Late reviews: Life is Strange

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They say to write what you know best. I’ll take it as suggestion to write about something that impacted me recently, which is Life is Strange.

It’s always a bit hard being late as a reviewer and critic. Especially with pretty popular topics or games. Thoughts like “What new things can I even write about this?” goes through your mind. But here I am, trying my best.
(Wish I had rewind powers, amiright?)
On the other hand, the game is set in October, so it is also the perfect time for this to come out, even if it is a year late since the original release of Episode 5.

For the first part, I’ll keep this review spoiler free, and I will indicate when I get to the spoilery parts.

I sort of knew what I was getting into when I first started playing. And the game doesn’t hide its intention from you either. You have the power to rewind time – go nuts.
This is what makes this game really effective. It can’t be made in any other media, other than a video game. There are talks about a series/movie adaptation, but honestly: It won’t work, and I can already see fans hating it. I’m really skeptical about it as well, especially knowing the history of video game adaptations.

A trip to Arcadia Bay…

Back to the game itself: When you look at it on its own, there isn’t much of gameplay to it. You walk around, talk to people, make choices that you can briefly change around. It’s pretty much a point & click where you do the walking instead.
But from the story telling perspective, that’s kind of enough really. Even the game itself doesn’t care about your power that much, it flat out refuses to tell you if its supernatural or scientific – and that’s fine. Almost refreshing to a point. Most writers know that getting into time travel can be a one way ticket to ruining your story, so Life is Strange took the easy route and just wants you to threat it like a superpower. And it works, though there are still questions that are left in the back of your mind (more on that in the spoiler section).

So the strongest part of the game are the characters, the writing and the accompanying set pieces.

Of course the game is set in Oregon, because everything spooky and mysterious happens in Oregon and Maine for some reason. There are also many references to Ray Bradbury’s The October Country just to emphasis the season, which I’m guessing the developers really want you to read. But this feeling of familiarity is (most likely) very intentional: Max is coming back to her hometown to study, the player is coming back to a place they most likely seen a few other times in other media, and you both are eager to see what has changed.Even the main theme is familiar. Has anyone else noticed how it is kinda-sorta similar to another song that you might have heard before? These are just little things that make me think: This has to be intentional.
I really liked it: the soft, painterly textures; the feel of the old-school fishing town; the campus building (which is a bit unrealistic for me in such a small town, but we can let that slide) Even for a non-American like me, and coming from a bunch of French developers, it gets the feeling of nostalgia well across.

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I have to be honest about the characters: Yes, they are pretty cliché “hollywood movie high school students” and yes, they sometimes use some outdated slang and phrases, but that didn’t bother me at all. I’m the kind of person who likes cliché characters if they are played straight and strong. It’s the little details that make the characters memorable and developed anyway, so it shouldn’t matter if they are slightly stereotypes. That’s why I can look past the rebel Chloe, or the rich-girl Victoria, or the shy and sentimental Kate. Didn’t most of us know similar people like them? I can certainly name a few from my teenage years.
I do understand however if different people react to them differently. I know some people were a bit creeped out by Daniel DaCosta, who wants to draw Max in the first episode, and he didn’t bother me that much (and no, not because I’m a bit of a “neckbeard” like him). It’s because I was mostly the awkward drawing guy years ago, so I knew he had no bad intentions, even if he personally was a bit of a jerk. I didn’t share any of his personality and attitude, but I wouldn’t have minded if someone asked me to draw them, even if I was much more worse at it… anyway, moving on…
I don’t agree with the idea that this game is emo however. It has non of the attributes and qualities of “emos”. It has a goth chick, but that’s about it; The main character is not oversensitive, or thinks that her problem is more important than others, etc.
Hipster? Well that depends on your definition. My surprising opinion (That it’s not) won’t influence you much probably, if you already think it is. My suggestion is to try it and judge for yourself honestly, since my best argument basically boils down to that just because something is indie (or has indie music) doesn’t make it hipster. And this game certainly isn’t indie with such a big name publisher. Or seeing how popular it is. That’s like saying “Undertale is a hipster game”.
There are two things I didn’t like:
One of them are the animations. I think some of it was motion captured, which was well done. In many games I have this feeling it’s “too good” or “too real” and that makes it out-of-place compared to the rest of the traditional “hand made” animations. But not here, it fitted the themes greatly and gave the characters more natural feel. Sadly this can’t be said about the facial animations, which I really wished they worked on a bit more, since it was such a crucial and noticeable weak spot. For how much we see the characters’ faces this should have been a much bigger focus. I don’t know if they motion captured the faces as well, but this is the place where I would have accepted more hand-crafted animation just to bring the emotions into the spotlight. They were visible, don’t get me wrong, but not as much as I wanted them to.

The other issue I had was with – funnily enough – Max. But I’m not really alone with this, and yes, we know: she is the player avatar, but I would have accepted a bit more characterization on her part.

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No! Bad Square Enix. Down! Put that script down!

There were definitely moments when she was too much of a dunce to take her seriously. Like in the very beginning when – as a wannabe photographer – she doesn’t know about the “Daguerreotype process“. Ouch! Okay, I’m not going to go high and mighty and say that you need to know the whole history of your craft to do it well, but come on: I knew about daguerreotypes before I was 18 and I’m not even a photographer. That’s like an artist not knowing who Leonardo da Vinci is…
Or later on when she complains that she doesn’t know what “periodic” in the periodic table means. No comment…
(Some other minor issues, like her already knowing some info, then be surprised when its reveled in a cutscene later, is more of the fault of bad gameplay sequencing, but still noticeable occasionally if you like to snoop around.)

I really don’t like this type of writing, it cheapens the character for the sake of the player, and if this wasn’t a game this would’ve been much harder to overlook. What works in other similar games like “Gone Home” – where the protagonist doesn’t speak – won’t work here. Period(ic)!

But where it works, it really does work and I’m happy that I could relate to many of the characters, that I could be a friend of Chloe, that I could make choices about myself and them.
One thing that really resonated me was seeing the world through the eyes of a woman, that I think no other game I played so far managed to capture so well. Many of my favorite games feature female protagonists, but non has given me the current status quo about what does it feel like to be one in the 21st century.

I think that is most of what I can say without spoilers, so I finish this section for now.
If you haven’t played this game, you should definitely try at least the first episode, which is free on Steam.
If you like emotional games, time travel, mystery and smart narratives and/or enjoyed games like Gone Home, Oxenfree or To The Moon and/or liked movies like The Butterfly Effect and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind … you will most likely going to enjoy this game as well. (Do note that this is a 16+ game and there are some heavier themes and topics throughout the episodes. This is not a lighthearted time travel adventure by any means.)

Hey! It left me feeling wanting for more for days and I felt like watching an awesome series all the way through, even though I was playing it. It has its flaws, quirks and some annoying moments, but if you can look past them then it will be a memorable experience.

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[Here be Spoilers. You have been warned.]

We all kind of knew what we were in for really. The tornado in the beginning is not exactly a subtle Chekhov’s Gun (warning: TvTropes link), it’s like giving the gun in your hand and saying that you have to use it later. But the game is full of literal and figurative guns, some are actually subtle and I love the game more for it.
Like in the part where you have to save Kate it basically tells you that “Hey, remember that family picture you innocently peaked at in the beginning of the episode? Well I hope you remember, because here is a pop quiz and you can’t use your powers this time.”I’m the curious explorer type, who is beyond redemption, and I search every nook and cranny to interact with. And these types of moments are my rewards for being curious and observant. I felt such a relief when I saved her.

Though yeah, we can’t go pass this scene without the mention of the “sudden but inexplicable losing of your power” moment. It does get mentioned later, but never actually becomes relevant, as well as your power getting more stronger when you travel back in time. I kind of let this one slide too, since I let similar things slide before in other media, just for them to get that “gravity of the situation” moment. But we all knew its there, and a bit better writing could’ve brought it back in another situation. Like in the ending maybe, hitting if Max powers stayed after the main plot has been resolved, or not. I would say no, but then again, it’s up to our interpretation.
And as I said before: the never explained time travel powers does raise a few questions…
Before I played Episode 2, I was thinking about the same thing that “How can you prove that you have this power” and it just so happened to be demonstrated the way I imagined. But here is the problem, I knew my theory had a flaw, namely that it can’t prove for certain that you have these powers if the multiverse theory holds true.
In that case: When Max rewinds time to name the content of Chloe’s pocket correctly, in another timeline she thinks that Max is just lying to her for no reason and could also never predict the future correctly.
I know the time travel “rules” of this universe is probably similar to the ones in The Butterfly Effect or Back to the Future, but still I wish the protagonist would at least address it or they talk about it. Because this way it seems that the whole universe revolves around Max. But I understand that the idea that she can destroy whole universes just by altering the timeline is probably too heavy of a subject for a mystery drama.

At least we are not short on other heavy subjects. Bullying, suicide, murder, sexual harassment, rape, euthanasia … Some of these subjects were not fleshed out as much as they could’ve been, but they were still effective. Life is Strange, and these are sadly part of life.
Though I guess they have to be on the short end of the stick, since they are overshadowed by the giant catastrophe coming towards the town.
It’s a bit weird, in something like Lord of the Rings they talk about friendship and cooperation and nobility, but still the focus was on defeating the bigger evil. Here you can gather life experience, but the final choice can change everything, even though the final act still overshadows all…

But these two tie together with the choices. The world revolves around Max and Chloe and your choices may not matter in the end, and I don’t understand the former part. Does the potential death of Kate, Nathan or Victoria don’t matter to the universe as much as Chloe’s? Would the universe give up after you choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay? (My guess is probably no.)

Let’s back up a bit though. I kind of knew that these choices won’t matter much in the end (see Chekhov’s Gun above), and there were many false choices that lead to the same dialog, but in the end I’m glad they were there. For your character it may have not mattered in the end, but for you – the player – it did, and you got to know these characters, your actions and maybe a bit of yourself. I think a lot of people forgot this when judging these choices (especially the final one).
Lot of people loved the early morning scene after the school break-in in Episode 3: Chaos Theory, and I liked it too. But one of my favorite moment was in the alternate timeline. Yes, I accepted alternate Chloe’s last wish – don’t know what that says about me – and I remember sitting there just for a few minutes. I was just thinking earlier that “Don’t do this to me game” then it did, and I killed my best friend, because asked me to.I wasn’t crying, but tears definitely came to my eyes. Still feel emotional just writing about it. (Comes to show the power of a well written game.)
And later on with Frank the drug dealer, I was so frustrated trying to get him to cooperate with me and not let Chloe kill or hurt him. I rewinded a bunch of times until I could get him to agree. It made me feel satisfied that “Damn it you stubborn bastard, I know you are a major ass, but I’m glad you get to live.
So it was almost karmic justice that my vision or nightmare near the end in the diner scene told me that I used my power to manipulate people and gain friends, because I couldn’t do it otherwise. Harsh, and I lied to myself, but she knew and I knew the truth. That was such a brilliant move by devs that I tip my hat off to them. Even though it only works if you can’t live with your consequences and rewind. I wonder if she would tell you the same if you don’t use your powers for these shallow things?

And the twist… Yeah, that genuinely surprised me. It’s funny that these plot twists that I usually see coming in most crime shows now just went over my head. And the clues really were there all along! It was so nice to be surprised again. It was like the first time I watched Fight Club, and it was great. Motivation? Ehhh… questionable, but okay, I’ll buy it. And yeah the obvious (false) “bad guys” like David really weren’t that fleshed out and some of the actual bad guys like Nathan.
Though the false ending was a bit funny for me. When we won the contest and everyone is happy, I knew this wouldn’t last. But what made me a bit laugh is that I really don’t think that Max’s photo would win the contest. Like yeah, it’s a good photo (it’s the cover photo for this blog entry), but how is it related to the “Everyday Heroes” theme? Photographers? I mean some of the other entries we get to see are actually more relevant. Surprisingly I think Nathan’s would have been a better entry. Yeah, I know, it’s a false ending, trying to mislead you, but it’s so obvious…

But let’s get back to the actual ending. Bae or Bay, as the fans like to call it. Firstly, I don’t think that Max and Chloe are meant for each other (this whole Pricefield thing, sorry fans), but I do appreciate the game of giving you the option to do so.

Side note: I feel the same with accepting Warren, dumping him or try to stay friends.
I like how the game gives you the option, but also shows that he is a bit of a clingy guy (even though Daniel is sporting the stereotypical “nice guy” colors.)Max’s relationship with Warren is awkward, but in a good way – it also showed me my own flaws as a teenager, and how I may have made some girls uncomfortable back then. And the game forcing me to see things from the other side… It made me grow as a person, and I’m thankful for that. So rare that I found games that can manage to do something similar.

So even though I was accepting of the relationship part, I kind of felt like the last part shouldn’t have been a choice. You should have been forced to sacrifice Chloe. I fulfilled her wish before, and this is her again, asking me to do the same. She is not selfish anymore, she is willing to do the “right thing”. And as others have pointed out – the devs probably wanted you to pick this ending as well.
But then reading more opinions about, I realized I was wrong and this issue. This is a choice between “Destiny” and “Stop trying to fix things you think are broken” or “The Everyday Hero” and the “Rebel”. It must be there, otherwise the game would be poorer without it. We would’ve felt cheated.
(This is stark contrast to a game like Bastion [spoilers], where if you choose to go back in time, everything repeats exactly the same, at the “correct” answer is to accept tragedy and move on with life.)

Was it the good decision to sacrifice Chloe … again? But everything points towards yes…
Was it the bad decision to sacrifice Arcadia Bay? Most likely for what has happened so far, and that Max may never live down the guilt of her actions – even though both probably suffer, she will suffer a tiny bit more…
(Seriously, couldn’t they stop to look for survivors though? At least Chloe’s mom?!)
Though whatever your choice was, you now have to live with it, and for you – the player – it was the ride that was important, not the destination.

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This was never really just about time travel, unstoppable catastrophes and mysteries. This is about nostalgia, friendship, loss, the five stages of grief, and the little moments of life, and many other things.

It started with a photograph, ended with a photograph, and you viewed it through a lens as well. Pieces of time.

Say cheese!

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