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