It’s 3:28AM on a work day, and i haven’t been this shocked this hard at the pure audacity of a video game since the Mass Effect Choose-Your-Color debacle. But opposite to the effect of Casey Hudson’s trilogy, Life is Strange proved to me tonight that video games can be bolder and more mature while not resorting to cheap x-rays of testicles exploding.
Warning: Full spoilers ahead, and if you haven’t played it, stop now and just know that it would be a huge disservice to any gamer worth his salt not to indulge in an adventure game that outshines even Telltale games.
I went into Life is Strange with nothing more than meek interest, a purchase from a friend with a note “You’ll like this.”. He wasn’t wrong, just from the menu theme, this cutesy slice-of-life adventure game captured my attention made me feel like my time spent with it will be special. I just really didn’t piece together how special until now.
You play the role of Max Caulfield, a photography student at an art school in a small town in Oregon as she navigates social life as a nerdy outcast and as she explores her newfound time-related powers alongside a reacquainted childhood-friend turned punk-rebel, Chloe. But life in autumny Arcadia Bay is riddled with questions, from the recently missing Rachel Amber, a fellow student, to visions of impeding destruction of the town that are plaguing Max.
The setting is charming in itself with a very warm colour palette, great script and relatable voice actors as well as amazingly detailed and just ‘worked’ art. But as great as they are, we’re not here to talk about that.
What we’re going to talk about is how Life is Strange is the most interesting game in recent memory.
Max’s time powers are pretty much what you’d expect as a gamer, you can rewind time to undue mistakes or souce out information by repeating dialogues, and there’s more than a bit of tomfoolery done with that, but the thick of it is being mostly used in various points to perform some simple gameplay related puzzles. But Braid did the whole time puzzles already, what’s special with this game?
The humanity of it.
Max is a normal teenager with normal teenager problems. While her reactions might seem tame compared to the power she wields, they are completely understandable and actually relatable. Ask anyone and they’ll say “i’ll use them to win the lottery”, but Max saves a friend from getting hit in the head with a football and she proves to Chloe that her powers are real by guessing what’s in her pockets. Considering the story is framed around five days, we get to deal with Max’s exploration of her new powers as well as Arcadia’s mysteries with not much time spared for anything else, given the vortex of events in which she finds herself.
The second episode’s ending made headlines on gaming websites with the fact that Max would be open to failure to save a fellow student from committing suicide. Sure, you could also save her if you did a lot of things right, in a Mass Effect 2 Suicide Mission sort of way, but what was amazing about that is not only how it was done, but also the reaction it got in the press and the forums.
So Max over-stresses her time powers to rush to the roof and to try and talk Kate, the student, down from the ledge. As a consequence, the time-rewinding power is rendered null for that sequence.
The player is now suddenly keenly aware of how vulnerable they, and more implicitly their versions of Max’s story, really are. Players have a natural tendency to want to get their perfect story, where the good guy gets the girl, where the village is saved or even, on the other scale, where they become supreme rulers of the universe with an iron fist while burning orphanages. But those are all actions in victory.
I failed to save Kate Marsh.
It wasn’t something i wanted to happen, and i even cheesed it horribly by loading the checkpoint before the ending had a chance to save a few times. But i couldn’t save her. Yes there were clues, and yes you could save her by your actions in the final dialogue no matter what else you did.
But i failed even after all the tries, and that failure was on me. Not Max the character, but me, the player failed. And it was amazing, glorious, freeing and other gilded words that i just cannot express.
The game didn’t present me with a “Game Over” screen. The game pushed on and rolled with my mistake, creating an amazing story that only got enriched by my blunder. Everyone was grieving, Max was feeling genuine sorrow and her humanity was palpable. And it wasn’t a surface change.. a large part of the third episode was heavily marked by Kate’s death.
You can only hear about a paladin saving so many villages flawlessly and with courage until it gets boring, it’s interesting to see the humanity in him failing and how he gets up from that. The same applies here, but again, this was a development caused by a player failing to do what the game wanted them to do, failing to achieve the goal they set in a situation the game presented them with. As such, we got to see Max affected negatively by her failure, that with all her powers, she couldn’t save her friend. A marked lesson that shows more maturity than the CDProjekt Witcher’s sex-filled series or the always-victorious stereotypical RPG hero.
Online, suddenly a lot more people that managed to save Kate decided to make alternate saves or even re-play the sequence to fail. It apparently hit a strong chord for many people, even going as far as a very touching Polygon article by someone that was faced with the real life trauma of a friend committing suicide. Life is Strange managed to attach genuine meaning to the player’s agency and it showed.
But let’s fast forward to why i’m writing this now in the wee hours of the morning after finishing episode three. Kate’s fate was widely written about and mediatized but what Life is Strange did with it’s last installment pushed even further into what gamers are expecting from a game and how a game should be experienced, not to mention what is ‘owed’ to them by the game.
Series such as LOST and Game of Thrones have a very strong common thread, and that’s how much they manage to surprise the viewers. From LOST’s surprising cliffhangers to GoT’s surprising rolling or smashing of your favorite character’s head, they both manage to tap into the emotion you have for those characters and twist it until even more emotion spews forward, all while you’re going “they can’t do that!”.
Chloe, Max’s childhood friend which she just got back in contact with, has been a staple of the series since the beginning of episode one where Max saves her life with her powers. Chloe is a dynamic, energetic, punk-rock dynamo of spirit and freedom of the heart, with all the poor decisions and problems that brings on. So by the end of three episodes so far we have spent a lot of time seeing facets of their relationship and the shenanigans they got into but also learn a lot about Chloe’s family and its issues and made her into the woman she is.
At the end of episode three, Max’s powers activate in a strong way and she has the option of changing a significant aspect of Chloe’s life that made her into the self-loathing, reckless and rebellious teen dropout that she is now... the accidental death of her father.
As much for myself as for roleplay what would Max do given the circumstances, i decided to save him, and pushed the domino blocks just right to make sure no one would die. In the end, my gamer brain assumed not much would change, i mean, they spent three episodes crafting this universe and these characters, they can’t change all of it can they?
Oh boy, was i wrong. And again, like at the end of episode two.. i am SO happy that i’m wrong.
I saved her father, and presumably i kept the family together and happy. But everything else changed. Max was now a popular kid at school, belonging to the famed uptight Vortex Club which Max hated, her relationships that you affected and interacted with changed completely and Chloe was no where to be seen.
A touching cutscene with Max at her house revealed the outcome. She was paralyzed in a wheelchair. And all she could do was toss a sickly smile. A far cry from the dynamite energetic Chloe we have grown used to during the last three episodes.
I sat gaping in my seat with chills running up my spine as the credits rolled. Only halfway through them did i even realise my jaw was shaking.
While that was shocking and deeply moving in itself, a greater fact remained.. in a swift 30 seconds, the game looked at me and said:
“I don’t care what you think will happen, i don’t care that you thought i couldn’t do this to your characters, and i don’t care what your intentions were. These were your actions, and this is how the story... your story, will unfold.”
We gamers end up looking at games outside the box too often, nipping at the strings that holds the illusion of the game in place.. it’s refreshing for a game to step in and crush what we thought was its place.
At this point, if you’re counting, a player could have a whole new shifted setting, which judging by how they treated the second episode ending, they will stick with it, Kate that could be dead or not, and the Chloe that we knew during three seasons, for all intents and purposes, could be non-existent. And Max still has the omen of the destruction of Arcadia Bay to deal with and disappearance of Rachel Amber.
Even from a technical point of view, the amount of lines and interlocking story changes that can happen from now on, given that we still have two full episodes is mindbending and something that deserves our utmost respect as gamers to the craft of game design and storytelling.
I can’t wait for episode four, even if i’m sad that my entire experience with characters so far might have gotten axed. I dare them to stick with this and hope they will, as there will be no more powerful of a consequence than affecting the player himself through the actions he exerts upon the game.
In the end we have the amazing showing of skill of talented people, extreme use of player agency, a branching storytelling framework that Bioware would envy and altogether a package that pushes Life is Strange as one of the best games i’ve played. And most of all..
We are hella not over yet.