Saturday, February 25, 2017

Life Is Strange

While it is certainly true that life is indeed strange, this post is about the video game, not the philosophical observation. Life Is Strange is an episodic adventure game (similar to the various Telltale games). Note: It's pretty much impossible to completely avoid spoilers when talking about this kind of game, but I'll try to keep it minimal.
Life Is Strange cover.jpg
The protagonist in Life Is Strange is Max, a photography student recently returned to the town of her childhood in order to attend the prestigious, private Blackwell academy. She almost immediately discovers that she's somehow gained the ability to rewind time. Her first use of this power is to save her friend Chloe, who she hasn't seen for years, from being shot. Max proceeds to use her abilities to solve problems from the mundane (saving the occasional small animal, moving a fellow student to avoid a puddle splash) to the remarkable (saving lives, finding missing persons).

Life Is Strange has two main drivers: a missing-person mystery and the relationship between Max and Chloe. The missing person is Rachel, a girl from Blackwell who was Chloe's friend and went missing just before Max came back to town. Max had dropped out of contact with Chloe after moving away, but they rediscover their friendship as they work toward finding out what happened to Rachel. Chloe has had some terrible life experiences and has reacted by becoming a prickly, difficult-to-like rebel. But she and Max genuinely care for each other, and the game does a great job of showing that relationship.

The game touches on quite a few modern social issues while moving through the mystery-solving and relationship-building. Chloe's step-father is an ex-soldier struggling with reintegration into civilian society. There are several instances of bullying at Blackwell, including one that leads to a suicide attempt. Drug use is rampant among the students. It's fairly heavily implied that Chloe is lesbian or bi-sexual, but unwilling to be open about it. Max does have some opportunity to help in these areas, though she can't always find a resolution..and sometimes attempting to help makes things worse. Much like real life.

Storytelling in Life Is Strange is uneven, particularly early on, but it does get better later. At first, everything you encounter seems mundane and unimportant. Max mostly wanders around Blackwell and discovers a whole lot of standard teenage drama, occasionally using her time powers to harass a bully or smooth out a relationship. I might have been tempted to give up, had I not heard good things from friends about the game. It wasn't until the third episode that I felt the story really picked up, but once it did I was hooked and anxious to finish it out. The storytelling may not be smooth, but in the end I found it to be well worth the effort to get through the rough patches.

There are also some technical and mechanical issues with the game. I noticed several places where the video and audio weren't properly synced up. There were more than a few times when I had a hard time maneuvering Max and/or the camera view so I could select a particular item or other interaction. Nothing game-breaking, but certainly annoying.

The player never gets an explanation of how Max got her powers. We do learn eventually that she has limits, and her abilities might even be causing some of the very catastrophes that she's trying to prevent. I didn't mind that the writers chose to leave that part of the mystery unrevealed, largely because it doesn't really matter where the time abilities came from. The way the story unfolds, it wouldn't make any difference whether it was magic or future technology or anything else.

Playing through Life Is Strange was a very interesting experience. It may not be the most polished game, but I thought the characters came alive, and the story was engrossing once it got going. Well worth the 10-12 hours of playtime.

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