I recently finished Life is Strange during my New Year’s break from work. I’ve been itching to write about it for a while but just had trouble expressing my thoughts without going into story-specific details. Therefore, this is going to be a SPOILER-FILLED POST OF ALL FIVE EPISODES. I usually abstain from writing posts with spoilers in them, but I found it necessary this time to express my thoughts. ***If you have any interest in playing Life is Strange, I would completely refrain from going any further, as I’m not going to hold anything back.***
The protagonist of Life is Strange, Max “Don’t Call Her Maxine” Caulfield, is a surprisingly mundane character for someone with the ability to rewrite the space-time continuum. Amongst the students at Blackwell Academy, I don’t think she particularly stands out above anyone. She’s an introvert, but is friendly enough to not be antisocial, and she struggles with confidence sometimes, particularly as it relates to sharing her great passion in life, photography. I don’t call her mundane to deride the character, rather I find her refreshingly relatable. She’s not some naturally perfect and charismatic individual that is treated like the center of the universe by everyone around her. Instead, to be noticed and liked, she actually has to put effort into her social interactions. And while her peers often dismiss her as a hipster, I find her to actually be a very genuine character. Her personal quirks, particularly her attachment to instant film cameras, are not the result her of trying to be cool or trying to stand out and be different, but rather she comes across as just very sincerely liking what she likes. And I find such authenticity to be the trait that most made me like her as a character.
I found myself really enjoying the tale told by Life is Strange. I initially had some reservations about how easily I could relate to the story. Loathe as I am to think about it, I’ve been out of high school long enough that I have no real familiarity with the reality of teenagers today. Of course, I don’t think the people who actually wrote Life is Strange are really more in tune with the subject than I am. The close relationship between Max “Don’t Call Her Holden” Caulfield and her old friend Chloe, is another facet I thought I might be alienated by. As I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend in my life that I’ve had a really close relationship with, certainly not like Max and Chloe have.
Initially, I found these elements to be rather awkward. But while the teen drama can sometimes feel insipid, I eventually discovered there to be some very sincere and serious character stories explored over the course of the game’s five episodes. I think the most memorable character arc has to be Kate Marsh’s as she struggles with bullying in the age of social networking and which culminates in her suicide attempt at the end of the second episode. While I know some people find Chloe to be an insufferable character, I thought Chloe’s hardships in dealing with her family in the wake of her father’s death to be heartbreaking at times. I also found Warren’s awkward attempts at getting closer to Max to be amusingly relatable. And ultimately, the central plot focus of Max and Chloe’s relationship is developed in a way that endeared me to the characters and made me want to see how their story would resolve.
While Telltale’s post-Walking Dead adventure games have largely eschewed the puzzle solving that pervaded the genre’s roots, Life is Strange does make an attempt to re-integrate that aspect. It is still a game that heavily focused on dialogue and storytelling, but there are a few puzzles that pop up each episode. Most of these seem to revolve around using Max’s time rewind abilities in creative ways. I didn’t really find them to be particularly hard, but I’m not sure that I want especially hard puzzles in adventure games anymore, and I appreciated their presence. They serve to create a reality to Max’s rewind ability and make her power into something more than just a means to redo conversations if you don’t like the outcome of your dialogue choices.
As an aside, one of the best compliments I can give here is that Life is Strange has an excellent soundtrack of licensed music. It’s not necessarily the kind of music you often find in games, as it’s all very twee and folksy, but it compliments the game’s atmosphere and mood very well. And I thought each song was perfectly matched to its moment in both the cutscenes and important playable sections.
Life is Strange is another adventure game that purports to have actual story consequences for the choices that the player makes in-game. In the end, I found like most other games of this type, choices don’t really end up having the impact that the game wants you to believe they do. The overall arc of events that the game follows is, of course, unchanged no matter what you do. Regardless, the characters in the game tend to remind you constantly of the choices you made earlier.
I found that the dialogue tends to suffer somewhat because of these player choices, which is to say that the writers didn’t plan well enough for all the potential circumstances that they created. There were many times when characters were saying things to me that didn’t really make much sense in the context of the decisions that I had previously made. Nonetheless, even if they aren’t as important to the plot as they pretend to be, I did feel like all these player-choice moments made me more engaged with the plot and Max as a character. I also just enjoyed reviewing the data that is shown at the end of each episode and comparing what I had done in the episode to other players.
There are two story moments where the player’s input does seem to have a fairly big impact. The first is of course Kate Marsh’s suicide attempt at the end of the second episode. I was actually a bit shocked that the game went this far in its treatment of high-school bullying. I was, unfortunately, not able to save Kate. I’m not sure exactly what it was specifically that I said wrong. At first, I thought it must have been meant to be a very difficult thing to achieve, but based on the end of episode stats, ~2/3rds of the players were able to save her, so I guess I’m just an idiot. Sorry, Kate.
The other major story-altering decision leads me into the most controversial part of Life is Strange, the ending. Ultimately, I decided to let Chloe go. It was a purely pragmatic decision. If the universe is so hellbent on destroying Chloe that it would wipe out an entire town (amongst other things), then I really don’t think it would have stopped there. And with Max’s rewind abilities having reached their limits, I doubt she would have been able to protect her in the future. On the one hand, I find the entire ending to be disappointingly fatalistic, implying that we as humans have no real power over fate. Max couldn’t save Chloe, despite all her best efforts. I don’t even think she stopped Jefferson in the final restored timeline where Nathan shoots Chloe. My assumption is that Nathan flipped on Jefferson when he was taken into police custody, and that’s how he was caught. But maybe that’s why Chloe had to die? Her death wasn’t in vain as it directly led to Jefferson finally being brought to justice, and saved Kate, Victoria, and future victims in the process (one of whom could have been Max, herself). And while Max couldn’t save her friend, her powers did grant them one last week together.
I know others have found it disappointing that Max’s powers are never explained. We’re never told why she was given them and where they came from, and we never even really understand the deeper cosmic implications that result from her time manipulation. Is Max really creating new universes each time she alters the past (which is what she seems to think), or is there merely a single universe with one timeline that is being overwritten with each rewind? How does Chloe surviving her encounter with Nathan result in so many strange phenomenon? These questions are never given real answers, but I think I’m okay with that. I like that outside of Max’s ability to rewind and the meteorological anomalies that occur, there are no supernatural or sci-fi elements to the story. The tragedies that befall Max and those that surround her are ultimately the result of human sins, not some sort of cosmic or supernatural malignancy. Too often the stories of fantasy and science fiction games rely on these ancient/cosmic/alien evils that are external to humankind, even one of the big influences of this game, Twin Peaks, does that. But as the conflict present in Life is Strange is entirely the result of morally corrupt human individuals, I think it provides a story that is refreshingly down to Earth, while at the same time being about something that is very beyond the mundane in nature (time travel).
I’ve heard that Dontnod may be planning a second season of Life is Strange, although for the time being they are focused on their next game, Vampyr. It’s good to have an alternative to Telltale’s episodic adventure games out there, especially since Telltale is entirely focused on using licensed properties. I assume (and prefer) that season 2 follow a completely new character, as I feel like if Max keeps her powers she’ll just end up becoming some sort of superhero-like character, and I just don’t want to see that happen. Like I said at the start, I like Max because of how normal she is as a human being. But definitely, Life is Strange is a series that I could find myself continuing to be very enthusiastic for in the future.