When you’re a teen, things tend to be chaotic and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. You’re likely to have your first kiss, your first sexual partner, your first job, your first car. Dontnod Entertainment tries to capture that inner storm of self-discovery and trouble with Life is Strange, a drama centered around a teenage girl who suddenly develops the ability to reverse time (for lack of a better word) and the added responsibility that brings. Life is Strange stumbles a lot – trying to do too much and not knowing what the outcome will be, leading to a conclusion, that, by the time it arrives, you’re already over it. All things considered, though, the world it creates and the hook of rewinding time that works pretty well, and emotional scenes that will leave in a huddled ball, screaming and crying. There’s something special happening with Life is Strange and I can’t wait to see what’s next.
Life is Strange is the story of Max Caulfield (if the name sounds familiar, you’ve probably read Catcher in the Rye), who is a photography student attending a prestigious art school called Blackwell Academy in her old hometown of Arcadia Bay, Washington. Her friend, whom she’s known since childhood, Chloe Price, kicks off the story with a bang. Literally. Max witness the act of Chloe getting shot and develops her powers and helps Chloe not die. These powers are the focal point of Life is Strange‘s gameplay, letting you rewind time to see what would happen if you made an alternate choice, like opening David’s (Chloe’s step-douche, her words, not mine) files and seeing what he’s up to, then opting to rewind time, so no one knew you touched the files. It’s a simple idea that’s pretty easy and fun to experiment with, like when Chloe tells you to guess what’s in your pockets or dealing with a drug dealer who’s out to killer you. In terms of how much those decisions matter, Life is Strange opts for a more abstract impact on the game’s events. Yes, your choices matter and are mentioned, but the final decision happens for everyone the same way. The things that change are the framing and conversations around that final decision.
When you’re not time traveling, Life is Strange plays out like a classic point-and-click adventure game: you interact with objects in the current scene that are either critical, decorative, or background information. Sure, it’s not ground-breaking material, but it’s entertaining and gives the world a depth and sense that it’s not all about you.
Sure, rewinding time might be seen as less impactful on your decisions, but Life is Strange wants you to be more thoughtful about your decisions, instead of just panicking and pressing a button. The decisions are tough, wrought with long-term consequences that you won’t see until it’s already happened and you’re too late to stop it. When David becomes abusive because he finds marijuana in Chloe’s room, you can go back, but what does that gain you down the road? Will he refuse to help you when you need it? In these moments, you learn more about Max, all the while being uncertain about your every decision.
This character-building is showcased by beautiful art and music that really gives life to Arcadia Bay. You don’t see a lot of the town itself, as the story is contained to just a few scenes, like Blackwell Academy, Chloe’s house, Two Whales Diner, a junkyard and wilderness. It’s no small feat to make you feel a connection to these scenes, but Life is Strange pulls it off with flying colors. Arcadia Bay isn’t real and that’s very much on purpose. Life is Strange wants to highlight the positive to the negative. Every chapter has one place where Max can just sit and watch the world rush by her, and the game pays careful attention to making every environment feel like it could exist in the real world, from the jukebox at the Two Whales Diner to the graffiti on Chloe’s bedroom walls. You get the sense that the world is not a showcase for something grander, but a character of its own, and that makes every moment worth it.
Friendship and watching the leaves aren’t all Life is Strange has to offer: there’s a whodunit, a thrilling plot, and meditation on the effects of traveling through time that the game tries to juggle all at once. That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, and Life is Strange just doesn’t pull it off. The story is appropriately lighthearted and its mystery has strong twists at every turn. However, the story often falls back on tired clichés and brings the whole story down along with it. This is most egregious in its conclusion, which tries to explain the nature of Max’s powers and decides to take the easy way out with one of the most tired tricks in the book concerning time travel. You see it coming from miles away and feels like a horrible way to end a otherwise awesome series, like ending a album with some AutoTune crap.
It takes a lot to make a game feel worthwhile when it doesn’t deliver on the ending, but Life is Strange has one thing that saves it: its portrayal of adolescence. Max encounters things like cyber-bullying and suicide and getting to see the effects of those situations are hard to watch. While the story often dips into the downright cheesy, PSA territory, most of the time the handling of these situations are spot-on and deeply emotionally affecting: even if you’ve never had to deal with seeing private photos of someone you know leaked online or talked to someone who was on the verge of suicide, Life is Strange‘s forthright sincerity still hits you right in the gut. That’s why Max and Chloe’s relationship feels so powerful, and works so well as the building blocks of the story: when they use Max’s powers to sneak into Principal Wells’s office after-hours, or have a fight that leaves both of them vulnerable, their interactions feel raw and effortless, making them into stronger and more engaging people.
These sequences are subjective to their very core – the psychological abuse that one finds cheesy could be devastating to the person sitting next to them – and the game doesn’t always handle these situations with grace. However, these moments are less about being a teenage and more about how it feels to be a teenager. With that, Life is Strange scores a home run: it’s risky, talking about transitioning into adulthood in a way that many games try and fail to pull of, if they even try. In putting characters at their most raw state, it hits a nerve that’ll be with you for hours, days and even weeks after you turn the game off.
Sure, there’s a lot Life is Strange could’ve done better. The conclusion is ultimately disappointing, and it doesn’t handle the subjects within with the utmost care, and falls short of its potential. However, if you look at what it does accomplish, Life is Strange paints a beautiful picture: a true-to-life story of young love and friendship, a piece of visual artistry that’s so frank about painful experiences that it’s hard to keep your feelings in through the whole thing. It’s a game that we’ll be talking about for quite a while – both its successes and flaws – and may look back on with a smile in the far-flung future, wistful and embarrassed. But just a wee bit.