It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of DontNod’s Life is Strange, and I am eagerly awaiting the second installment in the series. Today I’d like to explain what I find so compelling about this game, and what I find observably different about it in comparison to other narrative-focused games.
Life is Strange follows the story of high school student, Max Caulfield, who has returned to her hometown in Oregon to go to study photography at a local boarding school. In a moment of life-or-death desperation, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time. Throughout the game, the player has the opportunity to watch Max’s decisions unfold and can reverse time to change those decisions, thus altering future consequences.
Life is strange is a story-focused game, like past titles such as The Walking Dead by Telltale, Beyond Two Souls by Qunatic Dream, and Mass Effect by BioWare. These sorts of games have always appealed to me because they build upon and alter our standard ideas of what a video game can be narratively. While playing the first episode of Life is Strange – “Chrysalis”, I felt that there was something powerfully unique about this game’s storytelling, even when compared to other games of its type.
Speaking of Voice
As a high school teacher, I recognize the importance of a game using this setting…
Life is Strange has a very clear sense of voice. I can think of several games that are set in a high school, but none seem to hit as close to home as Life is Strange. As a high school teacher, I recognize the importance of a game using this setting, and I truly appreciate how real the characters feel. As I played the first episode, the characters’ dialogue and mannerisms were so spot on that it felt like I was having a conversation with my students. A few reviews I’ve read responded negatively to the dialogue, saying that it was poorly written and unrealistic. I admit that I may be a bit biased given my experiences but I think that Life is Strange accurately represents the current post-ironic slang and speechways of teenagers today. It’s cool to say uncool things because this in turn makes you sound cool.
By “voice” I am also referring to effective storytelling beyond just dialogue. Life is Strange is very expressive. There is a realistic tone, but with an underlying feeling of dread and a hook of mysteries yet to be unfolded. Everything about Max’s day feels just a tad bit off, not just that she has the ability to affect time. Everyone seems to have their own dark secret, and it is unclear who is really trustworthy.
The Element of Choice and Identity
In these story-based adventure games the element of choice is very important. In games like this there has been a lot of talk about whether or not your choices actually matter or carry any weight in the overall story. Normally in dialogue there are three options: say something nice, act indifferent, or say something harsh. The player has the option to bend the playable character’s personality.
I know that when I played as Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, I was a total girl scout, always Paragon. When I played as Clementine in The Walking Dead Season 2 I made sure to always be tough, and look out for my own self interests. Because of these choices I altered the playable character, and in doing so, I personally never had a clear notion of who these characters were outside of my choices. I can’t stand to watch anyone else play Mass Effect or The Walking Dead, because all I can think is, “hey, that’s not MY Shepard,” or “Clementine would never say that!” Part of the appeal of games like this is that in a way you can become this character.
What I find different about Life is Strange is that Max feels like a distinct character in spite of the choices I have made for her. All of the choices given to the player seem to be in the realm of Max’s personality and thus, it seems incredibly plausible that she would make any of the decisions that you make for her. Life is Strange is very clever about how it helps you get to know Max without interfering with the flow of narrative. You can read her personal journal, observe her photography, explore her dorm room, read her texts, and listen to her music. Her personality strongly comes across in her body language as well. I really like how she touches her head or pushes her hair back behind her ear when she’s nervous and how she closes her body off when she speaks to adults in postions of power.
These elements work together to indicate who this girl is. I can’t make Max my perfect paragon or renegade. I can’t make her good or evil. I can’t make her be anything but who she is: a young, artistic girl on the verge of adulthood just trying to do what’s right.
Keep in mind that I write all of this having only experienced the first installment of the series, and perhaps the storytelling will change drastically in later episodes. That being said, if you have not played Life is Strange yet, I highly recommend that you give it a shot. There is something truly special about that first episode. It is nostalgic and sweet, and I truly think you’ll enjoy it.
Be sure to check out my Life is Strange Lookbooks on my Youtube Channel: