When creating a work of fiction, the artist is required to create a believable world. Without such a setting, a work of fiction will fail miserably, particularly in the eyes of critics. The reason why sci-fi and fantasy novels can succeed in such fantastical settings is because there’s a strong sense of believability somewhere within the writing. I’m not saying that magic, far-fetched technology, or the supernatural can’t exist in fiction – no, quite the opposite. I’m saying it can thrive in a world of fiction if made believable. Life is Strange attempts to tell a clever tale of time manipulation and time travel to unravel the mystery of Arcadia Bay and prevent its impending doom. The game, however, fails on the most simplistic pieces of its convoluted story. And this is truly too bad because the characters were pretty well rounded.
Life is Strange is the tale of Maxine Caulfield, an 18-year-old high school student attending the infamous Blackwell Academy – a school notorious for its decorated photography program – who, by some unknown force, is capable of turning back time. At its heart, Life is Strange is about choices and the consequences they come with. Max and estranged best friend Chloe find themselves in a deductive race to figure out where the missing Rachel Amber disappeared to and why strange natural phenomena have begun to occur. Their journey leads them through some pretty insane situations involving drugs, suicide, bullying, enormous tornadoes, beached whales, and guns – along with much more.
That’s a pretty cool plot, right? I agree. The premise of Life is Strange is intriguing to the point where I completed the entire game in a week (the platinum Trophy for the game requires only one playthrough, as well, assuming you find the optional photo opportunities). Unfortunately, from the very first scene, I was overwhelmed by this complete lack of authenticity of the setting. It’s like whoever wrote the story forgot what high school was like, regardless of whether they attended public, private, charter, or academic school. I am a high school teacher, and I’ve had the unusual opportunity to teach in most school types (I’ve been to and taught in public schools, private schools, and have applied to and researched prestigious academies). So it’s really easy for me to pick at the extreme flaws in the set-up of Blackwell Academy.
Let’s assume that a school with this number of students can function with only three professors. Each class would have to be bigger than 30 students each, which is plausible. Unfortunately, for the assumed number of students and classes available, I don’t think there’s enough time in the school day to accommodate all of the students. Second, the principal is an allegedly heavy whiskey drinker, and while this isn’t particularly unreasonable per se, the idea that this school has as many problems as it does by end credits is. Third, when Max witnesses Nathan shooting Chloe in the first five minutes of the game, she breaks the glass to the fire alarm and sets it off, thus saving Chloe and enacting the beginning of the butterfly effect – or chaos theory. Well, you can lie your way out of the situation, but in a real school, the administration would have figured out it was you easily. Here’s why – you skulk your way out of the restroom and pretty much are the last person to exit the school (simple deduction there would have exposed Max and thus doubled her discipline if she chooses to lie about it). Let’s even assume that the irresponsible Principal Wells was too drunk to notice… when the fire department, which would be required to respond, arrived, they would have discovered the broken and used fire alarm. Max would have nowhere to hide. And this is all within the first hour of Life is Strange. So imagine my frustration when I groan each time something absurd happens.
Now, I’m not saying that the majority of these things can’t happen. I believe there are ignorant people incapable of making sense of things, people who do incredibly stupid things, and that many things – for a lack of a stronger word – do, in fact, fall through the cliché cracks. But it seems to me that it is completely impossible for all of these things to happen in the span of a week without anyone being the wiser. The problem with choice and consequence games is that you’re still refined to whatever choices the character is given. I know Maxine might be too much of a teenager to see the truth before her eyes in many situations, but I didn’t – and I wanted to support the character who I believed was important. Yet every time I chose an option that led me to believe I was supporting him (it did, in fact, happen positively once), Max always blurted out something stupid. I understand how teenagers think, so this isn’t even an issue… except I couldn’t shape Max with the choices I wanted to make. And speaking of ‘something stupid’, I found it impossible to believe that the characters – especially Chloe – could be so ignorant. Throughout the entirety of the game, Chloe knows that Max uses her powers to figure out problems, and then rewinds. And she accepts this. Until, of course, it actually matters in the plot. Then Chloe argues and claims that they had proof against what Max has seen. It makes little sense.
So let’s get past the crippling flaws in writing and execution and skip to gameplay. Life is Strange essentially acts as a point-and-click type adventure. You control Max’s movement with the left joystick and her vision with the right. Your options when examining people or scenery generally involve the classic ‘look’, ‘interact’, ‘take photo’, or ‘speak’, though other options do, on occasion, exist. By holding the L2 button, you can have Max control the flow of time, essentially rewinding whatever event she has just experienced. This might involve something as simple as moving a wooden plank to view a bird’s nest or something as sinister as saving or losing a life. As far as this goes, the game works extremely well. If you’re not satisfied with your choice or what happened, Max can rewind time and fix it for the best – assuming the choices you made prior allow for what you wish to happen. At the end of each chapter, too, you can compare your choices to those of your friends and all other players, seeing whether you stick to the popular choices or travel down the road less taken.
There are three very positive aspects of Life is Strange. The first is that the characters themselves are pretty well rounded. Chloe, Max, Kate, David, Warren, and, until episode four, Mr. Jefferson all have pretty believable characters who develop interestingly through the game. Sure, some of them play archetypal roles, especially when linking the idea back to bullying, but on the whole, they shine. Max is the good girl with excess talent and the hots for her photography teacher (I’ve definitely seen that before with the new teacher at a school I’ve worked at). Chloe is the punk ass stoner who thinks she’s a progressive but is actually just an extremely wounded daughter of a loving father who passed away when she was in her early teens. David is the super hardcore ex-US soldier and security at Blackwell Academy. The list goes on, and the more I write about it, the less enthused I get. Because as I consider these characters, I cringe at some of the forced lines and ideologies they retain, especially regarding the fact that you are pretty aware of what is actually happening (at least in terms of nature).
The second shining piece of the game is the voice acting. The actors portray their characters with skill and enthusiasm, and the dialogue is very modern. In other words, the students speak like students do today, and I can firsthand confirm this. One of my students yesterday told me she was hella tired, and I instantly thought of Chloe. Whether major or minor characters, Dontnod Entertainment did a great job of scouting the best talent for each role.
Lastly, the soundtrack for Life is Strange is wonderful. One of the major pieces of the game is Max’s love for music. Having purchased the limited edition (for only $39.99), I was able to grab a copy of the licensed soundtrack. Some fantastic artists have songs in the game, like Bright Eyes, Syd Matters, and Alt-J among others. It’s a mostly acoustic soundtrack with the occasional accompaniment. Regardless, the soundtrack fits the tone of the game with precision.
Unfortunately, as I neared the conclusion of Life is Strange, I found the game bogged down by glitches. 90% of Episode Five left Max speaking without moving her lips, for example. None of these glitches are game breaking, but neither are they fun to be stuck with. When you’re already frustrated with the game itself, these just add to your head shaking.
So now that you’ve done your daily reading for today, I’ll offer a brief recap. Life is Strange is an ambitious title that makes choice and consequence its forte, along with the development of its characters. It has a strong focus on bullying and the negative effects of it. And for this, I encourage Dontnot to continue developing games. The ideas and purposes are very strong, but the execution of Life is Strange, to me, was very messy and seemingly rushed – let alone one of the most cliche time travel stories/endings I have experienced (assuming you make the allegedly ‘good’ choices). So while the gameplay was sound and the soundtrack was great, I felt forced into my choices. Regardless, the world was extremely unbelievable, dulling the purpose and experience way too much. It’s like putting too much ice in your soda and having it melt – the result usually doesn’t taste good. On the brightest side, Dontnod and Square-Enix donated to a charity to help victims of bullying based on the Everyday Hero contest in the game, and of that, I sincerely approve. I hope to see future games from Dontnot learn from Life is Strange and become an experience that lives up to its potential to be incredible.
Note – If you would like to discuss, in further details, more of my reasons for finding the game to be completely unbelievable, we can discuss in the comments. I left many of them out for spoiler purposes.