Reviewing…Life Is Strange (all five episodes)

Foreword on spoilers – This review avoids any specific plot spoilers, beyond general statements about the game. Essentially, if it’s not given away in the game trailers, it won’t be given away here. However, like anything that really interests you, if you think you’re going to play Life Is Strange soon (and you should), then you will enjoy the game more if you read no further, at least until you’ve given it a try.

Fuck I love this game. Hell, I loved this game before I ever started actually, y’know, clicking ‘new game’ and playing it. I loved it from the menu screen alone. The biro-scribble style of the loading icons and the title, background view of a warm sunlit town, the calming, slightly imperfect guitar plucks of the music, it made me feel a tiny spark of real affection.

If a game can get you to that point before you even start playing it properly, it’s probably a good sign. True, it’s also twice as crushing when the game doesn’t live up to those first golden moments. Don’t worry, Life Is Strange absolutely does.

Something I should probably get in now – before I start looking at all the little details – is what kind of game it is. Well mechanically, the game is not trying to be challenging. This isn’t a game for hard-core twitch-gaming killfreaks. You don’t need to memorise and learn one hundred different items and builds. Really, most of what you do is simple. You walk around, and interact with things with a click. Sometimes looking, sometimes talking, and often taking photos. Boil it down and it’s only a short step away from point-and-click. Which is fine, Life Is Strange doesn’t need anything else, because it’s not about being mechanically challenging. It’s got something else for you; it’s got a story to tell.

Life Is Strange does something even more than that, starting right from when the menu screen managed an impressive feat; it made me feel nostalgic for something I’ve never had. I never went to a sun-drenched coastal school. I did go to an arts college, but in the middle of the city of Manchester – rain spattered and covered in concrete. It was not a thing like Blackwell. This nostalgia is a neat trick, and one that they put to very good use. It’s the same kind of skill that good directors will use in films; tiny bits of scenery or colour palette, minute details that you often won’t even consciously notice, but do take in on some level. All of these bits, all of this information that it’s showing-not-telling means that you already know things about the characters in the game, enough to give you a connection, without the need for a lot of exposition.

This idea is quite clearly baked into the game throughout. Even the title of the game tells you a lot. In a game where you are an 18 year old girl who gets time-travel powers, there are a lot of different directions the title could take, and they’d alter the tone dramatically. But it’s not and it doesn’t, it’s called Life Is Strange; a softer, more understated kind of direction right from the very off.

This show-not-tell attitude and the attention to immersion is shown in other ways, like the diary. Diaries in games are not a new thing, but they’re rarely made to be that effective. In Life Is Strange, it is. While the game doesn’t scream at you to read it, if you do, there’s attention there. For a start, it looks like a college-student diary. Half of what’s there is photos, scribbles, a pressed leaf – all of the peripheral stuff that people pull along with them, especially if they’re a shy arty photographer type. Again, it’s showing-not-telling. The game doesn’t need to script a dialogue where Max says “Wow, Band Name Here? I love those guys. That might be important for a Meaningful Plot Point!” It’s right there, in her diary. As for what’s written, it actually reads like it should. It doesn’t read like a thread of important plot points and some background filler. It reads like a fucking diary; full of doubts and half-formed thoughts. And while we (as players) know that it’s there to remind us of the plot and even to show us our objectives, it also makes internal sense to the game – because Max seems very much like the kind of person who would chronicle a diary.

Possibly my favourite thing about the entire game is that – quite often – the characters are fucking stupid. But stupid in a believable, human way – not stupid because whoever wrote their character has a lemon for a brain. This absolutely includes Max, the main character you control, and there are several points where I was mentally shouting “WHY DON’T YOU JUST DO THIS!?” and bouncing in frustration, because I could see a better solution. But that’s the point, Life Is Strange isn’t an RPG, it’s not a chance for you to play out how you would do everything. It’s about Max. Having choice in a game – for example in dialogue, having the option to say different things – does not necessarily mean it has to give you the option to say what you would say. Whatever choices you make, you’re still playing as Max; you’re still shy, you’re still uncertain, you’ll still get things wrong. And because the writing in Life Is Strange is actually good, it doesn’t chafe in a way that stops you wanting to play. Because people are stupid all the time, people make mistakes all the time. And having magical time-rewinding powers doesn’t actually mean that Max gets to do everything perfectly. Sometimes it just means she gets two different ways to be an idiot. And as a result, so do you.

That said, it’s not always perfect. There are a few occasions where the internal reality drops, and the ‘it’s a video game!’ leaps forth. For example, there are a number of times where you have to fetch or collect certain things, and it’s just…not quite believable. Sometimes it feels like there’s not quite enough reason for people to want you do get this or find that, and then for it to make sense as they wait around for you to do so. Which is a shame, because it dampens the surrounding game moments when that’s the case. But these moments are reasonably scattered, and never managed to tip the game over for me. It’s also fairly sad that the story frays a little towards the end – not enough to drop you out of it completely, but it’s not as finely honed as the rest of the game. I recently had a bit of a go at episodic games, and having now played Life Is Strange, I can absolutely confirm my opinions on that. While I felt episode five lose a bit of it’s refinement, if I’d not come straight from episode four (as many people will have), I think those little frays would have been a whole lot more glaring.

But back to the game overall: One part of the game that I was unsure about at first was the photo-taking. In Max’s diary (i.e. the inventory screen), there’s a tab with a number of biro-sketches of photos. Throughout each episode, there are places where Max can find and take these photos, like a little collection-quest. I was worried about it to start with, because I thought it might detract from the game immersion. I’m sure many of us have played games with collectable systems in, where in order to find them all, you have to do really counter-intuitive things like find a hidden room while your character is supposedly trying to flee a burning building, or something. And things like that are stupid, because it destroys character involvement when we, as a player, are trying to make our character do things that they would never logically do. Thankfully, Life Is Strange avoids this pitfall. So while yes it is meta-gamey to be looking for certain things because a biro sketch (that Max has no logical way of knowing about) tells you to, it gets away with it because Max is a photographer – she is constantly looking for good photo opportunities. So it makes sense that when you’re wandering around, even when it might (for normal, non-photo-driven people) seem inappropriate to take a photo, to hunt down those snaps and take them. Instead of detracting from the game, the little collectable quest feeds into it – you look for photos because that’s what Max would do even if you weren’t controlling her.

As an aside, I’ve had conversations before where I’ve argued that anything you do in a game, no matter how counter-intuitive to the internal logic of the game, still counts as playing the game. And it does. But if you (as a player) are ignoring the game’s logic because you’re having fun, that’s fine. If you (as a player) are ignoring the game’s logic because the game has systems that encourage you to do so, then that’s not fine, that’s a design flaw. It’s the difference between having your terrified character stay in a burning building because you just want to watch the fucker burn and the game technically allows that possibility, and having your character stay in the building because there’s a super secret achievement for doing so, even though it makes no in-game sense.

Something worthy of mention (and follow up listening) is the music. For the world Life Is Strange paints for you, it would be unimaginable that music wouldn’t be a part of it. As the story ticks along, music infiltrates at so many points. From Bright Eyes to to Alt-J to Mogwai, Max’s world is washed over with music time and time again; and importantly, it makes sense that it is. When is music more important than in that teen-adulthood transition? When do you have the time, or the passion, to listen to songs on repeat, divining their every meaning? The music is chosen with care on multiple layers. Each song is incorporated into the world, creating a coherent game-experience for you, the player. But wrapped up inside that, Life Is Strange is also telling you about Max, and who she is, and telling Max about who she is too (through your eyes). There are few things people define themselves by as much as music, especially at around that age, and every time Max puts in her headphones that’s what’s happening. Life Is Strange essentially allows Max to have that ‘internal soundtrack’ that we’ve all imagined ourselves having at somepoint, and it’s the closest thing to an indirect-second-person perspective I’ve ever seen worked into a game.

You know what, much as the word is atrociously mis-applied to a lot of video games, Life Is Strange really is cinematic at times. As in, it really feels like a film. But in a good way. ‘Cinematic’, when applied to games, is usually code for ‘it’s got bitchin new graphics!’, or sometimes ‘it’s got explosions!’ Whatever the case, it almost always means ‘it looks like a high-octane, high-budget film’. Life Is Strange quite charmingly sticks up two fingers at that, because if Life Is Strange was a film it would be an entirely different – and entirely more interesting kind. Some people might object to the fact that in this video game, there are points where you won’t push a button for a good three or four minutes – you’ll just watch things unfold. I don’t have a problem with it, partially because the game doesn’t hide that fact, it’s pretty open about the fact that it’s an ‘interactive story adventure’ or somesuch. But mainly, I don’t have a problem with it because it’s good. If there’s (effectively) a cutscene happening and I’m twiddling my thumbs or wondering why *I* can’t be doing what’s on the screen, then the cutscene has a problem. But in Life Is Strange the cutscenes are well written, well directed, well paced, and you know damn well why you can’t be controlling it – because while you explore the story through Max’s eyes, she is still not you, and does things you wouldn’t. All told then, I’m fairly happy calling it cinematic with a smile.

To finish then, I’ll tell you about one of my favourite (and fairly smug) tricks to pull out when people start talking about special effects and ermergerhd (at the expense of a film actually being interesting), is to ask about the film Avatar. James Cameron’s blockbuster of ’09, that was (at the time), the most expensive film ever made. Almost everyone, it seems, has seen it. So I like to ask: What were the names of the main characters? No one has ever been able to answer me without looking it up. And that sums it up for me, Avatar, most expensive film ever made, the height of CGI megaskill, took 12 years to make…and no one even remembers the names of the people it is supposedly about. Life Is Strange pulls in the opposite direction; for all that it includes sci-fi weirdness like time travel, alternate histories, and the potential apocalypse, Life Is Strange doesn’t feel like it’s about any of those things. It’s about people, your relationships, and that turbulent transition of self-discovery. And you should think about playing it.

Post Edit – Giving credit where it is due, Eliezer Yudkowsky has perhaps summed up the spark of why the characters in Life Is Strange are actually relatable and interesting people, not just ‘stereotype number three’; they are level one intelligent characters. To get what that means, I highly recommend reading Mr Yudkowsky’s short blog on the matter here.

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