A few days before Life Is Strange 2 launched last September, Telltale Games abruptly shut down due to lack of funds. While the studio had no hand in Life Is Strange, this is significant for what it symbolizes. Several developers have dabbled in episodic games over the years, but none were as persistent or as (seemingly) successful at it as Telltale—with the emerging exception of DONTNOD, whose first Life Is Strange series sold more than three million copies. For the pioneer of episodic gaming to fall just a few days before their closest successor’s sophomore effort debuted was a daunting omen.
Starting with their first Sam & Max game in 2006 and refining the concept over time, Telltale considered an episodic series not as “one long game” arbitrarily broken up into chunks, but as a serialized story told in regular intervals, like a TV series. DONTNOD mimicked this format with 2015’s Life Is Strange, releasing five episodes on a (somewhat) set schedule, with dramatic cliffhangers between episodes to keep players coming back.
But since Telltale came up with this games-like-TV formula, the way we watch TV has changed. The ubiquity of streaming services, DVRs, and on-demand means we can watch what we want, when we want, no schedule required. At around the same time Telltale was coasting on the success of their breakout hit, The Walking Dead, Netflix popularized “binge watching” by releasing all episodes of their TV series on the same day—a practice that spills over to episodic games when players wait until a full season is released before jumping in.
When a game is designed to be played episodically, waiting until the end changes the experience for players. That’s one reason Adventure Gamers has stopped reviewing episodes individually: a reviewer’s experience with episodes that trickle out is only useful to people who are playing along that way, and aspects of the critique become dated and irrelevant as soon as the full series is available.
What do players lose by waiting for the end of the season? Or put another way: do we really gain anything by playing along one episode at a time? With three episodes of Life Is Strange 2 now available and another six months to go before the series will be complete, now seems like a good time to ask these questions.
First, background: Life Is Strange 2 is a five-part series about teenager Sean Diaz and his little brother Daniel, who are on the run after an altercation with Seattle police resulted in their father’s death. In the first episode, Roads, the two discover that Daniel has telekinetic powers that could get them in trouble if he doesn’t learn how to control them. The debut installment ended with the boys headed to Mexico, with a long road ahead but a new life on the horizon. (Read our full review for more story and gameplay details.)
Initially DONTNOD didn’t publish a release schedule, and the wait for Life Is Strange 2’s second episode stretched out until January. In March, DONTNOD finally announced release dates for the remaining three episodes: May 9, August 22, and December 3. This adds up to fifteen months for the full game—a long wait for a piecemeal story, and seemingly a good argument for waiting until the end to binge play.
But unlike the first Life Is Strange, which took place over five in-game days—a timeline that strained credulity stretched out over ten calendar months—Life Is Strange 2 has a bigger scope that more closely mirrors its episodic runtime. The story opened around Halloween, with the second episode taking place just before Christmas and the third two months later. The Diaz boys are living through the gaps between episodes along with us: their hair gets longer, their clothes rattier, their demeanors more hardened. Loading up an episode after several months’ wait and seeing how the characters have changed ties our experience to theirs in a way that binge players won’t appreciate the same way.
Likewise, each episode’s setting and atmosphere reinforces the passage of time. Roads featured jack-o-lanterns on porches and browning leaves on trees; as Sean and Daniel explored the wooded areas outside Seattle, you could almost feel the crisp autumn air. Episode 2, Rules, takes place in the snow, first in and around a remote cabin where the boys have found shelter, and later in a rural Oregon neighborhood that’s decorated for the holidays. Furthering the boys’ southern migration, Episode 3, Wastelands, is set in Northern California’s Humboldt County—a region infamous for its black market marijuana industry—where it’s warm enough in February to sleep outdoors but still too cold to go swimming in the lake.Continued on the next page...