My impressions on the episodic, graphic adventure from Dontnod Entertainment, creators of Gone Home, on the Playstation 4.
A reminder before you scroll down that I do not give scores to titles in my reviews due to my belief that games as well as any forms of media are more than a number and instead should be understood in their whole. If you’re looking for otherwise, I’d recommend a cold read of the title. This would be one that I would highly recommend and may be worthwhile to experience without prior opinion.
I’m just going to say it. Life is Strange is one of the most evocative narrative experiences that I have experienced in a long, long time. It did it in three hours. Now, there are some games out there that have truly captivated me and that I hold near and dear to my heart, but this game definitely has a spot on the list of up-and-coming in my classics list. I’m not going to jump the gun and say it deserves a spot in my top 20 or anything, we have yet to see how the narrative will continue to unfold, but we’ll see where things go from here. I have no doubt that this game met and exceeded all my expectations I had when I first laid eyes on it on IGN.
What is it that blows my mind about this game? What part of it doesn’t?!
The art direction is phenomenally well done. It is one-part beautiful, two-parts evocative design. If anyone knows anything about me, they know I love beautiful design work. The fellows at Dontnod Entertainment have created a beautiful, almost hand-painted world in both pixel and place. I emphasize its sense of being handmade. There is detail everywhere and the people and world that is constructed is crafted unlike any that I have seen for quite some time.
The game opens pretty cliche-like, I’ll say. But that’s its weakest point. The opening sets up the theatrical scale of the game. It gives you the gorgeous soundtrack that you will consistently find yourself enveloping, the way in which the lighting and camera-view will have you always exploring and staring in awe, and the character set-up that just feels so real when you’re in the classroom. I mean, the first 5 minutes of the game, you find yourself *minor prologue spoiler* walking up the steps to find yourself faced with the greatest vortex I’ve ever seen in a video game. This is where you can begin to see how the art is made. This vortex perfectly captures strength, solidarity, and beauty, but also danger, power, and presence. *end spoiler*
The game uses sound to its utmost advantage in order to create a world space that breaths and diegetically teems with the life. The next scenes explore the world in which Max, the 18-year-old protagonist, lives. The aesthetic atmosphere is both very accurate in portrayal of teenage life, but also in how the game explains the way the world is viewed through such a life.
Then there’s the whole superpower thing. The supernatural aspect that is introduced by Max’s ability to rewind time in the game comes very quickly in the first episode. But what’s more significant that the intuitive use of the mechanic and its role in choice decision is that this part of Max does not consume her character. It plays a role in guiding the action, in guiding her knowledge (as well as the players, and in setting up the first episode’s huge cliffhanger, but her overall character is never consumed by the characteristic. It does not define her even though it is a part of her. If one were to ignore her visions and puzzle-solving portions of the game, Max is still a teenage girl with a personality of her own. In fact, what’s most surprising is how well she has taken learning of her power.
The characters are well done as well. Each comes with their own sense of belonging in this world. They have their own personalities, hopes, and allusions to events foreshadowed as well as events that simply exist within this world. You see a poster for a restaurant and Max will comment about a character that has not even been introduced, if ever will be. (They will be, you find that out much later in episode one though).
By the time you meet the character Warren, you’ll find yourself already knowing much about him through the world itself and the way in which characters speak and interact with one another. It doesn’t do this in an over-the-top manner that’s much to obvious, but naturally and effectively.
The way in which choices are made in this game are also very well-done. Although one might criticize the overpowered nature of using her ability to rewind time to change choices, I don’t think that plays such a huge role in my impression because the choices in Life is Strange compared to say Telltale Games are much more weighted and ambiguous. You can watch the reaction to each of the major choices afforded to the player, but because of the way in which they each function, there’s no telling what kind of effect it will have on the course of the game. The game does not provide any immediate feedback to these decisions outside of the obligatory “This will have consequences.”
But that’s one differential from Telltale’s The Walking Dead that also uniquely impresses me. Because the choices are so ambiguous, a message like “This will have consequences” has so much weight. You have no idea what will happen because of your choices. So although you may have more freedom to change your mind, every choice feels rooted in consequence. I’m scared and yet thrilled every time I see that message. The other part to that is that many things in the world are linked to this message. Something as simple as watering your plant in your room calls this message. But why? I have no idea. But it makes the world so much more intriguing. Perhaps, it is an allusion to the butterfly effect. Something simple may change something drastically. On the other hand, it could be merely a Harvest Moon fence theory.
The world also is teeming with life and memories. It feels lived in and emergent and embedded narrative lies within every corner of every map. Each area of the game feels like a place to be explored. I always want to see what’s happening next in the story. That’s the kind of player I am. Yet, despite this drastic need for advancement, I found myself walking around every room, looking for every secret. I wanted to know when I would get the message of consequence. I wanted to hear the beautiful-scripted teenage dialogue and monologue, to listen to the memories and histories, and to try and begin investigating the highly-foreshadowed and mysterious case of Rachel Amber’s disappearance.
The characters are also full of what seem to be at glance stereotypes, but are fleshed out right from the get-go. One of the most interesting parts of the game is exploring this town that is unfamiliar to Max who has just recently moved in after having left this place four years ago. This opens a lot of doors, as well as through the characters themselves, to explore more than just the supernatural. It also explore the very teenage topics of identity, social fear, and finding purpose and power in oneself and the art of life. It really goes to show a world that is full and strange indeed.
This isn’t a game for everyone, it’s a graphic adventure and not what I would consider to be the hardcore gamer’s game. It’s not about the dynamic gameplay, exhilarating multiplayer, or complex system of mechanics. In comparison to other games of this type, it also is more Gone Home than Walking Dead in atmosphere. It definitely builds off of their previous work, but I think becomes something more game-like for those wary and skeptical. However, the game explores more about the lives of the people within this world rather than a tense, thrilling experience. It’s not about the sudden life-threatening events or dynamic action scenes. Not yet at least. This is through-and-through a narrative-focused adventure title more akin to Beyond: Two Souls, Broken Age or older games like Sam & Max.
This is a highly-recommended title in my book and worthy of a $20 purchase. It’s fantastic and I really believe that more games of this type need to exist and thrive in the games industry. I can’t wait until March to dive into the next chapter in this tale. There are so many hints of things to come (including this strange flurry of black smoke-like substance flying through the sky in the distance in one scene…) as certainly the stage has been set up to explore the strange occurrences that are going on in this small, peaceful town. I’m just waiting to dive back in.
P.S. It’s episodic and I’m a fervent supporter of this type of storytelling. Be prepared as such.