Life is Strange, but thanks to Square Enix and DONTNOD Entertainment, it’s also wonderful.
From my earliest days playing Pokémon Blue to 2013’s The Last of Us and onwards, my love of gaming has always come from the sense of immersion great stories can create. All mediums of storytelling aspire to draw you into their world, but in my experience no book, movie, or show has immersed me into a world better than a powerful story driven game can. Of course, this is not to belittle games that lack story – there’s certainly an art to crafting an intrinsically fun gameplay mechanic that can stand independent of story, and it’s obvious any narrative driven game would have trouble succeeding without some satisfying, clever, or addictive element of gameplay.
I view The Last of Us as one of the greatest games I’ve ever played not because of it’s stellar shooting mechanics or jaw dropping visuals, but for the fact that from the time when I sat in front of my TV to when I ended each play session, I was a part of that fully realized, apocalyptic world. I recently booted up Life is Strange: Episode 1, and for the two or so hours it took me to complete, I fully sank into the city of Arcadia Bay.
For those unfamiliar with the title, Life is Strange is a decision based, interactive adventure game most comparable in presentation to Telltale’s episodic takes on The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the like. In Episode 1 – Chrysalis, players control Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old whose moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay after five years away to study photography at Arcadia’s prestigious secondary academy. Like the Telltale games, most advancements in story are brought about by player chosen dialogue or action decisions, only this time there’s a catch:
Max discovers early into Chrysalis that she possesses the supernatural ability to rewind time, and players are fully welcome to take advantage of this mechanic. This time-play element of gameplay yields brilliant results, as it allows the player to not only learn from their mistakes and re-write their immediate past, but also invites them to explore as many potential story beats as they see fit before choosing what’s best for Max (at least in the short term). It’s a beautiful mechanic that helps to distinguish Life is Strange from the crowd of other episodic adventure games.
The rewind mechanic is unique and clever, but it’s not the reason I fell in love with Life is Strange. The art style, slice of life mixed with fantasy storytelling, and exceptional soundtrack all combined to allow me to empathize with Max in a way I have with so few other fictional characters; An opening sequence in which Max puts in her earphones and walks alone through the academy’s hallways was so emotionally captivating, and I never felt the momentum or curiosity that scene evoked fade. Full disclosure: I’m not an 18 year old girl. Nor have I ever been one. But the atmosphere crafted by Life is Strange helped me understand what it might feel like to be one in a way I can never forget.
Seeing as Life is Strange is only on it’s first of five episodes, it’s too soon to award the game any accolade for its storytelling. I can say, however, that I was so compelled by the narrative established in the game’s first episode that I caught myself thinking, “They should turn this into a movie or graphic novel!” I held onto that thought for a few minutes until a more pressing question came to mind: Why do we so often and casually try to measure a piece of art by its ability to work as a film? Certainly the time traveling premise and setting of Life is Strange could make for an interesting indie film, and the beautiful art style could work well in the graphic novel medium, but it’s clear to me that in order to hit the notes the developers are aspiring to reach – to tell audiences a tale driven by decisions, ramifications, and choice – Life is Strange is simply best suited as a video game where you’re in control.
That’s not to say Square Enix’s latest is a perfect game. Some dialogue, for instance, while aiming to be true to west coast young adult vernacular, is questionably cheesy with its overreliance on slang and pop culture phenomena (That was a Hella nice selfie!). There is definitely room for improvement in Life if Strange, but I’m certain these are improvements that can be found and served most effectively through updates in future episodes within the realm of video games, rather than from any film adaptation or re-imagining.
Life is Strange Episode 1 deeply supports the legitimacy of gaming as a form of storytelling and immersion. Narrative driven games such as this are not and should not be artistic compromises wishing to transcend into feature films or a book series, but are instead perfect platforms for those storytellers wishing to immerse an audience by letting the content consumer truly walk in their characters’ shoes.
Nov 12 2015 Update: With all five episodes of Life is Strange’s first season released I thought it a good time to return to this article and see if my thoughts based on episode 1 alone still hold true. I’m happy to report that everything I praised the first episode of Life is Strange only grew in its following four installments, and created an entirely unique gaming experience I’ll never forget. Life is hella Strange, and I love it.
Life is Strange is more than a game – it’s an exercise in empathy. And while I say it’s more than a video game, it’s obvious that gaming is the only medium of storytelling that can do justice to an intensely interactive and choice driven tale like this. It’s time we stop comparing games to movies, comics, or shows and recognize them as the beautiful, independent art pieces they can be.