It captured me with its launch trailer. I listened to “Glass Walls” by Nik Ammars, the song featured in that promotional video, on a loop for quite a few days. Life is Strange looked like my kind of game: heavy on narrative, cheerful, with an uplifting artistic design… So the day it was released, I ran to Steam and got myself the entire season. Was it a good decision, or did I try to reverse time myself after playing it? Let’s find out!
Max Caulfield is a teenager that returns to her hometown in order to study photography in Blackwell Academy, where she meets a friend from her childhood. Chloe has changed a lot since Max and her were adventure partners, though, as she’s left her good-girl looks behind and boasts a rebel outfit now: short and blue hair, punk-style clothes, bullets in her necklace… Her father’s death changed her, but deep inside, Chloe is still as hearty as ever. When Max discovers she has the power to reverse time, both of them embark on the adventure of their lives, as they try to find a girl gone missing.
It does sound like a lot of stuff thrown together, but an episodic organisation enables the developers, Dontnod Entertainment, the ability to provide a gradual unfolding of the story. Each episode has its own arc with a beginning, a middle and an end, but all together form a larger story that evolves beautifully, little by little. The script, while slightly cheesy at times, works brilliantly. The events are presented very well, with just a few exposition-heavy moments that even if they do feel forced, are clearly necessary for a correct understanding of what’s going on.
Life is Strange isn’t afraid of touching sensitive topics, and it achieves to do so in a sensible way. Bullying, suicide and drugs can all be found throughout the entire game, but it never feels like the typical educational video, yelling “drugs are bad!” at your face. It takes a more subtle route instead, letting you observe the consequences of all these, which respect players’ intelligence by not exaggerating or spoon-feeding them. These topics and the teenager story that surrounds them are definitely not a trend in the industry, so they do feel fresh.
The story hits just the right notes when it becomes emotional too. The upbeat moments are really joyful, they genuinely make you feel the delight Max and Chloe enjoy in your own skin. When it becomes sad, it knows how to be extremely devastating too, with a cleverly written script and shocking images. I’ll put it this way: so far, this is the only videogame that has made me cry. I’ve been close with some others, such as Journey, but only Life is Strange has made me shed some tears.
The five episodes form a rollercoaster of emotions. The first one feels playful and innocent, just as the character we play as, Max, upon reaching Arcadia Bay, her hometown. As events get more and more twisted, developers achieve to make the characters human enough for us to feel empathy. The ending of the second episode is one of the hardest moments for the players, as the fate of a classmate is in their hands, and a single mistake can have terrible consequences. The third episode achieves to create a mysterious, tense feeling to engage the player in what they’re doing, in order to focus on more personal emotions during the last two episodes. The fourth one had me burst to tears with profound, incredibly written dialogue during the most personal and saddest moments of the game, which aim to prepare the player for the final decisions in the last episode.
When talking about videogames, the core of the experience is always gameplay. This game has more mechanics than those that are referred to as “interactive movies” such as Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls, but they are indeed quite simple. Moving around and interacting with stuff and people, picking from a list of possible answers when in a conversation… All those are here too, and are the actions the players will see themselves repeating over and over again. However, the time-reversing mechanic adds a very interesting twist, as besides adding many puzzles that can be found throughout the entire game, it gives the players the ability to change their decisions.
Whenever players argue about graphics, I feel there’s a gigantic topic left out: artistic design. Yes, it can be argued that Max’s adventure isn’t the most next-gen experience, that its graphics aren’t the most advanced, the textures aren’t super high resolution and the polygonal charge is quite low. But that wouldn’t make the gorgeous, jaw-dropping looks this game has any justice. The techniques may not be the most advanced, but the results are some of the prettiest ever seen in a videogame. Period.
The warm light leaks between the branches of a tree and fills the screen with a warm orange colour during sunsets. Objects and characters are covered in hand-painted textures that give them an impeccable, stylised look unlike any other game. The cinematic direction makes the ideal cuts during cut-scenes to make the experience a splendid blend of cinema and videogames, without compromising gameplay. Everything has a cheerful, indie vibe to it, and fits the game perfectly. Dontnod, a little French studio, demonstrates that visual design isn’t exclusive to huge productions. It proves that art and design can be more important than technique.
Speaking of art, one of the most traditional ones is music, and the focus Dontnod had with it is stunning. They do make use of a beautiful original score (composed by Jonathan Moralli), but the highlights are clearly the songs from indie artists they decided to use. José Gonzalez, Local Natives and Syd Matters are just some examples. Unfortunately, some of these licensed songs are used several times during the game, and it does feel recycled at times. Anyway, songs such as “Obstacles” or “Crosses” fit the mood of Life is Strange to perfection, which isn’t all that common in videogames.
There’s no doubt why this game got praised the way it did. It gathered a large fan-base and many communities were formed while episodes were being released, many of which remain active to this day. Life is Strange is capable of connecting with the player at all times, telling the story of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It’s artistic, pretty, beautifully written and directed, fun to play… but above all, it is human. It has a heart inside. A heart that won’t stop beating for the duration of its five episodes. But also a heart that players, if they remain in silence, will be able to hear long after they finish the game. 10/10