A few hours in
Yeah, I didn’t think so either.
I played through Life Is Strange: Episode 1: Chrysalis in two one-hour play sessions. From a relatively subdued beginning as a teenage high school drama, it quickly evolves into… er, still mostly a teenage high school drama, honestly. With little bits of time travel mixed in. Yeah, ‘little bits’. Less than you’d think. If it’s true that those who want power the most deserve it the least, then Max must be the single most deserving person in the world for this time travel power. Which is probably the best explanation for why she got it you’re likely to get in this first episode, so, hey! Bonus.
Time travel lightness notwithstanding, I had decent fun with Life Is Strange Episode 1. I certainly enjoyed it enough to buy the next batch of episodes after completion, so that’s something. It’s not without flaws, some endemic to the genre and some unique to its own subject material, but by and large it’s a charming, quirky little game about teenage life, high school problems, mounting small-town weirdery, and the occasional spot of unexplained shenanigans.
Mechanically, Life Is Strange is a Telltale-style adventure game in all but name. In fact, can we agree to just name this genre of game ‘tell-tales’? Life Is Strange is a tell-tale adventure, see how easy that was? Attributes of tell-tale games are: episodic nature, large sections of exploratory ‘freedom’ interspersed by smaller action-packed drama sequences, more flavour text and extraneous dialogue options than you can shake a stick at, and several clearly-delineated ‘big choices’ that purport to significantly influence the way the story plays out, but which — to paraphrase a friend here — are more valuable for allowing you to shape your own experience of the narrative and the character than they are for actually altering the story direction in any major way.
Life Is Strange has a small handful of these Big Decisions, as well as a larger pile of smaller ones. Do you let the budding artist sketch you, or not? Do you water your plant, or not? Do you mess up your rival’s room, or not? Do you save an innocent bird from death, or not?
The parts of Life Is Strange that aren’t made up of walking around and talking to people are filled with relatively simple object-hunting puzzles. Find the flash drive. Find the email. Find the micro-tools you need to fix your camera. These are usually pretty okay, intuitive and straightforward, and they give Max an excuse to indulge in her favourite hobby — snooping. I did have one moment that I described as Old Man Murray-esque to friends, but that might just have been me.
And as a kicker, there’s also some optional picture stuff to unlock. Every episode has a journal page with picture hints, and if you find the right Kodak moment… snap snap, Max uses her gift again. Does this influence anything in the grand scheme of things? I don’t know, but who cares? It’s neat.
So yeah. Mechanically, Life Is Strange not a very complex game! Point and click, click and drag, walk over to the place you need to be. Tell-tale classic. Ludic complexity was never a selling point of this genre of games, anyway: while I wouldn’t contend having active gameplay is an important part of games like these, raising player involvement and enhancing the experience over just watching a movie of it, it’s obviously the storytelling that people are here to see.
And Life Is Strange’s storytelling is… I’d say fairly solid! A little disjointed in places, as befitting the first episode of a serial: all principal characters need introducing, after all, and every relevant bit of information about the setting — particularly the stuff that your main character would reasonably know, and which is necessary to understand the plot or to make the correct deductions — needs to be brought up. Preferably in a non-info-dump way. So expect to learn a lot in Episode 1: about Blackwell, about the Vortex Club, about Rachel Amber, and about the little social circles and dynamics that keep this place brewing.
Similarly, by way of this being a first episode, not all of it quite gets equal footing. The second half of the story, which ditches Blackwell for some more intimate scene-setting, feels particularly disconnected from everything that came before.
Obviously, a narrative-heavy game like Life Is Strange stands or falls on the strength of its main character more than anything else. And Max, by and large, is capable of carrying that weight. She’s… the word I want to use is rounded, even if she has a bit of a twiggish figure. And small, too. I mentally took her for, like, fourteen years old, up until the point where she specifically dates herself at eighteen.
Anyway: Max-the-character is fairly well rounded out. She feels like her own person. Her own teenage-girl-in-high-school person, with all the fears, quirks, dreams and assumptions that descriptor carries. She worries about being popular, frets about her school results, stresses out about not being good enough, and daydreams about cute boys.
Have you ever read or watched anything where the character’s ‘voice’ didn’t seem to match the character as-presented? Children talking in the cadence of old men, that sort of thing. I have, and it’s a major immersion-killer. But Max talks like an insecure, sarcastic teenager, particularly in her inner-voice comments on the stuff you have her look at. And this goes a long way towards making her feel like her own person. Warts and all: Max does a few things, either on her own behalf or because you make her do it, that don’t really make her stand out as a particularly good person. What kind of friend moves cross-state and then just drops all contact with her formerly-best friend for five years? And then still doesn’t re-initiate contact for a whole month after moving back? But while these sorts of negative character traits can harm immersion in their own way — particularly if the game seems to force them on you — they work their intended purpose in Life Is Strange. They make Max feel like Max: a window into this new and interesting world by way of a teenager’s perspective, rather than just a hollow vessel for my authoritative will.
(Although it probably helps vis-á-vis me identifying with Max that she does a lot of the same weird stuff I do. I’m as much an inveterate snooper as Max is, for one. And I once lost contact with my best friend for two years, after moving… halfway across town. And not even a large town.)
The environments of Blackwell Academy are equally well-rounded: gorgeously drawn and filled with little attention vignettes, they often feel like real living spaces that people would actually exist in. Up to and including the tiny dorm rooms, which I’m sure a lot of American students can confirm or deny for me are actually that small. And even the suburban house you visit later genuinely feels the size of an actual house, which is a tricky thing to achieve in games!
It’s in this real-feeling world, filled with real-feeling situations and real-feeling characters of diverse skin colours and body types — Kate, Chloe, Nathan, poor Warren with his hopeless crush that goes ignored — that the real-feeling Max lives her life in. And what a life it is. Acclimatizing in a new school, making friends and sorting out cliques, getting back in touch with old friends, and figuring the strange surveillance-obsessed security guard and the mysteries of the ‘Vortex Club’, and how they relate to the missing Rachel Amber? Seems like good fodder to fill a number of video game episodes with, I’d say.
You may have noticed I haven’t actually mentioned time travel at all on this second page.
For a game ostensibly about a girl with time rewinding abilities, Life Is Strange (Episode 1) does relatively little with the actual mechanic of time rewinding. I mean, sure, it’s always there. No less than two dedicated buttons rewind time for you at the drop of a hat. But as for its actual use…
The nature of linear narrative games makes it difficult to implement time travel as a meaningful mechanic, of course. Our imagination tends to run wild on hearing ‘time travel’, imagining Ground Hog Day-style scenarios of incremental improvement over thousands of iterations… but who has the time to code and animate and voice-act that? Life Is Strange, instead, goes the altogether more utilitarian route of allowing your time travel powers to undo and change certain binary decisions. You drew a picture on a whiteboard, but you didn’t like how it turned out? Rewind time and don’t interact with the whiteboard at all! You went through a conversation tree, but you didn’t know some bit of trivia that you needed to get the outcome you wanted? Well, now you know, so rewind and try again.
In a sense, Life Is Strange’s time travel mechanic is the ultimate expression of the nature of Big Choices in tell-tale games. “Do you do A, or do you do B?” I’ve lost count of the number of times I heard people agonize over one choice or another, wishing for saving possibilities, hoping they could see the outcomes of either choice, grumbling for do-overs. It’s the uncertainty of the choice that gives it a certain sting, certainly, but Life Is Strange does away with all of that regardless: the principal feature of time travel in this game is to allow you try both choices and see which one you like best. Max is very explicit about this: after every major choice she agonizes over the outcome. “Maybe I should rewind time and do the other thing?” It fits her character, though, so I’ll take that.
Were Life Is Strange a full game, currently, I’d complain about the under-utilization of the time rewinding, both mechanically and narratively. How does this thing almost never come up? And for that matter, how is Max not endlessly freaking out about it? She has time travel powers! But since the rest of the writing was solid enough, and since there’s four more episodes coming, I’m willing to overlook that for now. I’ll spend these brief breaths to complain about the absurdity of ‘I’ll always make them fall’, but that’s it. And Life Is Strange gets some bonus points for the option to have Max talk skater lingo and set up some dude to fall and hurt himself, just so she can take pictures.
But if it turns out, at the end of the fifth episode, that this whole thing was just one big dream? A) I want you to know I fucking called that, right here, and B) Don’t Nod Entertainment and I may end up having words.
Life Is Strange is an interesting, gorgeous-looking, fairly well-written tell-tale adventure game. It’s obviously the first game of a serial, and it suffers mildly for it, but the interesting characters and the vibrant world certainly had me interested enough to sign up for the rest of it. Let’s hope the next four episodes manage to build on the premise set by the first. And let’s particularly hope the time travel mechanics feature in the puzzles a little more interestingly than simply ‘whoops, undo’. I’m envisioning grand Rube Goldberg machines of planned-out causality, Hitchhiker’s-Guide-text-adventure style: unlikely, yes, but a dude can dream.
Life Is Strange can be bought on Steam, as games usually are nowadays. And as Don’t Nod Entertainment seems to have understood that ‘teenage girl high school drama’ must’ve sounded like a bit of a hard sell, the various pricing schemas cleverly reflect different levels of interest: €20 gets you the whole five-episode season, but you can also sample Episode 1 for a mere €5, and then add the other four episodes later for €17. Yes, that does run you a little more expensive in the long run, but I appreciate the relatively fairly priced option regardless. Save being able to rewind time and undo the actual purchase, this is probably the best possible way of trying this game out for those of you still on the fence.
Jarenth has managed to write this entire review without having it devolve into complaining about the technical nature of Max’ time travel powers. Commend his willpower on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign? You can even quit backing that at any time, which is *like* having time travel powers of your own.