Life Is Strange – Episode 1
If one were to mention The Walking Dead video game, very few people would think about the shooter that came out in 2013. This is partly because Survival Instinct is widely regarded as a shambling mess, but the main reason is that Telltale Games absolutely nailed it in their episodic interactive drama – paving the way for further seasons of the adventure game and the adaptation of at least four other intellectual properties into their engaging format.
I bring this up because Telltale have both blazed the trail and set the standard of comparison for Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.
After moving to Seattle five years previous, Max Caulfield has returned to her sleepy hometown of Arcadia Bay to attend college. A wallflower with a penchant for retro photography gear, her biggest worry is whether she can fit enough selfies into the day. When she gets caught up in a shooting (the gun kind), Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time and manages to prevent the death of Chloe Price – her estranged best friend. As the game develops the two reconnect and Max’s dream from the prologue develops into a full-blown vision of a destructive storm that will devastate the town in a week.
A game like this lives and dies on the strength of its story, and the first episode of Life is Strange doesn’t disappoint as it drags the player in and won’t let go till the credits rolled. Arcadia Bay is a place full of depth and mystery, laying strong groundwork for a story that will undoubtedly develop over time. Some of the characters rely heavily on their stereotypes (quiet nerd, bullish jock and mean cheerleader to name a few), but there is the potential that they grow into full-bodied individuals in future episodes.
Max and Chloe are the driving forces of the narrative and they’re an excellent pair as their natures are quite different, but their old connection is gently revitalised as events bring them together. Things are never hurried or forced – particularly with these two – and the game is more than happy to let the player be the silent third party to their friendship – enjoying their banter, sharing their concerns and appreciating their time together. Credit also needs to go to Square-Enix for being the only publisher Dontnod approached who didn’t insist on making the lead character male.
The rewind power adds a refreshing twist to the decisions made in-game. I’ll admit that in the past I’ve often made the ‘right’ choice over the one I wanted, or crashed a Telltale game before the autosave could kick in to change a decision after seeing its effect. With the rewind you can safely give the mean cheerleader everything she deserves, bask in the gratification of the moment, and then rewind to take the high road. There is a limit on how far back one can rewind, but the length of time feels right.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows of course. The graphics are generally good in the cell-shaded style held dear by episodic games, but something bizarre happened with the lip-synching, and at certain points it looked like most of the cast had been smacked around the jaw with a Botox stick. It became difficult to watch the faces of characters when they spoke as their under-affected movements dropped me right in the uncomfortable part of the uncanny valley.
There were some spots of cringeworthy dialogue when the game tried too hard to prove that the characters were ‘young’ and ‘hip’ bylaying on the internet slang just a tad too thick. What could really eject players from the moment is when Max nerds-out over one photographer or another. In a particular scene in a dorm room, interacting with a photo album on the desk causes Max to start spouting the names of presumably famous photographers and wishing she could shoot something just like them. Seeing some of the photographs she was describing might have allowed the player to learn something, and maybe even garner some appreciation for the topic.
As it was, I just shrugged and steered her back to rearranging the cheerleader’s photo collage into a middle finger.
For those of you of a TL;DR persuasion, I like this game. The teaser for episode two and the impact of the choices made in episode one are intruiging, and it’s heartening to see that Dontnod Entertainment – whose only other game has been the ill-fated Remember Me – are still prepared to take risks. They could have just made a game about men shooting other men over chest high walls and wheelbarrowed their money home, but instead they have made a game about time-travel and the friendship between two women.
Hopefully we’ll see more games like this in the future.