by Sable Phoenix, last updated 18 Mar 2016 05:31
"I would give anything to be able to go back and do it differently."
At some point in life everyone, except for the very young, has spoken a variation of these words, whether it's aloud or in silent contemplation.
But what if you could? Would you really? And what exactly do you mean by "anything"?
This is the core question that French game development studio DONTИOD Entertainment asks, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so, every time you are confronted with a choice in its 2015 narrative adventure game, Life is Strange. In the process, it creates a story which confronts intense and heavy issues with a sense of grace and compassion, and delivers what is, I would argue, the single most emotionally affecting game ever made and a true work of art. Life is Strange is an important game, and I say that without a particle of irony or pretension.
The setup alone is fairly unique amidst an entertainment field fraught with steely-eyed protagonists possessing large weapons and questionable morals, engaging in struggles that determine the fate of the universe. In Life is Strange, the entirety of the game consists of exploring the world at a sedate walk or a leisurely jog, investigating objects, reading lots and lots of writing (everything from books to letters to posters to graffiti is a source of information and clues… or at least humor), and talking to people, while the only shooting you do will be with a camera.
You play as Max "Never Maxine" Caulfield, an 18-year-old girl who has returned from five years in Seattle to her birth-town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, on a photography scholarship to Blackwell Academy, a prestigious private high school that is the sleepy fishing community's sole claim to fame. Max, who has openly hipster tastes and looks closer to fourteen than a legal adult, is possessed of an overabundance of self-consciousness and an underabundance of self-confidence, preferring to engage the world through the viewfinder of her Polaroid camera rather than direct interaction. That is, until one fateful Monday morning in October, when through a series of highly unusual events she discovers that she can actually rewind time.
This same sequence of events leads to Max back into contact with Chloe Price, her best friend before Max and her family left for Seattle. Chloe has been desperately trying to find another girl, Rachel Amber, who has been missing for months, and armed with Max's new superpower and the awkwardness five years of total separation will bring, the girls embark together on a mission of truth, justice, and teen American angst. On the way, they confront a number of social issues of various weights and sizes, including peer pressure, bullying, public ridicule in social media, the death of loved ones, mental illness, depression, suicide, disability, drug trafficking and abuse, domestic violence, abduction, public surveillance, and more, all hung upon the backbone of the uncomfortable and adorable revitalization of a fallow but still intense friendship.
It sounds like a mess, but it's not. DONTИOD understands well that story comes from character; sensitive issues are handled with a delicacy that's almost stunning at times, and turns what would be ham-fisted melodrama or didactic moralizing in the hands of another developer into a deeply affecting and engaging character-driven narrative. Even the minor characters get minor arcs, while the major ones remain active and malleable until the very end of the story. Outside of the most incidental of background characters, there is not a single person you interact with in the game that you will not at some point find yourself re-evaluating your first impressions of. It makes for a world that feels like a real place populated by living, breathing people, one that you will find yourself invested in and caring deeply for almost immediately without even realizing it.
Of course, before long Max and Chloe begin to suspect that something nefarious is going on in Arcadia Bay… but we'll return to that later. Let's talk about the nuts and bolts of the thing first.
Mechanics and Gameplay
I'm going to get the bad out of the way right now, because there is some. The game on PC is very obviously a port. If you have a controller, it's highly recommended you use it, because mouse and keyboard control is just lacking. There are certain instances where you'll want to make rapid choices because you'll be operating under time pressure (ironically), and it will be much easier to just hit the button on the gamepad that corresponds with the action you want to take rather than trying to click-and-drag into the proper option. Fortunately, most of the game occurs quite literally at your leisure, so these situations don't arise too frequently. That doesn't change the fact that the mouse control is, well, odd. Rather than just hovering over an interactable object to highlight it and then clicking on the option you want to choose, which would make sense and is what everyone would expect in a PC game, you need to look at an object or person till it's highlighted, click the little circle that hovers over it, then drag in one of four directions depending on the way you want to interact with it. It's not horrible, but it's not great either, and makes the experience clunkier than it needs to be. The menus are also briefly confusing at first, because you need to actually start a game in a save slot before you can access any of the menus, including Options. Exactly the opposite of what we've come to expect from PC games, but probably not unfamiliar to console gamers (of which I'm not one, so I may either be wrong, or just overly sensitive to this kind of thing).
As for the rest of the bad… well, that's all, really. Once you've gotten used to the idiosyncratic controls, gameplay initially comes off as pretty simple and standard adventure game fare. As mentioned earlier, it consists of walking or jogging about the environment, poking your nose into everything that could possibly hold anything of interest in search of the charmingly animated chalk outlines that indicate you can do something with something, talking to as many people as you can find, taking photographs, and rewinding time.
Ah, rewinding time. This little conceit is the mechanic that elevates the gameplay of Life is Strange from standard adventure game fare to something special. It has obvious applications of course; if you damage something that would be better undamaged, which the gawkish teenage Max will do with distressing regularity early on, you can simply rewind until the object is back to its pristine condition. You can rewind to an earlier part of a conversation if you don't like the response to a particular line of inquiry, trying a different one until you find something more satisfactory. And you can of course use it to get out of a tight spot, rewinding until that security guard's flashlight is no longer pointed in your direction or the train barreling down the track towards you is at a more comfortable distance.
So far, so Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. But Life is Strange takes things one step further than that excellent progenitor of the rewind mechanic. Max is not stuck reversing her own actions along with the rest of time. She can swim through its river like an otter, taking along with her any objects she has on her person. That hammer, pliers, or set of keys that you picked up will not return to its previous location as long as you hang onto it, even if its container goes back to its original state. Additionally, Max herself remains anchored to her own relative position and can actually move while rewinding time, allowing some creative solutions to the typical locked-door puzzle. Any amount of damage necessary to breach an objective is justifiable, considering that she can simply enter the new area, rewind a bit, and now be on the other side of the fully intact or locked barrier.
It's actually fairly difficult to remember these nuances at times. We tend to expect, from everything we've seen in other media that includes some sort of time reversal mechanic, that said reversal will apply to the reverser as well as the reversee. But this unexpected flexibility opens up a really interesting set of puzzles and solutions that is actually, I feel, underutilized. When it is put to its full potential, it results in some of the most satisfying puzzle-solving I've ever experienced in a game, despite the fact that the majority of them are quite simple and will require a few minutes to figure out at most. I suppose DONTИOD was executing a balancing act with this kind of thing, since this is not primarily a puzzle game but a narrative game. Nevertheless, I would have liked to see more sequences of this type, and less time spent scrounging for codes to unlock digital security keypads or, heaven forbid, hunting for empty beer bottles in a junkyard (the most infamous "quest" in the game, and one that the fandom universally regarded as such annoyance that the dev team actually included a self-deprecating and humorous reference to it in the game's final episode).
The time manipulation is not just a game mechanic, however. Like the best game designers, the ones that really understand the medium, DONTИOD has made certain that the mechanics serve a purpose in the story. Life is Strange even takes it one step further, though, in that time travel is not only integrated into the narrative, but also serves to raise questions of ethics and morality all on its own…
… but again, we'll return to that later.
Art and Design
Life is Strange is “hella beautiful”, as Chloe might say. The game practically bleeds artistry, in everything from the textures to the environments to the choice of colors. It’s utterly rife with visual metaphor and analogy, as well. The game is a visual feast.
Let’s start with the textures. Life is Strange has a very digitally-painted feel, and that’s by design. The textures are consciously stylized and simplified, employing broad swatches of color with strong delineations. This extends even to the effects, like particle clouds or lighting on a wall, which was apparently very difficult to pull off but succeeds beautifully. In a game which revolves so heavily around photography, it might seem like an odd decision, but it actually works really well, emphasizing the stylization inherent in photography while allowing the developers to easily draw focus to specific elements of the visuals or emphasize a particular mood. It eliminates extraneous details (which our brain tends to do automatically anyway) and allows the art team to punch up the colors and focus on the essential character of a particular element, giving the world a “realer than real” atmosphere that I don’t think photorealistic textures could pull off. It adds a ton of personality, too, knowing that all the details in the visuals were deliberately added. And details there are, as we’ll discover.
Despite this deliberate stylization, the world of Life is Strange feels real and almost tangibly solid. This is in no small part due to DONTИOD understanding the use of both “environment as character” and “environment as story”, and consciously employing both of these things in literally every single environment in the game. The individual rooms of the characters are like synopses of their lives; the pictures and posters (or graffiti) on their walls, their books, their computers (which are almost never locked), their music, even the style of clothing or their bed sheets — everything in these environments gives details about what they do, what they like, what their problems are. If you want to glean the entire story of the game, you need to immerse yourself in the environments, discovering as many of the items there as possible. Most of these things are not even interactive objects, stuff that would be background noise in another game, but can still inform the narrative or the atmosphere if you’ll take the time to notice it. Some are obvious and humorous, as with car license plates, on which the developers listed their favorite movies or television shows that influenced the creation of their own story. TWNPKS, TWLTZN, and QNTMLP are just a few of the examples. Others are more subtle, and easier to pass over or miss entirely, but can still give hints or clues or commentary on things that have happened or will happen. I’m having a hard time thinking of examples that aren’t potentially spoilers as well, but trust me, keep your eyes open.
The lighting deserves an honorable mention here. It’s rich and buttery, suffusing everything with a golden or rose-colored glow that makes the environments feel warm and homey (sometimes in sharp contrast to the actual events occurring within them). The environments with cold or dim lighting are quite few and far between and are designed that way for very particular and obvious reasons. Instead, the majority of them are rather like walking through memories of lazy summer evenings, lending everything a subtle air of dreamlike nostalgia that makes you want to just set aside your cares and stay a while. DONTИOD recognized this and has done something I don’t think I’ve seen in any other game, even one of this nature: environments will frequently have one or even two objects where the only interaction possible is “Sit”. If you do, you are treated to a reflective internal monologue from Max, followed by a loop of lazily shifting camera angles overlaid with a gentle musical queue. Whether it’s a sequence of Max clumsily strumming her guitar along with her radio, or perched on the edge of a fountain watching her fellow students drifting past on their own after-school activities, these moments enhance the nostalgic illusion of those lovely, timeless days of youth. It’s a subtle and beautiful way to draw you into feeling at home in this world, investing it with your emotions and being comfortable with your place in it.
This brings me to the last of the unsightly wrinkles on Life is Strange, mostly because it’s related to art and I don’t quite know where else to put it. The lip-synching is pretty abysmal. There are times — times being the majority of the game, really — where it looks like you’re watching an episode of Thunderbirds rather than a modern computer game. However, if Yoda taught us anything, it’s that afflicting a character with all the mouth flexibility of a muppet does nothing to interfere with becoming one of the most beloved cinematic figures in history. Clunky lip-synch is easily forgiven if the writing, characterization and especially the voice acting support the investment of emotion into the figure that is speaking.
In Life is Strange, they do.
Sound and Music
It would have been so, so easy for Life is Strange to miss the boat here. And to be honest, there are a few moments in the first episode, while some of the actors are settling into their various roles, that it feels like it might be one of those games. You know those games; not the ones where every spoken line of dialogue is histrionic, but where it’s just… slightly off, lacking that little bit of warmth or emotion or timing. If the voice acting had sounded forced, or the inflections had been mistimed, or any number of other things that could have gone wrong did go wrong, it could easily have rendered Life is Strange laughable, or at least destroyed its believability. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen. All those little speed bumps get ironed out by the end of the first episode, and the actors who carry the story deliver.
Boy oh boy do they deliver.
The lion’s share of this burden naturally falls onto the shoulders of Hannah Telle, playing Max Caulfield, and Ashly Burch, of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? and Borderlands fame, as Chloe Price. The emotional investment in the characters and the story as a whole depends upon them, and it couldn’t be in better hands. Hannah deserves incredible amounts of respect for her role, since it is apparently her first time playing a lead in, well, anything. This actually works extremely well in practice, as Hannah herself has admitted that she was nervous and shy when she first started recording, and that as the story advanced and Max moved progressively farther away from the wallflower she started as, Hannah’s confidence in the power and skill of her own performance increased to match. It gives the character of Max and her growth a wonderful believability. It’s only enhanced by the fact that Hannah’s youthful huskiness renders nearly everything Max says adorable, even (perhaps especially) when she’s trying to be tough in the game’s later episodes. Hannah has stated in interviews that the emotion required for the role would often have her crying in the recording booth, render her too keyed up to sleep, or leave her in a state of mild depression for days afterwards, and that vulnerability and realism shines through in the final product.
But even though Hannah is a trooper who delivers a convincing and engaging performance, she is completely overshadowed by Ashly Burch’s realization of Chloe. To be fair, that’s true of everyone else in the game, too. An actress known primarily for cute, comedic, or crazy roles might seem like an odd choice to play a damaged and confrontational punk-rock girl who’s seen more than her fair share of pain, but Ashly Burch has had her own share of personal tragedy and was doubtless tapping that to invest it in her character. She does an incredible job bringing Chloe to life with a vocal performance that ranges from bravado to flirtation to anger to vulnerability to grief, often times invoking multiple conflicting feelings simultaneously. Ultimately, all the heaviest emotional moments in the game rest on her rendering of Chloe, and it’s no exaggeration to say I have never heard anyone do them better. You know the way someone sounds when a devastating loss has ripped them open from gut to throat, and they begin choking on their own voice as it whistles out of the hole that tragedy has left behind? Ashly Burch does that, and it’s so wrenching and real that, if you’re anything like me, she will move you to tears. It’s been approximately three weeks since I finished the game, and even now I can’t remember that scene without choking up. By the end of the game you’re meant to love Chloe as intensely as Max does; Ashly makes that happen.
As good as the voices are, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the music, which carries just as much of the emotional weight, albeit more subtly. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Life is Strange has the single best soundtrack of any game I have ever heard. The vast majority of films don’t even put as much effort into their soundtracks as DONTИOD has done for this game. Each song is meticulously chosen not only for the musical mood it lends to the scene it appears during, but for the lyrics as well. A good, non-spoiler example of this is the very first song you hear in the game, To All Of You by Syd matters.1 Besides being a wonderful song on its own merits, I’ve heard people say that the moment this song started playing is when they fell in love with Life is Strange, and I don’t disagree. It creates such a particular atmosphere, lighthearted yet wistful and somehow sad, that you subconsciously feel this game is going to be something special. Also, on the surface, the lyrics are pretty on the nose for a game which deals primarily with, well, girls in America. However, as with almost everything else in Life is Strange, it has additional meaning below the surface. There is a layer of social commentary that relates to the game, as well as some sense of foreshadowing for one of the main themes of the first two episodes. It’s one of those things that you’ll only see in hindsight, but when you do the forethought and artistry that went into the game becomes apparent. Life is Strange is full of music that does this.
The score itself, despite its understated nature, is equally stellar, from the bucolic menu theme that washes over the player with the same golden glow as the afternoon autumn sun that permeates the scenery2, to the more atmospheric and even lower-key pieces designed to set the mood for the environments, welcoming you to just sit around for awhile and let things soak in. It’s all gentle, indie-folk style acoustic stuff composed by Jonathan Morali, the frontman of Syd matters, so there is a remarkable synergy between the score and the licensed soundtrack.
The sound design is just as subtle and well-done as much of the rest of the game. The sound effects that stand out the most are of course things like everything reversing and echoing when you rewind time, but where it really shines is the subtle stuff, such as the bass pop of speakers powering up or the sudden recession of music into small, tinny sounds when a pair of earbuds is taken off. Even the rewinding sound effects have their own subtleties… there are actually sound effects or lines of dialogue from the future playing in reverse every time you do. You won’t decipher it, or even notice it, unless you record your play session and play it back in reverse, but it’s that kind of attention to detail that really shows the amount of thought, effort, and artistry that went into making Life is Strange. Good sound design, like good scoring, is about bringing a mood to life without overwhelming it, and DONTИOD definitely succeeds in that.
Writing and Story
Now for the really big part of the equation, the part upon the strength of which every narrative game lives or dies; the story. Is it any good?
… what, you want more than that? Well, if you insist.
So, if you’re a French game developer employing mostly middle-aged Frenchmen, seeking to make a game set in the Pacific northwest of America dealing with the lives of teenage girls, how do you go about making sure it doesn’t sound like you're a bunch of middle-aged Frenchmen trying to write American teen girls? You hire an American writer from the northwest as a script doctor and let him go over the script with his two teenage nieces. The result is a game peppered with seemingly anachronistic slang like “hella” and full of awkward, apparently unpolished dialogue that sounds like the people using it were trying a little too hard (although this tendency starts to gradually iron itself out as the episodes progress past the first one). This is actually one the few but frequent criticisms I’ve heard of the game: “The dialogue is really bad, nobody says things like that any more.”
It makes me wonder if the critics were ever teenagers themselves. Teenagers are awkward. They say and do awkward things. They’ll inwardly cringe at their own memories once they get a few more years under their belts, but for now they are under the impression that those things are, or will at least make them appear, cool and mature. People who have spent time or lived in the Pacific northwest have chimed in saying that the dialogue in Life is Strange is actually quite true to life; idiomatic patterns can be highly regiocentric and sound bizarre to people not from the area. I’m not trying to judge, but I suspect people who criticize the game’s dialogue are a little too ashamed of their own adolescence to be comfortable with being placed back in that situation. If you’re past your teenage years and aren’t wearing rose-colored glasses (or blinders) when looking back at them, you too probably realize that you habitually said and did dumb things at that age, because you were actually pretty dorky. I know I did, because I was, painfully so. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of the world one enters during the transition into adulthood.
And that is the world that is captured in Life is Strange with startling accuracy; a world where your own body isn’t quite comfortable and doesn’t quite do what you want it to, where social groups are as inscrutable and infallible as religion, where sex is a confusing and compelling new thing that somehow seems to permeate all of existence, and where adults are stupid yet powerful authoritarian figures that are not to be trusted. In contradiction to the critics, I think that Life is Strange is actually one of the most honest portrayals of adolescence I’ve ever seen in any media, much less games, where teens and young adults are typically the smartest, most capable individuals around and routinely save the world. Even though from an adult perspective some of the choices and actions taken by the cast of Life is Strange may seem to be ill-considered, overly impulsive or lacking in logic, well, that’s a very teenage way of approaching the world. It's very… human. I can see myself behaving exactly the same way at that age, because I did.
I admit I never had to go through what these kids do, though. Our slightly fumbling protagonists have to confront these adolescent challenges even as they are thrust into a Twin Peaks-style mystery, complete with a touch of the supernatural, that gradually develops into something much more complex. It’s very difficult to discuss particulars of the story without spoiling things, so I'll try to address it from a more thematic overview.
As I've mentioned before, the story of Life is Strange is painstakingly crafted and thematically consistent from beginning to end. The central game mechanic is also the central story mechanic, and that mechanic is used to bring you face to face with some very sensitive and controversial topics, topics that are handled with a wonderfully deft touch. One of the most brilliant aspects of the writing in this game is that DONTИOD never proselytizes you with it. Far too often, narrative- or decision-based games have one very clear "good" option and one equally clear "bad" option, and if you take the bad one it makes a point of driving home just how much of a heel you are. Not so in Life is Strange. The results of any choice you make are presented without judgment, except possibly by the in-game characters that it affects. Any feelings of being a heel are entirely your own doing. Ironically, this makes the decisions all the more difficult. It's ultimately asking you the toughest question of all: even if you can change things… should you?
Unexpectedly, it also makes the story feel much more dynamic than it may actually be. Nearly everything in Episode 1 is one of Chekhov's eponymous firearms. This may be why the first episode seems to struggle to find its feet a bit; it has a lot of setup to do, and it's all going to come into play two, three, four episodes down the line. Not to worry, though. Even if you're a writer yourself, or have just consumed enough media that you are a plot-guesser extraordinaire, Life is Strange will likely blindside you more than once. The endings of the third and fourth episodes in particular are head-spinning plot twists and cliffhangers. It makes the journey all the more incredible when you reach the end and realize how the events that pulled your attention in what appeared to be a multitude of different directions were actually all playing out exactly the way they were set up at the beginning.
In the end, no matter how much power Max has, she's still human; she's still limited. In the end, she can hardly change anything at all, and what she can always comes with a cost. In the end, she has to face the harshness of life, and accept it, and move on. Just like everyone else.
That's the biggest gut-punch of Life is Strange, I think. Max's incredible power doesn't come packaged with omniscience. You can go back and re-do anything you want to. You can try to make things better. But in the end, you're going to have to make a final decision and commit to a course of action, leaving that choice behind and dealing with the consequences. Because Max's time travel only allows her to see where she's been (the same as any normal human, in seeming irony that I'm certain was intentional), there's no way to know what long-term impact any given course of action will have. Decisions you made two or three episodes prior will come back to bite you, and you'll realize the impact of your actions only when it's far too late for you to do anything about it.
The story that Life is Strange tells would have been impossible to deliver in any other media outside of the presentation structure of a digital game. Yes, the illusion of choice is just that, an illusion, the same as any other narrative game. The major story beats have to occur in a certain order for the story to make sense. And yet, no other medium could make you personally responsible for the manner in which those beats play out the way a video game does. Life is Strange will put everything from the hurt feelings of minor characters to the life and death of major ones in your hands. And, due to your time travel powers, once you commit to those decisions, they play out not because you didn't understand the ramifications of your actions, but because you did. That person is happy and the other one is dead because you let it — made it — be so. It's an incredibly powerful way to make a story personally meaningful, and because it forces you to confront yourself with questions about why you made the choices you did in the game, it can make you reassess the kind of person you are in your own life as well.
And that's why Let's Play videos of people playing Life is Strange frequently show the players pausing for minutes and agonizing over choices the game confronts them with, in spite of the nominal ability to take it back and do it differently. That's why the frequent response of those Let's Players to major story events is often wildly emotional, from cheering excitement to shouting anger to sobbing grief. My own responses were similar. Once I got to the end and made the final choice the game offered, I sagged back in my chair to watch the finale, and wept silently the entire time. I can say with no exaggeration that no other story in any other medium I have encountered has moved me as deeply as Life is Strange. And that ten minutes of tears rolling down my face wasn't the last of it. Even now, three weeks later, hearing certain songs from the soundtrack, or worse, a stray memory of the game entering my mind unbidden, is enough to cause a catch in the breath and a pressure behind the eyes.
It's like getting to spend time with real people and real places that you've come to deeply care for… and then leaving them behind. It's a terrible and beautiful and devastating experience. In that way, I suppose, it's a lot like life.
If you haven’t played Life is Strange, don’t hesitate. Play it. Wait, no… “play” is the wrong word.
Experience Life is Strange. You won’t regret it.