"I Was a Teenage Edgelord": Life is Strange Review
If you were to check my original blog from over the past couple years, you'd likely notice that I'm quite familiar with the somewhat recent gaming trend of low-intensity gameplay with a heavy focus on story, determined heavily by the player’s choices. It's typical for these games, like Until Dawn and the works of Quantic Dream to reiterate constantly that “every choice has a consequence” and “even the smallest difference can have significant ramifications, ” and so on and so forth. There are lots of butterflies all over the place to drive this point home. What often happens is that this is a little bit less than entirely accurate, as even the most variable-riddled storyline has to have checkpoints and events to keep the player moving along without getting too far off course. On top of that, I'm usually the first to cut a game slack if not every decision changes the whole game because if every decision did carry that much weight, we’d all lose our minds trying to order breakfast.
The first of many things that Life is Strange does right, then, is to tackle that loaded claim that “everything changes based on your choices” and begin with a setting that makes that statement truer than it would be anywhere else: high school. Where even the most minute detail about the way a person walks, talks, or looks is constantly under intense scrutiny and judgment from everyone around them. Not only does Life is Strange handle this challenge with a more appropriate setting than most, but also centers itself around a natural extension of this heightened sense of awareness about your character’s actions - the ability to undo an action or choice of dialogue and choose an alternative.
Protagonist Max (“always Max, never Maxine”) Caulfield is your typical tragic hipster private school teenager, who idolizes her young and cool photography teacher but is too shy to show off her work the way the popular students do. It's never actually explained why, but she ends up being randomly bestowed with the power to rewind time, which is extremely valuable to a high school student who is exceptionally liable to overthink every move they make. Luckily for players, only a short period is spent on petty private school hijinks before getting down to some serious drama. In its first chapter alone, Life is Strange features an armed student, a parking lot beatdown, a reputation-staining YouTube video, a missing girl, and an abusive stepfather, to give you an idea of what you might be in for. Life around Blackwell Academy is strange, yes, it's also cutthroat, hierarchal, and yet oddly close-knit - you know, high school. Essentially, life is just about anything but easy or happy.
It’s not often that a game depends on its characters to create an enticing story, the way that books and movies do, but games like Life is Strange are becoming more common lately, and the its episodic nature, like that of Until Dawn and Alan Wake allows it to feel more like long-form TV than anything else. Contrary to Until Dawn, however, which built itself on disposable characters making rash decisions in unlikely situations, Life is Strange and the choices it gives the player concerns people’s feelings as much as it affects their safety, and players taking each one at least somewhat seriously. Even though the characters still have their basis in archetypes such as the rich, popular kids, self-proclaimed “nice guy” male friend, and oblivious school official, the game is relatively quick to blur the lines with them and make you care about what happens to them. I found myself seriously invested in and personally responsible when trying to prevent the suicide of a fellow student at the end of episode 2, and as much as I grew to hate the privileged bullies that were making Blackwell Academy hell for people like Max. I found myself wanting something more satisfying than swift and hard revenge because the game forces you to understand them as people rather than one-dimensional ‘80s teen flick villains.
If I had to choose one word to describe Life is Strange, strange wouldn't necessarily be what works. The most common feeling I got while playing, oddly enough, was “surreal.” The effect that Max has on the world around her (and eventually, various branching timelines) makes everything feel like some weird lucid dream as opposed to a modern soap opera or Netflix original. As much as this feeling comes from the near-realism of the game’s setting, it was a lot of uncanny valley-esque moments in the animation and writing. Character models look great, especially due to how well put-together outfits are, as well as those of the locations around Arcadia Bay, which match the sleepy coastal village vibe almost too well. Animation, however, still seems to be a hurdle in this day and age, with lip sync being especially distracting. Everything ends up working out better if you look dead in a character’s eyes and avoid their lips moving and their all too prevalent ticks (Max touches her face at least once every eight seconds while talking to somebody).
Oddly enough, the biggest uncanny valley moments are also the ones that also proves just how well done the great moments of Life is Strange are, and that's when it comes to the dialogue. You see, when characters like Max, Chloe, or Warren -- the teenagers, and the people that are most important in this story -- are talking, either to each other or, in Max’s case, thinking to herself. There's definitely a feeling that the writers try too hard to understand how teenagers speak -- admittedly, something that happens all the time for writers. But when things get really serious, whether it's about Chloe just wanting to find her missing friend, or Max trying to atone for failing to use her power to fix the past, or even Chloe’s mother Joyce reminiscing about her late husband, everything is on point, alarmingly honest and compelling.
It's at that point, realizing how truly powerless you are to help these people even as you sit there, controller in hand, trying to fix these people with the literal power to control time, that even the bullshit they say to each other on campus or alone in their bedrooms is real. The Uncanny Valley isn't just something that you fall into when you can't get that eye to twinkle just right; it's something we all do when we’re too scared, to be honest with ourselves or with our peers. We find ourselves pushing too hard with sarcasm or yanking corny slang and catchphrases out of our asses because we think it's what sounds right when the opposite is true. And it's this realization that you make, sitting there with your hand over your mouth, thinking “wow, this is a lot for a video game,” that makes the experience of Life is Strange powerful enough to overcome a few annoying and unnecessary stretches (a stealth-based area in a dream sequence towards the end, a needle in a haystack search for empty bottles in a sprawling junkyard), or red herring plot devices (the ability to make large jumps across timelines often proves surprisingly underwhelming and not very useful). Real characters are few and far between in video games, even nowadays, and what Life is Strange offers up might not be as exciting as some people look for in their gaming, but any game that has actually made me think as hard about how I wanted to play it deserves a serious recommendation.