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Life is Strange (spoilers!)
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geggis
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February 6, 2016 - 2:59 pm
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So I finished this on... Thursday evening and have been chewing it over since then and wanted to spill my thoughts here. Spoilers ahoy!

For the most part I thought Life is Strange was brilliant. Like I said in my Games of 2015, I love the look of it, the soundtrack and sound design, the writing and acting were great, the story was super intriguing and a lot of the decisions were really tough to make. I thought the rewind feature was great for feeling out any immediate consequences but obviously not so good at seeing the longer term effect of a given choice. Despite the rewind being snappy there were sections where it took quite a while to explore a few different dialogue threads (I doubt I'll ever play it again so I was keen to hear what people had to say on various subjects). There were also a few instances where I rewound too many times and overwrote one of my actions with inaction but it didn't seem like they amounted to much (like scribbling graffiti on the Price's mantelpiece).

Where I think the game falls down however, is how laboured or overwrought it felt at times. Sometimes the dialogue went on and on, repetitiously so, like when you see Kate in hospital or when you see Warren in the Two Whales diner (that conversation could have been so much sharper). The alarm bells started ringing at the end of episode 3 when Chloe was clearly not going to be okay. She wasn't just not okay, she was paralysed from the neck down and slowly dying. And Max had to choose whether to mercy kill her or not. That was really grim, but if you thought that was a contrived emotional moment then get ready for the finale.

When Max roles up to the Everyday Heroes exhibition, it's all sunshine and happiness at that moment. My first thought was 'Yeah, this ain't going to last'. And sure enough she ends up back in the Dark Room after tearing her selfie up. Eventually she gets back down to the diner, gets back to Chloe before the Vortex Club party and spills her heart out, then ends up back at the beach in front of the tornado where the game just loses the plot. We have a bunch of crazy sequences and a tedious stealth section topped off with a recap of the main story beats between Max and Chloe in the form of still 'moments'. I played Life is Strange in one go so this section felt all too familiar to me but I guess if you'd played the episodes as they were released this might have been a welcome reminder of their moments together before the expected humdinger of a choice.

Chloe or Arcadia Bay. Didn't see that coming! I sat there for a while and thought about how fate had killed Chloe numerous times and how hard Max had tried to stop that from happening. (I couldn't help but think it was the writers that were hell bent on killing Chloe, not fate or the universe or God or whatever.) Then I thought about saving Kate, helping Alyssa, Warren, Joyce and David and various others, and how killing them all for Chloe's life would effect Max and Chloe in the long term. I remembered Chloe's plea to kill her for the sake of herself and others and of course she was now asking Max to let her die. I sacrificed her and 'reset' the timeline. I wanted to save Chloe but... yeah. Just your everyday hero.

So I'm guessing that saving Chloe is the butterfly effect that fucks with the cosmos because Max could have hit the fire alarm but didn't, and yet, perversely, doing all the other things that you rewound your way through are fine and dandy. That irked me. But what really irked me was the ending being a funeral sequence with a powerful (and brilliant and perfect) piece of music over the top. I could almost see the director, Ed Harris-style from The Truman Show, laying on the heavy for maximum emotional effect. I dunno. It just felt too heavy handed and... manipulative, I suppose, like the final choice, like the end of episode 3, like the end sequence. They even threw in an unexpected kiss to up the loss even more. It's like the cart came before the horse or something, like the emotional 'intent' informed or guided the direction of the story, "We want to make people cry, how can we do that?"

Yes, all media manipulates the viewer, and I think Life is Strange earned that sort of ending because the game has real heart, but I think it was just too much, and weirdly, not enough. I'd love to have seen what happened to everyone else, I mean, they were the ones you saved. We got a nice Donnie Darko-esque montage of all the characters at the end of episode 1 (that gave me major feels) but the finale couldn't muster up a similar denouement for everyone you just sacrificed Chloe for? Really? I feel like they ran out of time or money or something.

For contrast: I much preferred the subtlety of Gone Home which has a few similarities with Life is Strange. It felt more organic.

On Steam it seems most of the negative reviews about the game are because your choices are made 'irrelevant' but... they're missing the point: spending time with Chloe that you otherwise wouldn't have had was the point. The journey was the point.

A few other things:

Some of the voice acting is jarringly off, like a few of the folk in the Everyday Heroes exhibition and every time Samuel opened his mouth. Being able to focus on photos somewhat undermined the severity of certain situations and moments (like the end of episode 3 and even when in Jefferson's chair). It was pretty amazing that she could do that but a lot of weight was taken out of decisions when I knew that they would probably be overwritten in various ways. I mean, trying to save Kate and choosing who to 'blame' was super tough because at that point I thought my choice was permanent. When I finally get round to playing The Walking Dead I can see that tearing me up because... no rewind. Also, Final Fantasy: Spirits Within is one of the best sci-fi films ever made, ha!

Just to round this off though: I really enjoyed Life is Strange but have my issues with the ending and how it was handled. Steerpike, I think you might be right about it being a good gateway game to some folk. I'd say the same about Gone Home.

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Steerpike
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February 8, 2016 - 12:09 pm
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You hit a lot of nails right on the head there, Gregg. Overall I thought Life is Strange was great, plus some elements that weren't executed as well as the rest of it. Many of these elements fell outside the scope of the experience (voice acting, for example), and in many cases they weren't persistently there. Some episodes and bits were more or less troubled than others. Taken as a whole experience Life is Strange was pretty amazing.

I chose to save Chloe instead of the town and immediately questioned my decision, not because of the outcome but because the second I made the choice, I realized I hadn't thought it through properly. There was a tornado coming, I'd already murdered Chloe once, etc etc etc. It was neat, actually, that even though the choice isn't timed or anything it put me in a situation where I made a decision I almost instantly regretted my failure to accurately contemplate the ifs. I'm curious about the other ending but I haven't seen it, since Matter of the Great Red Dragon-style I decided to own all my choices in Life is Strange and not treat it as a movable option-feast.

Much of the script dodginess might come down to English (maybe) not being the first language of the developers. Whether or not that's actually true I don't know; I'm just assuming because Dontnod is French, they wrote the script in French first. There are times when it sounds like a translation.

A lot of Episode Five seemed like filler to me, which may be my biggest complaint. They clearly pulled out all the production-value stops in E4 with the Vortex Club party, but they also evidently needed to fill up another episode so they put in a whole lot of pointless roaming of art galleries and sneaking away from mean people and dream sequences that may as well have been labeled Previously on Life is Strange, Just In Case You Forgot. In my view, more of Episode Five should have been devoted to connecting the dots of a story that had up to that point not been very connected (a teenager gains power over time, whales beach themselves, a town in Oregon falls on economic hard times). None of the events in the game seemed threaded together as well as they could have been, and they wound up concluding with a filler episode rather than a closure episode. 

Life is Strange and Gone Home both impress partly because they feel sort of un-gamelike. Where stuff like Pathologic only work because they're games, Life is Strange would also have worked really well in plenty of other formats. It makes this into a strength. The same is true of Gone Home. This had the added effect of familiarizing the experiences, which is why both would make such good gateway drugs for gaming noobs.

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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AJLange
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February 15, 2016 - 10:48 am
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I actually liked the "walk down memory lane" bit with the stills. I think the point of that was to remind you of some of the choices that you made, since... well, if you go through with what feels like the canon ending, you have to deal with the fact that it's all somewhat invalidated. The point of that I THINK is to show you that your choices did matter in some cosmic way, even if they really kind of didn't. (I personally chose to save the town, which I hear is a slightly more satisfying ending at least in the sense that it feels more complete than the save Chloe ending.)

What really didn't work for me, ultimately, was the little "save other people during the tornado" minigames in the last episode. Fun puzzles I guess, but narratively, those were truly pointless - either the tornado never happens in the first place, or everyone dies anyway. I didn't really like the stealth bit either. Creepy, but went on for too long.

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geggis
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February 15, 2016 - 12:20 pm
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Yeah the memory lane bit feels like it had two purposes, one as a reminder of your choices, and two as 'pieces of time' Max and Chloe shared together (whether invalidated or not -- this is backed up by Chloe's final bits of dialogue where she says 'all these moments were real and they'll always be ours').

It's interesting you chose to save Arcadia Bay Amanda because when I took the decision to do the same I remembered the situation at the end of The Last of Us where you have to shoot the doctors to save Ellie. It kind of felt like that (saving an individual vs saving lots of individuals), but with a choice, and I remembered your article on TLoU ending where you and your husband were like 'Nu-uh, she ain't dying!' so I did wonder which way you'd swing with the final choice in LiS.

I felt generally there was a lot of pointless busy work in the last chapter, at least it felt more like busy work as you got a greater sense that, actually, your actions might amount to diddly squat. I really liked the looking at pictures to go back to moments to try and affect the 'present'. I thought that was going to play a much bigger part of the finale but it was only really in the beginning, which is a shame.

Steerpike, I actually think Gone Home only really works as a game because it's exploratory and half of the intrigue and enjoyment comes from trying to piece together all the bits of information you find around the environment (and there's plenty you can miss too). Life is Strange could perhaps translate to other media but as a game you can do quite a lot with the rewinding to get different perspectives and in some case outcomes. This is interesting because recently Tom Chick reviewed Firewatch and raised some great points about it as a game versus the likes of Gone Home: http://www.quartertothree.com/.....videogame/

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AJLange
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February 15, 2016 - 3:25 pm
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In The Last of Us, Joel was deciding.

In Life is Strange, Max was deciding.

That's the long and short of it!

Though in Life is Strange, two other things influenced my choice there: one, it seemed like saving the town was the more intended ending, and two, I was wondering, just as a matter of curiosity, if it was possible for Max and Chloe NOT to be a couple, so by the time the game was over for me, while their relationship was close it was clearly platonic and a friendship rather than a romance. My understanding is that many players got a kiss, but I didn't.

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geggis
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February 16, 2016 - 5:45 am
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My choice was made with Max's personality in mind, or at least what I'd come to know of it through her diary and reactions to stuff throughout the game. That said, I think it could have gone either way with her, hence the choice (and how difficult it was to make), even if one ending seemed more fitting than the other (though I still haven't watched the other ending yet and I'm not sure if I will). Joel's motivations by comparison were pretty cut and dry even if I didn't see it until after the fact.

So your Max and Chloe didn't kiss? Hmm. I wonder whether that has anything to do with the kiss choice earlier on in the game? I chose to kiss Chloe to catch her off guard, not to tell the game that there was something more to their friendship (I laughed a few times whenever Chloe joked about Max doing something then rewinding). That moment at the end came out of nowhere to me though and it didn't really heighten things so much as elicit a 'wut?'

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Steerpike
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February 16, 2016 - 2:01 pm
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I take back the memory lane complaint, because what I was really complaining about was the stealth section where you had to collect beer bottles.The memories and weird alter-worlds of Episodes 4 and 5 both had some fantastic moments of art direction, and I like Gregg's "pieces of time" description. Little chips of experience that collectively stack up to define a person's uniqueness and experience in life. That plus the Juenet-and-Caro visuals in Max's dream sequences were both really well done. Who else looked out the dorm window and saw the giant squirrels out in the yard?

The way Max was looking out at the destroyed Main Street as they drove away made me think that she, too, was regretting her decision and that it might lead to resentment later on in their lives. Like Max, I chose to save Chloe knowing full well the tornado was going to destroy the town, but somehow never seriously considered the fact that this would also mean everyone in town was going to die. As Max looked at the ruins I felt as if she and I were thinking the same depressing thoughts.

The "big" logical complaint I have with the whole of Life is Strange is actually not that big, but it's bugged me since I wrote up impressions for the very first episode: you never find out why Max stopped contacting Chloe after moving to Seattle. No calls, no email? Nothing? Not Facebook friends? Absolute silence? Why? It was semi-necessary to set up the game's narrative, but they needed to justify it somehow. That action was one of the very few things I disliked about Max, and it was the one I couldn't change or make right. This too may have had some bearing on my decision at the end of the game, to not betray Chloe a third time. Well, fourth, if you count murdering her in the car-accident-time.

Firewatch! I'm playing that myself. I should play it now.

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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AJLange
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February 16, 2016 - 2:23 pm
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The beer bottles are just a bonus and not required! I didn't realize that either until I had finished and looked up spoilers.

Also, whether you get a kiss at the end is in fact affected by the choice of the kiss earlier, another spoiler I looked up after finishing. (I kissed at first, then rewound and didn't)

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geggis
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February 16, 2016 - 3:59 pm
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Did you look out of the dorm window earlier on and take snaps of the bigfoot foot prints outside? That was all kinds of 'What the--?'

My 'pieces of time' bit was from a quote in the game from... Alfred Hitchcock? I think it was something Max or Jefferson said about video being little pieces of time. Those still moments kind of reminded me of that.

That's a great observation actually Steerpike and something I lost sight of as the story went on. It didn't make sense that Max would just sever all contact with Chloe when she left. It was a key part of the story but also a bit of a blind spot.

Also, I was kind of weirded out by the end of episode 3 because, aside from it featuring my favourite Mogwai track 'Kids Will Be Skeletons', it also showed shots of three beached whales. Now, the previous day here in the UK, three sperm whales beached in Skegness, a small seaside town not far from where I studied at uni. It was at uni where I bought and listened to Happy Songs for Happy People, the Mogwai album with Kids Will Be Skeletons on.

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xtal
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March 17, 2016 - 2:26 am
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I went with the 'save Chloe' option as a fuck you to the game, as I'd had enough of fucking up time by then. Everything in episode 5 felt inconsequential to me because it was utterly obvious that Max and Chloe would end up at the lighthouse by the end, so it was just a matter of figuring out how many times I'd have to bring back Chloe from the dead. I liked the ending of episode 3 no matter how forced or contrived it was. It felt wrong to manipulate every conversation, with Max clearly craving the approval of every person she came across. I don't think she ever really had to face that, those smaller things, the manipulating of people.

Those things bum me out because there were so many other things I liked about the experience as a whole. Overall definitely a positive one, just with frustrating missteps; it seems from several perspectives, reading the rest of your comments.

If being wrong's a crime I'm serving forever

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Steerpike
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March 18, 2016 - 12:54 pm
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That's well-put, xtal -- overall a positive experience with some frustrating missteps. The thing I liked most about Life is Strange may be the sense that despite the missteps, Dontnod is getting better and better at making the games it wants to make, so despite a few complaints there's this feeling that what they're working on next will be a further improvement, and so on.

All in all Life is Strange deserves kudos for being a unique kind of game, and for sticking to its own vision consistently throughout. Various problems, sure, but problems are to be expected in creative endeavors like that and they didn't overshadow the rest.

Life is the misery we endure between disappointments.

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