Life Is Strange

360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Square Enix De­vel­oper Dontnod En­ter­tain­ment For­mat 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One (version tested) Release Out now

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

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