Dontnod’s Life is Strange is a rare delight in video games: one built around a cast of relatable characters that come across as human and strong as the best stories in any medium. While the medium lacks the realism and nuance of a human performance, it’s a reminder of how far games have strived when a video game story can be as bold, moving and gripping as primetime TV or award-winning movies.
The player experiences the story thought Max (Hannah Telle), a student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy who discovers she has the ability to rewind time on the same day she reconnects with her childhood friend Chloe Price (Ashly Burch). Something is going wrong with both the town and the school and Max and Chloe team up to find the answers.
A coming of age story mixed with sci-fi tales, Life is Strange is most striking for how few punches it pulls. Issues of sex, drugs, violence, abuse, and more come up as the story unfolds and Max begins to get glimpses into the lives of the people at Blackwell Academy and the surrounding town of Arcadia Bay.
What makes Life is Strange such a compelling work of fiction is that Max responds to these insights by gaining sympathy and compassion for people who she otherwise might have mistreated or accused earlier in the game. In the moment, certain choices can be undone by rewinding time, but it’s often an episode later before Max sees that the person she thought she understood has a whole other layer to him or her that makes her realize that her assumptions about people aren’t always true.
This is what the best works of fiction often do: allow us to connect and empathize with people who are not us. Max’s journey throughout the game forces her to consider how the people around her are often victims of circumstances she did not consider before. Sometimes, she finds the choices she makes causes someone else to become a victim.
Where the game occasionally falls apart is its lack of tonal consistency and proper urgency. Max is often left with life-altering choices hanging in the balance when the actual substance of the game is talking to people. Stopping in the middle of something to have a ten minute conversation often feels out of touch with the action of a scene.
But even then, it’s hard to critique the game too much for keeping its writing at the forefront instead of action gameplay sequences. It does have a couple of brief stealth sections but the game’s strongest feature is its writing and most of the best moments in the game are spent in conversation.
All that being said, Life is Strange’s boldest moments are when it decides to be quiet. There are a number of moments when the game does not move until the player does. Max lays in her bed gazing at the ceiling or sits in a chair taking in the view. Most games don’t leave players the mechanical space to simply linger and take in the world, to reflect on how crazy everything has gone. Max will often narrate these gaps, encouraging the player to slow down and process instead of simply move onto the next twist in the story.
That’s the kind of maturity of writing and presentation that goes against the instinct of a society where every last moment is meant to be gripping and enticing. Taking time to simply soak in a moment or reflect is rare in popular stories. Life is Strange has its twists, but they work so well because the story gives itself time to reflect and absorb them. In a relentless world of TV binge-watching and movies with teasers for the next installment, it’s a refreshing change of pace.
Life is Strange strives for the best of artistic inclinations in a medium often bogged down with some of the worst tendencies to marginalize and vilify antagonists as mindless creatures to be slaughtered. Here, people are complex, human and tragic. It’s easy for any story to find the monstrous in humanity, it takes a lot to make bad people human and relatable.
© James Blake Ewing 2018