Life Is Strange – A Conversation with My Future Self
I found myself stuck in a time loop the other day. I was oscillating between my current self, and my future self, the future being, oddly enough, a year after I finished playing Life Is Strange for the first time ever. I decided I ought to share the experience, for the sake of the medium, and maybe science or something.
You’d think I had numerous questions about the future, or how this time loop occurred in the first place, or if my future self really thought that haircut looked good (I suppose I’ll find out soon enough, unfortunately). But given the specificity of the situation, we (I) could really only focus on Life Is Strange and its…questionable quality.
It is the best of games, it is the worst of games. Despite how much I loved my experience with the title, my future self has given me quite a bit to reconsider, given the many flaws he brings up in our conversation. Perhaps Life Is Strange stands as a testament to video game imperfection: how certain mechanics and great areas of storytelling can be undermined by moments or mechanics of sheer defect.
Games are often imperfect, and struggle to maintain balance between moments of brilliance and inadequacy. Life Is Strange heightens this argument, illustrating both sides at their extremes, and becomes all the more fascinating a game because of it. I’ll skip our (err, my) pleasantries, they aren’t important anyways.
. . .
What do you mean it’s not as good as I think it is!
“Look, Life Is Strange is by no means a ‘bad’ game, I assure you…me. The main problem is it fails to capture a specific identity or genre. It’s like The Catcher in the Rye meets Twin Peaks meets Donnie Darko. It loses focus at times because it tries to be too many different things at once, but even when it stumbles it does so with appreciable ambition.”
I suppose I see where you’re coming from. But despite the lack of narrative balance, I really feel like it captures its influences and genres quite well for what it is. Uneven, for sure, but there’s a lot to appreciate given the scope.
“A broad scope doesn’t always succeed, though. A more focused venture would have been preferable to this messy construction. It starts as a coming-of-age drama with a unique sci-fi gameplay gimmick, devolves into a sort of detective game, then ends as a straight up horror game. It’s disorienting, to say the least.”
True, but I love that disorientation! Think of that ending. The game’s defining moment occurs at the finale, which is also arguably the beginning. The violent storm attacking Arcadia Bay is a direct result of Max constantly taking advantage of her time manipulation, the multiple repeated histories swirling into an apocalyptic twister. The player’s consequences for simply maneuvering through the game, utilizing the very power it has placed in their hands, have come to destroy the very town they sought to protect. A coming-of-age story turned catastrophic nightmare.
“True, which is where the Donnie Darko inspiration is illustrated most clearly. The game does a great job actually involving the player in the sequence of its events. It transforms the deus ex machina tool into a primary gameplay mechanic, something Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did a decade prior, but with more misogynist tropes that get in the way.
“You’d have to agree then, it’s a shame whenever the core gameplay does not help push the story forward. Hell, David coming in at the final confrontation to save Max is hypocritical to the central gameplay motif.”
Very true, actually. It becomes far too linear by the final episode for its own good. Player choice is another instance where the scope of the game often overshadows the quality. Sometimes the plot oscillates between wanting to illustrate how there is not a single “right” answer to problems, that there are consequences to everything; and, as in the final episode, tasking you with trying to find a way to fix everything.
“Man, that ending really is something, huh? Simultaneously admirably ambitious and unnecessarily dramatic. The game sort of becomes a horror game in its final act, denoting the grounded relatable reality of its setting to provide a more urgent conclusion. It’s done effectively for the most part, however, thanks to the constant foreshadowing of impending doom throughout. Plus the constant allusions to the underlying tension that naturally spring up. But I can’t help but question whether it’s all too necessary for Max’s bildungsroman.”
Okay but, what about the characters? I remember most of them vividly and find them all mostly believable. Authenticity is really important to this kind of story, especially when players’ choices will affect what happens to them. When you are literally placed in charge of changing their future.
“Ah yes, the ‘realism’ aspect of Life Is Strange is a tricky subject to approach. The game can’t seem to find a balanced footing in its portrayal of people. It wants to be both a ‘game’ and an interactive experience with virtually ‘alive’ characters. For every wondrous nature scene that feels genuinely photorealistic, there are a bundle of wooden busybodies standing around acting ‘realistic,’ waiting for the player to talk to them.
“Yet this also allows Max to get away with snooping through everyone’s things all the time, suspending disbelief because of the lack of humanity in the NPCs. But then everyone starts talking and sharing some of the most authentic dialogue I’ve heard written for a coming-of-age tale, not to mention the wonderful voice acting talent on display throughout. It becomes an endless cycle of critique.
“Perhaps the game’s worst offense is how it trivializes suicide through Kate’s own character arc. Through deliberate ‘A or B’ mechanics, the game basically argues that by pushing the right buttons, you can overcome one’s suicidal thoughts for them. Kate weighs what Max did for her, versus what she did “against” her in a desperate bid to prove the value of her own Life. Nothing more, nothing less. Did you stand up for her when she was harassed by the security guard? If not, that’s one point to Jump. Did you answer her phone call at the diner? Yes? Well congratulations, you are just the hero Kate needs to prove the value of her own Life.”
Wow, I suppose I have to agree with that. However, that feels almost like a sort of necessary evil for what Dontnod are attempting to accomplish. The game struggles to argue the importance of everyday occurrences, and how every moment is a matter of making decisions that not only affect one’s self, but everyone around them. It acts as a demonstration of the Butterfly Effect in motion, and since videogames are inherently built upon systems, the cracks will inevitably show.
I love how making decisions actually affects many outcomes. From relationships, to plotpoints, to occasionally more dialogue options, I felt much more urgency whilst choosing what to say next than when playing most other similar titles (*cough* Telltale games *cough*).
“Sure, only sometimes the options for response in conversations are too vague in description to explain what exactly Max will say after choosing it. Which reminds me of Fallout 4. Which is a very bad thing, indeed. This can be frustrating because to change your option you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the conversation and only after it has completed — you know, using your ‘Rewind’ power. But that’s a nitpick, and it does not occur often, especially since nearly every decision made has negative and positive consequences.”
You know, in spite of the general lack of genre focus; I like how the past, present, and future all intertwine in glorious complex fashion to pave the way to a determined outcome. It emphasizes a wonderful sense of narrative focus, which is often breathtakingly clever. I like how every character has a developed arc that makes me question their true motivations, and look outside the lines of perceived notions. It’s reminiscent of looking past rumors spread about people to remind ourselves of their humanity.
“Oh how fitting for the game’s setting.”
Exactly. By the end, I said to myself, “Wow.” It goes somewhere I really did not expect it to at all.
“I felt the same…obviously. But for as well done as the finale is, I feel like that’s sort of the biggest problem.”
Speaking of its diverse influences, the game also references media in the best way possible. It pays subtle homage to the developers’ inspirations at nearly every turn to actually aid in establishing tone. Max dons a moth shirt while tied up in the basement of an obsessive serial killer a la Silence of the Lambs. A knockoff Catcher in the Rye poster hangs in Max’s room, greeting the player as they first arrive on campus. These speak far more to building the universe and its various moods than any spoken Twin Peaks or Final Fantasy reference, which often come off more as a forced glorification of “nerd culture.”
So I suppose the overall game is quite messy, but I think it can be forgiven for a lot of its problems. Every moment is spent articulating the significance of choice, the small moments that have vital impact on human relationships. No decision is wholly “right” or “wrong.” There are consequences to everything we do or say, and Life Is Strange illustrates that moreso than just about any other game I can think of. It falls apart when it tries to be a big, grand, cinematic explosion of artistry, while it’s at its best when simply asking players to continue the conversation with a close friend.
The nitpicks are a many, though. An unfortunate result of its medium.
“Ah hell, I’ll say it: The over-the-shoulder POV makes looking at objects to activate them cumbersome. I’m going to be that guy. It was frustrating in Arkham, and it’s frustrating here.”
Especially since this is a game where clicking on things in the environment is the crux of most of the gameplay.
So after playing Life Is Strange, I deemed it one of the best 2015 titles I have played. Would you…would I still hold it in such high regard?
“I think it’s important to note how inherently flawed most games are. In the case of Life Is Strange, ‘realism’ will always be denoted by systemic operations; pacing will be affected by player choice; focus will be obscured by a development team that is made up of numerous hard-working, creative individuals, each with their own goals for a product in mind.
“Greatness in games, therefore, is not determined by ‘perfection,’ but the experience delivered. And overall, Life Is Strange is one of the most affecting, engaging 2015 games I have experienced; one with merits and flaws equally worth discussing with others.”
“Yes, or yourself. Anyways, I think the portal is closing. I’m going to head back before the inevitable paradox creates a chasm in the universe or whatever. Plus, Bloodborne 2 just released and I can’t wait to get my hands on that!”
Wait, what! What year are you from?
“What’s that? Sorry, got to go! See you eventually, I guess!”