Within the gaming world, it’s not hard to spot the current trend of striving towards a more plot-driven experience in a video game. Not just in story-focused ventures, but triple-A releases have also stepped up their writing game. Whether they’re on an acceptable level yet is a bit subjective, but games coming from studios like TellTale and The Odd Gentlemen seem to have an idea of how to move forward. It seems that, while in more wholesome gaming experiences the story aspect is still struggling, other studios have sculpted a way to have a more engaging story and experience for the time being. Series like the Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us, and the newly-minted King’s Quest series have provided a place to build upon for contemporaries. And contemporaries came, one of the more famous examples being the series Life is Strange, coming from publisher Square Enix and developer Dontnod, their other notable title being Remember Me. This episodic, choice-centered game has not only received critical appraisal, but has also been nominated for a few awards. It seems the community is smitten at this recent attempt at the medium, but unfortunately, I’m not one of those smitten. In fact, Life is Strange is my personal contender of one of the worst types of these games. While I will be going into technical criticism, such as game structure and mechanics, most of this review will be tailored to literary critique, which is to say it will be focused on more of the aspects of the plot, characters, and narrative.
Life is Strange stars main character Max Caulfield, a girl who has just moved into the boarding school (or college. I still have no idea whether it’s a high school or a college) Blackwell Academy, taking place in a fictional town known as Arcadia Bay, Oregon. The school is mostly focused on art studies, and for amateur photographer Max, it’s a perfect place. Only one of her days starts off with a nightmare, one where a hurricane has ripped through the sky and is headed towards the town. Max wakes up in photography class, and after it’s over she heads to the bathroom to wash up. There she eavesdrops in on a fight between the local snotnose Nathan Prescott and a blue-haired girl. It gets ugly, Nathan pulls out a gun and shoots the girl. Luckily for Max, she rushes forward, and wakes back up in photography class, minutes prior. Max, in a daze, realizes she has the power to rewind a fraction of time over and over again. Max uses this to save the girl’s life, who turns out to be an old friend known as Chloe Price. From here, Max gets into time hullabaloos, there’s some teen slang, Chloe’s there for some reason, and the nightmare turns from a meaningless dream and into a foretelling of the grim future.
Now this premise certainly isn’t original, but it doesn’t have to be. So long as the story doesn’t get too absorbed into itself and create 900 paradoxes in the process, time stories can work. It is certainly rare to see one work out, but it can be done. Does Life is Strange do it? Oh God does it not, but we’ll get into specifics later. First off, I must address the jagged and unorganized narrative that this game sports. Considering the laid-back atmosphere and rather blunt title itself, a lot of this game derives in moments of calm and peace. Now I’m one that absolutely adores a good calm moment, and rarely is it done right. Unfortunately, Life is Strange doesn’t quite know what to do to keep a consistent atmosphere when it needs to. Let me give you an example. The nightmare actually turns out to be a message from the future, a disaster that will hit the coastline in 4 days’ time. Considering the urgency of the situation, it’s very hard to appreciate when the game wants to tone down and take its time. Essentially, the game showed its full hand when it just started, and is now left with the awkwardness of directing multiple less-urgent subplots in the wake of literal disaster. Unfortunately this affects the whole cast, as Max and Chloe, of whom Max had told of her powers, constantly forget that a massive force of nature will come soon to kill them all. Instead, the game pads itself out with sub-plot upon sub-plot until it decides that it’s time to end. These sub-plots include a viral-video scandal on a student, a case of very obvious bribery, and serial-kidnapping. The last of which would work for a full series, but since the game decides to play the natural disaster card, it still seems like a less-urgent problem. In this the game decides to put a complete and utter halt on the hurricane and even limits its mentionings in order to even progress smoothly at all. A multi-plot structure isn’t easy, but to go as far as to stop one plot in order to start another one and end the original whenever the second one ends is just bad writing. But bad writing is apparently what this game is really good at.
The game sports an admirably awful writing style, which exposes itself more as “that hip-and-happening lingo all them kids are flapping” and less of actual dialogue. Characters rarely speak without some level of age-discrimination. There is hardly a moment where a character is speaking the way they should in a moment of actual development or seriousness. Also considering that the game peppers itself with internet memes in not only dialogue but in backgrounds, it’s very hard to take any of it seriously. Now obviously you can’t have teenagers speaking in soliloquies and monologues that rival the length and language of Shakespeare himself, but it’s hard to imagine any of these characters having the ability to speak without sounding like they’re forcing it. This also extends into these characters’ development, or lack thereof. Close to 20 characters exist in this game, and rarely are any of them used for more than a running joke or a 5-episode long punchline. And boy, is it easy to see which ones are plot fodder. The problem is that the game can’t decide which of them is important. At the beginning characters like Dana seem to have some place in the narrative, but they drop off the plotline by episode 2. Recurring characters like Warren and Kate have next to no development, outside of moments where it feels more like the game is platonically telling you that they’ve now developed. Adult-characters range from side-lined to bipolar to utterly useless. This even bleeds into the game’s own design of choice, but I’ll tackle that later. Amazingly, this is all dwarfed by the game’s secondary character, Chloe Price.
Chloe is a beloved character to many people who have played Life is Strange. I’m now going to begin the precise and very controversial procedure of dismantling her entire character. Chloe Price, as said before, is Max’s old friend. Max had originally come from Arcadia Bay, but had moved away for…reasons. Now that she’s back, she had dropped out of contact from Chloe since Max’s moving, which coincidentally happened at the time where Chloe’s father had passed away in a car accident. Now Chloe’s ultra-pissed, and she’s determined to let you know for the remainder of the series. Unfortunately what this broken relationship results in is a predictable set of actions that cause a predictable set of events that end in a predictable way. Chloe’s character offers nothing more than a literal personification of angst and teen slang. Not only that, but the game is downright obsessive in its dedication to keep Chloe a focus. Problem is, she is not very interesting. She’s more of a guidepost for Max to ignore everything important and prevalent in order for the sole act of wasting time. Like bottle-collecting. She also has a very noticeable habit of being a pain in the ass at every opportunity. Had this character been one meant for more of the sidelines and not one meant for a spotlight, then it would be somewhat passable. Unfortunately, not only is Chloe a constant thorn in the side, but she also interestingly has little to do with anything. Plot-sensitive details pass through her general direction, but her actual involvement is limited, if her involvement even existed in the first place. She’s more of a bystander and a second voice to Max and her actions. Only issue is that the second voice is both unnecessary and annoying.
It doesn’t stop there, as her awful characterization stems from simple distaste to utter appall as she issues a blanket complaint to anyone and anything around her that dare inconvenient her. Emotional moments or moments of suspense are butchered simply because of the mismatched dialogue, and most of it detriments Chloe’s character. A suicide attempt in the game is scoffed at and then followed up with a Doge joke, just because the world isn’t paying attention to Chloe at every waking second. Worst of all, in this game of choice, Max very rarely has a wide range of choice in her responses.
Now to get into the actual game design. It’s common for choice-built games to feature a system where both extremes of a decision and a neutral choice are necessary in having the player have an actual choice. The problem with Life is Strange is that all responses generally follow the same line of thought. Rather than a positive, neutral, and negative response lined up, most (if not all) choices in Life is Strange are mere re-wordings of each other. Not only that, but even major decisions in the game sometimes have no effect on the continuity. The most some of these supposed major choices get in terms of plot tie-in is a passing comment, and then the game moves on. Even in situations where a character will evaluate your decisions and act accordingly, it seems to not matter what you did, since it will ultimately lead to the same prompt. In a choice-centric design, having past events not only not affect the later game, but also to outright ignore them in favor of whatever the game was going to do anyway is bad. TellTale has also had situations where choices were less of full game-changers and more of deciding simply at what time a major event happened, but it at least changed the game somewhat and still lead to a unique string of events. Life is Strange just seems to decide on a whim which choices stick and which won’t. Even this falls apart in the final episode, where choices have absolutely no point except for an end stat. Even Max’s time-shifting, which is supposed to play a big part, ends up as a glorified retry function. Most of it devolves into doing something, breaking something, rewinding time, and doing something else to get an item. You’re not even allowed to perform some correct actions until you screw up the first time, then the game lets you do what you’re supposed to.
The only real good I have to say about Life is Strange is its general aesthetic. The game sports a very pastel-like appearance, with minimal texture work to accent the calm feeling of the cinematography. The camera work is more subdued and hard-edited rather than transitioned, and peppers itself with blunt establishing shots. Even the soundtrack, comprising mostly of acoustic indie songs, gives a very subdued feeling about the whole thing. Again, as said before, this becomes detriment to the plot of the game, but it is something that I wish they stuck with. The whole game aesthetic has this feeling of calm and simplicity. Whoever visually designed the game is very good at what they do.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend itself into the rest of the presentation, as I think the voice-acting and character motions are painfully mismatched. The motions that characters perform, despite the actors doing their best to emote, do not match with their voice. Most of them remain expressionless, and for a while the game even lacked adequate lip-synch. I know fantastic voice-work can apply to characters that hardly emote, and the best example I can think of is Oxenfree, where you can’t even see characters’ faces but every performance is believable. However, in Life is Strange, it looks more like a slightly over-sold performance coming out of a slightly moving mannequin. It’s less of a problem of poor voice acting and seems to be more of a problem of poor directing. The actors give levels of emotion that are way higher or way lower than what the character is performing on-screen. This leads to a very obvious disconnect between actor and subject, which makes the rest of the game seem less believable than it already is.
I could go on and on about this game (Hell I once wrote a 6-page analysis on the ridiculousness of the final episode) but I’ll stop it right here. Life is Strange is a bit of an anomaly. It both garnered wide-spread appeal and critical appraisal, but it is also one of the most laughably written stories I’ve even heard of, let alone played. Character development is either non-existent or instantaneous, the plot structure is absurdly tangled in itself, and while the presentation can be appealing, the animation leads most emotional moments to fall flat. I understand that I’m in the extreme minority when it comes to this game, and if you like it then feel free to like it. But I just cannot understand any semblance of appeal this game had managed to attract. I guess life really is strange after all.