(Presented below is a guest review by my *awesome* wife for Life is Strange that she wrote for her own blog – the original can be found here – which usually focusses on book reviews and the writing process (she is currently writing a novel). I’ve not actually played this game, but I’ve watched my wife play it and it seems excellent, already earning cult status, as evidenced by all the fan art and cosplaying. I’ve been wishing my wife would write a guest spot on my blog for ages, as she plays a lot of videogames that I either don’t get around to or are just not my cup of tea but loved by many people – like Animal Crossing: New Leaf, which she has (so far) sunk about 160+ hours into!! Anyhoo, here’s her review of Life is Strange: Episodes 1-3 on PS4.)
I’ve often said that I think that narratives in video games are just as valid as those in other forms of media, and that, when done well, the narrative in a game can be just as compelling as any piece of fiction. Most of the games I enjoy playing are low on combat (unless I’m casual gaming), but big on either story or character which is why I’ve decided to write reviews about these types of video games as well as the books I read.
I first heard about Life Is Strange from another blogger, Gaming Backlog a few weeks back and knew straight away it would be the sort of game I would enjoy. However, the first point to make is that the game using the ‘point and click’ mechanic to play, so if you are someone who only goes for games where you want plenty of combat then this may not be your bag! The second point to make is that the game is episodic, so at the moment, the final two episodes are unavailable. This is therefore, only a review of half a story.
In my household, we actually call this game ‘The Hipster Simulator Game’ due to the iconography, plaid shirts and fantastic soundtrack which includes artists like Alt J and Amanda Palmer. The soundtrack by the way, actually has to be ‘turned on’ during most scenes, by your character using the music player in that particular room. The graphic style of the game makes it look as though it has been hand painted by an art student. All of this adds to the charm of the game.
So as for the plot of Life Is Strange: you play the character of Max, who has recently started studying photography at Blackwell Academy. (Just a quick aside – it is refreshing playing a female character who doesn’t get kidnapped/killed/raped in order to move the plot along and doesn’t have two giant bouncy globes on her chest to distract you from the gameplay!) You start the game sitting in class, taking a few polaroids (how very retro) of the items around you and avoiding the bitchy Victoria. So far, so high school drama.
However, you very quickly discover that for some inexplicable reason, Max is able to rewind time. This has huge implications on the narrative of the game. You can now walk around campus and talk to characters, choosing your responses and if you think you may have handled the situation badly, hey presto, you can rewind time and choose another option. Bear in mind that every major decision you make will have implications for your character later on. (It’s a bit like a cross between Heavy Rain and 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.) This means you can steal useful items without anyone spotting you if you rewind time after the event, or you can alter circumstances to prevent characters hurting themselves or others. Think of it as an interactive ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ graphic novel.
This is where the game is the most fun. Although for someone like me, who finds it hard to decide what to have for lunch on a daily basis, it meant agonising over my choices until I made a decision and then sometimes I would quickly rewind to change it again, and still obsess over whether or not I had done the right thing.
But there is more to Life Is Strange than just pretending to be a hipster girl. It turns out that there is a sinister side to Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay. Firstly, there is a student, Rachel Amber, who has gone missing. Arcadia Bay also has some pretty strange freak weather, such as tornados and snow in the middle of Summer. And, there are the disturbing events of the exclusive Vortex Club to investigate, if you can ever make it onto their guest list, that is. All of this gives the game a real Twin Peaks feel. (There are actually a number of Twin Peaks easter eggs hidden in the game if you look closely enough for them. In fact, there are lots of pop culture and literary references. For starters, Max’s surname is Caulfield like the protagonist in Catcher In the Rye.)
And then there is Chloe.
Chloe is your dysfunctional best friend and she is hella annoying. (I have since wondered if this is on purpose)
She is hella angry.
And hella sweary.
And she says hella a lot.
Which brings me to the one flaw of the game and that is the terrible, clunky dialogue. Chloe alone is responsible for cringeworthy gems such as ‘ready for the mosh pit Shaka brah,’ ‘you got hella cash’ and ‘this s***-pit has taken everyone I’ve ever loved.’ I suppose this highlights the difficulty in writing dialogue that represents teen slang. Realistic slang dates very quickly. Slang that is not already well used sounds ridiculous. All slang sounds stupid when overused. And in Life is Strange, it is definitely overused.
However, one of the strengths of Life Is Strange is its themes. Once again, like Twin Peaks, characters have their fair share of secrets and by the end of Episode 2 it seems that Arcadia Bay is very dark place indeed. The unpleasant nature of social media, drugs, bereavement, sexual exploitation, bullying and attempted suicide are all explicit themes of the game, along with several hints that the apocalypse might be on the way. Such deep and meaningful themes make the game quite different to other games that I’ve played.
So, when I played it, I downloaded episode 1 and played it through to the end. It was fun making choices and being a teenage hipster but I didn’t bother with the second episode until another friend at work started playing it too as at the time, the narrative didn’t grip me enough. However, in conversation, we realised that we had both made very different choices to one another and that he had experienced some events that I hadn’t, due to those choices. We thought it would be fun to see how our games compare.
So I downloaded episode 2 and boy, did some of my choices come back to haunt me! The themes start to get dark here, and there is a major event in this episode (due to the bad choices I made) that can really alter the narrative of the story. (My friend, incidentally, had a different but no less dramatic outcome. People were overhearing our conversations at work and thought we were talking about a soap opera, not a video game.) This is where the decision to release this game as a series of episodes is a genius move. Its episodic nature means that in each episode the plot is structured like the chapter of a novel, with mini cliffhangers at the end of each chapter that urge you to keep going.
So I immediately downloaded episode 3 to continue playing.
The end of episode 3…OH MY GOODNESS! There is such a shocking twist in the plot (and maybe genre now, who knows?) caused by my rewinding and choices that I CANNOT WAIT for episode 4 to be released.
In the words of Chloe I’m sure it’ll be hella awesome!