If I could turn back time
If I could find a way
I’d take back those words that hurt you
And you’d stay
—Cher, song of the same name
At the request of one of my readers, I picked up and played through Life is Strange‘s first episode, Chrysalis. Opening in Arcadia Bay, a fictional town in Oregon, the game follows Max Caulfield, a new student at the Blackwell Academy. Dreaming about a devastating tornado, she wakes up to find herself in photography class. After class, she witnesses a murder in the bathroom, discovering her power in the process and making use of this knowledge to save Chloe Price, who’d been shot in a previous timeline. She reunites with Chloe and they visit the lighthouse seen in Max’s visions. Armed with a compelling mechanic, Life is Strange initially appears to be something that remains outside the realm of the titles that I’d typically discuss here, and with the first episode now under my belt, I see a title that’s sufficiently different than everything else I’ve played. From what little I’ve seen so far, it’s immediately apparent that the significance of choice is the main theme in the game. Armed with the ability to rewind time to specific moments, players can mull over different decisions to pick the ones they feel are most appropriate by playing out all of the scenarios to see what each decision to entail. This mechanic is also cleverly incorporated into different puzzles: Max is able to explore, make mistakes and then turn back time to play the decision differently, avoiding future trouble (such as getting oil on David Madsen’s documents at Chloe’s house) or understanding what’s needed to retrieve an item.
Life is Strange plays out as an adventure game, and the emphasis on conversations, coupled with decision-making, makes it feel like a more intricate, elaborate variant of the conversation system seen in Deus Ex: Human Revolutions. This time, however, there is no need to sneak around or use augmentations to cause destruction. Max’s objectives can be accomplished by a bit of social skill and, unlike Human Revolutions, conversations and actions have a far more profound action than they would in most games. Knowing this, I employed a more sympathetic approach to avoid antagonising everyone during my playthrough: the emphasis on choice is mirrored when Max sees a butterfly in the bathroom while hiding from Nathan Prescott. Although concepts of Chaos Theory are well beyond the scope of the current discussion, butterflies come into play as a part of Edward Lorenz’s so-called “Butterfly Effect”, which suggests that small changes in a non-deterministic system can result in large changes in later states. In the context of Life is Strange, a truly non-deterministic game would simply be unplayable, so but it’s excellent symbolism. That this sort of symbolism is present this early in the game serves to remind players that any decisions they make will have major consequences later on, and moreover, the effects of one decision might not be apparent until much later on. Consequently, Life is Strange compels players to roll through episodes again to see the effects of different decision patterns, encouraging re-playability as players search for their best ending.
Screenshots and Commentary
- For the some of the figure captions in this post, I will refer to the episode I’ve played as Chrysalis; Life is Strange will therefore refer to the game in general, which I will use for describing mechanics, to minimise confusion. In the paragraphs, I refer to Life is Strange as a whole because the gameplay mechanics should be consistent throughout the game. Opening with a massive tornado destroying a lighthouse, I found the scene to greatly resemble the opening of Alan Wake.
- The dream gives way to a more normal setting: the interior of a classroom by mid-afternoon, as a class on photography is underway. I do not believe my high school offered any sort of lessons on artistic photography, and instead, focused more on the technical details. I myself learned enough to capture more interesting pictures for the yearbook at a workshop that took place during the year’s beginning.
- Looking through Max’s journal and SMS logs yields a great deal of additional insight into the sort of character Max is: she’s a new student at Blackwell Academy and is quite excited, but also seems to have difficulty fitting in with the other students. Here is an image of the basic UI in Life is Strange: it’s minimalistic and simple, being very easy to use, as one merely needs to get close to an object, and a context menu with a list of available options appears.
- Being an adventure game, there is no option to jump or sprint as in a first person shooter, which in turn encourages exploration. Being made to move and look around more slowly forces the players’ attention to the environment, allowing one to interact with critical clues and people. The added bonus of slower movement makes things a little more realistic; while I’m fond of sprinting and jumping about most of the shooters I’ve played, I never move about in that manner in real life, as it would be extremely tiring of done for protracted periods.
- The classroom thus serves as a simple tutorial to familiarise players to Life is Strange‘s controls: after watching Nathan shoot Chloe, Max’s ability to rewind time is awakened, and the game encourages players to test it by having Max become embarrassed when she fails to answer a question, then learns the answer and rewinds time to answer it properly. This shows players that they should be making liberal use of this ability for decision-making.
- Though simple compared to some of the glitziest titles available out there, the visuals in Life is Strange are very effective at conveying a small-town American feel: the game was made using a later build of Unreal Engine 3 and handles very smoothly.
- After classes let out, Max’s first objective is to return to the dormitories and retrieve a movie-filled USB for Warren, one of her friends from before she enrolled at Blackwell. Warren has a crush of sorts on Max, and although subtle, it is noticeable even during Chrysalis, although it’s only later that players have a choice of driving interactions down a particular path. Chalk another one up for the list of reasons to continue playing.
- There’s a large number of people hanging around on the academy grounds that can be interacted with, adding an additional bit of life into the game world. There are some students for whom the only available option is “look”; while probably present as a development constraint (i.e. creating dialogue for each character is prohibitively costly), it contributes to the realism factor in that one does not typically try to strike up random conversations with every person in sight.
- The dormitories offer a fine place to begin experimenting with Max’s powers. She first needs to get inside, and it’s a clever puzzle: Max must first distract the girls sitting on the steps using the sprinkler and tamper with a bucket of paint to disperse them; I chose to reconcile with Victoria here, as there’s little point in antagonising every character in the game. I play by similar approaches in real life: it takes way too much effort to antagonist people even if they are in the wrong, and as reflected in Life is Strange, the consequences can be quite unpleasant.
- I absolutely love the level of details the dorm rooms are rendered in: they capture the sense of being living spaces for students, and the rooms that can be visited give off different impressions, reflective of their owner’s personality. Max’s room is a little strange with its lanterns, but also illustrates Max’s interests in photography. In order to enter Diana’s room and actually recover the USB, Max will need to mediate a situation, and using the empathy/understanding approach, I was able to get it done.
- Before being able to reach the parking lot, Max witnesses David, the security guard, confronting Katie. I elected to intervene here and continued on to the parking lot. After meeting up with Warren, Nathan arrives to pummel Warren and threaten Max, but Max is saved by Chloe at the last moment. Mirroring the powerlessness that is seen in reality, Max has no options for fighting back or defending Warren, and Chloe’s arrival sets in motion the episodes’ second half, which takes place at Chloe’s house.
- Chloe’s house, like the dormitories, is filled with details: whenever interacting with objects by looking at them, Max will have an interesting remark to make about it. Back at the school, there were a host of missing posters for Rachel Amber, a girl who was Chloe’s friend and quite well-liked by others. Their prevalence is quite unsettling for players, who realise that Rachel must have substantial role for the future.
- David’s workspace is filled with surveillance equipment and there’s a gun locker, as well. An incredibly complex character, one of the reasons I would continue with Life is Strange is to see David’s role shift as the game progresses. Similar to the dormitories, the goal at Chloe’s house is to try to repair Max’s camera and here, Max also learns about her past friendship with Chloe, as well as Rachel. When David confronts Chloe about playing music too loudly and discovers recreational drugs, I had Max to hide, then step in and take the blame for things.
- I realise that decisions with a positive short-term consequence can have detrimental impacts on what happens to Max later on, so I used the time travel mechanic to watch each scene a few times before proceeding. Once Chloe and Max leave the house, they visit the same lighthouse that was seen earlier in Max’s dream. By this point in Chrysalis, the main decision-making sections of the game have drawn to a close, and it’s time to sit back to watch some exposition.
- The park is absolutely stunning, and surprisingly enough, I finished Chrysalis in less than two hours: this was with watching each cut-scene and experimenting with every conversation, but not interacting with each and every single entity that exists within the environment. It was the shortest day of year, and after homemade ramen for lunch, that I beat this game. Once I beat the game, I realised that the experience was quite short, and wondered about whether or not I would like to play through the remaining four episodes.
- I’ll go into greater detail in the final paragraph as to whether or not I will end up buying the entirety of Life is Strange; normally costing 18.99 CAD, it’s going for 12.72 during the Winter Steam sale for the present, although I don’t see myself as having the time to play it in the near future on account of how busy graduate school is looking: first week of 2016, I have a conference paper deadline, plus two presentations and a TA meeting to tend to. 2016 in general is looking pretty intense, leaving little time to sit down and game, so if I do game, I’d like to at least get through my backlog first (consider that I’ve still not beaten Valkyria Chronicles yet!).
- So, what will likely happen is that I’ll set aside Chrysalis for the present, and then during the next major Steam Sale, if there is enough interest for me to do so, I will purchase the season pass and play through the remaining episodes. Moreover, if the level of interest is quite high, I’ll do separate talks for each episode. To express said interest, you may drop a comment below. Alternatively, visit my Facebook or Twitter accounts and message me there.
- So, returning to Chrysalis, the ending was well-written, and excites me enough to wish to check things out. With the characters, setting and game mechanics established, Life is Strange can proceed towards the more exciting aspects of the game, which are set in upcoming episodes, and during which decisions made this early will begin having an impact on the events to come. Given the integration of choice and coverage of heavier topics, the praise for Life is Strange is well-deserved.
- We’re pretty much done this post, and despite being only one episode, I feel that twenty images might not be enough to fully do said episode justice. Life is Strange is a game with a bold sense of direction, being as compelling as a good novel, albeit one with a far greater degree of interactivity. It is, in short, the game of story-driven game that manages to hold the player’s interest, demonstrating that games can be about keeping an eye out for the smaller details.
The question eventually becomes: will I pick up the whole of Life is Strange? The answer is “once time permits”: there is definitely enough content in the games to warrant a full purchase for the remaining episodes (especially if there’s a sale), and thanks to a compelling narrative, my curiosity regarding what will happen to Max and Chloe has been piqued. I’ve not advanced far enough into the game to begin taking a look at Life is Strange‘s core themes about identity; these elements definitely merit exploration. On the whole, Life is Strange is reasonably well-crafted, with suitable artwork and use of graphics to bring the Arcadia Bay area to life, whether it’s a sunset at the lighthouse or the little details at Blackwell’s dormitories. While the voice acting was met with a more varied response, I found that the execution (admittedly, resembling that of RWBY for me) was acceptable and does not detract from the game. So, from a value perspective, Life is Strange is worth picking up: there’s incentive for multiple play-throughs, and the focus on character development represents a breath of fresh air from the tense, fast-paced shooters I’m more accustomed to playing. This forms the basis for my answer; whether or not I will buy all of Life is Strange is not so much a matter of if as much as it is when. Over the next year, things are going to be quite busy, and I feel that I will not be able to do Life is Strange justice if I play while simultaneously attempting to wrap up my graduate studies and trekking through the sizeable backlog of titles I’ve accumulated over the past few years.