Somehow, at some point this year I managed to miss Square Enix’s Life is Strange. It just floated right over all the other things hanging over my head, hit the wall behind me and slid down to sit by my heels. However, with the game being featured on our list of games that brilliantly tackle women’s issues and the announcement that the final instalment of the episodic series has a release date of October 20th, I decided to turn around and pick this game up before it’s too late, and before I meet any spoilers which I have incredibly managed to avoid. I’m going to play through and review each of the episodes in the run up to the fifth and final instalment.
Life is Strange begins in the middle of a storm; it’s a good atmosphere to bookend the game with, because throughout the entire first episode you feel like a storm is brewing around you in the form of teenage drama. Episode One is clearly the initial breeze, blowing suspicious character traits and plot setups into your face to signal the upcoming fuckton of melodrama.
You play Max Caulfield, a likeable student attending the unlikeable Blackwell Academy, returning to her hometown in Oregon to pursue her photography dreams, after spending the previous several years in Seattle. The high school setting with the angst, bitching, and the themes of troubled adolescence are all pretty familiar, but they’re done reasonably well thus far and I found Max very easy to connect with as a character.
In a game where even watering your plant will apparently have consequences that I’m guessing are nothing to do with the general health of your greenery, you expect you’re probably about to delve into some serious self-doubting gameplay and agonising decision making. But that’s not quite the case with Life is Strange, because although conversations and actions have consequences, you have the power to rewind time. Yeah, here’s where Max stops being your average teenage girl.
I found I really like these do-over time rewinding powers. Initially I felt like it meant that my actions had no consequences, or at least those consequences didn’t matter, because what was the point in worrying if I could undo my mistakes and fix any situation to play out the way I wanted it to? But after a while I felt like that maybe wasn’t the point. In a game that allows you to move utterly at your own pace, where your actions and interactions are supposed to have a consequence, what’s the point of rewinding time?
Well, it kind of makes you think. Rewinding conversations until you can finally come up with an answer that pleases the person you’re talking to is exhausting and, although in the game time is irrelevant, you can’t help but be aware it’s consuming your time as a player. After repeatedly talking with a girl who was condescending towards me no matter what conversational route I took, I figured screw it, you can’t please everyone, not every bad conversation is my fault and dwelling on it wasn’t worth my time. And actually, that’s a pretty worthwhile message to take from less than 2 hours of gameplay. It’s something I wish I’d been more aware of when I was at high school.
The only times I really found myself glad of Max’s power is when I didn’t take the chance to help someone I should have, and taking the time to be a little more thoughtful in the first place would have rendered the power unnecessary anyway. The most enjoyable use of Max’s power is definitely using it to solve the small puzzles around the episode; it engages you with the power and the game much more effectively.
The game itself looks wonderful. There’s a kind of blur to everything that makes it feel oddly dreamlike, and when you first leave the photography classroom at the start of the game and enter the corridor, there’s a refreshing realness to the atmosphere. The characters all look and sound so diverse and their gender, body, and ethnic diversity doesn’t seem to be for any point; it just is, the way it should be. Life is Strange has an atmosphere that’s enjoyable to explore, and it’s really helped by some excellent music that gives provides a kind of indie-teen slant that really helps you to get into the mindset of Max.
It’s refreshing to have a game that moves at your pace, that allows you to find out so much about the characters and their pasts if you just take the time to explore, or sit and let Max reminisce. Admittedly, some of Max’s reminiscing just feels like some seriously heavy-handed telling-and-not-showing writing, but how often do you even get the chance to do that in a game, to have a story with enough depth for that kind of exposition? It’s a brave move to create a game with such quiet, restful moments and trust the player to seize upon them. It’s a risk to create and release something knowing that some of its most enjoyable moments could slide by players not willing to take their time or not used to being able to take their time, but I’d really rather more games put this kind of faith in their players.
Even more wonderful is to have a relatable female character at a game’s centre, and to have the story deal tactfully with a topic as difficult and underrepresented as sexual assault. It seems pretty clear thus far that sexual assault is going to be a central theme in Life is Strange, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the game continues to approach it alongside the complex world of teenage girls generally. It’s really not been long at all since I was one myself and I’m finding the game’s approach to be sensitive and thankfully not dismissive of even the smallest things. It might miss the mark on some of the dialogue, but that’s to be expected in representing a generation whose speech is constantly evolving, and it doesn’t detract from what is an original and exciting game.
So far, I’m really impressed by Life is Strange, and excited to see what the next episode will bring. It’s a game with a great atmosphere, with a setting and characters that feel alive, and that’s something I’ve not been able to say I’ve experienced and enjoyed in a while.
If you’ve yet to get on in the quiet action, you can buy the full Life is Strange collection and get episode 5 as soon as it’s released on Playstation Store, Steam, and Xbox Store for £15.99.
Played on: PS4
Main Image via Flickr © JP Freethinker