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Retrospective: Life is Strange
Approaching it's 4th anniversary, Gaming Writer Alex Green delves back into the interesting and emotional world of Life is Strange. Has this adventure game withstood the test of time?
Here we are in 2018 and Telltale Games has closed its doors amid controversy with tales of a poorly structured company and workers losing jobs without a severance package. At the same time, Dontnod has released the first episode of Life is Strange 2 with huge anticipation and a strong critical reception. One is gone, the other has risen to become an industry leader.
The opposite could not have been truer in 2015. Telltale were riding the highs, despite a change in CEO when Dan Conners resigned in January of that year. They were cranking out episodes of Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones, Minecraft: Story Mode and had announced their Batman series at that year’s VGAs. They were making the safe bets.
When Life is Strange was released in 2015, it was a huge gamble for Dontnod. The French studio released their first game Remember Me after years of struggle which included it being a PS3 exclusive only for Sony to drop their support of the game in 2011. Releasing in 2013 to the tune of mixed reviews and average sales, this disappointment led to troubling rumours of bankruptcy for the Paris-based studio. They put those whisperings to rest when CEO Oskar Guilbert announced they had entered ‘judicial reorganisation’, a French policy allowing the company to restructure and reduce its costs. They had prolonged their time.
So, in 2013, starting with a team of 15 and discussions with Square Enix, Dontnod boldly look to improve their fortunes with a new IP, leading to a development journey for 2 years to release what would become Life is Strange in 2015, the game that according to Guilbert “completely transformed Dontnod”. I figured, why not catch up ahead of their latest adventure?
For those that haven’t played it, you play as Max Caulfield, a photography student at Blackwell Academy in the town of Arcadia Bay who gains the power to rewind and manipulate time after seeing a woman get shot. Along the way, she rekindles her friendship with her childhood friend Chloe Price, and learns more about the town she left and the people in it.
Having finished it, I’m dumbfounded about my low expectations going into it. How I thought it would be an interesting coming of age story with time travel elements and little more. Yet finishing Life is Strange, I realised I hadn’t been as emotionally involved with a game in eons. I hadn’t cared so much about characters or cried at a game -twice- since maybe Red Dead Redemption. Because when you look at the complete package, Life is Strange is genuinely fantastic and important.
Don’t get me wrong, it has its share of issues. The dialogue in Episode 1 is poor to the point of annoyance, although this is quickly toned down for later episodes. There are a few lip-syncing bugs and an incredibly off-kilter stealth section in the final episode that feels like the game is trying far too hard to be a game. Despite this, it still feels like a beautifully crafted game with a beating heart and soul. There is a muted art style with an awesomely quiet and relaxed soundtrack provided by composer Jonathan Morali. These two things combine to welcome the player into this very tranquil and well-realised setting, with the town of Arcadia Bay having this excellent sense of mystery and denseness. It’s a terrific example of an intimate location.
The time rewind mechanic is used effectively, creating intriguing puzzles based on conversations and placement of Max in a scene. There is strong direction and pacing from Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch, who keep the pace up in episodes and present increasingly difficult and stressful decisions in this intriguing mystery. The game is also able to express the visual storytelling side very nicely. Exploring the world and learning more about those around you feels so rewarding and grounded.
However, even with all of this, Life is Strange has an ace up its sleeve with its story and characters. (From here, there will be full spoilers, you have been warned). It’s one of the most thematically rich games I have ever played, with all the characters being memorable and intriguing in both tragic and sweet ways. Most impressively, these characters are vessels to explore some serious issues that Dontnod express in thought-provoking ways.
Through the game, suicide and the high school culture is tackled when religious student Kate Marsh is captured on video intoxicated at a party. It damages her life as you see when exploring her room and seeing an ashamed and depressed young girl. You can help her, but try as you might, it leads to the end of Episode 2 when you must talk her out of jumping of the roof of the dormitory. Handled with grace and class, it’s a deeply serious scene, challenging you to connect with Kate on an emotional level with her life in the balance. She is a great example of the side characters here, from her to science nerd Warren, to the insecure Victoria and struggling mother Joyce.
The game has a vast array of side characters who shed light on key things such as mental health, alienation from family, rebuilding after tragedy and coming home from war. All of these are used, and the game will question your thoughts on these subjects through the decisions. It’s some deeply mature storytelling in an industry that sometimes glamorises for the sake of it.
None of this would amount to anything though without the relationship between Max and Chloe, voiced expertly by Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch respectively. As Max, players start the game as a shy, flawed girl who doesn’t hold herself of high opinion despite her love and passion for photography and the natural beauty of the world around her. You spend your week hanging out with Chloe, a brash, impulsive young woman who has lost faith in the world following the tragic events of her past and the loss of Rachel Amber, a friend who disappeared from Arcadia Bay. They are complete opposites. But as they say, opposites attract. These two are utterly brilliant and provide an emotional core as Max twists time to keep her friend alive. At one point, she even ends up changing history so much that an alternate reality forms in which Chloe becomes paralysed, living her life in a bedridden. After spending the first 40 minutes of Episode 3 with her, she asks you to help end her life. Yep. You must make that decision (this was the first time I cried).
The game shows how Chloe changes from a complete cynic to a bold person who ultimately is protective of her friend. Max becomes bolder as the story goes as well, getting more involved with time manipulation. Eventually, the game will lead you to its final choice. As a tornado caused by Max changing time is threatening the bay, you must make the choice. Sacrifice Chloe or Arcadia Bay. The one or the many. That choice is yours to make. Time attempts to correct Chloe avoiding death in Episode 1 by giving Max this final choice.
This ending really divided audiences and critics at the time. After all, it’s a binary decision and either way, some decisions from earlier in the game will be forgotten here. That’s missing the point though. Through Max and Chloe, the game shows it’s utterly tragic but beautiful message. This relationship is used to obviously explore the dangers of manipulating time and the power that brings. The game even questions how you use the power in a great final episode where the only blemish is the previously mentioned stealth section. However, what Life is Strange nails is the simple message that time is finite and more importantly, precious. Chloe admits as much in her alternate timeline in Episode 3 and at the end, saying her time with Max was the best time she’d had in years of her life. And this was what made me start blubbering up again. Time is precious and as much as Max wants to stretch it out, that’s not fair.
“We all have finite time, but that is what makes time worth it
We all have finite time, but that is what makes time worth it. The companionship with friends, the love of family and the joys and sorrows life brings are what make us understand that time cannot be bought, that’s what makes life great. And the ending makes you question yourself by allowing you to flip this argument either way. Do you understand that at least you had the week you had with Chloe, that those memories will be there, and sacrifice her? Or do you decide that time with Chloe is precious and is worth keeping her alive to extend that time? It was this decision that made me choke up. The game was always heading to this decision, and like Max, I didn’t consider the amazing time I had until the final decision came.
That is the power of Chloe and Max’s friendship. You don’t realise how great it was to see them rekindle their lives together until it makes logical sense to lose it. In the end I couldn’t do it. I kept them both together. At least Max can appreciate their time together more, right?