You won't be able to help it
Gamescom is a noisy, crowded mess. Shoulder to shoulder with patrons that didn’t seem to care what they bump into, I trudged my way to my next appointment. As I stepped through the door to the meeting room, something unexpected happened. I was teleported from a loud convention center to a rebellious teenager’s room.
Seated at the foot of a twin-sized bed, I took in my surroundings. The top of a makeshift television stand housed a half-smoked joint, while a pair of dirty Converse rested underneath. Posters of influential punk rockers littered the wall, all askew. “Fuck” was scrawled on almost everything, but especially a tattered American flag.
I wasn’t in Germany anymore. I was in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. More specifically, I was in Chloe’s safe place -- the only spot in the world where a misunderstood teenage girl can be herself. I was inside the world of Dontnod’s newly announced Life is Strange, and it was a wonderful place to be.
Life Is Strange is Dontnod’s sophomore effort, the follow-up to Remember Me. It chronicles the tale of high school students Max Caughfield and her friend Chloe as they investigate the disappearance of a classmate. While it’s rooted in the adventure genre, it feels like it’ll be an experience piece more than anything else -- a coming-of-age story about the struggles of two girls looking to make sense of a world that hardly seems fair.
Exploration and curiosity mark every turn in Life is Strange. An early scene that played in front of us showed a house highlighted with objects just begging to be interacted with. Most of the items will serve to let the player dig as deep into the story as they please. In the same vein as Gone Home, this knowledge isn’t absolutely essential to the plot, but it provides finer details. It’s the information that helps you relate and care about the characters you’re controlling.
That’s most of the objects -- not all. Some serve a greater purpose. These will alter the course of the story -- sometimes in big ways, other times small. For instance, as we were rooting through Chloe’s stepdad’s garage to find tools to repair a camera, we took a peek at some personal files that he had lying out. In a later scene, he barged into her room, enraged that she had been snooping. It’s a bit of ill will that’s going to linger and be easier to build upon with future actions.
However, Life is Strange’s biggest hook is that it gives you complete control over future events by always being able to alter the immediate past. Max has the supernatural ability of time manipulation, which makes for an interesting mechanic that serves two purposes: as a means to solving puzzles, and to allow things to play out exactly as you intend.
With a quick screen blurring/burning/tearing effect, Max can rewind time to her pleasing. After inadvertently breaking Chloe’s snowglobe, we took advantage of it to undo that clumsy misstep and keep her from getting a little annoyed with us. Later, while trying to knock some tools off of a high spot, we properly dislodged them, but they fell in a hard-to-reach place. By rewinding time, we first slid some cardboard to where they would land, and then proceeded. Now we could pull the tools toward us. Voilà! Puzzle solved.
Where the rewind mechanic will most likely shine the brightest is in conversation. Most times, dialogue will have branching options, and it’ll be ambiguous as to what the outcome of each selection will be. All exchanges can be rewound to fit your liking, something that looks as if it’ll be easy to obsess over. During the demo, we ratted out Chloe when her stepdad found her weed. Not thrilled with the results, we tried again and took the fall for her. After a quick scolding and some harsh words, it was clear that he’d be more wary of Max, but Chloe would be more loyal.
That’s how it seems as if everything in Life is Strange will play out -- as a trade-off. The developers said that no choices would be clear-cut, there’d always be some sort of negative off-setting a positive. Maybe it wouldn’t be immediately apparent, but it’ll always lead to some sort of different sequence down the road, even if it’s only marginally different.
With the ambiguity playing such a big role, there’s not really a right or wrong way to play. The developers confirmed that there are no fail states or reloading. Additionally, there aren’t any action scenes to “succeed” at. While there are situations where death is imminent for Max, Life is Strange gives her the somewhat mandatory option to rewind time to a safer point. It won’t actually kill her.
Early on, the developers referred to Life is Strange as “triple-A indie.” My eyes might’ve popped out of the back of my head if I rolled them any harder, but it kind of made sense once the game was played in front of us. Despite having a full studio and Square Enix’s backing, Dontnod’s created a world that feels like it has an indie edge. Underscored by a modern folk soundtrack, the Pacific Northwest setting might as well be a Japanese garden. It’s so uncompromisingly serene, when it really shouldn’t be. As you control characters that are very uncertain about themselves, it’s tough not to feel an immediate sense of empathy and nostalgia. It can almost have a calming effect when the individuals are anything but calm.
It’s tough to pinpoint what it is exactly about Life is Strange that makes it so promising. The exploration aspect is definitely alluring, especially with the time mechanic bolstering it. The plot is interesting, even if claims of dynamic story-telling rarely play out as advertised. But, it might be the atmosphere that Dontnod’s cultivated that’s the real draw, if not the centerpiece that ties the entire game together. Even if you haven’t lived similar circumstances, it’ll evoke some sort of adolescent memories. When it does, it’ll be easy to care about what Max and Chloe care about so much. It might not make sense looking from the outside in, but it will when viewed from the inside out.