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Life is Strange: Hella Good Time

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    Life is Strange

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Life is Strange: Hella Good Time

    "Life is Strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present, and future. Choose wisely…"

    The opening disclaimer to Dontnod Entertainment’s five-part episodic narrative Life is Strange provides a hauntingly obscure introduction to what can only be described as a mellow allegory for a wide range of intrinsic human emotions. Spurned upon by a spring of narrative-driven story titles like Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain or Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Dontnod set out to revolutionize the flourishing genre with a memorable entry of its own. While revolutionary might not be the word I would use to describe Life is Strange, it’s certainly a praiseworthy achievement and an indication of how closely a powerful narrative can speak directly to its audience.

    Life is Strange tells a story of love, loss, and miracles through the eyes of Max Caulfield, an eighteen-year-old photography senior attending Blackwell Academy, a private high school located in the quiet fishing town of Arcadia Bay. Players are introduced to Max in the middle of an apocalyptic storm where a giant tornado threatens to destroy all of Arcadia Bay before she suddenly wakes up in the peaceful and familiar surroundings of her photography class. After dismissal, Max finds her way to the women’s restroom where she witnesses a drug related altercation between popular rich kid, Nathan Prescott, and an unfamiliar girl. As the situation escalates, Nathan reveals a gun and shoots the girl in the stomach. Max lurches instinctively – and suddenly wakes up in the peaceful surroundings of her photography class, where she quickly deduces that she has the ability to rewind time. Making a beeline for the restroom in hopes of changing the future, Max is successful in pulling the fire alarm, allowing the girl to escape the bathroom unharmed. It is later revealed after an abrupt and emotional reunion that the girl is Max’s childhood friend Chloe Price, which whom she had fallen out of touch with as years passed. After a short amount of deliberation, the reunited duo resolve to use Max’s rewind power to solve the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Amber, a former friend and love interest of Chloe’s who had gone missing.

    Being a narrative adventure, Life is Strange sports a large cast of well-developed primary, secondary, and supporting characters who not only represent a wide range of stereotypes and anti-archetypes but also consummate a series of metaphors by simply existing. Max is your typical teenage American liberal hipster, and her mental inflection and general intuition reflects her character design. Chloe is a rebellious punk, and her role as the game’s deuteragonist allows her character and Max’s to pinball off of each other frequently. The cast is filled with conflicting opinions, hidden perspectives, and dissenting parental influences that all collude magnificently to place the responsibility of foresight on the player. Each character has an incredible amount of depth and writing behind them which can never be fully understood in one playthrough. Oftentimes discovering the nuances of an individual might elicit pity for a "bad" character or contempt towards a "good" character. The twists and turns the game’s character writing takes combined with the complex web of influential decision making presented to the players combine into what I would rightfully consider close to the premier in video game storytelling.

    The attention to detail in the game’s scene-by-scene format capture even the smallest nuances of everyday student life; paper notes being passed in class, the ebb and flow of scattered conversational drama, and rampant ego-battles found exclusively in the halls of American high schools are excellently encapsulated as realistically in-game as in real life. Extending outside the halls of Blackwell Academy, ambient nature sounds, pattering raindrops, and quaint small-town life paint the game’s scenes in a photo-perfect clarity. The art style combines a wide palette of pales and shades to create a storybook feel while injecting vibrant greens and yellows throughout to bring attention to certain details during pivotal scenes. The lighting and shading establish the dominant tone of the story, and various points in the game are specifically associated with dusk, twilight, and dawn. The graphics themselves are sometimes lacking and the game suffers from frequent rendering glitches, but any visual bug I experienced ironed themselves out within a few ugly yet tolerable seconds. The game’s soundtrack, a collection of indie rock and unplugged acoustic songs from various artists, lend either a gentle, laid back vibe or a crushing emotional weight, and the lyrics often prove reflective not just for Max, but for the audience as well.

    A central aspect of Life is Strange, besides experiencing the narrative, is making decisions. Throughout the game, players have the option to decide Max’s dialogue and actions and effectively guide her through the story’s events. As indicated by the very first words players see (written at the top of this review), player decisions heavily influence how the game’s events unfold. This mechanic isn’t unique to Life is Strange, as many narrative adventure games revolve around the player assuming control of the main character and navigating the game world, but where Life is Strange differs from related games lies within Max’s ability to rewind time. Every decision players make, regardless of how large or how small, will have an impact on how the story plays out. Rewinding a conversation to remake a critical dialogue choice offers potential insight and foresight to how a decision might affect the overall branching storyline. The game utilizes Max’s rewind abilities to produce creative puzzles that incorporate events happening in the game world, too. In multiple instances, Max must use her powers to help other characters navigate away from dangerous situations. Unfortunately, in some of the more complex dialogue chains, players are unable to rewind simple sections of conversation to remake a choice or two, but rather are forced to redo the entire dialogue. It’s not gamebreaking, but later in the game when dialogue starts to effect the story in significant ways and you have your heart set on a win-win outcome, it can get a little annoying to have the same conversation over a dozen times. Thankfully, there is a button to fast-forward lines that you’ve already heard. While the fundamental concept of rewinding time until you achieve the desired outcome remains the same from situation to situation, the immersive conversational drama and situational context keep the game moving on a steady path that’s always exciting to follow.

    At the conclusion of each episode, players are shown a list of every decision, major and minor, they made through the episode. This serves as a short summary of player action as well as a reminder of any influence the player might have had on the world and not realized. Additionally, the conclusion board also has the option to display in percentile how your choices compare to players on your friends list and players around the world. If you made a regrettable move, you might feel remorseful when you realize you’re among the small minority of offenders. If you weren’t able to save the life of a friend, maybe it’ll alleviate some of the guilt to see that other players had more luck than you did. Every action or decision has an impact on the story, yes, but the inverse is not true. While the entirety of the game spends time purposefully illustrating a major theme of the game – Chaos Theory -, the final decision is completely self-contained. Regardless of relationship choices, character deaths, or player impact on the game world, every player will experience one of two endings tied to Choice A or Choice B. I felt this really stripped away from the freedom of choice that the game goes out of its way to provide the player with, and although I found my ending ultimately satisfying, I couldn’t shake the effect of the game taking my influence out of its conclusion.

    Life is Strange is a rare example of a game written well and performed to perfection. On the artistic side, the game stands as a monument to creativity and artistic originality, combining a wide range of musical, visual, and literary talent to create something evocative and resonant in a wide audience. Mechanically, the complex web of character interactions and player-made decisions mold each individual experience into something unique and provide an opportunity for players to reflect on themselves as people. Combined, the minutia of the game world mask the mechanics at work and create an accessible template to which players are able to project onto. The story is so transfixing, so immersive, and so relatable on many different levels that it really brings the audience along for the ride. Life is Strange is probably best described as a slice of life. It uses the canvas of small-town everyday life to crack open a reflected microcosm of many pervasive social issues while delivering multiple entrancing performances of infinitely complex characters. As players weave their way somewhere into the fabric of the game’s story, it becomes increasingly clear that a lot of thought went into the production of this game. Aside from a few development oversights such as points of shaky voice acting or graphical bugs, there’s little to criticize but much to praise.

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