Life Is Strange: Episode 1
Dontnod Entertainment, developer of the 2013’s Remember Me, releases their sophomore effort, an episodic adventure game with a title that simply declares: Life is Strange. Set in a small coastal town in Oregon, the story centers on an 18-year-old photography student named Maxine (Max) Caulfield who inexplicably discovers she has the ability to rewind time. Today, I’ll be reviewing the first episode. The developers have five total episodes planned, with episode 2 promising to drop in March this year.
Life is Strange: Episode one introduces Max, who attends a special preparatory high school, Black Well Academy. Max’s artistic interests lie in photography and at times this skill comes into play outside of schoolwork. However, much like the adventure games of their contemporary, Telltale Games, Dontnod has focused on story telling and narrative choices over game mechanics. There’s no platforming, weapons handling, level grinding, or crafting to speak of. You’re tasked with talking to characters and investigating the environment for solutions to puzzles before moving on to the next section of the game. What Dontnod has added to this formula is Max’s ability to rewind time. Talking with characters changes dramatically when the player can use knowledge they’ve gained from the end of a conversation at the beginning. This often leads to new dialog options as well as discovering information characters were previously trying to hide. Max can also subtlety manipulate the environment to take advantage of predetermined events, such as loosening the grip on a paint bucket so that it falls when it’s hung from a high bar. Rewinding time has been a mechanic in games before, but I can’t recall a time when’s it’s been applied to such sober, real world scenarios as it is here. If you remember Bill Murray’s early shenanigans in Groundhog Day you’ll get the general idea. While the episode doesn’t play around with this concept to it’s full potential, Dontnod have for the most part successfully woven it into their adventure game and the promise of more situations to use the power in future episodes is enticing.
Max herself is a shy, nuanced protagonist, recalling characters such as Benjamin Braddock from The Graduate and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye (Max’s last name and a poster in her room suggest her character may be inspired by Holden). A good balance of meek and geek, Max is a character who’s easy to root for. The story features a solid supporting cast including a pretentious photography teacher, several rich, maniacal assholes, and Max’s best friend, the punky, short tempered, blue-haired Chloe.
Overall, Life is Strange can feel like an R-rated, high school set ABC show. In other words, there’s an attempt at an authentic portrayal of the struggles of modern American teenagers, but it comes across as more energetic and kitschy than honest. The teachers speak in John Lennon quotes, students insult each other with cringe worthy lines like “Go fuck your selfie,” and Chloe’s penchant for phrases like “hella” and “punk ass” at times borders on laughable. I found myself enjoying the game as a kind of campy television show taking itself just a pinch too seriously, whether the developers meant me to take it that way or not.
The school grounds of Black Well are almost idyllic, perhaps a bit too sunny to realistically showcase Oregon weather, and contain dorms in addition to the main campus. While you visit a few other locations, Black Well and it’s community of students, teachers, and staff are the primary setting for episode one. The school, the town, and the game itself all share the same small and intimate feeling, as if everyone is hostilely involved in everyone else’s private lives. Max is privy to a lot of these secrets, and like seeds planted in fertile ground there’s a lot of hope that each choice the player makes will have interesting consequences down the road. There are several looming threats and sub stories which I won’t spoil here, ranging from bizarre family drama to natural disasters. Still, the episode is rather short, and walking away from it, you could be forgiven for feeling that it’s more set up than anything else.
Life is Strange isn’t for everyone. Your millage will depend on your affinity for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the like: fun and campy in tone with a heavy shot of the super natural to keep the human drama interesting. Episode one at the very least does what any good pilot should do in that it made me curious to see what happens next.