Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
Episode Two - Out of Time
I once learned in a creative writing class that you should never start a story with a character waking up in bed—it’s too safe, too quiet, too detached from conflict. So I was apprehensive when Episode 2 of Life Is Strange kicked off this way, my first decision being how long to lie around before finally getting up to face the day. After a slow start the first episode, Chrysalis, ended on a cliffhanger that had me really eager to keep playing. I wasn’t expecting the morning after a freak snowstorm and psychic vision that revealed an imminent catastrophe to start with snoozing the alarm.
Careful observers will learn that Max spent the night reading up on time travel, but this is filler; nothing she learned has a direct impact on her superpower or how it’s used in the second episode. Even when her newfound ability to rewind time starts causing headaches and nosebleeds, Max brushes this off and keeps using her power frivolously. The Big Thing she should be worried about—that imminent catastrophe—isn’t even mentioned until 90 minutes in, about halfway through the game. Maybe this is a fair representation of being a teenager, when swings between high melodrama and the mundane are commonplace, but the overall lack of urgency disappointed me after Episode 1’s weighty ending.
Out of Time’s first segment does give a nostalgic glimpse into dorm life, as Max collects her shower pail and heads down the hall to wash up. Along the way you can chat with some classmates and observe others, all contributing to that sense of place that’s so integral in this (mostly) true-to-life game. But while the day of the week and the situational details have changed, the early scenes are a bit too reminiscent of Chrysalis’s “explore the dorm” portion, right down to Max being asked to fetch an item from her room and return it to the person she borrowed it from.
A new tension mounts in the dorm that could circle back to the question of what happened to Rachel Amber. Kate, the conservative girl you may or may not have helped out last time, is being bullied from all sides, and what you do with her has a major consequence. I appreciated the set-up—this story can’t only be about Max and Chloe; high school isn’t like that—but the developers missed an opportunity to complicate the scenario here. Max is not a mean girl and she doesn’t have any incentive to join in the bullying, so even though there are choices to be made involving Kate, you’re always going to empathize and take her side, and that’s not what high school is like. Even if it’s telegraphed, though, there is something very distressing and real about Max’s inability to change Kate’s situation—sometimes no matter how hard you try to connect with and help someone, it isn’t enough. Though it crosses the line into melodrama, the Kate story arc ends powerfully, with both possible outcomes having an emotional impact even though I doubt they’ll lead to drastically different story branches.
After starting slow in the dorm, the episode picks up when Max gets on the bus and leaves campus to meet Chloe for breakfast. She pops in her earbuds so the ride to town is set to music, a beautifully cinematic sequence that shows the depressed town of Arcadia Bay as a place where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour and gas costs $4.07 a gallon. The bus passes fast food restaurants, shuttered storefronts, power lines, and billboards to pull up outside the Two Whales Diner with the lighthouse that was so prominent in Chrysalis off in the distance. Before entering the diner you can talk to people on the street—a woman waiting for the bus to go to a job interview, a fisherman handing out flyers warning of environmental dangers to Arcadia Bay’s main industry, a homeless lady camped out near the trash. With climate change and the decline of small town America subtly woven into its plot, I’m curious whether these real world elements will become larger story points or are only set dressing.
Unexpectedly (and unfortunately), once Chloe shows up for breakfast everything takes a big step backward. I still love her as a character and am intrigued by the potential she and Max have as a pair, but compared to the vibrancy of their scenes together in Chrysalis, Chloe is tragically misused here. That said, her animation continues to shine. She walks with a swagger, like she’s trying to be tough. When she gets to the diner, she high-fives the guys at the table by the door, then tucks up her legs and slides into the booth feet first. When Max gets a phone call from Kate, Chloe turns her back like she doesn’t care… but you can tell she does. These are the gestures of a real person, and even though I had issues with how Chloe comes across in this episode, I always enjoy seeing her on screen.
The last time we saw them together, the two friends were bonding as Max confided in Chloe about her time-rewind power. Rather than jumping off from this point by discussing Max’s vision and how they can use her power to find Rachel and/or save Arcadia Bay, Chloe insists that Max prove she can rewind time. (Saving her life wasn’t proof enough?!) First you have to name everything in Chloe’s pockets. Then you have to predict everything that will happen in the diner during the next 30 seconds. Each of these sequences requires letting events unfold, then rewinding and parroting back what you observed—memory exercises muddied by the fact that you don’t know what you’re watching for initially, so you may have to get it wrong and rewind again before Chloe’s satisfied. Each of these puzzles has four parts; if you get just one wrong Chloe acts like you’re a big fat faker, but suddenly when you get all four right she’s totally convinced. It’s all very contrived and gamey and I was relieved when they finally left the diner for Chloe’s “secret lair,” a junkyard where she and Rachel used to hang.
But the junkyard’s even worse. “Go find five empty bottles,” Chloe says. “I’ll wait here.” Max doesn’t want to, but she does it anyway—one of a few instances in the episode that annoyed me with her passivity. (Maybe that’s an intentional character trait; if so, she better start standing up for herself as the series progresses.) I spent an entire hour wandering the junkyard, first hunting down the bottles, then trying to find Chloe again. In any game this would be wrong, but especially in one that’s only a few hours long. Max is carrying a cell phone, but forget calling Chloe to ask where she’s hiding—this isn’t real life, silly, it’s a video game. At least in Episode 1 there was a payoff for wandering through Chloe’s house on a fetch quest: we got to learn more about her and her family, people Max cares about. But with the exception of one small area where Chloe and Rachel used to spend time, the junkyard is irrelevant. Sure, you can look at an old discarded doll or a totaled car or a broken washing machine, but who cares? Let’s not forget we’re three days away from a major catastrophe. Chloe’s determined to ditch town before it hits and find out what happened to Rachel. Max’s constant rewinding of time is giving her headaches and nosebleeds. Remind me why we’re looking around for empty bottles?
In the grand scheme of adventure game puzzles, what I’ve just described is far from the worst I’ve ever slogged through, but in a game that wants so badly to depict real life, there’s no good reason for it. I wanted to talk to my friend about the weirdness going on in Arcadia Bay and in my own head, not wander around aimlessly pixel hunting for trash. There is one more scene with Chloe after the junkyard that shoots for emotional resonance, but it doesn’t come close to the strength of their scenes together in Chrysalis. Oh, and because the high-energy climactic moment was teased in the “next time on” clip at the end of the first episode, I knew all along it was coming. Instead of getting emotionally invested, I ended up annoyed at Chloe for her risky behavior and at Max for sticking around even though Chloe was being obnoxious. Throughout Out of Time I felt like I was being forced to wait for the good stuff, because this series will take place over five days total and Tuesday’s just too far away from the denouement to be all that exciting.
Two episodes in, Life Is Strange still has a lot to prove. Out of Time gives us some new locations and moves the story forward a teeny bit, but overall it’s a weaker episode than the first. While interesting, the Kate storyline seems disconnected from what I thought really mattered (Rachel Amber / imminent catastrophe) and the rest feels like long, drawn-out filler. Choices made in the first episode are reflected in small ways through alternate dialogue or situational details, but there hasn’t yet been a major story branch or significant payoff for making one choice over another. Don’t get me wrong, I still liked the episode enough to play it twice. The ordinary yet unique setting, the diverse characters, the potential for emotionally charged moments, the music, the cinematic visuals, the invitation to explore—really, there’s a lot of good stuff here. It’s not coming together into something amazing just yet, but it still could. And isn’t that what high school is all about? With any luck, Life Is Strange is still in its awkward phase. We have three episodes to go before the chrysalis turns into a butterfly.
Episode Three - Chaos Theory
What a difference a day makes. Life Is Strange’s second episode disappointed me with its dragging pace, overly gamey puzzles, and lack of focus on the overarching story. But with Episode Three: Chaos Theory, the paranormal teen drama is back on track with the mystery of what happened to Rachel Amber ramping up and the Max/Chloe friendship plausibly developing before suffering a devastating setback.
The episode starts late Tuesday night as Max and her classmates cope with the trauma that closed out Episode 2. Ever the bad influence, Chloe entices Max to break into the school building after hours—iconic teenage mischief that culminates in a late night swim. Ostensibly they’re looking for clues to link Rachel and the bullied Kate Marsh to Nathan Prescott and his sketchy Vortex Club, but this section has more to do with Max and Chloe’s friendship—what kind of trouble Max is willing to get into for her friend, and how far Chloe can push Max out of her comfort zone. The scene where they relax in the swimming pool is everything I wished their shared scenes in Episode 2 would have been: silly jokes followed by moments of raw honesty, Max coming out of her shell, Chloe letting her guard down just enough to show she’s vulnerable.
The episode continues into Wednesday back at Chloe’s house, where Max has spent the night. One particular choice in Chloe’s bedroom feels distinctly out of place, like it’s there for shock value, but in general the two friends’ interactions are believable and pure in Chaos Theory, right down to their emotional blowout on the drive back to Blackwell. (Bonus points to the artists for giving each character a unique “crying face”—it wouldn’t be high school without some actual tears.) The story takes an unexpected turn near the end when Max discovers a new facet to her ability, one that should have very interesting consequences. Each episode so far has ended with a high-stakes finale, but I didn’t see this one coming at all and it shook me much more than Out of Time’s melodramatic climax. Well played, Dontnod.
Gameplay is much like in the last two episodes, but with a better balance between exploration and puzzle-solving. There are two fetch quests akin to Out of Time’s dreaded junkyard bottles, but they’re more relevant to the story and occur in smaller, less overwhelming areas. Choices like whether to enter the pool through the boys’ locker room or the girls’ provide a good incentive to replay. And as usual, there’s plenty of optional exploration; the summary of choices at the end of the episode tipped me off to several things I didn’t even think to try.
As for Max’s superpower, the nosebleeds and headaches that were made so much of in the previous episode have completely disappeared in Chaos Theory. It’s a jarring incongruity, but the story is better for it—experimenting with rewinds makes much more sense when you’re not setting Max up for an aneurysm. The dialogue rewind puzzles are getting old, especially since the interface tips you off every time you can rewind to use something you just learned (no figuring out involved, you’re just following orders), but at least they’re easy to solve. And this episode doesn’t have the contrived puzzles that force you to do something wrong just so you can rewind and do it right—Max even makes a joke about this when reaching for an object off a high shelf, admonishing herself to use a chair the first time rather than waste her rewind power.
Instead, Chaos Theory has several puzzles where rewinding is necessary to get past an obstacle. These are a bit too easy to solve accidentally just by rewinding in the right place at the right time, but even if the implementation is sometimes awkward, I like that the developers continue to integrate Max’s power into the gameplay. I’m holding out hope that even more creative uses will develop in episodes 4 and 5.
Half of this episode takes place at night, giving a new atmosphere to the Blackwell campus. Some gameplay involves finding your way in the dark, and though Max’s cell phone provides light, at points I also needed to increase the game’s gamma settings to see where I was going. Animation continues to be strong, and I’m so impressed with the little visual details that add to the story and realism—stuff like a change of clothes for a new day, Chloe’s light roots where her blue dye job is growing out, and the height chart on her bedroom wall that tells so much about her character without even being a clickable hotspot.
One thing did bother me with Episode 3’s story, but I didn’t put my finger on it until I’d played a second time. Without spoilers, my first playthrough continued from Out of Time’s “good” outcome. Initially I didn’t understand why Max and Chloe were breaking into the principal’s office, or why Max was willing to commit vandalism to do so. What’s so important in there that a good girl like Max—who, incidentally, just proved herself to be an everyday hero—would risk getting in serious trouble? I also noticed that her interior monologue regarding the day’s earlier events was at odds with what she said out loud to other characters. Maybe that’s just Max being a teenager, but the episode got off to a weak start because of it.
My second playthrough, in which I’m approaching each choice like it’s Opposite Day, continued from Out of Time’s “bad” outcome—and suddenly Max’s motivations made total sense. In this alternate reality I understood why she was willing to live dangerously, I believed in her driving desire to dig up dirt on the Vortex Club, and I saw what was at stake for her, personally. The story “makes sense” either way, but it flows so much better if Episode 2 ended in tragedy. This realization doesn’t significantly change my opinion about the episode, but it raises questions about the value of choice in games, and whether a game that branches is necessarily a more satisfying narrative experience than one that’s linear. I am enjoying the amount of freedom this series provides, but not if it comes at the expense of a cohesive story.
Though it’s still a slow-paced, quiet game, Life Is Strange picks up needed momentum in Chaos Theory, closing with an unexpected twist that completely changed where I thought the story was going. This is the first time in the series that I’ve felt like the ~8 week wait between episodes is too long. Whatever happens next for Max and Chloe, there’s no turning back now.
Episode Four - Dark Room
Life Is Strange’s fourth episode, Dark Room, picks up right where Episode 3 left off—and after that cliffhanger, it’s a good thing! Building on that momentum, the penultimate episode hits a high point with the series’ most powerful emotional punches, but is also dragged down with some clichéd storytelling. The story stuff might have been intentional, though, so I’m hesitant to judge it too harshly. We’ll see how this all wraps up soon enough.
It’s really impossible to talk about the episode’s first few scenes without major spoilers, so let’s just say they give a captivating glimpse into the repercussions of toying around with time, and will make you think hard about how far you’d be willing to go for your best friend. Then we’re back to the greater season arc: what’s going on with the Vortex Club, what happened to Rachel Amber, and that foreboding tornado.
Max and Chloe spend some time sleuthing to piece together what they know about unstable rich kid Nathan, drug dealer Frank, Chloe’s missing friend Rachel, and Max’s troubled friend Kate. This culminates in a great multi-part puzzle where Max must sort through all of the clues to make logical connections and zero in on a key location. You’ll also interact with David Madsen in two different ways depending on past choices, and with Frank in a sequence with three possible outcomes. Plus, players who got Episode 2’s good ending are treated to an additional scene with interactive dialogue and a small impact on a later scene. Four episodes in, we’re really seeing how unique Player A’s experience can be from Player B’s, and while the story is still on rails to a large extent, these variations provide a refreshing payoff for the series’ choice-driven gameplay.
When Max and Chloe get to the titular dark room—a place where disturbing things have clearly gone down—the storytelling gets a bit flimsy. For starters, it’s simply not believable that Max and Chloe don’t go to the police. Even with its supernatural elements and teen angst, Life Is Strange has a hyper-realistic setting, and calling the cops is what a real person would do in this scenario. Some plot points, such as the role of Nathan’s father Sean Prescott, are tossed in randomly with more gravity than they’ve earned. (Unless I missed some optional dialogue supporting these story bits, which is entirely possible in a game with branching narrative.) Other elements, like Nathan’s apparent mental illness, come up repeatedly but in unbelievable ways. This is what I don’t want to judge too harshly yet, because the episode’s out-of-left-field ending suggests that some of Dark Room’s revelations may be red herrings. So I’ll save critique of the story’s climax until next time, but unless Nathan’s storyline does an about-face, I have a hunch I’ll be unsatisfied with how he’s been depicted overall.
On the other end of the spectrum, two scenes in this episode are so well put together they deserve special mention. The first is a wrenching cutscene in the junkyard—from the animation to the music to the voice acting, it’s absolutely perfect. (A strange compliment considering it’s also incredibly sad, but I do like when a game makes me cry.) The other is the massive Vortex Club party complete with kids dancing, a DJ spinning, lights, glow sticks, and a bartender pouring “energy drinks” into plastic cups. It’s high school all over again. Story-wise, some elements feel inauthentic—I don’t believe that a school would sanction a party like this on campus, with drinking and drug use obviously going on and no chaperones in sight. But the scene itself is so well choreographed, if there were a year-end award for Best Crowd Scene, Dontnod would win it hands down.
Besides the big logic puzzle, Dark Room’s gameplay is similar to the other episodes, with Max’s rewind ability used sparingly. Last time, a puzzle in the principal’s office thoroughly confused me when I solved it accidentally. This episode has a couple more like that, and I realized the source of my confusion: the solutions contradict how Max’s superpower was defined in the beginning. The first time she rewinds time—to save Chloe from getting shot in the bathroom—she ends up back in class before the gunshot happened. In other words, when time rewound, Max’s actions rewound too. But when it’s convenient for a puzzle solution, after time rewinds she remains in the position she was in when she started rewinding, effectively making the rewind a way to jump around spatially and bypass obstacles. Not only is this unintuitive, it doesn’t make sense that she can do this without getting caught. (If she rewinds time in front of someone but physically remains in the spot where she was when she started rewinding, wouldn’t that person see her disappear?) Puzzles like this are easy enough to figure out with brute force—just rewind a bit and it solves itself—but I can’t help feeling that even after four episodes, Max’s superpower isn’t being used to its full potential as a puzzle-solving tool.
In theory, an episodic release schedule allows the developers to make improvements based on player feedback, and Dontnod seems to have done just that with Max’s “sit around and look at things” behavior. A few times in this episode you can let Max take in the scenery—pensive moments that make sense for her introspective character but previously didn’t have much point. In Dark Room, such formerly silent moments come with interior monologue, so you don’t just sit and look; you sit, look, and hear what Max thinks. It’s a small tweak that adds so much. Another interface-related first I noticed: while searching an area with easy-to-miss hotspots, my PS3 controller vibrated when I walked Max over one. In both of these cases, I like that even though Life Is Strange was working well as is, the developers continue to refine here and there as the series goes on.
At around four hours, this is a long episode but it keeps moving with mounting urgency and several new environments to explore. (Besides the Vortex Club party, my second favorite was the boys’ dorm—a hilarious contrast to the girls’.) Dark Room ends with the best kind of cliffhanger—one that seems to give Max and Chloe no way out—and after the credits roll, the title screen’s idyllic daytime scene is aptly replaced by the dark, churning tornado we’ve known was coming all along. As Max acknowledges during this episode, it’s been a long, strange week at Blackwell Academy. I’m hella excited to see how it ends.
Episode Five - Polarized
Dontnod wasn’t kidding. This week, life has been very strange in Arcadia Bay.
In Episode 5: Polarized, the two plots that have been running parallel—Max’s everyday friendship with tough girl Chloe, and her extraordinary ability to rewind time—both meet their destined conclusions. The mystery of Rachel Amber’s disappearance and the strange environmental phenomena plaguing Arcadia Bay are more or less explained before Max has to make one last, wrenching choice. The episode gripped me tighter than any other has as I played it in one sitting, almost three hours straight through. I reached the end thinking I’d just experienced a near-masterpiece.
Then I made the mistake of playing it again. I’ve been doing that all along—replaying each episode like it’s Opposite Day to see how making different choices influence the story—but in Life Is Strange’s finale, that second playthrough left me with mixed feelings.
For starters, this episode kicks off with some truly awful writing. During the first third of the game, Max is trapped in the Dark Room—a photographic torture chamber where other girls before her have been brought to pose against their will (and worse). It’s an uncomfortably disturbing setup that loses any sense of nuance once Max’s captor opens his mouth. When I first encountered the Dark Room in Episode 4, I worried the story was going in a clichéd direction, especially with regards to the involvement of the apparently mentally unstable Nathan Prescott. Unfortunately, I was right. In a storytelling low point, every loose end involving Rachel, Kate, the Prescott Family, et al is conveniently tied up as the villain spills his guts to Max in a series of lengthy, non-interactive cutscenes. This is a recurring character we’ve seen in other episodes, but in Polarized he acts and even talks like someone else completely—a one-dimensional, generic villain that cheapens the mystery players have invested months in solving. It’s laughably bad, and without so much as a ‘Press X to struggle’ option, Max just has to sit there and take it.
Once these scenes are out of the way the episode quickly improves, going off in a crazy direction I wasn’t expecting. Over the course of the week-long series so far, Max has learned that messing with time can have unexpected and tragic consequences. Episode 5 sends this idea into overdrive, with reality beginning to disintegrate across her repeated attempts to craft a timeline where Chloe is safe and the villain arrested without catching innocent people in the crossfire. The more Max tries, the more she messes up. Her nosebleeds are back, this time for good reason. We get another a glimpse into a promising future that can’t exist without a horrible trade-off. Finally Max gets trapped in a surreal nightmare scenario that brings together events and people from previous episodes to raise questions about her character and what her motivations have been all along.
Within these scenes, there isn’t much gameplay beyond a little bit of rewinding (nothing we haven’t seen before), a little bit of exploring, and one really frustrating stealth sequence. By this point Polarized’s forward momentum had me firmly in its grip and I didn’t mind the passivity, but people already irked by the series’ relative lack of puzzles likely won’t be so forgiving.
As you’d hope in a choice-heavy game, the finale makes several nods to decisions you’ve made, mostly in the form of “Remember that time you did X?” comments from various characters. But no matter whether your Max was a goodie-goodie or a rebel, whether she tried to help everyone or left would-be friends to fend for themselves, the game comes down to one last choice yielding two possible endings. I’m okay with that—for me, the payoff of choice-driven gameplay isn’t to see how branchy the story can get, but to personalize the game and lull me into thinking of the main character as an extension of myself. What Max goes through in Episode 5, especially at the end, hit me hard because her choices are my choices. But if you go into the finale hoping for vastly different endings that take all your small choices into consideration, Life Is Strange will let you down.
The action peaks when the tornado teased in the game’s first minutes hits Arcadia Bay. Like Episode 4’s End of the World Party, the literal end of the world has been impressively depicted by Dontnod’s artists and animators, with the town’s main drag in shambles and familiar characters fighting for survival. It’s climactic on a scale that adventure games rarely figure out how to achieve, and really sets up the game’s major final choice—one I didn’t see coming, even though I now realize I should have.
Along with never starting a story with a character waking up in bed (see Episode 2), another golden nugget I learned in creative writing class is that a good ending is both a total surprise and totally inevitable. In Life Is Strange’s final choice, one of the two options has that quality of surprise + inevitability, so much so that I said "oh no" out loud and put down the controller. I spent several tearful minutes deciding if I could go through with it. When I finally steeled myself and made what seemed to me to be the right choice, I was rewarded by a lengthy, emotional closing sequence. A good ending. As the credits rolled, I was satisfied that Max had learned something about life and sacrifice. Her story—my story, after months of involvement—had meaning. I was simultaneously cursing the developers for putting me through it and thanking them for opening the floodgates on the emotion it provoked.
After experiencing that powerful ending, I was eager to see the flip side of the coin on my second playthrough… and it’s terrible. Compared to the “right” ending, this alternate cutscene is short and superficial, totally glossing over the horror of what I’d just decided to do. It doesn’t follow from the dialogue and events leading up to it, as if the developers are punishing anyone who makes the “wrong” choice by cheating them out of a satisfying ending. Midway through the series, when some of Max’s interior monologue seemed at odds with her situation, I questioned whether so much choice is a worthwhile trade-off for a cohesive story. Looking back on the full experience, I still have doubts. According to the end of game stats, almost half the players are picking what I consider to be the worse ending—maybe the choice isn’t as obvious as I thought, or maybe we’re all playing twice to see both possibilities. Either way, both outcomes should have been authentic to the story. They both should have felt “right.”
Thankfully, however, Life Is Strange is a game that outshines its missteps. The writing isn’t always good—especially during sweeping, “something important is happening” events like those Dark Room cutscenes. But then there are all the quiet, tender moments between Max and Chloe, with the perfect balance of dialogue, animation, music, and voice acting to make you feel like you’re inside the friendship, sharing it with them. The time-rewind mechanic outwears its welcome but is occasionally brilliant, as in one particular sequence in Polarized set in the Blackwell hallway. The pacing is sometimes sluggish, what with so many detail-filled environments to explore, but on the other hand there are so many detail-filled environments to explore! My favorite aspects of Life Is Strange are all the little things; added up, they create a world I would be happy to spend more time in, just being Max.
I think I’m so willing to overlook the flaws because this game isn’t really about what happened to Rachel Amber, or time travel, or a tornado. Yes, those elements are integral to the story, but at its core Life Is Strange is about friendship between two teen girls—a friendship so well portrayed that it’s completely believable one would risk ripping apart the fabric of reality to save the other. At points it’s awkward. At points it tries too hard. But that’s the nature of being a teenager. If you like stories that make you feel and don’t mind a puzzle-lite experience, it’s well worth enduring Life Is Strange’s low points to see Max and Chloe’s friendship through to the end.