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If a Butterfly Flaps its Wings in Oregon…

written by Glyn Davies August 27, 2016

It sometimes seems as if more has been written about Life is Strange over the past year or so than almost any other videogame, to the point that even high-profile triple-A titles have found themselves competing fiercely with it for column inches. Occasionally a game just turns up, seemingly from out of nowhere, and strikes a certain chord, charming the critics and capturing the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. It’s the stuff that cults are made of. Life is Strange is one of those games.

Developed by French studio Dontnod Entertainment, and released by Square Enix, Life is Strange is a choice-based adventure game that presents the player with numerous options for both action and dialogue; any choice made will have consequences, good or bad, later in the game. The game was released throughout 2015 in five episodic chunks – initially download-only, although a physical release featuring all five episodes would follow later – and is the textbook example of a slow-burner. The game’s following steadily increased as each episode appeared, helped by a positive critical response and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth, so by the time the fifth and final episode was released in October, Life is Strange had something like a million unique players clamouring to see how the game would conclude, along with a thriving online community of fans all eager to share their own theories, fan fiction, cosplay photos and artwork inspired by the game. For such a low-key game, it was something approaching a phenomenon.

It’s a game that exudes emotion and sensitivity, without ever descending into mawkishness or cheap sensationalism.

Life is Strange tells the story of 18-year-old Max Caulfield, a talented but shy photography student at Blackwell Academy, a prestigious arts-based high school in the small seaside town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, which also happens to be the town where Max grew up, until her family moved to Seattle in her early teens. Five years later, Max returns to Arcadia Bay to study at Blackwell and to hopefully realise her dream of becoming a photographer. In the course of an otherwise unremarkable Monday at Blackwell, Max suddenly discovers that she has the power to reverse time by sheer force of will, setting into motion a series of events that take in chaos theory, environmental disaster, dark secrets, alternative realities and a lot of photography.

The game begins with Max seemingly in the middle of a vivid nightmare in which she foresees the destruction of Arcadia Bay by a cataclysmic tornado, only to then jerk awake in a classroom during a photography lecture, normality and reality seemingly restored. When her class ends, Max, still disturbed by her dream, goes to the bathroom to gather herself, and inadvertently witnesses the shooting of a blue-haired punk girl by the school’s apparent star student. It is at this moment that Max’s powers are revealed to her: time suddenly flies backwards and she once again finds herself in class, listening to the same lecture she had only just heard. After reassuring herself that she hasn’t gone mad, and tentatively trying out her new-found powers, Max returns to the bathroom to try and save the girl’s life which, with a deft tripping of a fire alarm, she succeeds in doing. Later that same day, Max’s path once again crosses with that of the mysterious blue-haired girl, who turns out to be Max’s childhood best friend, Chloe Price. After some frosty but brief recriminations from Chloe – Max neglected to keep in touch with Chloe after she moved to Seattle, and also hadn’t been in touch since she returned to Arcadia Bay – the pair find themselves able to pick up from where they left off five years previously. Max confides in Chloe about her time-shifting power, while Chloe enlists Max’s help in finding her friend Rachel Amber, whose missing posters Chloe has stuck up all over town. And so begins one of the greatest videogame double acts since Mario and Luigi.

There is so much to praise about Life is Strange: it’s subtle and compelling storytelling; its well-implemented time-bending and choice/consequence gameplay mechanics; its beautiful, atmospheric visuals; its laid-back, evocative soundtrack; its willingness to tackle head-on emotive and controversial issues such as bullying, mental illness, suicide, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence; all of these combine to make Life is Strange an emotionally engaging playing experience. But it is the central relationship of its two main characters, the sweet and utterly endearing friendship between Max and Chloe, that drives the game and binds all of the other elements together into an unforgettable whole. The game is essentially a mystery with numerous strands: Max’s power, where it comes from and what its purpose is; the weird environmental disturbances that seem to be befalling Arcadia Bay – freak weather, unscheduled eclipses, double moons and dead birds everywhere – which Max begins to suspect might be related to her power; and the disappearance of Rachel Amber, the investigation into which ultimately leads Max and Chloe to some very dark and disturbing discoveries about Blackwell and Arcadia Bay.

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For all that Life is Strange deftly moves between high school drama, detective story, apocalyptic science fiction, time travel yarn and David Lynch-style weirdness, Max and Chloe keep the game – and indeed the player – firmly anchored in their world. While on the surface the pair are very different – Max is quiet, artistic and philosophical, while Chloe is chaotic, impulsive and off-the-rails – as with all good buddy movies, it’s their differences that make them more effective as a team, and as the game progresses, Chloe brings out the more confident, risk-taking side of Max’s character, while Max brings out Chloe’s more sensitive, thoughtful side that she has hitherto expertly hidden under many layers of teen angst. Whatever decisions the player, as Max, may make, either in Chloe’s favour or against her, Chloe’s devotion to Max remains unshakeable. Even if Max goes against Chloe with every decision, while Chloe will bitch and complain for a brief time, it doesn’t ultimately change the dynamic of their friendship in any way. Indeed, in a game where so much happens to them, Max and Chloe’s best moments tend to be when they are alone together, quietly reflecting on their lives and the strange goings on in Arcadia Bay.

Of course, it isn’t all about Max and Chloe. Life is Strange has a much wider cast of characters: Max’s fellow students at Blackwell and the faculty staff, as well as citizens of the wider community of Arcadia Bay, which despite the secrecy and darkness in its heart, and the general air of weirdness and unease that hangs over the town, is still a very chilled-out place to be, perfectly complementing the unhurried pace of the game as whole. Some locations even have areas where Max can sit down and take a time-out while her internal monologue tries to rationalise what has happened so far. Life is Strange is a game that encourages you take your time and explore your surroundings. Although it isn’t an open-world game in the strictest sense, the many locations in Life is Strange are all intricately detailed and invitingly explorable, from the Blackwell campus and its dorm rooms, to Chloe’s house, the local diner and even the junkyard. It’s also a very beautiful-looking game: the graphics are rendered with an impressionistic, hand-painted style, with all the vibrant colours and soft, hazy light of an Oregon autumn (or fall, if you’d rather), making a significant contribution to the game’s gentle but eerie atmosphere.

The first time I played Life is Strange, it immediately reminded me of Shenmue, not least because, like Ryo in Shenmue, Max keeps a hand-written journal into which she logs everything she discovers (along with her general moans and insights), and which she carries with her everywhere, along with her battered old instamatic camera – a self-consciously hipsterish affectation in the digital age – with which Max photographs anything that takes her interest. Another aspect of Life is Strange that initially reminded me of Shenmue is the way in which you immediately fall into the habit of investigating everything and speaking to every character, and its relatively small but very detailed locations in which there is so much to do and interact with. Take Max’s dorm room, for one example. While you can just pick up what you need and get on with the story, it’s hard to resist the temptation to just chill out for a moment, which indeed Max can do; she can just switch on the hi-fi and crash on her bed. Many of the photos and posters on the wall, along with Max’s personal items, like her old teddy bear or her guitar, can be interacted with, with Max’s internal monologue explaining what they are and, sometimes, what the story is behind them. There’s also Max’s laptop, which might contain an email or social media post pertinent to the plot. All of this gives an invaluable insight into Max’s world, past and present, and the person she is now.

…it is the central relationship of its two main characters, the sweet and utterly endearing friendship between Max and Chloe, that drives the game and binds all of the other elements together into an unforgettable whole.

This is the case in every location that Max visits; they all have clues to be found, in cupboards and drawers, on shelves or even on the walls, so it’s always worthwhile having a good old snoop around every location and talking to everyone you can, although some of the game’s characters are less charitable towards Max than others. Some clues are crucial and the game won’t move on until you have found them, while others are merely informative, adding a bit more colour or background information to the knowledge Max already has. With this in mind, Life is Strange is the sort of game that rewards repeated playthroughs, not least because of the numerous choices you can make. It’s always interesting to go back and play the game to see if you can take a different path and manipulate a better outcome. The time-shifting mechanic also comes into its own in this aspect, as it allows you to immediately take back a poor choice and make a different one, although one of the game’s more devious characteristics is the way in which a seemingly “right” choice often turns out not to be such a good idea after all.

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Of course, Life is Strange isn’t without its flaws. Being a low-key budget title, it’s not exactly a technical masterclass, as demonstrated by the lip-synching, which isn’t particularly great, although it does improve in later episodes. There are also some sections that can annoy a bit, particularly on the first play, such as in the junkyard, when Chloe sends Max on an unwelcome fetch quest (Chloe wants some bottles to shoot with her stolen gun), and although this is really just a plot device to get you to thoroughly explore the junkyard – Max can uncover more information about Chloe’s friendship with Rachel – it perhaps could have been done in a better way. It becomes less of a chore on subsequent playthroughs, once you know where you’re going. There’s also an extended dream sequence in the final episode which is perhaps a little too extended, although again on repeated plays it doesn’t take nearly as long to navigate, and is actually quite entertaining, as it gives the game the opportunity to go into full-on Twin Peaks mode. Also, some of the game’s more irritating aspects are self-deprecatingly referred to in later episodes, such as Chloe’s tendency to say “hella” at any opportunity. There’s also another bottle-related fetch quest in the dream sequence, to Max’s obvious exasperation.

But as with all great games, the flaws don’t really matter, particularly as none of them detract from the game’s impact. It’s a game that exudes emotion and sensitivity, without ever descending into mawkishness or cheap sensationalism. It might seem strange to describe such a sedately-paced game as the proverbial rollercoaster ride, but at times that’s exactly what Life is Strange is: there are highs, lows, twists and turns aplenty, and enough cliffhangers and genuine shocks to keep the player engaged throughout, along with well-crafted characters you actually care about and some of the most compelling, emotionally-charged storytelling I’ve seen in a videogame. There are games out there with better writing, but not that many. No game is 100% perfect – and Life is Strange is no exception – but if the gameplay is strong enough to sustain the player’s interest beyond a few minor technical niggles, then its creators can say they’ve done a good job. As far as Life is Strange is concerned, Dontnod have done an absolutely fantastic job and created a true modern classic.

 

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