Telltale really made the modern “Adventure game” iconic in a number of ways, mostly in how formulaic they are. The Telltale formula is to take a well known IP, and then add a new story to the world with minimal changes and choices that the player will have control over. Players are just along for the ride, and ultimately it’s similar to a storybook.
But whether you pick up the Batman, Walking Dead, or Guardians of the Galaxy, as long as you like the IP, you’ll probably enjoy the journey. If you don’t, well, it might be the wrong game for you.
Dontnod’s entry into the genre is therefore quite odd. Instead of attaching the storybook idea to an IP they instead decided to make their own world and tell a story there. It definitely was a risky venture as having no established IP meant everyone would-be newcomers to the series and trying to make the “storybook” approach interesting to new fans could be challenging.
But it’s only with great risk can great reward be obtained, and I think Dontnod is deserving of a massive reward.
Life Is Strange starts in the first few minutes, introducing us to the main character, Max Caulfield, and then as she goes to the bathroom after class, she witnesses a murder, and suddenly she’s back in class. This is the player’s first introduction to Life Is Strange’s big change, in that Max Caulfield gains the power to go back in time.
While time travel is nothing new to video games, Life Is Strange actually takes the power beyond just a story element and instead uses the ability to change the metagame. While Max Caulfield will use the power to go back in time and retain objects or knowledge when she needs them, Life Is Strange is also granting the user the power to go back and replay parts of the scene to see different options.
While it’s common for the Adventure Game genre to expect players to replay the game and try out all the opposite choices, Life Is Strange instead encourages players to rewind immediately and view both possible choices, then choose which choice they wish to lock in for the canonical story that is going on.
A simple example might be there’s a bully tormenting a kid, and Max can either choose to intervene in the situation or stay out of it. That might not sound like a major choice, and perhaps most players will tend to intervene. When viewing the intervening scene, the bully may turn their ire onto Max and make it sound like they plan to target her later on. So rewinding and staying out of the situation may seem better, though if they view that situation the bullied kid might lose respect for Max and have expected her to step up, now that person feels betrayed. Suddenly there are now two negative outcomes but it’s up to the player to choose which version they want to stick with.
Life Is Strange’s rewind power feels like an evolution of the genre because no longer does a game have to spell out the consequences of choices, nor do players feel the need to look for a guide to find optimal paths. Instead, players can view both scenes and make their own choice.
Of course, without a famous IP, the question will be, why does any choice matter? This is the other side of Life Is Strange’s brilliance. Without tying their game to a famous IP it’s on the team to develop and create characters players will care about, and ultimately, Life Is Strange does an amazing job at this.
In the first episode, I moved through the story at a quick pace and got to the end, I was presented with a typical list of choices, and how other people made each side of a choice. But I noticed a number of choices that I had missed out on when focusing so much on the critical path.
In the second episode, the game would often bring up choices I made or missed, and suddenly I started to care. The player’s actions actually do change small pieces of the story.
Yet what really made me interested in talking to everyone is that the characters of Life Is Strange are interesting and unique. Each character has a story and motivation and quite a few of them have issues that I wanted to explore.
There’s a few moments of typical high school tv drama, but at the same time, every character is written in such a mature way that it doesn’t feel like the typical high school drama with exposition dumps and actors playing to the audience. Instead, each character has realistic emotions and actions that felt meaningful and reached a part of me. I cared far more about a girl who is clearly in emotional distress if the game or show isn’t shoving that fact in your face every chance it gets. Life Is Strange takes the subtle approach at times and it tends to take a more mature approach to the topics than most television shows do.
It’s these connections to the characters that makes Life Is Strange such an amazing journey. The player’s connection to the characters makes the choices about those characters more impactful. It’s really easy to make a choice to risk wrath from a bully or disappointing the bullied. But when you start to know who the bully is and who the bullied is, suddenly you might care more about standing up for one or avoiding the anger of the other.
That’s not to say everything is perfect in Life Is Strange, the first episode makes Max Caulfield into a typical hipster. The episode even has her name drop little known celebrities of photography or choosing an inferior instant camera. It was a little rough, however since Life Is Strange was a truly episodic game with about a month between releases, it’s clear Dontnod was able to incorporate feedback into future episodes and pulled back on Max’s personality.
At the same time, the final episode is a little rough. Playing all five episodes in about a week’s time doesn’t feel like the intended experience. The game is a little forceful with its callbacks to previous choices to remind players of decisions made. However, episode five being played right after the previous four feels like it spends too much time remembering the past, rather than moving the story forward. It’s not a total mess, but it’s also the roughest episode when it could have been a bit more impactful.
However, episode five also brings up the important question that all Adventure Games get asked. Are the choices you make meaningful? The simple answer is “no”, ultimately Life Is Strange comes down to a binary choice about endings, and neither choice gets locked out. Yet I think that’s the wrong answer.
I don’t think any “final choice” could live up to the expectations of fans. Whether it be a cutscene of multiple choices in Fallout 3, a palette swap in Mass Effect 3, or any ending of an Adventure Game where a short clip plays out, there’s not a way to appropriately accept a large number of meaningful decisions into those ending scenes, without simultaneously locking players out of a massive number of alternate versions.
But if Life Is Strange was simply about a final choice, then that would be the only gameplay in Life Is Strange. Instead, Life Is Strange is about making that final choice important. The journey through five episodes of the story where characters evolved and are introduced to the player is what Life Is Strange is trying to do. Instead, each choice is a decision players make about the characters, whether they want to befriend them, keep them at arm’s length, care about them, or dismiss them.
The choices don’t affect the ending, but the choices affect the journey and that journey affects the importance of the ending. The final choice of Life Is Strange is a hard one but it’s a hard one because Life Is Strange has succeeded at everything it attempted to do. I cared about almost every character in Life Is Strange and that’s exactly why Life Is Strange worked.
When a game is just a storybook, it’s the quality of the story that matters, not how interactive it is, and in that Life Is Strange is an excellent story.
I give Life Is Strange an arbitrary
I almost definitely will make a video on this game, and potentially this series later this year, but before that, I want to play through at least the entire Life Is Strange series and potentially other Dontnod properties. I’ve become sold on their design for Life Is Strange and I want to see if their level of storytelling found in this game will hold up after more outings with them.
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