Just mix it up a little
The weight of expectation is a heavy burden to bear. So when an intense fervour builds up around a game to the point that it’s loudly being anointed one of the best of the year, it unconsciously creates lofty goals – the kind that are then rarely reached. So, with the internet abuzz for most of 2015 about Dontnod’s Life is Strange, perhaps it was only ever going to fall short in my mind. Maybe there was never any chance of Life is Strange blowing me away, the way that so many had promised, but yet, from start to finish, I desperately wished it would.
Don’t get me wrong, here. Life is Strange isn’t a bad game, not at all, but it most certainly isn’t perfect. I haven’t been following along with the game as new episodes were released, instead opting to play them all at once – as is the way I always approach these episodic games – but going in, I knew that, at its very core, Life is Strange revolved around the relationship between two girls, Max and Chloe. It’s this relationship that forms the heart of Life is Strange, and is by far the most interesting part of the whole experience.
You play as Max, a budding young photographer attending the snobbish Blackwell Academy on a scholarship. Blackwell, which we’re led to believe is one of the country’s top prep schools, also just so happens to be in her old hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and, some months after beginning attending the school, Max is witness to the murder of a young woman in the school’s bathrooms. Max shortly after wakes up, back in her photography class, with the power to reverse time, and, after the saving the girl’s life, it’s revealed to be Chloe, her childhood best friend.
What ensues from there is a story wrapped up in conspiracy, missing students, shady political dealings, time travel, and, of course, friendship. Chloe and Max are a great pairing to lead the proceedings, playing off one another well, and providing the game with most of it’s best moments. Any time the pair are by themselves, the writing sparkles in a way that it often doesn’t elsewhere, their interactions feeling realistic, sincere, and, once or twice, gut-wrenching. By herself, Max isn’t anything special as a character, but with Chloe acting as her foil, some significant life is breathed into her, and both Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch do great jobs voicing Max and Chloe respectively. Burch does some especially standout work, guiding Chloe with some deft precision through a story that runs her through an emotional gamut. You might play as Max; but it’s Chloe who you want to spend the most time with and learn about.
Of course, that’s not to say that the portrayal of Max and Chloe’s relationship is perfect. There’s definite subtext throughout to suggest that their feelings towards one another are more than simply platonic – especially on Max’s part – but the game fumbles badly where this is concerned. There’s only one choice in the game that textually establishes the relationship romantically, and for that one choice to fall clumsily into the “tragic lesbian” trope is disappointing. I made the choices throughout that I assumed would lead to the pair being together, but while they stood together as the credits rolled, it was as friends – an awkward ending to a game that only ever seemed to be going in one direction. Life is Strange had the opportunity to blaze a trail as one of the few games (and arguably, the biggest) to present a queer relationship as canon, and it tripped over it’s own feet.
Unfortunately, the game stumbles where many other characters are concerned. The writers do their best to portray the secondary cast as realistic, spoilt, pretentious art school teens, but dialogue is often awkward, and characters tend to fall too easily into cliché stereotypes – Max’s rival Victoria is a notable example here, playing up the typical “mean girl” archetype to an alarming degree. While there are ways to get Victoria to soften up to you, they again fall far too easily into the usual begrudging friendship, while others, such as Warren, are just downright insufferable. The characters I wanted to spend time with outside of Chloe felt like they were hardly ever around (although, admittedly, in one case there was a very good reason for that), while there’s also plenty of side characters who may as well not even be interactable.
The varying quality of character development exposes the biggest flaw in Life is Strange – the writing. The central pairing aside, it’s often all over the place, with some particularly egregious moments where the game really tries to force melodrama on the player, seemingly for no reason other than to give you a cliffhanger to come back to next time. Episode three, for example, ends with a major twist in the tale – one that comes completely out of left field. They won me back over at the beginning of episode four, with probably the most heartbreaking moment of the entire thing, and then went and immediately retconned it, before the scene could even end. Capping that episode off with another big twist, again just for the sake of having a twist, soured me completely on the final episode, which, even then, may be one of the most underwhelming finales I’ve seen in a story based game.
When I think of great moments in games of this ilk – Clementine’s decision at the end of The Walking Dead’s first season, the final sacrifice Ethan Mars must make in Heavy Rain, nothing in Life is Strange quite measures up. Perhaps that big decision at the start of the fourth episode might have qualified, but it was immediately chalked off. I never felt like I was being forced to make hard choices in Life is Strange, and never had to agonize over what I was about to do. Even the game’s big concluding decision was remarkably straightforward for me, in a way that it really shouldn’t have been. Maybe it’s because it’s the decision I’d expected from the beginning, maybe the game just didn’t offer enough to the contrary, but the whole thing left me feeling just sorta empty.
Life is Strange is incredibly rough around the edges technically too, in a way that really tested my enjoyment at times, especially in the early goings. The seams of where the story diverges are always ever-present, in a way that other games handle more expertly, and the parts where Life is Strange has to rely on gameplay are clunky at best. It often falls into that old adventure game hole of “click on every object and talk to every person until you happen across the thing needed to advance the story” at times, and it’s ponitlessly obtuse. At one point, you’re asked to go fetch some eggs while in a kitchen. The eggs aren’t in the fridge, or even anywhere else in the kitchen, they’re in a different room entirely, and this is the kind of thing that feels all too needless.
The time travel mechanic is leaned into a little too much at times too – having to rewind multiple conversations to tell the person exactly what they wanna hear after you’ve already talked to them (and often someone else too) is all too common, although, thankfully, it does ease off by the end.
The game doesn’t look great either; they’re going for a soft, almost painted look to everything, and at times, it works, but at others, you’re kind of left scratching your head as to whether those textures look like that on purpose, or whether Unreal Engine is having it’s usual issues. The character models aren’t great either – everyone looks like a mannequin, with animations being awfully stiff, and as a consequence, some of the game’s more tender moments suffer. There’s also some very noticeable framerate issues and screen tear on the Xbox One version, and given that Life is Strange isn’t exactly pushing the power of modern consoles or PCs, this is unacceptable.
The music is nice, with a soundtrack consisting of mainly dreamy, ambient indie, with very little in the way of harsh tones or melody, and the game’s direction is at times beautiful, with shots being well composed and some great lighting doing it’s part to soften the rough looking character models.
What it all comes down to though, is the tale of friendship around which Life is Strange revolves. It’s very much a love story – whether romantic or purely platonic, depending on your choices – and at it’s best, really shines. Sadly, it’s so rough around the edges and makes so many missteps that it never quite achieves its full potential. I genuinely wanted things to work out for Max and Chloe, wanted to really love the game, but I just can’t. Life is Strange is flawed, falling short of it’s own ambitions, it’s wings of wax melting as it flies too close to the sun. The moments of brilliance found within are often spoiled by it’s own heavy-handedness, and that’s genuinely a sad shame. It’s another case of so close, yet so far for developer Dontnod, who made similar mistakes on Remember Me, but there’s enough there to convince me that they’ll eventually knock one out of the park.
And hey, you can make Max quote Chooch mascot Duke Nukem at one point, so that’s gotta count for something, right?