The very existence of Life Is Strange is something of an oddity. It’s published under Square Enix, yet its slice-of-life offering stands out against the backdrop of gleaming fantasy animé worlds of Square Enix’s usual fare, such as the Final Fantasy series, Star Ocean and Kingdom Hearts. It’s also an episodic release, which is a new format to hit the limelight. It makes a bit more sense when one realises that Life is Strange is part of Square Enix’s 2015 indie push. The game developers are a small French studio called Dontnod, who debuted Remember Me in 2013, and who have a knack for telling immersive stories where characters have real depth.
Life is Strange is no exception. From the get-go, even the awful, bullish characters have depth to them. Not in a sympathetic way, but in an honest, believable way. It was stunning to see how the developers had managed to translate such an authentic feel of being at college into a videogame.
The story setup is thus: Max Caulfield moves back to her old home, Arcadia Bay, to study photography at Blackwell Academy. It’s a successful course taught by star photographer Mark Jefferson, but it seems very out of place in such a backwater location. From the start, Max struggles to fit in, her shyness being mistaken for hipster aspirations by her other classmates. When she reunites with her childhood friend Chloe, who she hasn’t contacted for years, she discovers she has the power to rewind time, and visions of a terrible disaster begin to invade her school life.
The game’s main gimmick revolves around being able to rewind time to before the most recent event that happened. This gives you power to change the outcome of a conversation, and since you retain all memories of what happens in the miniature ‘tangent universes’ you create (to use a Donnie Darko idiom) you can use this power to obtain information, or to potentially save peoples’ lives. It seems like an easy game to complete for this one reason, but the strength of the game lies in what happens when Max wears herself out, or is otherwise prevented from using her rewind powers. It brings to sharp attention the whole idea of real life having no respawns, and the results can be so devastating.
In terms of visual presentation the game is stunning. It’s soft at the edges, like the photos you might get from an old lomography camera, and the atmosphere is rich whilst appearing almost washed out – that dichotomy creates the feel of the whole thing being a memory, a dream rising with morning mist. It echoes the score, minimalist and influenced by modern indie folk, and it complements perfectly the game’s principal function as a coming-of-age story.
The Oregon coastline is lush and carries a sense of nostalgia with it, and in contrast with the time travel theme, it seems oddly stagnant, entirely trapped in time and a perfect sandbox for Max to explore her powers and the secrets of the town. What strikes me again is the parallel with Donnie Darko, and the strange fact that although both these tales are separated by many decades – Darko being set in the Eighties, and Life is Strange taking place in 2013 – they still feel similar. The technology, the references, the slang, the advertising may have changed, but the way characters interact, the feel of the place, it’s timeless.
Scientific concepts such as chaos theory and climate change are frequently referenced, leading to the inevitable conclusion that these things are influened by you and your actions. It’s an analogue for real life. The references to secret societies both mix up a bit of mystery in the science, and introduce the dangers of blind group thinking.
I notice a parallel between this game and Gone Home, a sweet visual adventure from The Fullbright Company, also set in Orgeon, and also following the relationship between two college girls. Gone Home was made two years prior to Life is Strange, and was set in the Nineties. As examined earlier with Donnie Darko, again we have the familiarity of tone, despite the discrepancy in era. I honestly think that games that manage this are on to something.
I don’t find much criticism with the choice of vernacular; I recall using similarly stupid-sounding idioms when I was a teenager, and we really did think it was cool. And on the use of swearing, I don’t think there’s a game out there that includes more swearing than Life is Strange, which is interesting. But I liked it.
The biggest criticism I have is a story development choice. I wish they did more with the Vortex Club. With the natural disasters heading towards Arcadia Bay, there was a lot more that could have been played with regarding secret societies and clandestine historical groups. I liked the end resolution(s) of the game, but it felt a little bit like cheating to have all this stuff about the Vortex Club and then nothing directly vortex-y about it.
I would also argue that, for all the choices you get to make in the game, it almost doesn’t matter because fate has a way of righting the choice and everyone ends up with the same penultimate decision to make anyway. This could be a criticism but I also get the feeling that the developers intended it to be this way – to create nothing more than an illusion of power, then strip it away.
All in all, Life is Strange is a love letter to childhood friendships, it’s a meditation on how innocence is lost, it’s a tableau to the teen agony of fitting in, of growing up, of making the right choices. It’s definitely worth a play, and with the average playthrough clocking in at only 10 hours, I can say that every second is worth your time.
Some easter eggs:
The nightclub music in Episode 4 is from Breton’s album War Stories, which was released a year prior to the game and, amazingly, features a blue butterfly on the cover, a motif that is used recurrently throughout Life is Strange and an allusion to chaos theory, since this is what Max sees fluttering around the college before she obtains her rewind power.
Max’s surname is a reference to Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and as a nod to Salinger’s iconic novel, when Max sees a hunting cap in the teachers’ office, she comments that wearing it would make one a ‘phony’, echoing Holden’s favourite phrase.
Zooming in to Chloe’s hair dye in her bathroom reveals packaging that looks incredibly similar to Manic Panic, and even includes the byline ‘NYC’ in the correct font. It’s probably Voodoo Blue. Just a heads up for any Chloe cosplayers.
One of the pieces of artwork in Chloe’s room, of her and Max as superheroes, echoes in composition one of the drawings in Gone Home, of Samantha and Lonnie as pirate adventurers.
If you stop by the plasma screen in Victoria’s room, Max will comment that she wants to watch Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within on it, and then adds that she doesn’t care what people think, it was a good movie. A nice nod to Square Pictures there.
If you notice any more easter eggs, do let us know in the comments below and we’ll add ’em to the list!
Also, this is all I’m going to say about the animals in episodes three and four:
On adult themes:
Now that the main review is over, let’s talk about some of the themes in more detail. If you haven’t played the game, you may wish to avoid this section, because blatant spoilers will be running rife.
So, here be spoilers. You have been warned.
This is the first game I’ve played that has come accompanied with links to external support networks such as the Samaritans. And by god, did it need it! It’s been lauded for tackling such tough subjects as it did, and it was worth every moment because staying silent on adult topics is as good as pretending they don’t exist, which just doesn’t fly with me.
The first thing to strike me was the whole Kate incident. Bullying is nothing new, but the way Kate’s issues were handled made it a timely topic, since almost every college student has a smartphone on them now, and filming a drunk student making out with others and being drugged, then putting the resultant film up on Facebook is not a revolutionary idea, nor is it something that only exists in the realm of fantasy. To get to the point where Kate ends up wanting to kill herself is painful to play through. Max exhausts her powers by the time Kate’s on the roof, and for the first time the player is presented with the upsetting fact that they truly do only have one shot to save Kate. Only one sentence that results in her stepping away from her death. It suddenly shifts from time travel to real life. I will say only one further thing in regards to how they handled this whole scene: I’m glad they didn’t show the results of Kate’s suicide graphically. Building jumps are not pretty. So, for them to get that much distress without anything graphic, is further testament to the storytelling abilities of the creators.
Another parallel, which I didn’t go into earlier because spoilers, lies with what is perhaps the most well-executed visual novel / anime series to come out of Japan regarding time travel, Steins;Gate. Towards the end of Life is Strange, it becomes evident that Max’s original intervention to save Chloe was just delaying fate, and the whole tornado thing is the result of her tampering with a moment that should have never been changed (Chloe’s death). In the very last episode of the game, there’s a lot of disorienting sequences where you really start to wonder if Max is just having a nightmare or if she’s just doomed to live in fractured time, repeating the events of that week to coda for eternity. Repeatedly saving and losing Chloe. A never-ending blur of possibilities.
That’s where the similarity to Steins;Gate comes in. Okabe Rintarou, the guy who invents time travel in Steins;Gate, ends up jumping to endless timelines in his attempts to save his best friend Mayuri, only to experience her dying multiple times in each universe. It starts off as a sweet, college student story of mad science and friendship, again with the slightly mystical references to secret societies and physics theories. But then there’s that point where things get too real, where you see Okabe start to break down from the stress of his powers. Max’s experience feels very similar, and is equally harrowing. Even at the end of the series, I have no idea if Chloe’s fate is going to try following her out of Arcadia Bay, if Max’s entire life is just going to be a series of leaps to stop Chloe dying every day. It’s really time Max and Okabe teamed up and started a Time Travel Survivors support group. I’d let Donnie Darko join if he hadn’t died in the process of collapsing his own tangent universe, and Makoto, the Girl who Leapt Through Time, can join too.
Another stellar plot point was Episode Three, where Max makes a change that results in Chloe being heavily disabled in an accident. We spend time with Chloe while she’s navigating her life via a wheelchair and a host of life support systems, and what I love most about this is how it spends time showing you that Chloe is still herself, still a person with a life and with interests, instead of reducing her to nothing but a pitiable figure. Even the moment where she tires of the constant pain and asks Max to assist her suicide is done with dignity and at no point is Chloe reduced to a trope. Her request is well thought-out and reasoned, and also forms a commentary on American social care since her secondary motivation is her parents’ financial collapse from the unreasonably high cost of her medical assistance.
The fact that Chloe’s interests change when she lives with a disability is also not treated in a stereotypical way. Max doesn’t react bullishly to this, or act like Chloe’s a different person. The fact that Chloe-with-a-disability likes sciencey topics is treated just like the fact that Chloe-with-a-shitty-home-life likes punk rock and non-academia. Both these ‘Chloes’ were different from the Chloe Max knew years ago, but the point is gotten across in both cases that she’s still the same person. Different, but the same. It’s more a meditation on the fact that peoples’ interests change and develop according to circumstance.
Other mature themes include the general discomfort, earlier in the game, of discovering Chloe’s stepfather has put surveillance cameras in every room in the house. Although his intentions are revealed to be different in the end, the initial insinuation is gross. It captures the feeling perfectly of being a young person visiting a friend’s house and seeing disconcerting things regarding their parents. And then there’s the whole drink-drugging thing. It’s sad that, for almost every incident of bad stuff in this game, I can think of real life examples from people I’ve met before.
Finally the elephant in the room. The bullying and suicide was intense enough, but by the time it got to Episode 4: Dark Room, it was clear the story was going down a much darker route than ever imaginable. Some have criticised the end plot for being too ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, but the impact of it was intense, and I am glad they didn’t shy away from any of it. For the person orchestrating the date-rape drugging torture dungeon thing to be none other than Max’s photography tutor, Mr. Jefferson, does seem convenient, but then it brings in all sorts of questions about the kind of relationships he had with his students, and about how someone who might abuse their power in real life might hide behind social masks. Real-life serial killer Richard Kuklinski, the ‘Iceman’, who was socially well integrated and had a loving family, springs to mind.
And for those who have suffered the way Jefferson’s victims suffered in this game, it’s really not unrealistic. Someone likes your beauty, youth, innocence, whatever; someone takes it. Or, in Nathan’s case, someone likes the convenience of your mental illness, and they abuse you. We want to imagine it’s not realistic. It’s a normal reaction to not want to touch this subject with a bargepole. But Dontnod Entertainment have done something fantastic here – they have not sugar-coated anything. That whole scene where Max is having a time travel nightmare and can’t leave her classroom until she tells Mr Jefferson one of four variants of ‘I love you’? God, that was awful. It made me so angry. But it mirrors real intrusive thoughts that survivors of sexual violence might have. And it’s a classic situation of real life being far too out there to be believed as a story. But hey, that’s probably why it’s called Life is Strange.
In a nutshell there’s a lot of mature themes in this game, and although I personally found it difficult to get through, I laud the approach Dontnod have taken. The whole game was focused on character, and that made it strong. Nothing felt like it was used as an excuse or motivation for a character to perform some final battle, everything progressed organically and believably. The whole story left me feeling deeply sad, a feeling not unlike bereavement. And the good thing is, that in this case, like Max, I can just rewind on these particular incidents because it’s just a game.
It’s just a game, but those things are mighty powerful, huh?
main image © Square Enix, Episode 2 launch trailer
inline images © lightninggamingnews.com, bliptalk.org, dsogaming.com, gadgets.ndtv.com, dontnodentertainment.wikia.com, offyatree.com.au