Life Is Strange
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Are you sitting comfortably? Maybe you should be. For all the cliffhangers and surprises that saw a seemingly modest teen drama grow into one of the most talked-about games of 2015, one of its most quietly revelatory moments is the first time it asks you to take a load off. Games rarely offer a direct invitation to take stock, let alone an incentive. Stop for a moment and you might witness the strangely touching sight of a darting, shifting murmuration, or hear a gentle melody fading in over an Instagram sunset as protagonist Max’s inner monologue reveals her most private thoughts and feelings. From the player’s point of view, it’s valuable time to reflect: to consider choices made – and occasionally unmade – and to wonder what might be around the corner.
Whatever your guess, it’s probably wrong. Life Is Strange delights in confounding its players. If that’s occasionally at the cost of narrative consistency, its disparate pieces still slot more neatly together than you might expect for a game in which the heroine has the power to manipulate time, and the plot takes in elements of murder mystery, horror and detective thriller. If the odd twist is telegraphed, you’re sure to be blindsided at least once or twice. These are resounding, occasionally unsettling shocks, though they don’t linger quite so long in the mind as some of the smaller, quieter moments. It’s not a criticism to say Life Is Strange is often at its most affecting when you’re doing very little.
What’s all the more remarkable is that it remains so spellbinding in the face of problems that would torpedo almost any other narrative-led game. The lip-syncing in close-up shots is dreadful, while the dialogue – stuffed with Tumblrspeak and on-the-nose references, particularly in the early episodes – often misses the mark, even if the performances are good. In the late game, there’s a torrent of exposition that would shame a Bond villain, while a laborious junkyard fetchquest in the second episode is such a glaring misjudgment that Dontnod sees fit to poke fun at it during the finale. There are plot holes large and small, and inconsistencies in the implementation of Max’s powers that make less and less sense the more you dwell on them.
All of this certainly shouldn’t be ignored, and yet there is something rare and precious in the way Life Is Strange represents the highs and lows of adolescence, particularly in the way it evokes the very essence of a friendship between two young women. This shouldn’t be quite such a novelty, and yet it undoubtedly is in the interactive space. Spiky and obstinate, Chloe is a realistically flawed creation, and a terrific foil to the more hesitant, diffident Max. It’s a relationship subtly shaped by your choices. Their journey’s destination may be heavily foreshadowed – as inexorable as the approaching storm that threatens to consume the coastal town of Arcadia Bay – but it can be nuanced. For some, Max and Chloe will fast become inseparable. Others may be less prepared to take the blame for Chloe’s pot smoking, or unwilling to intervene when she fights with her stepfather. Max’s meddling most often appears to be altruistically motivated, but at times it seems she’s rewinding the clock purely out of selfinterest. Again, that depends partly on the decisions you take, but also your own interpretation of events. It’s easy to empathise with her dilemmas. We’ve all had good times we wished to revisit and experiences that we wanted to last forever. In Max’s obsession with photography, we see the very human desire to capture a time and place so that we might be able to somehow give the transient a sense of permanence. And if at times Dontnod tilts close to overwrought melodrama, that’s only fitting given the heightened state of emotion we all experience as teens. Life Is Strange manages to evoke an identifiable sense of adolescent yearning, such that it generates a kind of vicarious nostalgia; it may express itself awkwardly, but the feelings that bubble to the surface are raw and real. Think back to how that swirl of raging hormones made us believe every choice we made was of seismic significance, and suddenly that encroaching tornado doesn’t feel so far-fetched after all.
There’s something of a contradiction in the way the story punishes Max for interfering with fate’s designs as the game gleefully encourages us to wind back the clock. Yet whether we’re moving back and forth in time to convince a friend we can see the future, or finding an inventive way past a locked door, Dontnod makes a familiar idea feel novel again. Meanwhile, on the occasions the power’s used for a simple do-over, the context keeps you engaged: perhaps you’re boosting the self-esteem of a classmate or deciding to punish a bully or not. The supporting cast might seem like archetypes, but over five episodes they’re afforded depth, and your sympathies are likely to shift. It says much, for example, that some players see Max’s friend Warren as a nice guy, and others would use the derogatory definition of that term. The lines they deliver may not always convince, but these characters behave like real people.
By the fifth episode, you’ll be desperately hoping Dontnod sticks the landing, and it comes close to doing so, a few minor stumbles barely detracting from a string of memorable sequences that are daring, disturbing and nightmarish by turns. Although it repeats a trick, one heartbreaking rug-pull feels particularly cruel – and it’s in this moment we realise just how fully we’re invested in the outcome. This year has seen more tautly plotted, intelligently scripted narratives, but none that so expertly targets your heart. Like a Polaroid photograph, the quality of the image may leave something to be desired, but as a snapshot of a moment in time, there’s truth captured within the frame.
There is something rare and precious in the way Life Is Strange represents the highs and lows of adolescence