Note: There are some light story details mentioned below but there aren’t any explicit spoilers and none of the game’s surprises are talked about either. That said, if you really want to know nothing going in then you may want to skip over this article. Just know that I liked it, a lot.
Episode 1 of Life Is Strange is a video game that gave me a feeling I haven’t experienced since Gone Home. Because of that I didn’t want to just write a boilerplate review, but I do have plenty I want to say about it.
I’m almost at a loss on where to begin, so I suppose I’ll start by saying what the heck the game is: Life Is Strange is a new episodic video game series from Dontnod Entertainment. It’s about Max, an 18 year old woman who is attending an exclusive school back in her hometown, which she left 5 years ago. She also gains a pretty fun ability early into the game, but the remarkable thing is her new talent is the least interesting part of the game.
What the game is really about beneath the surface is growing up, figuring out who you are and dealing with the pressures of those people around you.
Even if you don’t enjoy the gameplay, there’s one thing you can’t knock Life Is Strange for and that’s how they have absolutely nailed what it feels like to be a teen. This game brought back a lot of memories.
So teenagers are pretty awkward, huh?
I went to a pretty average school. Which is to say, it was full of horrible people, power crazy teachers and was filled with a suffocating, oppressive atmosphere of misery.
Can you tell I didn’t like school?
I was a pretty awkward teen, pause for gasps. I had long hair, listened almost exclusively to 1980s rock music and despite what I liked to tell the world I felt painfully uncomfortable around my peers. For a long time I lacked basically any confidence in my own artistic abilities.
There’s a part early in the game where Max steps out of her classroom and the drone of other students chatting fills the corridor. You can even pick out people talking specifically about her. In response she plugs in her earphones, drowning out the world with music.
When I played that part I just stopped to take in what had just happened. That moment was my school life in a nutshell. Music was my escape. I bet there are countless of other people who had that experience too but how many video games have actually taken the time to show it?
It’s a moment of vulnerability that’s tragically rare. Games are often power fantasies and in those there’s little room for small moments of weakness, where characters retreat to a safe space.
But we’re all human. Everybody feels vulnerable at times. It’s a part of life. I loved that Life Is Strange had taken a moment to show us this side of Max, but it doesn’t end there.
Max is often mocked for her wardrobe in the game, she chooses to wear comfortable and casual clothes while others wear extravagant and laughably overpriced outfits. With a quick comment made to herself, she mentions that she likes her style regardless. Again I was reminded of being a teenager, I was called out a lot for having long hair. Both students and even teachers would comment on my apparently odd appearance but I liked it, so I kept it anyway.
Again, how many others felt something like that as a teen? How often do we get criticised or outright mocked for a part of our appearance that feels personal and special to us?
I suppose what I’m getting at with these examples is that Life Is Strange really succeeds at illustrating a time in someone’s life that we rarely see in video games.
Teenage years are, quite frankly, pretty weird. Then when you reach the end of that time at 18, like Max, you start to come into your own and find out who you want to be. That brings with it a whole load of new thoughts just as you’re clambering out of your teens. There’s a pressure and a responsibility that gets lumped on your shoulders at 18.
Holy shit, I’m technically an adult now… But I don’t feel like it yet.
I remember thinking that, and I’ve had tons of people tell me they went through the same thing. Hell, I’m 25 and I still feel like I have no idea what the hell I’m doing.
It’s surely no coincidence that the game begins with Max’s 18th birthday having recently passed. Max is right in that time period of finding herself. She knows what she’s passionate about but she’s struggling to share it with others.
Finally, another game that’s not about ammo…
I remember reading a quote from Will Wright many years ago, at least I think it was Will Wright. I can’t even remember where I read it, or I’d go grab a link. But it was something about how games could be so much more than just collecting ammo and shooting everything in sight.
I read that when I was about 18 and I remember just agreeing completely. I was obsessed with video games at the time, my whole life revolved around them. Both recreation and work were dominated by games. Studying them, playing them and making them. That was my life.
But I was so jaded on the stereotypical action heavy video game. I would use that Will Wright quote in college classes whenever we chatted about the future of games. Games are just interactive entertainment, I would proclaim, why are they so limited? It doesn’t make any sense. I get that people like current games, I do too, but if they can be so much more then why aren’t the developers taking risks?
If I could go back in time and speak to myself then, I’d assure myself that the indie scene is just about to blow up and we’ll see plenty of risks. But even now you have to admit there’s still a disappointing lack of games that that let us make choices with thoughtful characters, one where the whole point of the game is to tell an involving story and comment on everyday life.
Life Is Strange represents a type of game which should be everywhere, but instead exists as incredibly infrequent releases that give us pause.
Fahrenheit. Heavy Rain. Even The Walking Dead. They’re rare, but when games come along that require patience, thinking and feeling, then they connect with players in a way that games should be doing on a regular basis. The fanfare that follows those games tells us what we already know: people want these type of games.
Playing Life Is Strange is overwhelmingly refreshing. It asks you how you’re going to act based on your emotions, about how you feel about these characters. Not just how useful they are for getting to the next slab of gameplay or who can solve what puzzle. It’s a far more human reflection of real life than we’re used to seeing in games.
At one point while playing I made a choice that I knew certainly wasn’t useful. But I wanted to help someone out who needed some support, so I made that call instead. In future I might regret it, but I’ll know I couldn’t have made the other choice. And that’s exactly what I loved about Life Is Strange, I care about these characters and I want to help them. It’s not about solving the game, it’s about just trying to do what feels right.
Life Is Strange isn’t a game for everyone. If you like your games fast and your plots just thick enough to prop up some exciting breakneck gameplay then more power to you, high-five my friend. I’m glad those games exist. But as I get older I find myself less interested in gameplay and more interested in emotion and plot. That’s where Life Is Strange comes in. The gameplay is absolutely fine but it’s not the reason to play. At least not for me, I’ll absolutely be coming back for episode 2 but it’ll be to see more of these characters. I want to see what happens with them and I’ll be doing my best to ensure they get a happy ending.