Life is Strange (Tea Tales)

I needed a break from the Sunday session. The sun was getting in my eye, which I wouldn’t have minded so much had I’ve not been staring at the window.

Life is Strange is an episodic graphic adventure video game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. As to things that you couldn’t actually just google, I played it. Strangely enough, after finishing it about a month prior, I didn’t really think of writing about it at all. Perhaps I was getting burnt out on writing at the time, which is also every other time. Be that as it may, I am here now.

It’s an appropriate note to explain that I played this game in one go (night, sleep, finish the next day). I’ve always done this for episodic games, just so that I can comfortably say I’ve experienced it the way the pacing intended. First thing’s first: I liked the game. I still do. It’s hard to speak quite as constructively about a genre that doesn’t so much offer itself in a way of mechanics. This is also going to be full of spoilers, if you haven’t already guessed.

Saving the story for later, the first thing I noticed of this game was its graphics. Now, graphic adventures have come and go in the past, a lot of them has to do with either old school puzzle solving or new school Telltale blockbuster IPs. The Telltale games before and after this doesn’t look bad, mind you (with perhaps the exception of Game of Thrones), but Life is Strange is absolutely gorgeous. I don’t usually say this often, as I don’t actually believe that graphics will sway my opinion of a game, but it’s difficult not to notice when the scenery comes and goes. The Unreal Engine 3 handled the tall order quite well, as I dread to think how immersion breaking clip-through models and buggy movements would have been. From a technical standpoint, the game did itself a great service in going all out into a more faux-artsy approach to modelling, unlike the hyper-realistic approach of more streamlined and core Unreal Engine games. The doodle sketch style meshed well enough with the subject matter, though at some point the lack of quality textures become noticeable. They saved this mostly by allowing draw distance to be far, giving the feel of a vast scenery, but limiting character interaction with it. Invisible walls become really apparent, but it was fine for the most part.

Let’s briefly touch on the meta-story for a moment. The overarching promise of LiS is how ‘player choice matters’ and all that. Episodic games of modern times tout that a lot. I can safely say that it’s more truthful here than in the Telltale games, which is sadly the only available competition right now. I’d love to see this genre more developed, being a sucker for a good story now and then. What I’ve noticed is that by playing the entire game in one go, I can definitely feel the weight of my previous choices, despite the fact that I could actually go back and revert them almost any time I want. The narrative is crafted in such a way that your choices never really shake the foundation of the story and the major set pieces you’ll be seeing, but it definitely makes you feel that the story you’re seeing right now is heavily personalised. From the way the arcs splitted up, and how the statistics at the end of chapters fall about, I could easily envision what other branching parts for the game could take place. At the end of the game, you’re forced to make one final major decision that will determine the outcome of the epilogue (which is criminally underdeveloped in my honest opinion). This ‘choice’ is a great juxtaposition of the player’s interaction with the game. One override everything the player (and narrative-wise the character Max) has done, while the other keeps it. Naturally, there’s a weight added to the second option, otherwise it’d never be picked. This is something I’ll touch on in a bit.

It’s time to talk about the interwoven narrative. Naturally, we’re given a fairly diverse cast here to work with (for the game’s setting anyway), if not a bit cliché. Maxine Caulfield, as the player, is a senior highschool student attending a snobby hipster academy. Those are not the exact words, but it’s about accurate enough. Due to the nature of story telling, we are given the ‘normal’ life of Max before she awakens to her power, in order to contrast it with the changes which would soon overtake her life in a few given minutes. I believe that in this specific instance, the developers have made a really good decision not to draw out this process. After a fairly expected montage and walking sequence, we’re introduced to conflict immediately, through which the premise of the story is then set. Doing this makes sure that the player is swept up with the rush of new activities and learn to embrace their new found power as a matter of fact, and to proceed the game with that framework in mind. The narrative would also take a sharp turn at this point to (almost) never look back, and set the course for the rest of the game. It sounds easy, but Fallout 4 for example did a horrible job at properly nailing the nostalgic sense supposedly imbued into the player due to its time jump storyline and vague sense of ‘home’ and retro science, further causing the dissonance between the game’s pacing and the rush yet unplayable premise of the captured son. LiS, on the other hand, simply ran with it. Max is a modern girl in a modern society. She has time travelling power, and she rolls with it. It’s a pretty wishful thinking premise, and doesn’t promise you anything at the end of your journey.

In order to offset it without spoiling, we’re introduced to a disaster fairly early in the game. It looked natural at first, and didn’t play much into the opening of the game, but that wasn’t the point. The sense of disaster at a set time put an ending clock for what was going to take place, giving the player a sense of an event that was gradually going to take over, regardless of the petty things that Max may be doing leading up to said point. It is a sense of dread that looms over the entire story, despite its up and downs and time twists, anchoring the plot to force it forward even in a story about time travel. To veer into the time travel thing a little bit, the plot works on the assumption that there’s always a ‘true’ timeline which perpetually moves forward. Max’s actions in going back into the past is confined into a certain area, as well as her photographs. Naturally, time travel has a lot of wonky bits, which we just kind of have to accept. It’s good that not a lot of which was required, and the story flows fairly straightforward.

It’s now time for the two major game characters: Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. I don’t know if one were to choose and pursue Warren would extend on his characterisation, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would ever want to do that. I apparently am in the 7% of those who bore absolutely no interaction with the guy at all. Oh well. The story has been about Max and Chloe from start to finish, and time for an explanation. The dynamic of Max and Chloe is worked upon the fringe old friendship they shared. One of the good things about time travel is we were actually taken back to the time when they were still kids, and see their interactions then compared to years later. Max is your typical high school girl with high school girl problems, while Chloe served as a narrative shift to contrast Max’s run-of-the-mill shy girl personality. This kind of dynamic worked on the hinges that they were childhood friends, otherwise this kind of personality clash would never mesh. Both characters are faced with the downfall of their lifestyles, Max frequently regretting her inaction and Chloe was later killed due to her own brashness. It became a carousel of faux-nostalgia and the two of them trying their best to help each other through life. The length of the game made the escalation in their relationship possible, while being subtle enough not to spell it out in order to appease the player choices. As Max, we are wrestled away from the dorm room feminine pit fighting world of liberal arts that is Blackwell Academy and introduced to the wilder, druggy 80’s style of rebellious teenage angst by the contrast presented here. During this process, we are introduced to various plot elements regarding academic corruption, bullying, suicide, near-death experiences, investigation, privacy concerns, serious family matters, disability, sadistic fetishes and more on top of the general high school drama nonsense. I suppose this is the main reason why Warren was so incessantly annoying. He represented the crappy drama that inevitably comes with this kind of age, and I just didn’t have the interest. It was good that Max was so generally clueless to things, that we get a nice view of all of these issues from multiple perspectives.

Now from the plot stand point, the game had some pacing issues during the middle sections. The general fuckery that accompanies time travel really shows its ugly head often. Since no one is really in place to tell us the rules, there’s a lot of assumptions given to Max’s power, and sometimes one would wonder why time in the ‘real world’ would randomly pass at multiple points. This is where I guess reviews break down. A game like this, as long as it’s not plagued with jarring incomprehensions and technical problems (looking at you again Telltale), it’s all about the story and how the developers elected to give agency to the player. There’s a lot of not-anythings in this game. You do things just by sheer virtue of exploration and not wanting to miss any important plot elements, but it’s in fact quite difficult to miss them after all. In the interest of not simply repeating the plot, I’ll say that there’s no three arc structure for this story, and it was better for it. This is a video game, after all, and you can’t expect people to care about everything that happens if you saved the climax until the very end. Every episode has its mini arcs, going from introductory calm, involuntarily dealing with the situation, a turn of emotions, dealing with it through a montage, a dreadful outlook, and finally a twist. Their being able to keep the human in between all the supernatural was what sealed it. People react fairly cartoony to most things, but their traits are naturally all overblown for this effect. I always find myself laughing at one point or another, up until the very end.

As for the elephant in the room, I went through with both endings. I chose Chloe first without question, but what I received was a hug and an unassuming outlook. I had to go back and pick the ‘other option’. What I got was a heartwarming kiss, only for the two of them to be pried apart by the hands of fate into not only complete ignorance, but pretty much Max watching the execution of her most precious person while forcing herself to not act. Within this entire storyline, she had evolved into a more proactive character, actively solving her own problems. If this ending was chosen, and it certainly seems like the default ending with how much attention to detail was put into it, not only do your choices not matter, but it also redone all of her character arc. It’s a sort of commentary on the journey to the arrival, and which one were you to choose. There’s a very distinct answer for that, but just like the entire game: if you went back and change the past, you’ll get your expected outcome, but the future is always a mystery.

A worthy one.

Screenshot from the game

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