not – and, like almost every character in the game, she’s at her most credible when Dontnod’s writers relent in their attempts to convince us of that. But even if the dialogue doesn’t always hit its mark, Life Is Strange nails the dorm-room rivalries and social awkwardness of college life, and conjures up a rich atmosphere of Americana that calls to mind the likes of My So-Called Life, Twin Peaks and just a dash of Spielberg’s heady coming-of-age adventures.
There’s a great deal of heart behind the story of the young photography student’s return to her former hometown and her struggle to find her own identity as she reignites old friendships, which also leads to a search for a missing student. Dontnod’s greater achievement, however, is the introduction of fresh gameplay ideas to the modern adventure template, as defined by Telltale’s branching choices and QTEs. The latter are mercifully absent, and the former magnified: even this first episode packs in many dilemmas and, crucially, every single key decision you make will have tangible, often episode-spanning consequences.
But Dontnod has attempted to expand upon Telltale’s template in other ways, too, not least in the much larger explorable spaces it lets players loose in. A dorm quad, Blackwell Academy’s green, and later an entire house: the locales in Life Is Strange feel much less like rigidly framed theatrical scenes and more like real places. They’re so big, in fact, that Dontnod has even included the option to jog between each conversation and interactive object. The sheer number of things to look at sometimes clashes with the game’s more filmic setups – a scene-setting walk down the college hallway, earbuds in, early on in the game is derailed by the option to stop every couple of steps in order to learn about all the kids you pass and to read each poster on the notice board – but it generally makes for a much richer environment than, say, those found in The Walking Dead.
A larger play area is one thing, but Life Is Strange also includes a Remember Me- style temporal mechanic, although it’s not restricted to individuals’ memories here. Max discovers her ability to manipulate time during a dramatic moment in the girls’ bathroom, when she witnesses another girl being shot. Panicking, she reaches out and suddenly finds herself right back in class, listening to the lecture that she’d just left. And it’s in this way that Dontnod introduces Life Is Strange’s most intriguing element: the ability to replay scenes armed with new knowledge.
Aside from a few occasions, Max can rewind time at will, a spiral marker appearing in the top left of the screen with crucial moments marked on it by black dots. Holding the left trigger will wind events back, and you can speed up the process by squeezing the right trigger at the same time. New dialogue options open up as, for example, you hear the correct answer to a question you previously stumbled on and then rewind to deliver it as if it were your own. You can fast-forward through previously heard exchanges too, while clever dialogue shortcuts present you with a way to skip over large portions of conversation by preempting a response. Doing so means you might miss some information, though, preventing you from exploring all of the conversation’s branches. It’s a dazzling setup that encourages players to agonise over every decision, but allows you to change your mind several times before pressing forward to face the ramifications, even if it also results in the absence of anything like Telltale’s time-pressured, instinctive reactions. Dontnod matches this more considered pace with a handful of well-designed, if simple, puzzles that make use of the fact that anything picked up by Max is unaffected by her subsequent leaps through time. For example, a set of small tools we need to fix our camera later on in the game is found on top of a stack of boxes, which are themselves perched atop a dryer in the garage. Instinctively, we switch the dryer on, toppling the precariously balanced tower, but sending our screwdrivers out of reach under a workbench. We rewind time and try again, this time sliding a piece of cardboard under the unit to catch the tools, before rewinding yet again to clean up the mess.
Time travel isn’t just reserved for puzzles, either: you can also use it to cover your tracks after having rifled through potential evidence, say, or even to avoid some falling objects when the game tries its hand at a somewhat stodgy action-infused moment. But its most enthralling use remains the ability to change the way others perceive you by replaying conversations with new facts to hand, an aspect that will hopefully be explored in even greater depth as the series continues. For now, Life Is Strange’s first episode stands up as both a captivating preamble and a courageous attempt to shake up the adventure genre.
The locales in Life Is Strange feel much less like rigidly framed theatrical scenes and more like real places