Episode One - Chrysalis
Young adult novels are one of the fastest growing markets in fiction, and shows like Gossip Girls and movies like The Hunger Games prove that these stories translate well to the screen. They’re not just for kids, either—even if a YA story is defined by having a teenage protagonist, many adults love them too. (Myself included!) So where are the YA games? As choice-driven narrative games cross into mainstream territory with titles like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, you’d think the huge YA audience would get a little love. But with the exception of Gone Home in 2013, pickings are slim to none for players looking for some juicy teen drama in interactive format.
Enter Life Is Strange, a five-episode series about an insecure teen girl named Max Caulfield, her troubled friend Chloe Price, and the impact the disappearance of a third girl, Rachel Amber, has on both of them. Playing as a female protagonist isn’t exactly new, but playing as an awkward teenager in a game that, for most of its first episode, focuses on mending a broken friendship? It’s uncharted territory, and this alone made me want to play Life Is Strange before I knew anything else about it.
The first episode, Chrysalis, opens in an ordinary classroom, on an ordinary school day. Max Caulfield, an ordinary-looking girl in jeans and a gray hoodie, is slouched at the back of the classroom hoping her photography teacher, Mr. Jefferson, won’t call on her. She catches Victoria, the bitchy queen of the popular girls, checking her phone. She notices another classmate taunting a conservative girl named Kate. She fiddles with her camera and fumbles an answer to Mr. Jefferson’s question about 19th century photographer Louis Daguerre. Then the bell rings, she slips in her earbuds, and she gets down the hall and into the girl’s room as fast as possible.
If you never lived through a day like this, you’ve at least seen one on TV—it’s typical teenage drama. And, as usual, the bathroom’s where things get interesting. Two kids come in after Max: a boy who’s muttering to himself, and a girl with blue hair. Max hides and eavesdrops as they start to argue. Then the boy pulls a gun and, before Max can react, the girl gets shot. On instinct, Max puts out her hand to stop it and suddenly she’s back in class, slouched at her desk, hoping Mr. Jefferson won’t call on her. She quickly deduces she has the power to rewind time, and if she can change the series of events she just witnessed, she might be able to save the blue-haired girl’s life. Life is strange, indeed.
There are really two narrative threads unfolding in Life Is Strange. One is the true-to-life storyline: the renewed friendship between Max and Chloe, the best friend Max hasn’t talked to since moving away from her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to Seattle five years earlier. (She recently moved back to Arcadia Bay to attend the Blackwell Academy boarding school, but didn’t call Chloe upon her return to town.) Max is a gifted photographer who feels uncomfortable in her own skin, Chloe’s a rebel with a turbulent home life, and the scenes they share could have come straight out of a teen movie or YA novel. Some of the writing is awkward and the characters’ speech isn’t always believable—in particular, references to “social medias” and Chloe’s frequent misuse of “hella” drew me out of the fantasy—but the emotions behind the dialogue come through pretty well. High quality voice acting helps with this; even when the characters’ lines aren’t quite natural, the actors do well with what they were given. I’m eager to see where the friendship storyline goes, especially as the friends delve into the mystery of what happened to Rachel, whom Chloe was close to.
The second narrative thread is tied to Max’s emerging supernatural power and a premonition about a storm and a lighthouse. Although rewinding time plays a major role in Life Is Strange’s gameplay, the extent of the supernatural storyline only becomes apparent late in the episode when we realize that something Very Bad will happen within the game’s five-episode timeframe if Max and Chloe can’t stop it. Even though Max’s superpower is introduced early, the game’s realistic setting makes it kind of hard to swallow, but it’s just one of those things we have to accept at face value. (And no less feasible, really, than a world overrun by cannibalistic zombies.)
Life Is Strange can be played with a gamepad or keyboard/mouse, with on-screen prompts helping you learn the controls in the beginning. As you approach hotspots, the active hotspot (usually the one you’re facing or standing closest to) is identified with a white outline, with the display showing which keys or buttons you need to push to interact. You can change the active hotspot to another nearby object by moving the camera to turn Max’s gaze. Occasionally this takes some fiddling when several possible hotspots are near each other, but in general this is a seamless interface that easily lets you interact without having to think too hard about which buttons to push.
Notifications appear on-screen when you learn something in conversation that you can use if you rewind (such as the correct answer to Mr. Jefferson’s question), and when a decision you’ve made will have consequences. Life Is Strange makes it obvious when you’ve encountered a major choice because Max second guesses herself, wondering if she should rewind and try again. Her uncertainty jarred me at first, planting the idea that I’d made the wrong decision (a worry that’s always lurking in games like this), but it turns out Max will say that no matter what. In all but one case I trusted my instinct and stuck with what I’d done first, in spite of Max’s waffling—and the one time I rewound and changed course, I regretted it later. Life Is Strange clearly wants players to rewind and experiment, but I’d rather go with my gut and save the experimentation for a second playthrough. I was, however, more comfortable rewinding and changing smaller moments, like when a bird dies after flying into a closed window or when a student in the wrong place at the wrong time gets hit by a rogue football. Even if the effort has no long-term repercussions, it’s fun to see the different ways an encounter can play out.
The summary of choices that displays at the end of the episode encourages this type of exploration. Besides showing the four big choices and the percentage of players who made them—as we’ve come to expect in games like this—Chrysalis also summarizes twelve smaller choices. Some I’d missed completely, which provided a goal for my next playthrough, sort of like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book when you find a page you want to reach and work your way backward to forge a path.
Life Is Strange is an exploration-heavy game, if you want it to be. Set in a residential high school attended by an eclectic group of teenagers, the first episode’s early scenes provide several natural opportunities to take in the surroundings. As you walk around campus, you can check out posters for extracurricular activities, talk to kids in different cliques, and read the notes sprawled on whiteboards outside each dorm room—all making this feel like a real place and giving insight into Max’s view of the world. Her bedroom is likewise full of clues to her personality, and you can pick up some details about her friendship with Chloe if you poke around. And almost everyone hanging around campus has something to say about Rachel.
A lot of this is surely filler, but in this (mostly) real world setting it doesn’t feel unnecessary. In each scene you have a task to do—for example, go back to Max’s dorm room and retrieve a flash drive she borrowed from Warren, the guy who likes her—and you can dawdle as much as you want along the way. Players who enjoy combing an environment for clues will love the freedom while players who want to keep things moving can leave those drawers unopened and bulletin boards unread. Life Is Strange makes it easy to see as much as you want, even rewarding some particularly meticulous exploration with achievements but rarely forcing you to find a needle in a haystack. Looking for a specific tool in a cluttered garage does become a frustrating pixel hunt, but most of the time you can poke around as much as you want and move on when you get tired of it. This freedom unfortunately gives the first episode something of a meandering, lazy pace, and I got antsy at points during the 2½ hour runtime. (Never bored enough to stop playing, mind you.) I was more relaxed and interested in exploring during my second playthrough, once I already knew the episode’s scope. Luckily, three distinct save slots make replaying easy to do without fear of overwriting key choices.
While you’re exploring, don’t forget to check out Max’s journal. This contains a wealth of background information including a rundown of what’s happened in the episode, earlier entries that provide backstory, and bios of characters you’ve encountered. The journal looks just like mine did in high school: handwritten and illustrated with doodles, magazine cutouts, Polaroid photos, and other randomness. Max also carries a phone, but in Chrysalis it’s only used for receiving the occasional text message.
Although Life Is Strange gives you a lot to look at, you’ll acquire very little. Max always has her camera with her but it can only be used to take a picture at certain points, either as part of the story or to earn an achievement. The few times you get to pocket an item, an icon appears to remind you that you’re carrying it, and you’ll use it very soon after. Some puzzles combine item use with the rewind feature: once you know what you need to make happen (or what to avoid), you rewind the sequence and new items become available in the immediate area that you can use to alter the events. Because the needed items only become useable after the scene has played through the wrong way, these puzzles are completely telegraphed. (When all you have access to is a hammer, it’s pretty clear you need to smash something...) So far the puzzles don’t stand in the way of story progress, which I appreciate, but I’d love to use the rewind feature more creatively for puzzle solving in future episodes. An exception worth mentioning involves finding a hiding spot in a short amount of time. When I didn’t manage to after two tries I thought it couldn’t be done—until I saw the end-of-game summary. Figuring it out provided a welcome challenge on my second playthrough, with an alternate scene as my reward.
I had similar “that’s it?” feelings during sequences that seem designed for motion controls, but instead play out as cutscenes that’s aren’t particularly interesting: playing guitar in Max’s room, steering a friend’s drone around campus, swinging on the old swing set in Chloe’s backyard. I’m not a fan of gratuitous QTEs and wouldn’t want them all over this game, but used sparingly during otherwise passive sequences they could give the player more to do in a game that’s otherwise pretty slow and quiet. I’ll take an adventure with a good story over one with difficult puzzles any day, so overall the lite gameplay isn’t a problem for me, but I’m hoping the interactivity will evolve over the season as the stakes are raised and Max gets better acquainted with her powers.
The 3D graphics have a softness to them that I might be able to compare to some photographic process if I’d paid more attention in Mr. Jefferson’s class. Outdoor settings have vivid blue skies and autumn foliage, with sunlight and shadows cast over the grass and concrete, while the interiors are believably cluttered. Depicting “real life” in games can be difficult since even the best 3D models don’t look like real people, but Life Is Strange does pretty well, especially with the characters who get the most screen time, Max and Chloe. Of note in a game about high school, the artists have done an admirable job depicting different ethnicities and body types. (Besides Chloe, my favorite NPC is a girl named Alyssa because she’s someone you always see in high school and never in games: chubby with dyed purple hair, a weird voice, and a bra strap straying out of the arm of her tank top. She doesn’t say much, and when she does it’s always self-deprecating.) The game has a quiet soundtrack punctuated with a few rock songs that sound like what a teenager in a Portland-area high school would listen to. Great sound effects, too: snippets of conversation as you walk past other students, birds chirping when you’re outside. This all contributes to a lively world I’m eager to return to and keep exploring.
Like any good season premiere, Chrysalis sets up many story threads to be played out: the boy who likes Max more than she likes him; the pissed-off rich kid who has it in for her; the mysterious Vortex Club whose posters are all over school; the security guard who might be up to no good; Rachel’s disappearance. The episode gets off to a slow start but closes with a cliffhanger that amps up the tension considerably, and I’m anxious to see where the story goes next. In spite of the meandering pace so far, I’m super impressed with the world and characters Dontnod has created, and with the new spin they’ve put on the choice-driven gameplay Telltale popularized with The Walking Dead.Continued on the next page...