Life is Strange does a fantastic job of emulating a television show, with a story intriguing enough to be worth playing, but some will find that its format is more of a hindrance to its narrative, rather than the essential, or even best way for it to be told.
The game follows Max, an introverted girl who seems to be able to reverse time. The game opens to a surreal vision of a hurricane tearing towards the town of Arcadia, but largely takes place in Blackwell Academy, a school in an isolated American town, with many filthy rich students, and a girl who has mysteriously gone missing. Calling the characters and locations cliches may be a disservice, but they will certainly be familiar to any viewers of the television show Veronica Mars. The game is also pretty diverse, though it is starting to feel like you can only have a female protagonist in a game if they are a pale brunette.
The dialogue is often filled with hip discussion of art and films, with sprinklings of trendy and sometimes not so trendy phrases. This writing may give some people a few cringes, but it largely fits the characters. References can become more egregious if they take you out of the experience, as they did for me when the camera focuses on the number plate of a run down truck reading TWN PKS. This happens very irregularly and doesn’t end up hampering the experience.
It is important that games aren’t just blood soaked shooters, but it is always a struggle for developers to give a narrative about everyday life good game mechanics
The time travel mechanic in the game has been seen before, notably for me in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, a two dimensional puzzle game. The inherent complexity of a three dimensional game means that more intricate puzzles cannot have the same clarity. Games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, might get around this to an extent with exaggerated labyrinths to scale through, but the mundanity of Life is Strange’s setting is yet another obscuring factor for the puzzles. However, in this first episode puzzles are simple, and won’t give players much trouble, which is pleasant, but not rewarding.
The time travel mechanic makes the game essentially unlosable. You cannot even make a decision you are unhappy with it, as you are free to go back and try any option before you settle on what you do.
Max is already a well defined character with strong opinions and tastes, and at many times control is taken from you for her to perform on her own. Adventure games set in a zombie apocalypse or science fiction romp explore extraordinary circumstances place focus on the exterior: the plot and the world. In a game where so much attention is put upon the everyday, and the interiority of the characters, you are always reminded that you are not Max.
This would be fine, but in a game where your only real agency is making decisions as her, this feels very strange. If you do make a decision, a voice over informs you why she made the decision, not why you did. But before the decision is made, you are on your own. For example, one student asks you to name the photographer of ‘the falling soldier.’ I am not Max. I don’t love photography, and I don’t go to her art school. This task took me right out of the game and all the way to Google. Max, or at least the way I wanted her to be played would know the answer to that.
Saying what I want her to be like is potentially problematic in the context of this game, because of how well defined she is as a character from the outset. In Mass Effect, you feel justified in forging the character, who fundamentally is still their own person, into who you want them to be. You determine not just Shephard’s decisions, but also their gender, sexuality and who they fall in love with. A Mass Effect character becomes a blend of you and Shepherd, but it seems that Max will always be Max.
There is a high production value throughout the game, with graphics a cut above other adventure games, and a very high level of detail in environments and dialogue. The way sound is implemented borrows from film, at times, in organic and interesting ways. At some points music transitions from pseudo-diegetic, to part of the soundtrack in a way often seen, but not in videogames. Max puts in her headphones, silencing the crowded school corridor and she walks down it, voicing in her head her thoughts on other characters and introducing them to the player. This is a familiar trope made fresh by the ability to walk down the corridor at your own pace and choosing which people you hear about. On the other hand, when control is taken away at the end of the game for you to watch a sickly emotional montage, as is often done in television, it feels anything but fresh.
An entire show should not be judged on its pilot episode, and it remains to be seen if Life is Strange will go on to be even better. I have focused on mechanics more than narrative because of the episode’s introductory nature, but meeting the characters and having the mystery teased to you is a pleasure, and is better experienced than described.
The possible flaws of the adventure game genre are irrelevant for those who are already accustomed to the genre and know they enjoy it, and the low pressure and filmic format of the game will make it accessible to non-gamers. Whether the story is most aptly told as a game or not, it is entertaining and well made. The first episode going for £4 pound, and if this review made you curious at all it is highly recommended.
Available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One and Xbox 360