‘Life is Strange’ is a five part episodic adventure from developer DONTNOD Entertainment. The saga chronicles a week in the life of Max Caulfield, a shy 18 year old. Max has recently returned to the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay nestled on Oregon’s picturesque coast. Not only does she have to navigate the tumultuous hallways of a new high school, but she also has to confront the ghosts of her past. Through a series of events Max is reconnected with Chloe Price, the best friend she had to leave behind after moving to Seattle with her parents five years ago. Through saving Chloe’s life, Max discovers that she possesses the ability to “rewind” time and alter events of the past, thus changing their outcomes in the future. Together the pair use Max’s newly discovered gift to look into the mysterious disappearance of one of Blackwell Academy’s students.
As the story progresses players are prompted to make decisions that will directly impact the course of the narrative. The choices you make not only affect the relationships of those around Max, but also splinter the main timeline of events. As with the butterfly effect, every action a player takes will cause a reaction that leads down one of the game’s many narrative tendrils. These diverting paths can be controlled to an extent through the game’s rewind feature that allows Max to back up time to various key events. This mechanic can be used for everything from solving puzzles to averting a character’s death. Players can utilize this device to rewatch the outcomes for several scenarios and adjust their actions accordingly. But the real genius behind the game is its ambiguity. Regardless of how many various endings a situation has, there is still no obvious right or wrong choice.
The story takes place over the course of a week, culminating with a devastating tornado looming over the tiny Oregonian town. As the events unfold, players learn of a much darker side to the community of Arcadia Bay. Since the game is so heavily inspired by movies, some film aficionados will see many of the plot twists coming, but it does delve into much more disturbing places than anticipated. And even if players are able to sniff out some of the reveals ahead of time, the journey getting to those moments is anything but predictable. The pacing is spot on and hardly stalls, even during some of the game’s more lengthy conversational exchanges. Some of the playable moments can be a little tedious, like searching a junkyard for bottles or exploring an empty science lab for ingredients, but the narrative is so compelling it never loses momentum.
In addition to the remarkable story, the art direction in ‘Life is Strange’ is undeniably gorgeous. Stylized character models, hand painted textures, and engaging locales make the journey through Arcadia Bay more than memorable. Dynamic weather effects add even more to the beauty and atmosphere of the environments. There are a limited number of set pieces throughout the game, ranging from serene to sinister, but each is so wonderfully visualized that players won’t mind revisiting them time and time again. The developers did a great job of reimagining each location to keep them from growing stale as the story progresses. Changes in weather, time of day, and even dream sequences make exploring the familiar environments seem new each time.
A review of ‘Life is Strange’ can almost be like writing a term paper in regards to its archetypes and complexities. An in depth analysis reveals an story comprised of multiples layers that address everything from social commentary to one’s moral degradation. Not only is the game a love letter to cinema with its numerous film references, but there are deep connections to literature as well. The most obvious literary influence is ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, which can be seen in everything from Max’s last name to her poignant dialogue and other various Easter Eggs throughout the game. However, the connection to the 1951 classic goes much further than just similarities on its surface. At its core, ‘Life is Strange’ is steeped heavily in the notorious theme that made Salinger’s work a critical masterpiece; the loss of innocence. Watching the young cast’s naivety erode as they confront and deal with horrific events is a truly remarkable experience.
It’s not often that a game comes along and surprises us in ways we never expected. ‘Life is Strange’ is a brilliant example of how storytelling can elevate the medium to places games seldom go. It’s a rare experience akin to ‘Journey’ or ‘Gone Home’, but somehow pushes the spectrum of emotion even further. The game’s vast range of social interactions tackles the human response to everything from unrequited love to the dark corners of one’s mind that can breed evil. It’s impossible to think of a cross section of our culture that won’t be able to relate to ‘Life is Strange’ on some level, making it an experience that should not be missed. It’s a beautifully imagined piece of storytelling that not only tugs at your heart, but manages to completely pull it open.