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SummaryLife is Strange, but oh so beautiful...
The GoodHow do you review a game like Life is Strange? You have to approach it differently than other types of games. I have to do some form of literary criticism, because of it's strong narrative content. Life is Strange has to be approached differently from adventure gaming classics like Monkey Island and maybe even Gabriel Knight.
But it is an adventure game. Adventure games were my first love, because they told stories. But they stopped evolving in the late 90's and other game genres started to tell better stories than adventure games ever did. Go tell an adventure game fan from 1994, that one day his detested fps games will have better stories and more nuanced characters than any adventure game he has played ever had. He'll probably try to kill you for blasphemy.
But that's the sad truth. Adventure games were boring and uninspired for a long time, forgotten by the industry and the players. Sure there were some hailed classics, like Syberia, but honestly, it was a rather desperate and pathetic attempt to justify the genre's continued existence to it's own fans that nobody outside the genre really cared for.
That was until 2012, when Telltale released Walking Dead: Season 1. Suddenly an adventure game was a mainstream hit. People were talking about it, like it was cool to play them again. They had status and pop culture influence now.
And Life is Strange exists because of Walking Dead. It's a Telltale type of game. But it has learned some of the lessons that Telltale itself yet has not. For years people have debated over the question - Are Telltale games really games? I don't know. But Life is Strange definitely is.
Made by a small french studio, Life is Strange is an experimental game – both by it's narrative and gaming content. It's a piece of interactive fiction, that explores the possibilities that being a game can give it to enhance it's storytelling potential and effect. Now that was a fancy sentence. But I intend to prove it's truthfulness.
In LIS the player can rewind time, thus giving the player unique types of puzzles and situations. Even choices can be rewinded, important story moments, yours to be manipulated until you're certain that you can live with what just happened.
This gameplay is so naturally tied to it's story, that both the game and the story form a one holistic whole. It needs to be this kind of game, to tell this kind of story.
So I can gladly testify that playing LIS was fun. It is a game and it had good, intuitive gameplay. But anyone who plays LIS, won't give a shit about it's gameplay, because where this game leaves it's mark is in it's writing.
I have to separate between story and characterisation, because when I say that LIS had a great story, you might think that I mean the plot. A happened, then B happened.... like with many games that are known for their stories, it's actually their plot and events that are thought of when their stories are praised. Now LIS does have memorable events, and an intriguing plot, but I cannot just say that it had a good story and be done with it.
Because Life is Strange is actually a serious and thoughtful character study. Life is Strange is unique, because it's a good young adult fiction in the form of a game. A script by french writers – Jean-Luc Gano and Christian Divine – telling a story about american teenagers, that is also universal and insightful about the human condition.
Wait... now I made it sound so serious, while in reality, it is very playful with it's genres and influences. But I just want to convey that the essence of it's brilliance lies in it's characterisation.
Max and Chloe.
Two well-written, complex, nuanced, well-acted characters that feel remarkably real. This is what I wanted to get to – Max and Chloe.
Life is Strange captures the way friendships felt like when you were young. When you could look at another person and think that she's the best thing ever. Completely awestruck by her. Admiring her. Mixture of all kinds of elevating feelings. That wonderful naivety and innocence, but also selfishness. When you don't see said person's faults, or how dangerous she actually is. When you don't see your own faults. Life is Strange captures all that.
You will spend the entire game inside Max's head, you'll hear her thoughts, interpret events through her eyes and understanding. So you'll become very close to the way Max thinks. But Max also sometimes misunderstands situations. And the game does have it's fun with that. While you can rewind any choice, you're never quite sure. Maybe Max misunderstood the situation, maybe she didn't. But even when exhausting all the choices with the rewind option, the tension remains. You're not quite sure what will happen next.
And when you finally understand all the characters in the game, you just have to take a cigarette and say: “that was beautiful.... man, he was just human.” Everyone is just human.
There's a moment in game when a character commits suicide (but it can go both ways, depending on your choices). Everyone is filming it with their smartphones. Now they might feel sorry, guilty or even righteously angry at the bullies who drove that person to suicide... but it doesn't change the fact, that in that moment, everyone filmed the event with their smartphones, getting some kicks out of it. So human.
They all might have some great sorrows in their life, but it doesn't make them good people. Doesn't even make them bad people. Just people.
When you read a book, you can as a reader see both the big picture and the character's view of things. You can understand all the motivations, and sometimes that feeling that comes... that feeling of understanding. Interactivity enhances the effect.
Quite honestly, interactivity also has some dangerous potential of tricking you psychologically. There were moments in the game, when it started to feel like I'm interacting with real people.
Imagine this, you just experienced a very tense moment in a game, and now there's a quiet scene. You can put on some music. Great songs. All of them. You pick one. Chloe is smoking a cigarette in the bed. You make Max talk with her. A conversation follows, where Max gets to know Chloe better (or feels like she got to know her better). They both open up to each other. And she laughs. Max feels connected. You feel connected.
What we might witness in the future? Maybe actual virtual reality friendship simulators. But I digress.
I also have to mention the acting in this game, especially the main characters - Hannah Telle as Max and Ashly Burch as Chloe. We don't yet give awards for best acting in a game, but maybe we should.
Ashly Burch really feels like she's Chloe, and when she says that line "What kind of world does this?!" in that scene, (you'll know it, when you see it) the way her voice subtly breaks under emotion... that entire scene, a performance worthy of applause. I can still hear it in my mind.
And I should not forget the music. I already described a scene involving a choice of music. There are some great songs by unknown indie bands. The composer for the game himself is a lead in one of these bands – Syd Matters (or actually Jonathan Morali, also french). The game opens with his song: "To all of you american girls, it's sad to imagine a world without you..." And Max just walks through the corridors. It's a soul-touching moment, it surely is.
His wonderfully melancholic and contemplative touch is felt throughout the game, beautifully capturing the joy and sadness that is youthful love and Pacific Northwest. It's a collaboration of artists, what this game is. They created something truly beautiful here. France, you did good.
The BadOf course there are some bad things. You can feel sometimes that the game lacked budget, after all, it wasn't expected to be a success.
Not all voice acting is good, some minor characters sound very flat and acted, not natural like Chloe and Max.
And there was one very bad puzzle from episode 2, where you had to find 5 bottles. It was so bad that the game even makes a joke about how well the players “liked” it. It's an example of a very bad attempt to artificially lengthen the playtime. There are some other minor moments like this too.
And sometimes the game doesn't always hint very well what you're supposed to do. There's a sneaking moment in episode 4, where I thought I had to sneak past a character, but in fact I had to rewind time to the moment before that character came out of the door and in that second, quickly move past him. Took me some 20 minutes to figure that out.
Some players have argued, that they felt that there was originally a bigger mystery than what the game actually revealed in the end. Maybe. Could just have been red herrings. I was hooked in the story to the end, so I didn't feel let down. I also played the episodes on a binge-run, not waiting several months in-between, so that also affects my experience.
But. Not all endings are satisfying. I give you that much. One ending definitely feels more canon than the other.
The Bottom LineI remember when I read the Hobbit for the first time. I felt sad after finishing the book. It was a fun book, great characters, I was thrilled to experience their adventure... but then it was over and it felt sad. That great sad. Like you experienced something great, but now it's over. A glimpse of true joy, that unfortunately can't last. I felt that particular form of sad after I finished Life is Strange.
Max and Chloe's extraordinary tale is over, and now the survivors have to go back to ordinary mundane life. But they're never quite the same.
And neither is the player.