In an attempt to prove that Telltale isn't the only studio capable of episodic storytelling, Square-Enix presents Life Is Strange, a five episode interactive game developed by DONTNOD that left a real impression with me. Whereas Telltale creates stories from pre-existing licenses and fantastical stories, DONTNOD offers an original adventure that is grounded in reality despite the presence of a supernatural power. It is also grounded in the awkwardness and angst of modern teenage life made all the more difficult by the special brand of listlessness and boredom that comes with living in a small, Pacific Northwestern town.
Maxine is a teenage girl who moved back to her hometown of Arcadia City, Oregon after a five year long absence. A scholarship winner to the prestigious Blackwell Academy High School, Max has trouble fitting in with the stereotypical high school cliques so popularized in 1990s television and film. Her chief outlet, both socially and creatively, is her passion for photography but her own shyness and crippling self-consciousness prevent her from breaking too far out of her shell, even amongst her like minded peers. Max's life takes a turn after she wakes up from a nightmarish daydream of a massive super tornado poised to destroy the town. Stopping in the bathroom to calm her nerves, she witnesses an altercation between two students that ends with one of them being shot. The event awakens something in Max that gives her the ability to travel back in time. Retaining the memory of her past experiences, she uses the gift to save the girl and meddle in events that will have far reaching and unintended consequences. Max's Journey of discovery is bolstered by the game's secondary mystery involving the disappearance of the Laura Palmer-esque Rachel Amber, a dreamer who wanted to move to Los Angeles only to have gone missing without a trace.
Life Is Strange is a beautiful concept that is magnificently executed. At no point does it ever feel like a Telltale ripoff and this is mostly by virtue of the game's story and plot device. The first episode introduces the player to a world molded and influenced by films like Donnie Darko, Twin Peaks, and American Beauty. Arcadia City, like many other small towns, is chock full of people who harbor secrets which turns the game into a journey through character drama amongst the town's major players. By interacting with people, there are opportunities to say or do things that can have a positive or negative affect on their lives, both immediate and far reaching. The episode is prefaced by a familiar message that suggests all actions will be remembered by those affected by them and that anything Max does will have consequences. The ability to travel through time takes that mechanic into an interesting new direction.
In Telltale games, the player is conditioned to make a decision and stick with it to the bitter end. Time travel, however, gives Max a second chance to behave differently if the outcome isn't favorable. Once she comes to terms with her powers, Max can respond and react to situations in a way that will protect herself or save others at the expense of her own safety, well being, and perception. This may not seem like the choices do not carry the same heavy weight as Telltale but the decisions made here all the more agonizing because Max's time travel power is limited to current situations. There's no way to tell how a choice will effect the late game and having to pick one course of action over another is stressful. Take, for example, a scene in which Max witnesses an altercation between her friend Chloe and her strict step-father. When the ex-soldier (and current head of security for Blackwell Academy) discovers the presence of drugs, Max can either stay quiet or defend Chloe. Hiding in the closet causes the argument to escalate to the point where Chloe is slapped by her step-father. If Max intervenes, the older man severely chastises her and threatens to report Max to the school, which runs the risk of losing the scholarship. For every major decision, there is a chance to decide which route to take before moving onto the next scene. There are no timers that force the player to make a choice out of duress, but the feeling of limited time travel not knowing what impact your actions have on the future is arresting.
Time travel is used for more than changing people's lives. It is also used to solve puzzles and fix small, non-essential accidents. Just as Max can retain memories of previous events, she also keeps any items she picked up before the trip back. She can also "teleport" herself out of the path of obstacles by walking up to the obstruction and rewinding time to before it blocked the path. There are other times where manipulating events creates lovely little scenes. There's one in particular that I really loved. While searching a house, blink and you'll miss a shot of a bird flying face first into a closed window. It's a quick piece of animation that is easily ignored, especially if you have the camera turned away from the area. If you witnessed the bird's unceremonious death, you can walk up to the window, rewind time, and open it just in time for the bird to fly safely into the room. This moment had no effect on the story nor did it come with a "This action has consequences" prompt. It's just a sweet moment of poignancy.
Max's story is set in an enticing, picturesque interpretation of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. Set ostensibly around the 2013s, Arcadia is beautiful and almost New England-ish in its appearance and a place where the younger, more freewheeling inhabitants continue to intentionally use the word "hella" in conversation. There are hints of cellshading in textures, giving the whole experience a dream-like feel (though some of the characters look a bit too plastic for my tastes). The first episode bathes the city in a perpetual sunset which really gives the environment a real sense of character. The animation isn't very fluid and the lack of proper lip syncing gets to be a distraction but those are flaws I can easily look past. They don't stop Life Is Strange from being one of the prettiest games on Xbox One right now.
The ending of "Chrysalis" suggests that Max's apocalyptic prophecy is real and I'm dying to find out where DONTNOD will take the story. How will Max's power change the future? Can it be changed? Is time travel enough to stop a seemingly unstoppable force of nature? Or will it end on the same note as Melancholia, where Max's actions are nothing more than a sad, desperate attempt to put people's lives in order before a terrifying end? Although many of the characters are tired stereotypes, I was surprised how drawn I was to them. Even the school's Mean Girls bitch queen has an certain mysterious air that fascinates me. Halfway through the first episode, I grew less concerned about the nature of time travel and the oncoming storm in favor of understanding the lives these people lead.
Life Is Strange and its first episode was a complete surprise. The high school setting and dosage of teenage angst sound, on paper, like the perfect recipe for a middling drama on the CW, but the game's writing belies something far more special and less pandering. Life Is Strange takes Telltale's formula of consequence driven storytelling to create something original and extremely compelling.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.