When you talk about narrative-driven adventure games, it’s very easy to default to Telltale Games who have been dominating that scene ever since The Walking Dead earned critical acclaim back in 2012. Since that time, they’ve seemingly been unstoppable with five concurrent series now in development. For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed their work, but it’s hard not to grow fatigued with a genre that solely operates on licensed properties and with no creative competition. So, let me tell you how excited I was when I learned that DONTNOD were stepping into the ring. Their previous title, Remember Me was a flawed gem that had an incredible artistic vision but struggled as an action game. It’s clear their creative talents were best suited elsewhere, and I don’t think this genre could’ve been a better fit.
Life is Strange is a game that immediately caught my eye, and not just because it was from DONTNOD or because it was an original episodic series. When it comes to video games, I’m naturally drawn to unconventional stories that don’t necessarily revolve around violence or saving the world. In this game, you take control of Max, who is a somewhat introverted photography student who discovers she has the ability to manipulate time. In film and television, the setting of an American high-school isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of games, it’s a different story. Our teenage years can arguably be some of the most frustrating times of our lives, so being given an opportunity to roleplay in such a familiar environment with a sense of empowerment is appealing for obvious reasons.
Looking back on older games such as Canis Canem Edit (Bully), it’s easy to see why it was so popular as it allowed us to act out many things we wish we could’ve got away with during school. Life is Strange works on a similar level, but more in the way of dialogue, choice and consequence. For Telltale fans, this game will feel very familiar, but where it stands out as being unique is the way it allows you to manipulate and rewind time to experiment with your choices. While you can’t see the long-term effects of your actions, it provides the flexibility to explore your options while actively embracing the infamous art of “savescumming” (reloading save files to obtain the “best” outcome). You almost feel invincible knowing that you can say what you want and simply rewind if you get in trouble. But life’s never that simple.
There are many possible influences I observed in Life is Strange: Twin Peaks, Gone Home, any Telltale game; not to mention films such as The Butterfly Effect. I don’t mean to say that as a criticism, either. It’s a very easy world to step into and embrace. Furthermore, being lead by a relatable female protagonist puts an interesting spin on things. In some ways, Max Caulfield reminds me of Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3: she is intelligent and level-headed, but still a bit introverted and unsure of herself; an average teenage girl, pretty much. Having moved away from her hometown of Arcadia Bay (and best friend) five years ago, Max has returned on a photography scholarship and isn’t fitting in quite as well as she had hoped. Basically, it’s a somewhat typical coming of age story until a nightmarish experience in class awakens her ability to manipulate time; subsequently leading her to a scenario where she is able to alter future events.
As you might expect, the way that you interact with the world is similar to a Telltale game, in that you can walk around as the character, investigate and interact with the environment and engage in conversations with other characters. Of course, the primary difference here is that you can rewind conversations at any time to alter the outcome; though, just like the aforementioned, there are warnings to let you know when there will be consequences. It’s difficult not to make comparisons, but I actually found this game to be more parts Gone Home, in terms of its vibe, than something like The Walking Dead. The world is more so based in our reality; albeit a reality that embraces social cliches. It feels more about uncovering information and how you interact with other people than your more typical point-n-click exploration.
You also won’t find any quick time events in Life is Strange, or at least not yet anyway. In episode one, there are actually a few conventional gameplay scenarios where you have to use your ability to manipulate time to traverse obstacles, but mostly, the game sticks with what it’s good at and doesn’t try to emulate other genres with inferior mechanics. Other components of the game also include a journal where you can read Max’s thoughts on events as they’re unfolding (which is, in my opinion, the best writing in the game), but also where you receive text messages from friends and family; adding a secondary social layer to the story. As mentioned above, the game embraces a lot of cliches, which, just like in Bully, works well when done right; though, you’ll likely groan at some of the teenage “slang.”
From a first glance, I wouldn’t be surprised if the visual design received some mixed reactions. It’s not overly detailed in some areas, so until you see it running it might appear a little outdated. However, once playing I quickly embraced the charm I think they’re aiming to convey. On PC, the frame-rate ran at a perfect 60FPS and there was a nice level of ambience within the environment, so it was actually quite pretty on the eyes once you adjusted to DONTNOD’s unique artistic approach. I also thought the soundtrack was handled very well; using an interesting blend of background music and songs to set the tone. While the dialogue can sometimes become a little cringeworthy, I think that’s what teenagers are at times, so I was mostly okay with it; not to mention that the voice talent delivered it all quite well, too.
Despite its social cliches and somewhat unusual appearance, the writers manage to handle the mature themes within really well. To clarify, I’m a married man in my late-20s, and I had absolutely no problems being able to relate with what was happening in Max’s world, or the science fiction elements that were tied into the mix. Bullying, domestic violence, rape, drugs and murder are all issues which exist within Life is Strange, so while it’s fun to tell that one stupid bitch in class to shove it up her ass (…and maybe rewind), it was equally as exhilarating being able to intervene in a situation before a friend’s step-father became violent. There is a balanced level of fantasy used to embrace quirks while still maintaining enough ties to reality to make the events meaningful, by addressing issues that most people can relate to.
Life is Strange is very unconventional in the story that it’s trying to tell; delivering moments you would more often encounter in a Teen comedy-drama than a game. With that being said, the fantasy of being able to roleplay and interact within a setting so familiar is where the attraction comes into play, and being able to manipulate time makes it that much more awesome. Simply put, it plays like a Telltale game that’s driven by the heart of Gone Home and laced with themes derivative of Twin Peaks; though, it holds its own without any problems. A strong female lead and interesting characters bring the game together as it embraces the cliches of the backdrop while still handling mature themes in a meaningful and intelligent way. There are some quirks that might not agree with some people, but I really feel as if DONTNOD are now in the right genre, and I am so grateful this series exists in gaming. Bring on episode two!
EDITOR NOTE: this game was provided to us by the publisher, and reviewed on PC across 3 hours of gameplay. Please also understand that in an effort to be fair, we will not score an episodic game until the season is complete.