Why Life Is Strange might be my Game of the Year
It's been a week, to the day, since I finished Life Is Strange season 1, and I genuinely cannot get it out of my head. Not a day has gone by that I haven't thought about it, checked out fan art, or watched YouTube videos about it. Heck, I even watched Pewdiepie play through all five episodes! For some reason that I can only partially explain, Life Is Strange has imprinted itself upon me.
But let's rewind. (Sorry, I couldn't help myself). For anyone out there who is unaware of this game, allow me to give you a quick pitch. You play as 18-year-old Maxine Caulfield - which I can only assume is a reference to Catcher In The Rye. Max has returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, after 5 years, to attend Blackwell Academy. She is a shy photography protege who quickly discovers that she isn't all that normal. When in the college bathroom, Max inadvertently discovers that she can rewind time when she does so to keep a girl from being shot.
From there on, the game is all about coming to grips with your powers, righting wrongs, and growing up. There's so much more I could say, but I really don't want to spoil anything.
The main crux of Life Is Strange is that Max has seen a vision of an impending tornado that will wipe out Arcadia Bay, and she wants to somehow prevent it. That's the big inciting incident and the climax, but it isn't what the game is about, not really. No, Life Is Strange is really about the characters and the odd little town they inhabit. It's the journey of Max and Chloe - the girl she saves in the bathroom. And it's this journey that has me still thinking about the game a week after the credits rolled.
To be or not to be...
Life Is Strange is a fantastic game in the way it tackles real-life issues. I won't list those issues here because, again, I'd rather spoil nothing. However, I will bring up the issue of sexuality. The game sort-of allows you to decide which way Max sways, and it's heavily implied that Chloe is a lesbian. Max has a male admirer, but it's up to you which way you want to go. That being said, it's never an outright choice, it's simply defined by the smaller choices you make and it never has any real impact on the story. Maybe your Max likes Warren, maybe she likes Chloe, maybe she doesn't have time for relationships. Regardless, Dontnod presented homosexuality in a way few others do - with respect and class; it's believable, honest, and never a "thing".
Let me explain. In my personal playthrough, I gradually began to believe Max loved Chloe, and not just as a friend. As the episodes progressed, my view was cemented and I began playing as though the two were irrevocably in love and nothing would separate them - so those of you who've played the game can guess how my final episode went! My Max loved Chloe and I never once thought of it as though they were lesbians, they were simply two people who are entwined on some cosmic level.
The only comparison I can draw is with Brokeback Mountain. I'm a heterosexual male, and I had to read and watch Brokeback Mountain as part of an English course at my university. I initially groaned at the thought -- to clarify, I am in no way homophobic, but the idea of reading about two men didn't exactly appeal to me. So I read it, and to my surprise, I never really thought of it as two gay men. They were just two people who, despite themselves, fell in love. It's a very emotional story, and one that truly changed my views on homosexuality - it made me see that sometimes love trumps sexuality. (Which is not an easy thing to explain to other heterosexual men!) And that is how the issue is presented in Life Is Strange, should you lean that way as the game plays out.
The relationship between Max and Chloe, which is never heavy-handed or cringe-worthy, is a big reason why the game has such an impact on me. I care a lot for those two and I really, really want them so make it. It's similar to the attachment I, and many others, had with Lee and Clementine, and Joel and Ellie - the stakes are higher when we can see visible love between characters.
The soundtrack to small town life
But I want to make it clear that sexuality does not define any character in Life Is Strange. They are very well-rounded characters that you've probably known at some point in your life. Max is a fantastic character who shows tremendous growth throughout the 5 episodes. Chloe is immature, self-absorbed, and undeniably fun to be around. Then there's Warren, Victoria, Frank, Nathan, Kate, David, Mr. Jefferson, Joyce, and more. Each of these characters are believable and will stir emotions within you -- some you'll love, some you'll hate, and some you'll pity. Character is key in Life Is Strange, and Dontnod absolutely nailed character.
And it also nailed atmosphere. Life Is Strange is a beautiful game. The game takes place in Oregon, in the small seaside town of Arcadia Bay - which is reminiscent of Twin Peaks or White Pine Bay (Bates Motel). The town is perpetually bathed in golden sunlight, similar to Infamous: Second Son, which gives the game an artistic sheen like few others.
Dontnod didn't aim for realistic graphics, but I think the art design of the series is phenomenal. Everything has an almost-cartoon look to it, which is counteracted with a raw, realistic design for every element. For example, character models look a little plastic, and hair is in thick strands, but this is complimented with blemishes, intricate details of clothing, tattoos, and coloured hair. Basically, it results in a really fantastic looking game.
Then there's the music. Oh the music! Episode 1 begins with you in class and, once that's over, you make your way to the infamous bathroom. But before Max begins that epic journey, she stops at puts her headphones in. 'To All of You' by Syd Matters kicks in and completely sets the tone - it's like a beautiful indie movie. Between the aesthetic, the level of detail, the dialogue, and the music, I was sold in the first 10 minutes. But it didn't peak there -- no, the music continued, and so did the overall atmosphere of the game, never ceasing or ejecting me from my immersion.
I should point out that I didn't start Life Is Strange until all 5 episodes were released. I hate playing episodic games 1 episode at a time, so I always wait until the season is finished. And yet, I still took about 2 days between each episode, just to let each sink in and resonate. Just when I thought the story couldn't get any better, it did. Each episode left my jaw closer to the floor than the one before it, and more than once I felt a lump in my throat.
When I finished Episode 5, I was flabbergasted and physically exhausted. To be a little cliché, it was a roller-coaster of emotion, and I was left to mull over the decision I had made. It was all I could think about that night, but I figured I'd move on in a day or so - that's usually how games work.
But I found myself still thinking about it 2 days later. It was then that I began watching Pewdiepie play it, and I decided I wanted a t-shirt. I searched online for a t-shirt, but couldn't find an official one. So I went to Redbubble and found dozens of fantastic designs. For some reason, this game was really sticking with me and I wanted more.
So I took to the Internet to see if there was a Reddit page for the game - I wanted to know what other people thought of the season. I was pretty surprised then when I found the page and realized that it has over 15,000 subscribers. For comparison, the subreddits for Telltale's Game of Thrones and Avalanche's Mad Max have a little over 2000. That's pretty impressive for a 2015 digital game.
I was then even more surprised that the Life Is Strange Reddit page wasn't like many other game pages. If you jump onto the majority of other game threads, you will find screenshots, game clips, complaining, tips, and the odd discussion. But the Life Is Strange subreddit is like a fan club; it's made up of fan theories, amazing art, respectful conversations, and more - it feels like what a community should be. The subscribers love the game. It was here I realized I wasn't the only person who was left reeling and just a little obsessed with the world Dontnod had created. The game has a ravenous fanbase, and I was glad to know I wasn't alone.
Game of the year
So why, then, might it be my Game of the Year? I mean, such praise surely warrants Game of the Year status. Last year, Life Is Strange would have definitely been that game for me. But this year, there are (massive) barriers in Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3.
This year I played Bloodborne, The Witcher, Batman: Arkham Knight, Mad Max, Rocket League, Until Dawn, and am currently 80 hours deep in Fallout 4. And those are just the games I consider plausible Game of the Year winners. I spent over 120 hours playing Mad Max and I loved every second of it. Yet 10 hours of Life Is Strange eclipsed it entirely. The Witcher 3, on the other hand, was also something special. It was arguably the best RPG I've ever played and I think it is very nearly a perfect game. It's huge, beautiful, and full of great characters. It stands at the top of the mountain for me this year.
Then there's Fallout 4, a game I am in love with. I adored Fallout 3 and New Vegas, both of which would be in my top 10 of all time -- so it says a lot that I think Fallout 4 is even better than both of those. And yet The Witcher didn't stick with me the way Life Is Strange has. The jury is still out on Fallout 4, but I don't expect to be thinking about it come February. Both of them are better games than Life Is Strange, but neither were as impactful an experience.
I find it very hard to say I prefer Life Is Strange to those two behemoths, when I spent so much more time with them; they're both massive RPGs that I love for different reasons. Geralt and Ciri were great characters that I was attached to, and Fallout's greatness is almost impossible to put into words. But as I mentioned at the beginning, Max and Chloe feel imprinted upon me. I cared more about Max Caulfield from reading 8 pages of her diary in Episode 1 than I do for most characters - in any medium. I know that from here on out, whenever I see a screenshot or hear a song from it, or hear the term hella, I will feel serious nostalgia and love for Life Is Strange.
This reminds me of the 2012 Game of the Year nominations.
That was the year when Telltale's The Walking Dead, Giant Sparrow's The Unfinished Swan, and thatgamecompany's Journey were all up against Mass Effect 3, Dishonored, and Borderlands 2. That was the first year that digital (or "indie") games were taken as seriously as the AAA releases. Many gamers couldn't (and still can't) understand how such smaller, often more artistic games, could be considered in the same breath. But it comes down to impact, innovation, story, and enjoyment.
I think The Walking Dead should have won that year because it had the best story and the biggest impact upon me. So if that criteria is the same, Life Is Strange would win this year. Thankfully, none of this really matters and I can enjoy as many games as I wish, but I always like to choose a Game of the Year.
And in case you can't tell, I still haven't totally decided what game that is for me in 2015. However, when I'm considering my game of the year for, I feel like I know which game I will remember most fondly; a little indie title that has a certain golden sheen to it.