Life is Strange is at its best when it keeps its mouth closed.
Life is Strange, episode 1: Chrysalis
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment
Played on PS4; also on PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Chloe’s living room. You haven’t set foot in here in years but it’s like you never left. You hit the lights and look around. Family photos on the wall, a blinking answering machine, unpaid bills laid out on the table. You sit on a familiar old couch and close your eyes, remembering the time you and Chloe opened a bottle of wine and spilled it, a faint outline of the stain still visible on the carpet all these years later.
I imagine this game isn’t for everyone, even less so than some of its peers like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, but this kind of thing is right the hell up my alley. I grew up playing games like this, and as I’ve grown increasingly tired of multiplayer shooters and annualized AAAA franchises it’s been a pleasure to see narrative-focused games like this becoming more and more popular.
Similar to Telltale’s games, Life is Strange is best described as an interactive story. It has roots in the point and click adventures of the 90s but it focuses almost entirely on its narrative and features only the slightest of puzzles. Gameplay centers on interacting with objects in the environment and speaking through dialogue trees, but instead of the cursor and locked camera interface of Telltale games, Dontnod has chosen a more direct third-person control method similar to Beyond Two Souls. As you walk through the environments, a faint “Juno sketch” arrow appears around interactive objects as you approach (no “pixel hunting” necessary here), and once you reach them buttons appear for interaction, generally triangle for look, cross for interact/speak and square for contextual actions like “take photo.”
You play as Max Caulfield, a high school student who has moved back to her former home town to transfer into an elite private school’s photography program. It’s a few weeks into the school year but Max has yet to build up the courage to speak with her former best friend Chloe, whom Max left during a hard time and quickly fell out of touch with. After stopping to take a picture of an ethereal butterfly that has somehow found its way into a bathroom, Max is stunned to find Chloe bursting through the door, fighting with another student and ultimately winding up with a bullet in her gut. Max raises her hands, unsure of what to do, and wakes up back at the beginning of her previous class, wondering what the hell just happened and introducing time travel as the central gameplay hook.
Once Max has taken control of her newfound ability you can roll back time at will. Holding L2 will gradually roll time backwards, and a circular gauge appears showing how far back you can rewind. The gauge also displays a “notch” for major decisions or actions taken and a quick tap of L1 will rapidly rewind to the moment before that action. When faced with a tough dialogue choice, you can play out the scenario in multiple ways and decide on the one you think will get you the best result going forward (and knowing stories like this, the fact that you’re altering time in an attempt to find the “best” sequence of events will most certainly come back to bite you in the ass). You can’t rewind forever, though, and in most cases leaving a “scene” will lock in all decisions made. By the end of the series I imagine the potential story threads will likely converge on the same-ish point regardless of what decisions you’ve made, but the ability to play through conversations in multiple ways at least momentarily gives the feeling of having a greater impact on the story as develops.
“Indie movie” is not an aesthetic many games have gone for and as a result Life is Strange feels damn unique. Just about every shot in the game is framed gorgeously (if you’re like me your screenshot button will get a workout), and the simplistic textures have a painterly, rich quality to them. The environments, particularly interiors, are extensively detailed and lived-in, and working through room by room interacting with everything available conjures memories of Gone Home. It’s easy to lose yourself exploring the world Dontnot has built.
However, every time I lost myself in an environment, I found myself jarred back out when someone would open their mouths. The teens in Life is Strange speak like an internet parody of American high schools. For reals? Phat! Chillax, sista! The lingo that comes out of these kids’ mouths is hella cringeworthy and only made worse by voice acting (or direction?) that fails to remotely “sell” the phrases and instead makes them doubly hilarious.
Even when the dialogue does sound natural the game shoots itself in the foot with some of the worst lip sync in recent memory. The game’s only audio track is English so theoretically the lip flap was made to match this dialogue, but the movement is so severely disconnected from the sound that it often seems as if you’re playing a dubbed movie.
But then you walk into your dorm room, pick up a guitar and start strumming as the camera lingers on the pictures on the walls, the string of lights hanging from the ceiling, the view of the campus outside your window… This game knows when to pause and breathe, whether it’s hearing Max reflect on recent events as you sit in a field or lying in a bed and just looking around. Even in narrative games I can’t think of many examples of quiet, reflective moments like this, filled with music and color and a palpable sense of yearning. (By now you should have a good idea if you will like this game or want to punch it in the face.)
Life is Strange has its problems so far, but after every time something pulled me out of the experience, I’d find myself caught up in it again just a minute later. The episode’s final moments play out as a wordless montage of the characters and places we’ve seen thus far and I found myself itching to fire up the next episode once the credits started rolling. Dontnod says they’re committing to a regular 6 week release schedule for the series (amounting to five episodes total) so hopefully they’ll be able to work out some of the game’s issues while also getting episodes out as they still have momentum going.
life is strange, episode 1
seven and a half out of ten