I’m not a massive video games guy. There’s a reason this website was, until yesterday, called Cinema Crunch and not something awful like ‘Vahrkalla’s Video Games’. I regret about 90% of all my video games purchases, getting bored after a couple of hours playing (which is really, really terrible for my disposable income) . If I want to enjoy a complex and exciting narrative which invites me to take it in at my own pace, then I’ll just go on Netflix.
With that in mind, I was surprised just how hooked I got on Life is Strange, a five-part episodic offering from Dontnod Entertainment. In part, that might have been due to the relatively minimal, simplistic gameplay that allowed even losers with a crippling lack of hand-eye coordination like me to punch through the story without getting stuck on a particularly taxing section for hours on end, which happens far too often. Mostly, however, I’m not entirely sure why Life is Strange elicited as much of an interest and desire to keep playing as it did. It’s especially perplexing considering that it’s a game that’s riddled with major structural flaws that are deal-breakers for any film or TV show I watch. The pacing is
The pacing is haphazard, oscillating between a snappy flurry of clues and reveals that quickly open up the game’s central mystery and a more relaxed, hang-out vibe in a way that creates a constant sense that the game can’t settle on one particular tone at a time. The dialogue, theoretically the linchpin of a story-driven game like this, is often cringeworthy and occasionally downright frustrating, depending on whether it’s awkward teen slang or forced and turgid exposition. There’s a couple of big sections of the story that turn out to be total narrative cul-de-sacs, barely affecting the ongoing story in any way – a trip to an alternate timeline is poignant on its own and does provide a Chekhov’s Gun that fuels the final episode’s time travelling, but it’s scarcely mentioned after it occurs despite the significant choices you have to make there. The villain of the piece, revealed to be photography teacher Mark Jefferson, has an exceptionally shallow reason for committing all the crimes seen throughout the game, which lands awkwardly after all the portentous build-up and red herrings of the previous episodes. And, most importantly, Life is Strange can’t reconcile the separate spheres of its narrative – the sci-fi time travel idea and the slasher-horror mystery end up being particularly awkward bedfellows when they’re mashed together in the final episode; giving a sense that the game is having a full-on identity crisis right in front of your eyes as these two narratives hang limply, failing to satisfyingly mesh.
Any one of those criticisms could sink other games simply on their own. Together, you would think that this would be a complete failure of storytelling – a trashy mess where the authorial intention ends up fifteen hundred miles away from the end product.
Life is Strange, in my view, is not a failure. In fact, I think it’s fair to deem it a success, though I know that’s not a view that’s held everywhere. My best theory as to why the game feels like a satisfying story, well told despite all logic indicating that it should crash and burn is that Life is Strange isn’t really a game that should be approached logically, treated as a collection of individual elements that knot together to make something bigger. It’s a game designed to make you feel, an overwhelming mass of admirable intent and fascinating insights that combine to create a strong gut reaction to everything that’s going on. Frequently, even in small throwaway moments of little consequence, I powerfully felt something towards the events going on, whether that was relief, sadness or worry. When the central characters had a moment of peace away from the chaos surrounding them, that kind of felt like a relaxing breather and time out for me too, as a player. And when the big moments came, the carefully built-up establishment of strong emotional investment in the welfare of these people paid off – take the suicide attempt of Kate Marsh in episode two. I had seen this moment in a playthrough a few days back, I’d made every choice there was in favour of Kate and I’d noted down a few things I knew would be useful. I knew that I should be able to talk her down, and only a series of horrible errors would turn the situation away from the jaws of victory. But still, I felt genuinely nervous as I went through the answers, wondering whether I’d misremembered the choices made in the playthrough to keep her alive. And when I did save her pretty quickly, I felt a real sense of relief that I’d saved this vaguely realistic block of pixels – as if (and emphasis on ‘as if’) I’d actually achieved something meaningful rather than just pressing a few buttons I knew would work anyway.
(Oh, retroactive note, ‘Chariots of Fire’ would make a great soundtrack to that last paragraph. The paragraph has a similar feeling of triumph and is as equally well-crafted as the internationally renowned movie.)
In barely collected, vaguely articulate words, that’s why Life is Strange worked for me – because it made me care on a gut level that went beyond nitpicks about how, say, Kate’s tendency to treat me like a god for saying mildly comforting things was vaguely unsettling. It didn’t make me analyse and track through everything to make a logical value judgement – the game conditioned me, skilfully and subtly, to pick options that just felt right. Tying into that, one of the ways in which Life is Strange overrode the natural tendency to view things sceptically and with logical caution for me was just how sincere it was when it really counted. Talking to a friend, that sincerity and tendency to opt for serious melodrama over wry self-awareness was a storytelling choice that actively weakened the game. That’s a pretty understandable viewpoint, but on a personal level, I’ve found myself drifting lately towards works of fiction that treat uncomplicated heroism, idealism and a genuine desire to help the world as attributes that are aspirational and admirable rather than something to be mocked and laughed at. In today’s dark, paranoid and divided world, I think there’s far more value in works of fiction that offer up a better way for ourselves rather than shows that snidely put down certain groups of people or positive attitudes in a bid to seem worthy.
Life is Strange isn’t an entirely serious game, and it’s certainly far from gritty in its depiction of a golden all-American suburb and events that mostly unfold in glittering daylight. Nonetheless, it knows when to take things entirely seriously, and its choice of ideas and elements to present with no sarcasm or ulterior motive is part of the reason why it works so much. Max, the character at the centre of it all, is a somewhat nebulous presence by necessity, deliberately malleable so the player can imprint their own reactions onto her character, so there are definitely ways to play Life is Strange where you do treat certain serious events with a cocked eyebrow and a knowing smirk. Nonetheless, the basic core of her character is that she wants the best for herself and for others if they’re willing to hop on board with that strategy too. Her actions are motivated by a basic sense of human empathy, a desire to make more human connections and, finally, to find a reality where she can be with her best friend. Those aren’t purely selfless, but they are simple, decent and empathetic motivations that the game doesn’t mock, and Max herself doesn’t sarcastically undermine or put down in her internal monologue. That sense of sincerity flows out to really touch all of the aspects of the teen drama, a genre that’s so often bogged down by ultra-sarcastic, cartoonishly cruel stereotypes who remain totally opaque action figures for any given hero to undermine at some point, or equally one-note wallflowers whose defining treat is that ‘they’re nice’.
Life is Strange starts with those basic templates, but it satisfyingly and incrementally expands beyond them in time, with every conversation digging deeper into their psyche, unearthing niggling insecurities and hidden dreams that humanise them. You can mock them along the way or offer up wafer-thin platitudes that are more motivated by self-interest than empathy, certainly, but the game pushes you away from that, nudging you towards enquiring and fostering unexpected connections on a basic human level. The crucial end result of all this is that more or less every character in Life is Strange is a decent person underneath it all, with malicious actions merely acting as a shield rather than a part of anyone’s core. Even the ostensible villain for most of the narrative, Nathan, receives some level of redemption in a deeply moving phone call that reveals him to be a sad, frightened and mentally troubled guy who acted out horribly because he never received a healthy upbringing or an inner circle with which he can honestly share his thoughts. That underlying faith in humanity, the belief that people are far more than their nasty or hurtful actions, is hugely commendable – a basic idealism that promotes faith in each other to solve problems rather than a narrow-minded dismissiveness. That’s the kind of philosophy we need in the era of Donald Trump and Brexit, and I’m glad it came at the centre of such a widely popular game.
To wrap things up, it’s worth going to the end. Rather, one of the ends – not the faux-optimistic ‘Sacrifice Arcadia Bay’ ending that glosses over what amounts to a selfish genocide of an entire town just so it can claim to be ‘bittersweet’, but the ending that seems like the game’s natural and fitting conclusion, resting at the logical end-point of every character’s arc. That ‘Sacrifice Chloe’ ending is bittersweet. In fact, it’s actually kind of a bummer for a while, with the erasure of all your fun times together hammered in as the photos of Max and Chloe hanging out are replaced by pictures of arrests and sad conversations over cheap coffee, all soundtracked by ‘Spanish Sahara’ by Foals, a song that practically symbolises aimless despair and melancholy.
But it’s the necessary ending for the game nonetheless – the one that illustrates, somewhat paradoxically, the value of Max’s experiences even as they’re totally erased in favour of a reality that seems darker and lonelier. It’s all summed up in the blue butterfly that lands on the coffin at the end of the game, a recurring motif used throughout the game to, somewhat heavy-handedly, symbolise the butterfly effect and the ways in which minor changes to the timeline can turn into enormous events later on. Chaos Theory is mainly used to illustrate how things can spin quickly out of control with no logical origin for the chaos, but, conversely, it’s equally a thesis about how life can turn in an instant, heading down paths and throwing up opportunities that seemingly come from nowhere. In this ending, Life is Strange posits that to understand ‘the natural order’ of things, it’s necessary to understand that there is no order. With that chaos, and the innate uncertainty it brings, perhaps the best response is just to hope for something better, because there’s every chance it could come along, as if from nowhere. In short, Life is Strange‘s final, important thesis is that… well, life is strange, and that’s just fine.
That is why, in my view, Life is Strange is a success, and an important one at that.