I’ma go right ahead and say it; I loved Life is Strange. Like, proper freakin’ adored the shit out of it. Whilst I appreciate that pisses all over the ‘keep your audience guessing’ rule of writing, I hope you’ll stick with me anyways. See, even though I know I loved Life is Strange, I’ve been struggling to adequately explain exactly why I loved it – so whilst you know how this ends already, I’m hoping the journey will be worthwhile anyways. In fact, Life is Strange – in essence – is very much a game about ‘The Journey’, so it’s perhaps fitting that the review should be too, and if you’ll permit me, I’ll try my best to do Life is Strange (some semblance of) justice in what follows. Much like the game itself, this’ll be a voyage of discovery, of exploration – experimentation, even – and even though I’ll likely struggle at times, I sincerely hope I won’t balls it up too much.
Anyways – hard sell over – let’s get cracking, shall we!?
Life is Strange, developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix, is an interactive, graphic narrative type game in a similar vein to Beyond: Two Souls. As such, you’ll play as the game’s protagonist Max Caulfield, a teenager who has recently returned to the town of her childhood in order to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. All is not well in Arcadia Bay however, and aside from homework and whatnot, you’ll also be tasked with getting to the bottom of some strange goings-on in the seemingly quiet coastal town. Obviously, that sounds pretty straight forward – perhaps even boring – but whilst it’s fair to say Life is Strange isn’t a fast, action-packed game, I found it anything but boring. See, what the game lacks in explosions, frenetic set-pieces, or, say, combat, it more than makes up for in HEART, and it’s a game positively stuffed with actual, proper feelz. Indeed, the relatively slow pace of Life is Strange is one of its greatest assets, not least because it allows the player to fully absorb the atmosphere of Arcadia Bay – to become immersed in the world Dontnod have lovingly crafted.
Going back to the whole ‘journey’ and ‘feelz’ thing, this isn’t the kind of narrative experience in which you hurtle towards the conclusion – the narrative reveal, if you like – it’s the kind that envelops you in its story, setting and characters. Each episode feels like a chapter in an excellent book, one that pulls you in completely, and I frequently found myself in that weird wanting-more-but-not-wanting-it-to-end place with Life is Strange, exactly like I do when I’m reading really great literature. Normally, I can quite fractious when games drag, and I can definitely get a bit ‘yeah, wotevs…move it along’ when confronted with extended cut-scenes, or overly-wordy collectibles and whatnot, but not with Life is Strange. Not only did I read everything, explore all conversations fully, but I actually savored them – taking everything I possibly could from that encounter, leaflet or diary entry.
Much like the best literature, the game also deals with some important themes, exploring them in an interesting and intelligent way, and in this sense, Life is Strange manages to thrive in the bits that exist outside of – or separate from – the overarching narrative. To put it another way, there’s as much life outside of the main story as in it, and the main story itself is actually made all the more powerful and impressive precisely because it encompasses all these separate dramas and vignettes that, together, give a real sense of life to Arcadia Bay.
That sense of Arcadia Bay being a living, breathing place, populated with three dimensional characters sets up what, for me, was the game’s coup de grace: an almost overwhelming feeling of EMPATHY and NOSTALGIA. I didn’t go through the experience of being a teenage girl, and I sure as shit didn’t go to an elite academy, but I still felt a weird nostalgia playing Life is Strange – and that, I think, is testament to the skill and ingenuity of Dontnod. I’m getting to that age now where my own childhood and adolescence is taking on a hazy, nostalgia-infused form in my mind, and Life is Strange manages to tap directly into that, into that weird feeling I get in the pit of my stomach when I think back to my own formative years. It genuinely feels like the game’s developers had the exact same feelings and – whereas I struggle to even describe them – have somehow managed to weave it into the very fabric of Life is Strange, creating a palpable atmosphere of nostalgia and melancholy in a virtual world of pixels and polygons.
This is a truly impressive achievement and it makes Life is Strange speak to you on a deeper, almost subliminal level. Like other great pieces of art – novels, films etc – it gives it a timeless, classic quality that lifts it onto another level, one that makes it resonate with its audience in a way that they’d perhaps struggle to explain. Given the game’s ram-packed with Easter Eggs, references and knowing nods, I don’t expect it’s a coincidence that our protagonist’s surname is ‘Caulfield’, because there’s a definite ‘Catcher in the Rye’ vibe to the game (in many ways) – that sense that this is a distilled, essential record of what it feels like to be a teenager at any time, in any place.
You’ll have your own examples of things that have spoken to you, obviously, but for me, Life is Strange also has a quintessential John Hughes/Steven Spielberg quality to it, and it’s every bit as enduring and universal as their films are. To use (slightly) more recent examples, I couldn’t help but see a combination of Garden State and Donnie Darko within Life is Strange – particularly given its theme of returning “home” and the ever present sense of foreboding inherent in the narrative arc of the game.
Many times I found this expertly blended combination of melancholy and mystery several nautical miles beyond compelling, and – I’m not afraid to admit – massively affecting. Cry? I was fucking weeping like a child. I was tired when I was playing Life is Strange, admittedly, but if one particular section of Episode 4 doesn’t have you welling up, I’d argue you’re probably dead inside. It’s worth mentioning here, I think, that Life is Strange doesn’t specifically go for the trite, by-the-numbers approach to eliciting tears from its audience, and you’ll likely be affected because you’re already emotionally invested in the story and it’s characters. Not the other way around. That might seem insignificant, but it’s not; and it’s a huge part of why Life is Strange is so brilliant. Rather than throw in cheap weepy bits to make you care about the characters, Life is Strange makes you care about the characters first, makes you invest in them, and that ultimately makes the emotional elements more genuine and impacting.
Everything I’ve just mentioned, whilst exceptional in and of itself, is made exponentially better given the game’s main feature: Max’s Rewind Time ability. In my opinion, this works really well on at least two levels. The first fits into all the mushy stuff I’ve just been saying and – for me at least – a big part of nostalgia’s emotional impact stems from the fact that ‘you can never go back’ to a particular time; it’s done and those circumstances will never exist again. In this sense, even though Max’s Rewind abilities are limited, it still taps into that desire to beat the ephemeral nature of life – of moments immediately disappearing – and the psychological effect of that is exceptionally powerful.
On a more immediate level, it fits into those feelings you often have as a teenager – when you just want the ground to swallow you up precisely because there are no do-overs, and because you’ve just said or done something that you’d give anything to be able to take back, or try again. In Life is Strange there are usually narrative reasons for using these abilities, but I found myself using them as much to try and make the world a slightly less shitty place as anything else – either for Max or, more often than not, for her friends who I’d come to care about too. Sure, I’d use Rewind to try and pry a pertinent clue out of a conversation, but I frequently found myself trying all possible options before finally settling on the one that gave the person I was talking to the most satisfaction, or succor, or hope even.
Without wanting to spoil anything, you’ll also find that – even with these powers – there’s a limit to what you can achieve, even an (initially) unforeseeable cost to using them, and that too adds an extra element of pathos to your journey. Many works of fiction have dealt with the themes of fate, destiny, time-travel etc, but Life is Strange deserves to be included with the best of them, and precisely because it does so in a subtle, profound, and emotionally intelligent way.
This element is further highlighted by the branching story/consequences thing that is central to the game, and which is, quite frankly, shit-kickingly awesome. This isn’t a new thing in games, and recently there’s been a whole raft of ‘interactive drama’ games, but I can honestly say I’ve never agonised over – or cared about – these decisions as much as I did in Life is Strange. Even though some were fairly obvious, it wasn’t necessarily just about choosing the “right” one for me, or that I wanted a particular ‘consequence’ further down the line, it was that I actually cared about how they’d impact upon the world I was fully invested in – even if I didn’t actually get to see that impact play out in any way, shape or form. I actually wanted my last interaction with an incidental character to be positive – to leave that relationship on an upbeat, optimistic note. It sounds entirely daft, I know, but it became quite important to me to maintain a degree of consistency and empathy running through my Life is Strange experience, and – even dafter – it was important to me because I knew it was important to Max. There, I said it!
In a weird way, this all became even more relevant when I reached the end of the game because (again, without wanting to spoil anything) I was faced with a fucking tough decision, and precisely because I’d spent time getting to know everyone, it made it both easier, and more difficult. Obviously, that sounds stupid, but if you play the game it’ll make sense, and if you already have played it, I suspect you’ll know what I’m on about. Friendship and human interaction are central themes of Life is Strange, perhaps the most important themes, and each relationship you have in the game comes to mean something to you (and Max) and that will all hit you in a dizzying crescendo of realisation as you arrive at the game’s climax.
In essence, Life is Strange is an excellent – like, truly excellent – example of what Video Games can bring to the table in the ‘Graphic adventure/Interactive narrative’ genre. By expertly combining elements of both film and literature, and by fully building upon the level of immersion actually “playing” a game can engender, Life is Strange becomes a benchmark for what interactive narrative experiences could, or should be. There are so many things working to elevate that experience, from the music (the soundtrack is also sublime), to the fleshed-out characters, via the believable and beautifully presented friendship between Chloe and Max, and all told, the resultant “experience” is out-fucking-standing.
Objectively, it’s not perfect – graphically it’s not that great, for example, and sometimes lip syncing is ‘amateur ventriloquist’ levels of bad – and occasionally certain aspects don’t entirely work, but they’re all tiny, miniscule bumps on Life is Strange’s road. The biggest complaint I’ve seen is that ‘supernatural mystery’ element of the story isn’t wrapped up particularly well, but I didn’t really mind that much because – as I’ve mentioned a billionty-twelve times – it was the journey and the feelz that were always going to be my take-aways from the game.
Indeed, Life is Strange’s ability to tap into exactly how adolescence *feels* is nothing short of spectacular, and perhaps to emphasise that point, I fully expect I’ll return to Life is Strange in exactly the same way I return to seminal films and novels that have affected me in powerful ways, that have spoken to me on a profound, but hard to define level. Likewise, because I loved Arcadia Bay so goddam much, because I came to know and care about its inhabitants, I also imagine that sometimes I’ll just go back to visit, to envelop myself in its world and its atmosphere for… well, for reasons of nostalgia. I already miss the world of Life is Strange, I am homesick for a place that doesn’t really exist, and whether Dontnod intended it or not, that is a genuinely impressive achievement.