Ever wanted to go back to high school? If you haven’t punched through your monitor with your fist thinking about it, then let me ask you this; would you go back to high school if you could rewind time to save yourself from a life-changing moment, or perhaps …save a life?
Life is Strange takes place in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. You take control of high school senior Maxine Caulfield, who recently came back to her hometown to attend Blackwell Academy, a private school, to study photography. After waking up from a dream where a tornado was about to obliterate a small town, Max wakes up in a classroom in the middle of an unstimulating lecture. Fellow students are either attentive or daydreaming. Through the dust particles, sunlight fills the classroom with a warm, orange glow that signals that the school day is almost over. Max is called to answer her teacher’s question. She was so observant of her surrounding that she missed the entire lecture, so she’s scolded in front of her classmates, and is then mocked by a stuck-up girl sitting nearby. Life is mundane indeed. That is, until Max sees a classmate shot in the chest in the restroom. She panics and tries to intervene, but then suddenly appears back in her classroom. And back in time.
As a graphic adventure game, you explore the setting in third person and examine items to either collect or trigger an event. I’m not too experienced with these sort of games. I closely relate them to visual novels where the crucial moments are set up as choices, and depending on the outcome will either lead you to glory or your downfall. What makes Life is Strange unique is that you have the power to rewind time in these paramount moments if you had any second thoughts about what choice you’ve chosen. Sometimes you’re forced to rewind time to progress through the game for plot sake or to solve a puzzle. That might take away the feel of freedom for some players, but it doesn’t take away the charm of rewinding time in the other numerous moments in the game, and it certainly doesn’t detract the ambitions the game has to show.
I like the idea of using time as a tool in a high school setting. It plays with the idea of when we were in school and, being older and wiser now, how we would change things around in our favor just by having a little more time on our side. Or maybe not. I know not everyone is haunted by an inane yet largely inconvenient thing they did years ago, only now to sit on the edge of their bed, staring at the floor in total darkness thinking about it (I know that can’t just be me!). Here you can get even with bullies, help friends settle their drama, and not look like a poseur in front of the skaters. Keep in mind, it’s not a massive open world setting where you explore the entire school grounds and town. What you can do is engage with the few characters that are in the courtyard, parking lot, dorm hall and such, and then play with the rewinding time bit that may or may not (but half the time may) impact your future in some way. (Just think of combining the main gameplay features of Life is Strange and Rockstar’s Bully. Someone get on that!)
Max is awesome. People might be turned off by the angst that’s sewn in the dialogue with some of the characters, and Max certainly has her moments of angst. Dealing with teenagers at school kind of comes with the territory– Oh, the drama! For the most part, though, Max is is a likable character. If you’re into photography and obscure films, she can appear to be downright cool.
When the game started, I looked through her journal entries, which was written in a way as you’d expect from a teenager, but she earned cool kids points when she mentioned Battle Royale. Not the film, but specifically the novel, ’cause you know …the novel was actually good. There are nods and name drops all over the place, which seemed a little too eager to appear to be hip. I know teens today listen to The Ramones, read Ray Bradbury, and watch Full Metal Alchemist. Hell, that’s exactly what I did at her age, if not years younger. Sometimes, though, it seemed a little shoehorned in, like in random notes, posters, and even in banter between characters. It might be a bit of a niche overload for
uncultured plebeians most people, but I kind of love it. I wish I had a friend in high school who knew about Cannibal Holocaust (I wish I had friends in high school, period ;~;). It’s actually a little odd to have so much in common with a teenage protagonist. There’s being able to relate to a character, then there’s a character that feels like someone you hang out with now in your thirties still talking about the same old shit, sans work and cellphone contracts.
Since Max main interest is photography there are name drops of famous and notable photographers– that I immediately forget. I’m more on the music side of art, and they mention quite a few of them, too. Which is funny, because this games loves to mention punk and alternative rock groups, but the game soundtrack is pretty much all adult acoustic ballads. Odd, but I can deal, I guess. Another thing I noticed, Max loves Seattle and even though the game takes place in Oregon the characters do have that “Seattle look.” You know what I mean? Or am I stereotyping Seattlians? I guess it doesn’t help that Infamous First Light was also recently released and takes place in Seattle, with characters having punk-styled hair and dyed with neon colors. Don’t get me wrong, I love neon colors!
If there is any questionable elements in the game it’s that Max doesn’t actually investigates her newfound power. She’s bewildered when she first finds herself in back her classroom after the incident in the women’s restroom, but once she steps out of her school, her mind focuses on the day-to-day meanderings of teenage life; cliques, dealing with adults who just don’t understand, getting bitched at by a childhood friend. No real effort to pursue how she gained this ability, or even ask why. On the other hand, episode 1 doesn’t pond these questions into our heads relentlessly and instead allows us to indulge in everything else the game has to offer. Just think of other stories where a young kid or adult gains powers out of nowhere and how they have a breakdown in the first couple chapters if not the duration of the first arc. Been there, done that. So the explanation of the Max’s unique ability is weak, but I believe Life is Strange is more eager to put the tool to good use as soon as possible and using it in the most creative way they can as the character explores her surroundings.
This is where I think Life is Strange really shines. If you’re the type of the person who takes their time exploring the environment of a game, then this game should be a nice treat. The game isn’t going to be fun if you’re just going to breeze through the main points, doing only what needs to be done to get through the chapters. You won’t get a feel for the missing person Rachel Amber for one thing, but you’re also cheating yourself from getting to know the culture of the school and the characters, which are an interesting bunch. They’re not “quirky,” off-the-wall, batshit crazy types that you’ll find in, say, Grand Theft Auto, but take Victoria for example. She’s quickly made out to be the antagonist at the start of the game, seeing as she’s rich, pretty, and popular– on top of being a real asshole to Max. However, depending on how you respond to her after she gets a taste of her own mean-girl medicine, she can appear as a sad, lonely and confused teen, just like Max. Whether you’ll have sympathy for her or take advantage of the opportunity to further humiliate her, that’s up to you. Just keep mind, actions have consequences.
Consequences make graphic adventure games fun. You can play what’s close to your personality or go hog-wild; in either case, seeing good things happen based on your choices is just as entertaining as when bad things happen. Life is Strange kind of blurs the good and bad actions, or at least not make them so obvious once the deeds are done. Hell, I wonder if there are “good” choices to make at certain instances. Let’s say you come across an important decision to make, and you go with your gut feeling or something you see no problem with choosing. You make your choice, but Max isn’t so sure. Life is Strange isn’t like other games where you get only one chance to make a choice and then live with it (or when your finger slips by accident. It happens). You can actually rewind time to select a different choice or at least have time to think about it (and THEN live with it). This was a cool reaction the game had on me when I felt I was doing what’s “right.” I was suddenly second-guessing myself, hoping whatever I choose won’t bite me in the ass later. Some consequences aren’t immediate, or apparent in the game at all. This is where I have high hopes for the future episodes. I haven’t played many graphic adventure games, but from my experience most of them have choices that are superficial, never really having any drastic outcomes. Since Max can rewind time I’m curious as how to how some outcomes will play out, because I’m thinking even if something drastic happens she can just go back a few minutes and change an event in her favor. This game has been fairly clever and ambitious so far, though, so I’m going to put trust in how the developer team is going to handle these situations– if they’ll ever come into play at all.
Life is Strange is has five episodes, with episode two coming in March. You can buy the complete season for $19.99, or you can purchase Episodes 2-5 after seeing if Episode 1 ($4.99) is up your alley. Check out the demo of Episode 1 where it’s available!
Some inane afterthoughts.
Parallels between Life is Strange to Silent Hill 3:
- Both characters turn 18 years old while the game is taking place.
- The game starts in a dream-esque sequence.
- They return to their hometown, which has more going on than what its sleepy town appearance is letting on.
- Max and Heather Manson are very observant of their environment, even a colorful vocabulary at times.