How Life is Strange Tells A Different Kind of Episodic Story

 The following post contains spoilers for Life is Strange

Life is StrangeDeveloper: Dontnod Entertainment

Genre: Episodic Adventure

Release Date: January – October 2015

Platforms:PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC, iOS, Android, Linux, OS X

Writers: Christian Divine and Jean-Luc Cano

Biography: Like Dontnod Entertainment’s previous game Remember MeLife is Strange explores themes of memory and identity and began development in April 2013. Before signing with publisher Square Enix, the game was originally envisioned as a full game but moved to an episodic structure because of creative choices, marketing and financial restrictions. Textures in game were entirely hand painted to give an impressionist art style and the characters created from tried archetypes and then subverted by the writers.

Time travel and high school is a potent mix for anyone to handle, after all who wouldn’t want to take back something stupid they said or did as a teenager? Fortunately for 18-year old protagonist Max Caulfield time travel is exactly the power she finds herself contending with in the middle of a photography class at Blackwell Academy, in the small coastal town of Arcadia Bay. Developed by Dontnod Entertainment, Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game and like many other modern games in this genre features a story built around making choices and seeing the repercussions of those choices. However, being able to rewind time for a short period allows you to see different immediate outcomes of the choices presented to Max adding a new wrinkle to the standard formula.

The tone and aesthetic of Life is Strange is noticeably different from games such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones which are dark and dreary in terms of tone. Instead, the developer chose a tone that reflects the lives of so many teenagers in high school – at times highly dramatic, at other times light-hearted and fun. Life is Strange leans quite heavily into the high school stereotypes with jocks, nerds and the popular kids all present and there’s plenty of melodramatic moments to go along with that. The plot eventually moves into saving the world (or town) territory yet Max is also concerned about how she fits in and is perceived as an individual. Max’s insecurities lend themselves well to the overall choices in the game as her internal monologue questions the potential consequences of her actions. The indie-folk soundtrack that accompanies Max as she moves through Arcadia Bay adds to this tone and contribute to Max’s overall personality – which is shy and feeling like an outsider. It also creates a sombre, dream-like atmosphere particularly in the early episodes as Max tries to wrap her head around her new powers.

Life is Strange

The game has a slow and steady pace, particularly if you like to thoroughly explore but picks up as the plot unfolds. The episodes are quite lengthy and give a detailed look at life in Arcadia Bay. The small town has plenty of quirky characters and a picturesque quality perfect for Max’s keen photographic eye. It becomes clear quickly that residents believe that the Prescott family has plenty of money and more than a few secrets to hide. As the game leads Max down a more serious and sinister path you begin to question the motives of those around you – why is the Principal so reluctant to stand up for what’s right? The school’s security guard David seems overly intense towards one of Max’s fellow students and Nathan Prescott is clearly a bad influence which culminates in him shooting Chloe Price, who it turns out happens to be one of Max’s oldest friends. This is where Max first discovers her powers bringing her within the proximity of Chloe and the mystery around her missing friend, Rachel.

One of the main story highlights of Life is Strange is the tale of Max and Chloe’s friendship. They share a history that ultimately led them on different paths, Max left Arcadia Bay and didn’t keep in touch with Chloe who would go on to dress like a punk, smoke weed and act out at her mother and stepfather. They are very different from one another but like a lot of friendships this makes them a good team. Chloe’s dialogue and attitude certainly runs the risk of being annoying to the player but her actions become clearer when you learn what happened to her family and her life once her father died in a traffic accident. The character is really brought to life by Ashly Burch who manages to also capture Chloe’s softer, more considerate side.

The game’s story is well written and keeps things interesting by never playing its hand too early. The real mastermind behind the disappearance of Rachel and Kate Marsh’s night she can’t remember is Mr Jefferson, a charismatic young teacher who everyone seems to like. If you like to guess what’s going on as it happens then you may peg Mr Jefferson as a potential suspect but the game keeps enough lingering threads and characters with potential motives in play for a decent measure of uncertainty. Some characters are shallow while others are given additional depth beyond their outward attitude. For example, David is highly-strung and overprotective but ultimately loves his stepdaughter Chloe while Frank is a drug user and heavy drinker yet he did care for Rachel and has taken in rescued dogs.  There are some stand out story moments in the game such as sneaking around Blackwell Academy for clues at night, choosing your words very carefully without time travel to save (or fail to save) Kate’s life or finally finding Rachel and uncovering the dark goings on in Arcadia Bay.

Life is Strange

Time manipulation isn’t just a game mechanic in Life is Strange, it’s also a way to demonstrate the butterfly effect, in other words small choices having a considerable effect. Halfway through the game Chloe finds herself back in time as a young girl at Chloe’s house right before her father leaves and encounters his fatal accident. It’s clear that this will have huge consequences but ends up having a tragic effect on Chloe who in the new reality created is in a wheelchair and struggles with basic day-to-day actions. This makes Max, and the player, feel tremendous guilt and illustrates the danger of messing with time. Of course, time travel is also Max’s greatest asset when in difficult situations and when kidnapped by Mr Jefferson allows her to jump through her different photos to other times and places to change events. This is a really cool chapter in the story and eventually culminates in some mind-bending moments as Max tries to navigate through different realities.

Episodic choice games live or die by how important the player feels the choices turn out to be but Life is Strange‘s time travel element really does allow you to think more deeply about your choices before you make them. This ultimately adds more weight to your actions and the story as a whole – there aren’t any clear-cut right or wrong decisions but the big choices feel important without revealing the consequences to you straight away.

There is also plenty of items that reveal small story details to the player. Exploring Chloe’s room for example demonstrates her love of music and punk rock bands but also small keepsakes from when her and Max were kids or glimpses into the kind of person she was previously. Max comments on every item or poster she reads revealing more about her own personality as well as those around her – she worries about the fate of Arcadia Bay and the misguided priorities of her classmates. There are also several moments where Max can sit and simply ponder her thoughts about events so far or how she’s reminded of her childhood being at Chloe’s house again. These moments of peacefulness feel genuine and plays into the tone, music and the overall presentation of the game nicely – it’s one of the most artistic looking games and in these moments where Life is Strange shines.

The story culminates in one big choice for Max, save Chloe or Arcadia Bay – the butterfly effect resulted in a giant storm headed straight for the bay, all because Max stopped Nathan from murdering her old friend. It’s unclear if this choice will carry over into any sequel and how much of an impact it will have on that game’s narrative but it makes sense to force the player to choose between a character you come to care about, particularly given her closeness to Max, or an entire town. Life is Strange succeeds from a storytelling perspective on different levels, it tells a thrilling tale of time travel, a high school murder mystery but also a story about friendship, family and loss, themes that aren’t always explored in this genre.

What did you think of Life is Strange and tale of Max and Chloe?

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