This is going to sound weird probably but evidence suggests that I’m a pretty good teenage girl. My exuberant performance as Gaige in Borderlands 2 is legendary – ask anybody – and before that I managed a highly effective troupe of Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. Put me in a tartan skirt and I’ll change the world, or at least the school’s immediate environs. So it probably comes as little surprise that I enjoyed the first part of Dontnod’s odd, sweet, beautiful Life is Strange, an episodic consequenture from the creators of Remember Me.
Remember Me was the Paris-based developer’s first title, an open-world action platformer whose over-promotion ensured its under-performance, despite nothing too serious being wrong with it. It had plenty of flaws, but most of them were the result of a small new studio biting off more than it could chew with its first game. I think in time, Remember Me will have a more positive reputation. At worst it’s a pretty solid six out of ten, which isn’t too bad at all. And even its biggest critics must admit that Remember Me had some interesting twists and innovations.
Dontnod learned valuable lessons from Remember Me, acknowledging what went wrong but refusing to turn its back on what it believed went right. Life is Strange is its sophomore effort, a five-episode piece that plays like TellTale’s recent work but presents a unique soul all its own.
Slim, sad-eyed Max Caulfield is dozing in photography class when a nightmare jerks her awake. It’s not long before Max realizes that – out of the blue, as far as she can tell – she’s able to dream snippets of the future and rewind the immediate present, correcting mistakes and manipulating situations to her advantage, though she quickly learns that identifying which outcomes are to her advantage is no easy task. This is the central conceit of Life is Strange, but in many ways it’s the least important part of the experience.
Instead, the first episode Chrysalis is much more about being a high school kid. Max attends Blackwell Academy, a posh private high school for seniors only. Along with the chance to study under some world-renowned artists and educators, she’d hoped that getting accepted to Blackwell would mean an end to the petty teen politics of other schools. Now, a month into her term, she’s realizing what wishful thinking that was. Blackwell is all she might have hoped for academically but the social atmosphere is a viper pit as dangerous to navigate as any high school’s. A little shy and out of place, Max is struggling with disappointment, depression, guilt, and stress.
The long-term plotlines of Life is Strange begin to reveal themselves in episode one, but barely. There’s a dark undercurrent to the social life at Blackwell Academy. It could just be normal teenagerism: cliqueish behavior, entitled rich kid assholery, crisis-magnifying young minds. There’s a missing teen that may have nothing to do with the above. There’s some stuff going on at school. Even Max, sharp and practical, is still a teenager; teenagers are melodrama hounds. At that age it’s easy to think of oneself as real, but developmentally speaking, it’s really hard to believe anything else is.
That’s usually presented as a teen shortcoming, as selfishness, unnecessary and unwelcome. The truth is teens can’t help it. They aren’t self-centered by choice. At this stage in life, psychologically, this is how they see the world, and it’s how they learn to master the complexities of abstract thought. On top of that they’re going through various other physical and emotional changes. It’s a tough time, and a necessary one, to prepare a young person for successful adulthood. And it’s really well done in Life is Strange, which is wry and humorous about the experience, but touching also. It took me right back to my teenage years: the emotions, the complex networks of people, the etiquette and constantly-shifting social landscape. Even the most dislikable characters in the game – say, rich ultraprincess Victoria Chase – are believable if viewed through the lens of being a teenager. I had a few Victoria Chases in my school.
Of all the characters, Max teeters closest to adult-writer-trying-to-create-a-teen, but she’s also the most likable, full of wry observations and biting humor. She takes her sudden chronomancy in stride, calling it a “small advantage” in her journal, while testing its limits (through you) in almost every situation possible. Max is generally very honest with herself, which raises some questions about inner secrets relating to her past and other characters, and whether it’s the game keeping stuff under wraps or Max displaying uncharacteristic self-deception. The most notable of these is the clumsy introduction of Chloe Price, Max’s onetime BFF.
While having a high school girl meltdown in the bathroom, Max witnesses a murder, rewinds it, wakes up an hour earlier, and realizes she can stop the event. This forms most of Episode One’s first act and is heavily padded by unnecessary repetition in which you’d be able to get choices right, except the right choices simply aren’t available. Still, as an introduction to the time power and Max’s psyche, it works okay. Shortly thereafter and to no one’s surprise, we discover that the blue-haired shooting victim is none other than Chloe, who Max made no effort to contact after moving away five years ago.
Chloe gets no explanation for Max’s silence, and neither do we; that the two girls now have essentially nothing in common is also quickly glossed over in the interest of whatever story Dontnod is trying to tell. This also serves to highlight the other serious shortcoming in Life is Strange, and a fundamental flaw in reactive games in general: namely, it’s awkward.
We all remember those text cues in The Walking Dead – “Clementine will remember that” and so on – Life is Strange is heavily influenced by TellTale’s work, but doesn’t balance or integrate outcomes as smoothly. When you make a decision that’s going to have long-term impact, it tells you so, but manages to be judgmental enough that several times I used Max’s time-reversal to change a decision I’d been okay with, for fear I was cutting myself off from a better outcome later. Other times you feel forced into decisions you don’t like because it’s clear which ones the game wants you to make.
The time-reversal power, along with Max’s habit of waking up hours earlier, feels less like a second chance and more like cheating. In some cases you just go back and get an answer right that you’d gotten wrong: Max, denying that she was unsociable, was challenged to guess another student’s last name. I chose “Olsen.” It was “Watson.” “It’s Watson,” said the student. I rewound and chose “Watson,” not because I’d been wrong the first time, but because I needed the bitch to move and she didn’t when I got her name wrong. Sometimes you jump back to the past and the choices are all different. Sometimes the answer you know to be correct isn’t an option, even though it should be.
Sometimes you’re asked to do things while people are standing there, and it’s super-awkward. “Put on some music,” Chloe said, so I looked. CD rack? Nope. Top of her desk? Nope. Shelf? Nope. Floor? Nope. The game wasn’t moving forward till I found her music.
So I tore her room apart. I went through drawers, closet, bills, a stash of shit from childhood, an obviously private shoebox of Polaroids. I looked under the bed, in her laundry, and at her Facebook account. During all this, Chloe was laying there, quietly smoking a joint as I invaded her privacy. In other scenes I intentionally skipped looking at some things because it wasn’t my business, only to find I’d missed exposition from them. It’s possible to miss large chunks of Chrysalis entirely, simply because you’re trying to make sane decisions like not going through someone’s trash while they’re standing in front of you. The result is you’ve created a story where decisions follow you through episodes, but they’re not really your decisions at all.
This is a serious drawback, especially given the subtlety with which The Walking Dead and TellTale’s other efforts manage the same. I can live with it only because Life is Strange has such a trustworthy emotional center. But for anyone playing, my advice is to forget the idea that you’re actually doing something with reactivity or decision trees. The game has an obvious path; follow it. This (I assume) is your best chance to get the most out of the story I think Dontnod wants to tell.
And the story is delightfully bittersweet. The hour or so it takes to complete Chrysalis brought back memories of my own teen years, because though I never have been a teenage girl, it is spot-on in so many other ways – not least of which being how different our adult perspectives are. Max is the kind of kid who would do “okay” in high school. She’s cute, smart, has a skill, knows how to talk, doesn’t cross lines she’s not supposed to, etc. You knew at least two dozen Max Caulfields in your high school, and at the time, you probably didn’t think about them unless they were standing in front of you, because they were neither super-popular or easy targets or anything that stood out. But looking back, I at least wonder about the Max Caulfields of my school, what became of them and whether they’re happy. Adults recognize the real worth of a Max Caulfield, while teens never notice how the most precious things tend to appear plain.
Life is Strange seems to get this phase of life so well that I can happily forgive its occasional blunders. The interactive ones mentioned above, and the unpredictable voice acting too – everyone is good, but the director often didn’t give them the leeway they needed to fix flaws in the script. Ashly Burch (of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’ fame) is plastic and listless as Chloe, choosing (or required) to deliver stilted, unnatural dialogue when she’s repeatedly shown herself better at improv. Max, voiced by Hannah Telle, is better overall, but nobody escapes a script that’s better off read than heard.
Dontnod is based in Paris, and I assume the original script was in French. It may suffer translation or English as a second language issues. If so it’s readily forgiven. I’m more inclined to blame the VO director than the script for the performance stumbles anyway, but even at their worst they don’t interfere with the innate cleverness and heart of Life is Strange. The writers did a fantastic job creating a realistic experience from one of the weirdest, most unrealistic times of our lives.
France is not a country I know well, either culturally or otherwise. My experience with the region ends with the Visigoths and may not be applicable to modern French game development. Certainly France has a vibrantly creative development ecosystem with a long history. Dontnod, Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain), and Arkane (Dishonored) are high profile; Ubisoft was founded there and still has several studios in France; then there’s the history: Cryo Interactive, Delphine, Mindscape. But French games aren’t readily generalized the way Russian or Japanese ones are, and I’m uncertain if French developers would say there’s an identity unique to their games. French development has a global reach, I wonder if it’s getting the attention it deserves.
Life is Strange continues with Episode 2, Out of Time, in March. The final three episodes don’t have release dates set. I’m hoping Chrysalis was an intentionally brief and linear introductory segment, which seems likely given unused interface elements like a town map that seem to be waiting for future installments. If not, then Life is Strange will be penalized for brevity and simplicity. Each Walking Dead episode is about four hours of play; Chrysalis is about one. And frankly I think the two games should diverge quite a bit, because while The Walking Dead is about telling a reactive linear story, Life is Strange should be more experiential, more rambling, and more easygoing.
At only $4.99 on Steam, my reaction is unreservedly positive. Life is Strange may not – yet – be the best put together episodic adventure we’ve seen, but it’s warm, touching, genuinely funny, and melancholic. It’s easy to play and lovely to watch. I haven’t got a clue where Dontnod is going with it yet, but I liked so much about Life is Strange that I’m quite eager to find out.
Tell Steerpike he’d make a great teen girl at Steerpike@Tap-Repeatedly.com.