This has been the hardest game I’ve had to review. If you’ve experienced Life is Strange then upon reading that initial sentence you’d probably think my struggle stems from the emotionally taxing narrative, but that isn’t the case. I think the reason for my difficulty is that Dontnod’s second I.P is so utterly unconventional that with all my experience in delectably subversive gaming I can think of no comparable title. Life is Strange is somewhat contrarian but also diverse in its essential identity, and- for lack of a better descriptor- purpose, to the point where it surpasses thematic variety and enters what I believe to be developmental confusion… it feels as if rather too late in the development cycle the narrative forgot entirely where its priorities lie. It is because of this that it is hard to assess Life is Strange against its competitors because, while it contains environmental narrative, it is certainly not Gone Home, while it presents both moral quandary and choice mechanics, it is certainly not The Walking Dead, and while it contains character relationship progression systems, it is certainly not HuniePop. A narrative Jack of all trades.
Its inseparable nature means that I believe this review would be best if I abandon my standard format. For this particular title the gameplay, graphics and story are not so easily divisible during assessment as they are rather intertwined.
In this case, the gameplay is the story, and the story is the gameplay. Life is Strange sees protagonist Max Caulfield suddenly granted- through an unspecified arbiter- the power to rewind time. The majority of the narrative deals with the application of this ability and the morality of it. With any other game I’ve reviewed there is usually some kind of disparity between mechanics and narrative- Fallout 4 is not a game about (or rather commenting on) shooting, and Arkham Knight is not a game about 100x combos, but with this title there is unparalleled intimacy between the two. That, in and of itself, is fascinating, and so rarely seen in gaming. Even in some sense the impressionistic graphics work in conjunction with the artistic focus of Blackwell Academy: the game’s main environment. There is a pleasantly distinct lack of *rubs hands together* ludonarrative dissonance- or in contrast, there is a distinct ludonarrative harmony.
It is said during the director’s commentary that Max is granted some 10,000 lines of the game’s total 14,000, so her characterisation is integral to the overall success of what is a narrative-centred title.
For the most part, Max suffers from the same problem as the whole I.P, the problem being that she is simply too varied a character. She is simultaneously juvenile and mature, simultaneously optimistic and cynical, simultaneously the conduit of my choices but also her own opinions, and all of these things are extremely jarring, repeatedly. For example, throughout the entirety of the game I sided completely with the character of David Madsen, and I supported his idea of installing new security systems inside of Blackwell. I have expressly given my approval of one more than once through conversation, but despite this Max writes in her diary as if she is opposed to the idea, hence: “I almost want a surveillance system now”. In these Telltale iterative titles, the player’s choices during the narrative must also be the protagonist’s own lest the character becomes unidentifiable. It is so self defeating for a protagonist in a choice-oriented narrative to expressly defy the player’s decisions. If I move my character left on Fallout 4 and they instead move right then I would punch my TV. It is the same principle here.
It seems unbelievable, also, that Max, who can exhibit mild manner, pragmatism and introversion, would unironically write “Like I give a shit” in reference to one of her science classes but then later write “maybe I’m just projecting my own fear of mortality”. Max will have these unexpected jolts of sophistication or intellectualism which sound like lines- or words- appropriated from and entirely different character. Max will also frequently insert pop cultural references to an end of, I assume, character enrichment but the subjects of reference are so wildly out of whack- she’ll reference Full Metal Alchemist and Scott Pilgrim which you would assume a mostly geeky 18 year old introvert would consume but then she’ll also reference Clapton and Vangelis and take photos of Twin Peaks references scrawled on bathroom mirrors- is she an 18 year old girl or a dad? This is beyond varied tastes and is probably a case of several different, possibly out of touch writers attributing different and distinct personalities onto the character of Max. Her true identity, largely comprised of her tastes and opinions, is never definitively clarified. You would think that her personal diary would be riddled with glorious exposition nuggets of her most unadulterated, honest teenage thoughts, like every other teen girl diary, but 90% of this 70 page readable asset is simply exposition through Max’s recollection of what I’ve already played through. She will say she projects a fear of her own mortality but will never elaborate, she will talk about that scary entity of ‘boys’ but will never elaborate on her feelings. I leave Life is Strange still wanting to know who Max Caulfield is.
The most remarkable thing about Max as a protagonist is that she is the first I’ve ever encountered from a AAA publisher (with Gone Home’s protagonist in mind) not to be in the least bit sexualised. Her personality, her delivery (by Hannah Telle, which was appropriately curious for the character of Max), her stature and even her face are conspicuously juvenile. It is almost impossible to become attracted to the character of Max as she has the body of an eight year old boy. For nothing else, this is effective reduction of the gap between player and protagonist. If a protagonist is not a spectacle, then they are not detracted from as a conduit of agency.
Having said this, being what I would believe to be Dontnod’s target audience as a 17 year old myself, Max does not write like an 18 year old. While she doesn’t have to care for eloquence when writing in her personal diary, it reads flippant at points, especially when needlessly profane. One of the biggest problems with Life is Strange is that these supposedly adult characters- having sex, taking drugs, and drinking- are so excitable about the novelty of swearing. It’s immature and anachronistic for their age.
After 2 playthroughs I have burning questions about our protagonist. Why is her lip syncing so wank? Why is ‘Max is a feminazi’ scribbled on the boys’ locker room when Max has never said, thought, or written anything feminist? Why is she a bitch who doesn’t reply to any of her texts? Why does she persistently protect Chloe even though she is a bad and dangerous person? Why does she shake Polaroids even though she’s a photography student and should know that this does nothing but hinder the quality of the photograph? Why, after seeing contraceptive pills on character Dana’s dresser does she think ‘Hmmmm’ but also have nothing to say about Chloe’s condoms?
I have spent 44 hours with, as, and reading about Max and I still have no idea as to who she truly is.
What I commend Life is Strange the most for is its apt social commentary on rampant problems among modern teens. Besides this, Dontnod’s actual capturing of that sophomoric essence of the students themselves, the student vernacular, the customs, the attitudes, isn’t something I can equally commend.
“Hey Max, The Doctor is in da House!” a creepy and overbearing Warren types to Max, after executing a similarly cringe inducing secret handshake in Episode 1. If I could entirely avoid this obsessive, snivelling child throughout the game I would. Nobody says “in da House”. Or “Hella”. I am 17 years old, and none of my friends say this. If they did, they wouldn’t be my friends.
The classroom environment, however, isn’t in the least bit contrived and if I had the opportunity I would genuinely slow my progress just to fully listen to lectures on the daguerreian process. Being someone who attends a school where photography isn’t taught, I find these things genuinely interesting.
The corridors of Blackwell academy are decked by everyday scholastic interaction, flirting, jocks playing catch, and unfortunately, bullying of fat kids. Besides some excusable concentration of the school ethos in order to establish atmosphere in a short time, Blackwell feels authentic, and the architecture exhibits some fantastic renderings.
Commentary vs Affectation
Two stark underlying themes of Life is Strange are responsibility for death and also mental illness. In retrospect, the parallel that Life is Strange posits, between allowing Chloe suffering from physical illness to die and not allowing Kate, who is suffering from mental illness to die, is extremely interesting, and delves into the nature of suffering itself. A lot of the characters suffer from mental illness, and even an unseen English teacher Mrs Hoita is mentioned to be suffering from depression. Some might say this feels artificially exaggerated to have so many depressed or schizophrenic characters but considering the rampancy of teenage mental illness, something which is actively visible to me, the frequency of its inclusion is also some kind of acknowledgement of the issue. That is not only commendable but something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in this medium.
Where I think an issue lies is in Life is Strange’s selectivity of these teen issues. Why does it so thoroughly explore depression and schizophrenia but omit discussion on sexual ethics? The ethics of drugs? These are things presented but not explored- and while I appreciate that the exploration of suicide and depression aren’t at the level of academic essays, there is a conspicuous lack of exploration for these other topics. Is there a reason for this omission? I feel like Life is Strange has much more to say on these other issues and would have been more suited as a holistic commentary on teenage life rather than a whodunnit…
But then I think: is it appropriate to call this lack of depth on issues like sexual ethics affectation or narrative mismanagement? I am inclined to agree, but then I think back to Bioshock Infinite’s overeager accusers, brandishing pitchforks, screaming at the top of their lungs that Levine denied his audience a holistic commentary on caste society and racism! I think back to how much I disagreed with those people because omission never necessarily equates to ignorance or narrative timidness.
But, then again, Life is Strange is exactly the game that Infinite wasn’t, and if there was an opportunity to delve into these issues, then Life is Strange was that story and that game. I am at an impasse as to whether we can put that responsibility for discussion on Dontnod.
Impressionism vs Realism
In a game that centres around a photography school and a photography student you would think that we would get to see some real photographic assets instead of innumerous indiscernible splodges. There must be 100 odd viewable assets of this kind that are unreadable and similarly vapid.
One of the developers (unspecified) says in the director’s commentary that in the junkyard sequence “every texture has been hand painted to give this impressionistic feeling”, and this aura of an impressionistic environment lingers throughout, but they then go on to talk about adjusting aspects of the game to be suited for american audiences (as Dontnod are themselves Parisian) in order to convey realism. There must be hundreds of these examinable and yet undetailed assets, and I can’t be sure that I can attribute the splodgy MS paint-like quality of them to an impressionistic art style. There is no reason why these assets could not have been fully rendered high definition photographs that actually yielded discernible information for the keenest of players, such as in Gone Home, a game by a a tremendously smaller company. In all seriousness, all you see when you examine them is the exact surface value that you could already see from the 3rd person viewing distance. It feels incredibly cheap.
The level of environment interactivity is clearly iterative of Gone Home. Perusing student Dana’s dorm room, only the keenest and most astute players will discover through environmental exposition that she is both pregnant and doted on by many other characters. This can be discovered through binned love letters, strewn pregnancy tests and open emails. Being someone who immensely enjoyed the seminal title itself, I was pleased to progress through Life is Strange having my interest rewarded, however the impressionistic art style for the viewable assets greatly reduced the authenticity of this effort for character enrichment. As well as this, the amount of information dealt for each characters’ respective environment- be it their dorm or office- is substantially less than Gone Home’s concentration of domestic artefacts. I would have liked this kind of environmental exposition for more characters, one of Life is Strange’s co-developers says himself in the director’s commentary that “we wanted the story to be a bit more intimate; we didn’t want it to be this huge High School, with so many students”.
The Illusion Of Choice
What Dontnod intended the emotional and narrative crux of Life is Strange to be, ended up rather powerfully disappointing, and this is the reason why Episode 5 gained such a relatively poor critical consensus. Over two playthroughs I have made 813 choices and yet for both endings I am given the same mandatory ultimatum of the same two options. It is inexpressibly frustrating for a choice-oriented game to present you with a resounding nullification of all previous player considerations and investments.
This can be excusable. I adore the Telltale titles which suffer this same binary or ternary fate, but each choice in those endings offered satisfactory (and in the case of the Walking Dead unprecedentedly heart-wrenching) codas.
The emotional impact of Life is Strange’s coda relies on you being thoroughly invested in the character of Chloe over roughly 20 hours. This integral aspect of the decision drastically fails.
I hate Chloe. Her faux-punk pretence and wanton profanity are entirely unattractive and, again, simply immature. It is almost impossible to like her. She steals her parents’ guns and holds decisions over my head days after they happen, she is flippant and emotionally volatile, a druggie, and in the interest of concision considering that I could rag on for days, overall she is insufferable. The saddest thing about the ending (or rather my ending) is that I did not in the least bit care that she died.
The game will incorrectly assume that you have come to like the characters of Chloe and Warren, and that you have come to dislike those such as David Madsen. For people like me who are the opposite, I felt stripped of my agency as a player in a choice-oriented and relationship-building narrative.
In a general sense, there should be so much more that I should be allowed to do as Max. Why can I not choose what to reply to emails with? Why can I not choose what to reply to texts with? Why can I not choose what I wear on a certain day? Why can I not choose my hairstyle? This revisits the question: am I or am I not Maxine Caulfield? Protagonists such as Lee Everett from Telltale’s The Walking Dead have a rich backstory but immediately become universal conduits of decision during the actual events of the game. Lee never defied my decisions or opinions in the way Max repeatedly does. Again, it is incredibly jarring.
To dissect characters, Warren is nothing but creepy. I actively reject all of his advances and yet he still feverishly texts me despite a lack of Max not replying to almost any, he still waits for me outside my dormitory on the off chance of a date with me, and still stumbles drunk outside of parties to come looking for me. It is borderline predatory, and if he cannot implicitly or tacitly understand ‘no’ now then how can I trust him to know that no means no in the future?
And I don’t believe that hitting your needlessly rebellious stepdaughter after she steals a firearm is a horrifically bad thing. David Madsen is vilified as an oppressive authority figure who advocates Orwellian security systems, before being retroactively revealed to be appropriately cautious and caring of Blackwell students’ safety. I clocked this from the start and this initial apparently widespread disdain of David only strengthened my sympathy.
If you don’t have the writing to make me sympathise with the characters I necessarily have to, then at least have a plan B. The amount of time I am forced to spend with unlikable characters makes me think that perhaps we are only given ability to make mental decisions, and not given ability to act on them. Can we then truly call them choices? You can have small outputs of decision in forms of dialogue options, but this will never truly influence the predestined relationship between, say, Max and Chloe. No matter what, no matter how you have come to judge her, you will always end up by her side throughout every episode. I think that’s a bad thing. With regards to relationship systems, in Fallout 4 I can choose to spend as much or as little time with supporting characters depending on their likeability. That is a definitive choice.
As I’ve previously mentioned, the whodunnit aspect of the game- which it could have done entirely without- falls under itself entirely. In short: the reveal failed because the perpetrator was not even a suspect. There was no evidence to point to Jefferson as the murderer/drugger/kidnapper around Blackwell Academy at all. A good murder mystery reveal is at its most effective where the true identity simultaneously connects unthought of evidence and subverts considered evidence. The reveal did none of these things. It was shocking only in the sense that Mark Jefferson was beneath consideration as a suspect.
While this leaves me disillusioned, I think of Jefferson’s insane attempt to capture the purity and the reality of his tortured victims- to photographically capture the essence of their, as he puts it ‘loss of innocence’. I wonder if Dontnod are commenting on the danger of merging art with reality, such as the work of Marina Abramovic or such as in the application of the Stanislavskian method acting.
But then I remember that this is a game where ‘Warren Gayram’ is scrawled on a bathroom wall.
I leave Life is Strange having deeply cared for my experience, but without fully understanding why that is. It is recommendable solely for its novel commentary on teen issues and its intriguing time mechanics, but good grief are these well executed elements mired in half baked attempts at numerous other narrative directions.
Life is Strange has no idea what it wants to be. It is not a disappearance mystery, nor a High School simulator, nor a multiverse theory, nor strictly speaking a Sci-Fi adventure, nor is it Stand By Me.
It’s a good narrative… I mean it’s not great but it’s good… I guess? I mean it’s emotionally taxing and it does provoke discussion but its saddest moments are unintentionally the saddest because of some unfortunately poorly written characters who are given far too much spotlight. For me, the saddest moment of Life is Strange is receiving Nathan Prescott’s phonecall in Episode 5. The character who has been simultaneously used and neglected the most finally accepts the graveness of his tortured transgressions and apologises to our protagonist, entirely unprovoked. This is unintentionally the most powerful moment delivered from the unintentionally most interesting character.
On top of this, can we really call Life is Strange quintessentially subversive? Critics eagerly hail the title for being narratively ‘groundbreaking’…but isn’t that somewhat of a misnomer when Gone Home, The Walking Dead, and Dear Esther have been out for years now? It’s an eligible competitor, for sure, but I would think that a non sexualised female protagonist, nonviolence and feels in a game would now be more iterative than brave or experimental.
Is It Worth Buying?
Would I recommend it? I don’t know if I can say that I would… is it possible for me to wholly recommend a single aspect of a game whilst disapproving of almost all the others? I would pay to experience the narrative concerning the nuances of the struggles of students but I wouldn’t recommend you pay for anything else, which, unfortunately, is most of what’s on offer here. If you want to get the feels for less money, Gone Home was a much more powerful experience for far less of my money and my time. I guess in the end I would have to recommend it because its brilliant aspects just about redeem the confused.
Goethe’s 3 Questions
What is the creator trying to do?
Too much. The creator is trying to execute a whodunnit, a multiverse narrative, and Gone Home clone simultaneously, whilst narrowly failing to truly fulfil any of these criteria.
Was the creator successful?
Not in any aspect, unfortunately, simply because the inclusion of so many narrative directions mires the identity of every single one of them.
Was it worth creating?
Yes, solely because Dontnod are the first to so uncompromisingly send stories about teen issues into the mainstream.