Adventure Gamers Awards
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.Continued on the next page...