“Jarenth, did you play Life Is Strange?” “Jarenth, have you checked out Life Is Strange yet?” “Jarenth, you should consider getting Life Is Strange!” This, dear reader, is a snapshot of my life about three weeks back, very shortly after Don’t Nod Entertainment released the first episode of Life Is Strange, an upcoming five-part episodic adventure game “that sets out to revolutionise [sic] story based choice and consequence games”. Yeah, that’s right: no less than three people told me about this game. In a single day, even! I don’t know how things work over where you live, but here in Jarenth-land, that basically spells out ‘hey, maybe try playing this game at some point in the near future’.
I didn’t actually know anything about Life Is Strange at this point, mine. Not even that phrase I just copy-pasted from the Steam page verbatim. Subsequently, I gave it lower priority on my to-play list than a game I’d been looking forward to a lot and a game I’d been putting off for ages. But hey, ‘three weeks after launch’ is still like a timely review, right?
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, medium.)
(Game source: Bought it myself.)
Welcome to Life Is Strange! Made by Don’t Nod Entertainment, published by Square Enix, and yes, I’m aware that technically puts it on precarious footing vis-á-vis that whole ‘indie’ thing, I just don’t care. Please select your screen size!
But yeah, welcome to Life Is Strange! Please enjoy the impressionistic art style of this sleepy coastal forest town as our scrolling news reel tries to hype you up for the second episode, which isn’t even out yet.
Options, you want options? Sure, we got options. What do you want? We got audio, subtitles included, we got video, both in Normal and Advanced flavours, we got controls. Well, we had a really cool Controls screen, but then Steve here lost the art files when he dunked his laptop in the espresso tray. We had to draw a replacement like fifteen minutes before launch time. Hope you don’t mind?
What else we got here? Let’s see… ‘Downloadable Content’, not gonna bother with that one just yet. ‘Play Episodes’, ditto, I’m pretty sure I only have the one episode anyway. ‘Square Enix account’, which… I already set up earlier? I guess?
Nah, there’s only really one thing I can do here, and that’s kick it New Game-style. And that is how, after only a brief black-and-white warning screen about the importance of consequences…
…I find myself…
…in the woods during a thunderstorm.
Thunder, lightning, endless rainfall. The camera, unfazed, creeps ever-forward, finally coming to rest within a few meters of a young girl lying face-first on the ground. She wakes up, slowly, and gets up, quickly, as I assume you would when waking up outside in the rain. Girl, what the hell were you even doing, napping out here like this?
Oh, you… you don’t know either?
“Wait, there’s the lighthouse!” yells prota-girl-nist. “I’ll be safe if I can make it there!” No idea where she’s drawing that conclusion, but sure. Controls is handed to me, and I WASD my way up the rickety forest lookout path. Lightning strikes, girl-me is holding up her hand against the stinging rain, and the whole thing feels gloomy, cold, and thoroughly miserable. And yet, in some way, down-to-earth: foregoing for a moment the unexplained circumstances of my being here, ‘being caught out in the rain’ is probably the closest to the circumstances of my real life videogames have managed to come in these past few weeks.
Lightning strikes, wind howls, and the massive tornado draws ever-closer. Suddenly, something impacts the top of the lighthouse! Is that a goddamn boat? The top breaks off from the impact, slides to the side, and falls down toward my stress-frozen head…
…and then I wake up in class.
Well. That’s definitely an interesting fake-out start.
Alright, so… now I’m in class! Photography class, from the subject matter. Protagonist Girl tries to calm her nightmare-induced nerves — also, were you just sleeping in class? — as an improbably hunky middle-aged man lectures a room of uninterested teenagers about the intricacies of photography.
After a brief scene-settling, control is once again handed to me. This time, obviously, I’m not walking around, but I can mouse-look around and take in the glories of this ten-man classroom.
It turns out there’s not actually a whole lot to do and see in this classroom, so I quickly abandon this plan in favour of staring at my desk.
It takes me a minute or so of flailing around before I manage to figure out what this chalk line circle wants from me. By moving the mouse inside the circle and pressing and holding the left mouse button, I indicate to Life Is Strange that this here object is, in fact, the one I want to interact with. Then, I drag the mouse to a handy nearby verb — ‘look’, in this case, because we might as well start with the absolute adventure game basics — and presto! Protagonist Girl looks at her picture. Classic adventure game protagonist move. And then, she bemoans that it’s garbage. Classic insecure teen girl move, I guess.
Max, because that is what her name is, decides that the absolute best way to not draw attention to herself in a class where she’s nervous both because of the recent nightmare and because of her garbage pictures is by making a selfie with a large, clunky, old-ass camera.
“Max, can you answer this obscure trivia question you could easily look up on Wikipedia nowadays?” “Sorry, I forgot.” “Goddamnit, Max, why are you so bad at class?” Wow, it’s like I’m back in my own high school. Except I was a little better at not drawing attention to myself. And I usually did know the obscure trivia answers, since that’s what my brain is good at remembering. So nothing like my own high school experience at all, I guess.
Class drudges on for a little while after that. Max sits, looks at stuff, mumbles to herself, as Teacher (Mr. Jefferson) reinforces that this upcoming contest I’m just now hearing about is Super Important And Can Change Your Life, you get the idea. Then, after class, I walk around, look at a whole bunch of stuff, talk to a girl called Kate, take a picture of some scratch graffiti…
…get lectured on the importance of the aforementioned contest when I try to leave the classroom…
…and then it’s off to the bathroom.
I wander down the hallways, earplugs in, a song about ‘American Girls’ playing on loop. Like, playing on loop a lot: I’m assuming I’m supposed to get straight to the bathroom, or maybe do some light exploration, but this hallway is filled with interesting stuff. Who’s that person? Who’s that person? Hey, is that my locker? What’s this poster read? What’s that poster say?
It takes me all of six minutes to reach the bathroom. Which, I stress, is on the other side of a short hallway. Maybe Max is more like me than I reckoned.
In the bathroom, Max has what she calls a meltdown. I’d call it a depression moment, but hey, semantics. She tears up her contest entry photo, because apparently ‘it’s not good enough and I suck anyway, why am I even here’. Then, she splashes water in her face. Then, she takes a picture of a rad blue butterfly! Then…
Then, a lot of things happen in quick succession. As Max hides in the corner, stressed-out guy enters the bathroom — yes, the girls’ bathroom — muttering to himself. He’s followed in by a blue-haired girl. They argue. Over money, over drugs, over… oh shit, he has a gun! They wrestle, briefly, before the gun goes off. BANG. And as the girl falls to the ground, shocked expression on her face and spreading blood around a hole in her shirt, Max steps around the corner, hands stretched out, as if in protest. “No!”
And then she rewinds time.
Yeah, sorry, I can’t put it any better than this either. Apparently Max can rewind time? She seems as surprised by this development as I am.
Flush with her new-found power of instant time reversal, Max decides to… give the correct answer to Mr. Jefferson’s question. After having Victoria spell it out for her a second time, a little prompt informs me that I can now rewind time and use this information to alter the past. And hey, look! It works. Embarrassment: AVERTED.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair: Max’ current short-term goal is to get to that bathroom again, so she can maybe try to save the blue-haired girl. She goes about this a little strange: why are we changing the past and rushing to the bathroom this time around when we know we’ll be on time even after reading every single poster in the hallway? But then again, I suppose I can’t blame Max much. Easy for me to be all cool-and-collected: I’m not the one caught in a possible-murder time loop.
Max makes it back to the bathroom in time, because of course she does. Hiding in the same corner, hearing the same scene play out, I think. What to do, what to do… *BLAM*. Shit, okay, rewind. What to do, what to do… *BLAM*. Shit, okay, rewind. And so on, and so on…
Okay, in reality, I spot the old fire alarm pretty quickly. It takes me a while to get the hammer from underneath the cleaning cart, during which time blue-haired girl gets shot once… but apparently, turning back time allows me to keep any objects I’ve collected before. Which honestly raises a whole bunch of questions in and by itself, but listen: we’ll get to that after I save a presumably innocent girl from certain death.
Plan success! The alarm rings, and both Nathan and the girl hustle out. I do, too, after only a minor freak-out over changing the time stream. I have a minor altercation with a security guard, and a major altercation with the principal, who demands to know if I have anything I want to tell him. Should I tell him about Nathan’s gun? Here, the game explicitly warns me: my time travel power only goes so far, so once I leave the school, the MAJOR ALL-CAPS DECISION I made here will stick forever.
And with that, I exit the building. Better past status: LOCKED IN. I was an Everyday Hero!
Well. I say that, but I actually have no idea what just happened. Not about the fight, not about the time travel, not about anything. And I haven’t answered any of my texts, either. And I still ripped up my contest photo. Looking at it that way… can I maybe get another do-over?
No, no, no. That way lies madness. Let bygones be bygones. The future awaits! And with only a little luck, nothing I chose to do today will negatively influence anything in my future, ever.