I am not sure anyone expected Life is Strange at all. The Tumblr feminists almost convinced me that there is no such thing as games with strong female leads – especially high budget ones. Square Enix itself was never a company I considered… Well, I do enjoy my Tomb Raiders, but that is a different kind of experience. It is like expecting Blizzard to release a racing game, you know. Not very likely.
And yet somehow Life is Strange came into existence; and I am unbelievably glad it did.
My short and intense affair with Telltale and episodic gameplay left me heartbroken – and made me think I will never ever do it again. Not in a day after the party sense of a never; no, I was convinced I am once and for all done with this sort of gameplay. The Wolf Among Us left a very bad aftertaste which stayed with me for a remarkably long time. I started Game of Thrones somehow. I tried and failed miserably, abandoning it after two poor episodes. Who else, I must ask, if not Telltale though? Yahtzee said once that Telltale found itself a very comfy niche and now lives sucking money out of other people’s work (not a direct quote); and there is some sad truth in that. Regardless the market of talking-only games in parts that one waits for the release of for months and months with no promise of quality or anything really, hoping that the devs will do what they said they would… This market is a Telltale exclusive in my book.
So when I first saw Life is Strange I wasn’t quite convinced. My disappointment with Telltale was still quite fresh and painful, and as a responsible adult (very funny) I promised myself that I shall never buy something in parts again. Those episodes, you know, start out nice and quick, and once you’re in, they start delaying and delaying, and the quality drops like crazy. The Wolf Among Us was a nightmare when it came to episode delivery, so much hype and so many broken dreams, it really taught me a lesson on how bad modern marketing can be. Life is Strange had therefore a really bad start. I might have never played it, you know, but then I watched a little bit of gameplay on YT and…
And I lost a weekend.
Sometimes it is just… well, just life. One really wants to hate something and then ends up loving it. I am really good at being prejudiced, trust me; I can find fault in pretty much anything at any given time, just give me two seconds to think. But even my broken heart couldn’t stop me from loving Life is Strange. It was just too much to resist.
But maybe let’s start from the very beginning.
Life is Strange is a five part episodic game (do not count on season 2; it wouldn’t make much sense) set somewhere in the United States, in our oh so typical little town. A little town with little problems equals a little girl as the main protagonist; kind of scared to breathe, naïve, shy, everything you can imagine a teenage hipster to be. Max, that is her name, dreams of being a photographer, so she goes back to her home town to study supervised by the famous photographer Mark Jefferson. But one day she witnesses a shooting in her school’s bathroom, she panics (like any reasonable human being would) and… and she moves time back.
That’s all that can be said about the plot without ruining it, I think. It doesn’t seem much at first, but look at this summary again. Isn’t it exactly what we hate in stories? A little, shy yet so intelligent girl saves the Universe (/ gets a boyfriend) with a time changing twist. Oh how I hate time travel stories, the butchering of physics and maths, and anything that is unlucky enough to get into a writer’s hands. I told you already – Life is Strange wanted me to hate it. Yet somehow I bought into it. Let it be the best recommendation I can give.
The main reason all these time twists somehow didn’t irritate me is probably because of the message of Life is strange. If I had to use one sentence to describe it, it would be: let it go. Not in the way Elsa was singing it; it has nothing to do with liberating your inner persona. No. Life is Strange is a story about letting your past go, forgetting if possible, not clinging onto the things we have no control over. Life is not strange, really, it just plain sucks. Deal with it. Something bad happened again, but you have to keep on moving. Maybe even forgive yourself for the decisions you regret, try to forgive at least. It’s a very sweet and sour let it go, very hard to swallow, but the time twists really do not matter that much when one is so deeply invested in this sort of story.
Especially when you realize the only real superpower of Life is Strange is emotions. It plays with you in ways that not many games can. After playing The Beginner’s Guide I tried to avoid games that can devastate me so much (in a good way, I suppose, but a deep emotional catharsis is not something one should live through every week) and yet I played Life is Strange, and it took me a remarkably long time to get over the things it has done to me. I have so little empathy for real people and so much for fictional characters that someone should have me checked, probably. But even if I was cold as stone, Max is just… Oh, Max is everything I am not and everything I find boring in a character; she is this sort of quiet mouse that TV and movies are so full of now, hidden potential, real talent, teenage angst about pretty much everything. On the other hand she is just so unbelievably human, that her every little sorrow becomes mine and there is no way I can distance myself from her suffering. A human-like game character. What a novelty.
I know exactly when I broke – there is really no better word to describe this, that state of total emotional shattering of one’s self. I broke when Max kept whispering Please don’t make me do this and I really, really, really didn’t want to – but all the choices that were presented to me were so bad, there was just really no other way forward. It took me probably around five minutes to proceed – five painful minutes of guilt and muttering I do not want to do this. Well played, Square Enix, well played. Usually scenes like this are presented to players as neat cutscenes, but giving the agency to the player himself shifts the guilt and the responsibility and is just so much more powerful.
Games wherein the “player’s choice” is the main selling point (quotation marks intended) have one basic fault – the player’s choice hardly ever matters. Telltale mastered this illusion of choice – the story diverts for a second to a slightly different location just to come back to the main stream a scene later. Anyone who ever programmed a game – anyone who ever programmed anything really – understands why it happens; subplots breed faster than rabbits and after a while are very hard to control. Here is where the superpower of Life is Strange really shines. It makes choices work as their main aim is to affect the player’s emotions rather than the story itself.
Life is Strange did some things well, some fantastically and some even brilliantly; the portrayal of the world around Max is of the latter. Everything and everyone in the background is alive. No placeholder props and characters. No shortcuts. It is just so easy to formulate opinions and get attached to other characters because their personality is designed to the last detail. Therefore every action we take against these pixel people have a real reaction on us; there is no choice without consequences because the very burden of the consequences is shifted from a poor dev who had to encode all of that in other games to a player who lives the story.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some excellent choices presented that have a real, “encoded” presence in the game. Some things I have done in episode one came to haunt me in episode five. Little details spread across many episodes were adding up to create marvellous plot twists. Characters live, and win, and lose, and even die. And the worst, the worst is this constant feeling that maybe somehow we could have avoided that, that if we could only travel back in time again…
Time turning is the base game mechanics in Life is Strange. I know many people enjoy these sort of debates, but personally I’d rather not get into the whole “Is it a real game?” thing; all I want to stress is that there is nothing new about point and click adventures and episodic story driven games are just that. Clicking and pointing may not be the heart of matter here, but as an Explorer I must admit – there are quite a few things worth clicking! Life is Strange is full of little details that just leave you craving more. Such good world design. Really.
The story of Life is Strange is rich, and exciting, and solid, it can withstand all sorts of twists and turns and come out victorious away from almost all writing traps. Sure, some people will struggle with its hyper left-wing socialist style and the amount of politics involved, but is that really what makes a good game? Compatibility with our political judgements? Life is Strange has something in it that other games usually don’t, and I am not talking just about a severe lack of plot holes and time fillers.
The story of Life is Strange has a purpose.
I am first in line to say that art should be useless and exist for art’s sake. I love stories about nothing. With almost no action and just… just nothingness. But even a story about nothing needs to have something in it; it cannot be just an empty shell someone hopes will magically fill by itself. Life is Strange makes you think and question, and wonder, and is just food for your brain to munch on in the cold winter evenings. Or any evening. It is good for you. I’ve heard lots of people saying that it is a game for girls. Fair enough. Nothing to be ashamed of. However I would like to point out that primarily it is a game for people who like to think.
Maybe that is why it reminds me so much of one of my very favourite games ever – The Longest Journey. I have always had a soft spot for games with a good story, but The Longest Journey had this extra… something. Life is Strange does too. It is less of a game and more of a tale passed on by the bonfire, first sweet and calming so that it hurts even more when reality finally hits you in the head. Brutal yet authentic, I’d say, in opposition to so many others who think a game can shock you only with enough blood and guts on the screen.
I should probably say something about visuals (they’re ok; I’ve never been a very visual person, so it is hard for me to discuss graphics – but I do love the grey squirrels!) or music. I really should. But those are usually factors we ignore if everything is ok and only notice when something goes wrong. Visuals and music are ok. Even if you are not into hipster teen angst pseudo indie rock, the songs are not intrusive and you won’t notice them much (I didn’t). Voice acting is really good; it’d be a shame if it wasn’t with such good dialogues. No skipping ahead. Totally not worth missing out.
After all Life is Strange is not really a game about gaining something, or winning, or figuring a great secret out. No. It is a story to be lived and cherished, and enjoyed while it lasts. So just fire it up and let Max lay down on her bed for hours and hours listening to a nice guitar tune.
Time is not something this game is short of.