If the Ellen Page movie Juno were to mate with an episode of Twin Peaks, the offspring would probably look something like Life Is Strange.
The five episode narrative video game is french company Dontnod’s second foray into the industry – they partnered with Square Enix in early 2015 to produce the series. Each episode of Life is Strange is a surreal look into the life of Northwestern American teen Max Caulfield. Returning to her hometown of Arcadia Bay to study photography at a prestigious art school, Max’s world is full of teen drama, cringeworthy lingo (“Ready for the mosh pit, shaka brah,” and “Take a selfie,” as tame samplings), and juvenile but charming observations of the world around her. Also, she can control time.
With a quirky, lighthearted trailer and sparse marketing, Life is Strange “sets out to revolutionize story based choice and consequence games by allowing the player to rewind time and affect the past, present and future.” Throughout the game, Max can utilize her abilities to explore, change conversations, and use new information to alter the outcome of a scene’s ending.
What teenager wouldn’t want that kind of power?
All of this comes into focus (forgive the photography pun) when blue-haired punk Chloe Price enters the story, voiced by YouTube sensation Ashly Burch. All at once, the plot turns itself into a dark spiral of cause and effect, with each new turn descending deeper and deeper into something sinister. In five brief episodes, Life Is Strange manages to become much larger than what it promises, exploring themes of violence, causality, corruption, and choice.
With narrative having such a large part of the game, actual gameplay is stripped down to the basics. Along the same lines as last year’s indie favorite Gone Home, each setting offers a rich environment to explore, and the game rewards players for interviewing NPCs, reading everything they can find, and seeing different outcomes of a conversation. Players can access the time travel effect at almost any moment, which becomes a surprisingly versatile mechanic as the game goes on. The game even features a photo collection mini-game, where players can hunt down hidden photos to take throughout each episode. Combat doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that the game is free of monsters.
That being said, it’s important to note that the plot takes some very intense turns. The problem I have with it, and one I still haven’t quite decided if I like, is that by the end of the fifth episode, the kitschy quirk of the initial trailers is replaced with something far outside of the advertised genre. Dontnod will be producing a horror game with Focus Home Interactive sometime next year, which won’t come as a surprise to those who play through later episodes of Life is Strange. The game comes complete with a link to several hotlines and difficult-topic discussion groups, which will give players an idea of what to be prepared for.
Life is Strange is particularly haunting, especially in a media where difficult topics are not a central focus (and instead live in the fringe with games like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls). In such an immersive format that encourages empathy and exploration of new perspectives, there is an immense amount of potential for storytelling that Life is Strange touches on. As interactive narrative games start hitting more limelight, it’ll be interesting to see which ways discussions start to swing.
Ultimately, the story players will explore is a bit removed from the Life is Strange that Dontnod originally advertised, but that doesn’t make it any less worthy or realized.
Fueled by a fully-licensed and memorable indie soundtrack, a setting rendered in the Unreal Engine graphicsporn-simulator, and a tongue-in-cheek script that is both eyeroll-inducing, occasionally terrifying, and deeply endearing, Life is Strange stands out as a unique offering for gamers and non-gamers alike.