The second time I played Life Is Strange, I cried. The first time, I wasn’t able to make it through the initial episode. The game was just trying so hard to make me Feel Things, with its introspective characters, hip soundtrack, and a plot that was hella for reals. Oh, I’m sorry – did that jarring vernacular pull you out of an otherwise normal sentence? Too bad! That’s how high school students talk in this game.
So I gave up. Months later, my sister convinced me to give the game another shot by describing her own experience with it as “highly emotional”. I love lamenting the lack of emotionally affecting games; it would have been irresponsible of me to not play the game after that description.
So I gritted my teeth through the first and second episodes, became marginally invested by the third, and finished the game in tears. Not because I wanted to cry, but because I knew the game expected it. It was the Right Thing to do; not crying would have been like telling a kid that their stegosaurus drawing looked more like a bush than a dinosaur.
Let me rewind, though. Life Is Strange is an episodic adventure about a high school junior named Max. She’s a self-proclaimed social misfit, indulging her isolation and ennui. Her fellow students mock her, but her photography teacher sees her untapped potential. You, the player, have the privilege of hearing Max’s apathetic thoughts on everything from boys to breakfast.
When Max accidentally witnesses a murder, she discovers she can reverse time, and does so to save the victim. And thus we plunge into a teenage version of The Butterfly Effect. A butterfly even appears shortly before Max becomes aware of her abilities – because symbolism is a dish best served in your face!
The game is filled with Tough Decisions and encourages you to second-guess all of them. In most games, lingering regrets can be cured simply by loading a saved game. I’m certainly guilty of this: in the “suicide run” at the end of Mass Effect 2, I reloaded multiple times to ensure my entire crew’s survival. But these do-overs come at the cost of immersion: you must exploit the fact that you are playing a game to ensure the story unfolds the “right” way.
Life Is Strange is different. When something bad happens, Max wonders aloud if she could have done something to prevent it. Many characters know Max can reverse time and will beg her to do it, even if it means trading one tragedy for another. Life Is Strange isn’t the first to rely on regret; Telltale Games constantly reminds players that “characters will remember that”. By allowing you to reverse time without breaking immersion, Life Is Strange does regret the best.
All that being said, I rarely used Max’s ability to bactrack. After a few incidents early in the game, I started to suspect that every choice was going to be equally tragic in some unforeseen way. Because Life Is Strange is not a subtle game – it’s deeply obsessed with the story it’s telling, and there’s an earnest desire to make the player feel. Every time Max reminded her best friend Chloe that “they were adults now”, I wanted to take a shot. I stopped having Max sit down anywhere because she would always launch into bloated expositional musing.
It’s actually worth discussing the game’s sheer number of interactive objects and optional subplots. While these do flesh out the world, it’s at the expense of pacing. For the plot to have any urgency, the player must actively ignore interactive elements – a difficult ask for gamers, many of whom suffer from crippling completionism.
Unfortunately, not all of these interactive elements are avoidable. In one scene at a junkyard, Max’s friend Chloe asks her to find several bottles for target practice. Instead of searching for bottles with her friend like a normal person, Chloe lets Max do all the work – because this is a Puzzle. Finding the bottles isn’t fun; it’s boring, surprisingly difficult, and serves no narrative purpose.
No one is playing Life Is Strange because they want to solve puzzles; we have The Witness for that. We’re playing Life Is Strange for the hard choices we’re asked to make. Telltale Games understands this and streamlines its games accordingly, to the point that they’re more like interactive shows. Instead of shoehorning puzzles into itself, Life Is Strange should have focused on de-cheesing its plot.
Fans of Life Is Strange had promised the game would wreck my soul, and I did cry at the end. But those tears felt cheap and inauthentic. LIke so many other mediocre stories, Life Is Strange thinks that drama is achieved by being dramatic: murder, addiction, kidnapping, (implied) sexual assault, domestic violence, suicide, euthanasia… the gang’s all here. The problem with cramming so much darkness into a story is that each event is robbed of its impact. For these moments to really hurt, they need more time to breathe.
Life Is Strange isn’t as strange as it wants to be: it’s neither good enough to be great, nor bad enough to be hilarious. It handles regret well, but it could have been more effective had it tempered its relentless tragedy. While I appreciated the rewind mechanic, the other interactive elements and puzzles felt contrived. Play it once, force a few tears out, then play The Wolf Among Us seventeen times.