Every other year or so David Cage comes on stage and promises an emotional experience that will both innovate the way that stories are told in games, while giving them cinematic gravitas. While I do actually tend to enjoy his games, they tend to fall short of the promise, sometimes by quite a lot. For a long time I forgave Cage, and other video game storytelling auteurs, and simply blamed the medium of video games. Life is Strange, though, proves that the sort of games that these people promise are in fact possible to create, it’s just took the people over at Dontnod Entertainment to do it.
The elevator pitch of the story of Life is Strange is easy enough to understand. A freshman photography college student finds herself with the ability to influence time; doing so entangles her in the muck of drama that is affecting everyone at the school, as well as the very town she lives in itself. Does that sound interesting? Are you not some weirdo who can’t relate to a female protagonist? Are you okay with a game that’s story oriented?
Cool, go play the game.
It’s smart, it’s fun, it’s intense, it’s heartbreaking. It’s also really easy to spoil, so I’m keeping plot discussion at a minimum. I will say that I did manage to enjoy the game despite having a pretty central event in the game spoiled for me (that to be fair, is probably what ultimately influenced me to play the game anyway), but the game is just so good at gut punches that I wish I would not have been ready for that. Perhaps it is good that I was ready for it, though, since it did not send me to an early grave in a Harry Houdiniesque fashion, and spoiled or not, the scene is super intense and leads to one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in a game. One I’m still not certain I made correctly.
The game is full of hard decisions like that, and many points where I don’t know if I did the right thing. But it’s not all teardrops and tough times. The game is also full of classic teen hijinks that are fun to participate in, and some cool photography stuff that wannabe photogs will enjoy. This helps to keep things from getting overwhelming despite all the tense situations.
The characters for the most part are great, and are generally multifaceted individuals whom I enjoyed getting to know. Good people do bad things for good reasons, bad people do good things for bad reasons. The game isn’t afraid of this fact. The game player must decide if and what they’re willing to compromise on.
If I am critical of anything, the few characters who are not as well developed do stick out because everyone else is so good. But also perhaps that’s a bit of realism in a way; the opportunity to meet and deeply interact with everyone in your high school class is not reality. I also won’t say the game is free of cliché, and you might see where the storyline is headed from time to time but I guess I’m not bothered by this since it supplies so much originality, and doesn’t detract from the overall plot. Another final caution, is that some of the game’s episodes are unevenly paced (which ultimately doesn’t matter in 2017 since most ways of purchasing the game at this point are going to include all the episodes in one package). Playing the game piecemeal (if you’re somehow able to find a way to do that now) may lead to some individual episodes that don’t have a ton of new content and don’t deliver a self-contained product very well. I’d suggest against playing the game in this fashion.
Storytelling in games is really hard. Surrounding it with gameplay tools that help it actually be a game and not just a visual novel is even harder. Dontnod really nails it here, where other, more famous and bombastic people have fallen short, and Life is Strange is awesome.