2015’s five-part graphic adventure Life is Strange is, somewhat surprisingly, an outstanding game. Developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Final Fantasy creators Square-Enix, this sci-fi tinted teen-drama has an emotional punch few video games can match. With an endearing protagonist, fascinating story, gorgeous art-style and wistful soundtrack, Life is Strange manages to match the storytelling prowess of a Telltale Games title, whilst simultaneously reaffirming the importance of this increasingly popular genre in modern gaming.
Set in the quiet, fictional fishing town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, during a picturesque autumnal week in October, the story is told from the perspective of 18-year-old photography student Maxine (Max) Caulfield as she struggles to acclimatise to life at the prestigious Blackwell Academy art school. The action begins during a seemingly uneventful lesson, much like any other, after which Max retreats to the girl’s lavatory to compose herself as she frets over a particularly important, upcoming project. As the demure young-adult collects her thoughts, her reverie is disrupted by an altercation between troubled fellow student Nathan, and an unknown punk girl with blue hair. During the argument as tempers flare and the situation gets out of hand, Max discovers she has the power to rewind time, setting into motion a complex chain of events with significant consequences for the inhabitants of the school and Arcadia Bay itself. Hereafter, over the course of the five-episode series, Life is Strange tells a twisting and immersive story following Max as she utilises her newly acquired powers to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a former student and the cause of various, inexplicable natural phenomenon plaguing the town. Providing assistance is Max’s childhood best friend Chloe Price, whose confident and straightforward manner give her the confidence to pursue her investigations through to the end.
Throughout the course of the game, players are treated to a highly engaging narrative which expertly blends character driven drama and science-fiction, producing a story that is at times moving and thought provoking, but always genuinely humorous and wonderfully quirky; once the credits at the end of episode five have finished rolling, all but the most cold-blooded of gamers will feel a deep, sincere attachment to both Max and Chloe – to a degree few games can match. Aside from the undoubtedly intriguing and original core plotline, Dontnod Entertainment deserves equal praise for their ability to address complex themes such as identity, mental health problems in young people and the difficulties of growing up in modern society in a balanced and attentive manner. For example, both social anxiety and depression are presented as genuine illnesses that can be every bit as debilitating as any physical ailment, whilst the day-to-day life of a modern university-aged student is, in general, portrayed as stressful and confusing, focussing on relatable experiences the average young-adult would recognise as authentic.
One of the fundamental reasons the game has been such a success is, in my opinion, the relationship between Max and Chloe, performed wonderfully by Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch respectively. Their bond, increasing in strength over the course of the narrative, is full of witty banter and moving exchanges born from their wildly differing personalities. Max is shy, unsure and quirky while Chloe endears herself to the player through her entertainingly forthright and carefree attitude. Notwithstanding the odd line of appallingly cheesy dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in The O.C, the relationship between these two reconnected friends feels as deep and authentic as any fictional pair you’d find in film, literature or indeed gaming. Most of the supporting characters are correspondingly well-conceived, each tending to represent a specific, recognisable problem most students could identify with, without devolving into the realms of caricature.
Anyone who’s played a Telltale Games title such as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us will be familiar with the gameplay style on offer; what I would call an interactive narrative. Using a third-person perspective, the player interacts with NPC’s and objects in exactly the same, simple manner as the aforementioned titles, though each location has more exploratory options available as well as a larger number of characters with whom the player can converse. Of course, Life is Strange differs most notably in the core mechanic i.e. the ability to rewind time. Though it’s not possible to rewind infinitely far back in time, the player is instead allowed to return a minute or so into the past to any of the specific, key points immediately preceding the present. At certain points, this is necessary to obtain information critical to Max’s investigation or to overcome particular obstacles that can only be conquered with a bit of well-placed time manipulation. Alternatively, the player can make use of the rewind power to learn more about Max’s various classmates, before using that information to connect with her fellow students. Initially, I was concerned Max’s time manipulating abilities would decrease the immersiveness of the experience, eliminating any tension inherent in choice-driven narratives. However what it actually does is allow you to evaluate your choices before progressing with the story, compelling you to think carefully before proceeding on your chosen path and forbidding you from appreciating the impact of your decisions until much later in the tale. This is even more effective because no choice in the game is black or white; at a very early stage do you realise no option in Life is Strange is obviously good or bad. That being said, not every feature of the gameplay is enjoyable. Sometimes the player will need to repeat the same conversation multiple times before achieving the desired outcome and there’s also an incongruous stealth section in the fifth episode that’s neither fun nor satisfying.
Before summarising my experience with the game as a whole, I think it’s important to emphasise just how impressed I was with the uniquely charming art direction and reflective soundtrack. The hand-painted art style is gorgeous; evocative and colourful, the stylised settings effortlessly capture the idiosyncratic tone of Life is Strange. It’s clear the developers spent a significant amount of time designing this aesthetic, and clearly want the player to take note of their work; hence the photography side-quest which cleverly draws the player’s eyes to the lovingly crafted settings as you’re tasked with capturing particular vistas. Likewise, the indie-rock soundtrack, composed by Jonathan Morali of the band Syd Matters, captures the mood of each scene perfectly, reflecting the characters inner thoughts and feelings throughout the story.
Profoundly immersive, quirky and unique, it’s no surprise Life is Strange was touted by many as the best game of 2015. Everything a narrative-driven game needs to stand out is present, from the characters and story to the graphics and gameplay. It’s not flawless by any means and I’m confident anyone who avoids combat-free games like Iggy Azalea eschews class is unlikely to be swayed by this title, but it’s nonetheless an absolute must-own for players looking for a magnificent, compelling story. 9/10