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Life is surprisingly intense

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    Life is Strange

    Rating: 4.5 – Outstanding

    Life is surprisingly intense

    Life is Strange is an intense walking simulator about a teenage girl’s time in college bonding with her childhood best friend. This is an actual sentence I am saying and standing by, and I’m more confused by that than anyone. I’m not overly experienced in these types of games but I am typically a fan of the concept and "intense" is not a word I’d use to describe the genre. Even the most blood-pumping entries fit more aptly into the "stressful" or "fun" categories, but somehow the story of a hipster down the road from Portland going to her ridiculous art school where she takes photos of squirrels can only be described as relentlessly intense. This intensity is built through the sheer insanity of the plot rather than the characters themselves, mixed with coverage of serious issues that are unflinchingly examined with a realistic and effective delivery. In addition the core game mechanic plays into the limitations of the genre rather than merely trying to hide them.

    I knew nothing about the game going in other than it was about a kid going to college who may or may not be a lesbian, there was a storm, and that it was considered quite good; I didn’t even know about the primary gameplay idea. I highly recommend anyone experiences the game with close to this level of knowledge; the twists and turns of the plot are seriously the most important thing here. I’m not a plot guy, I’m perfectly happy with having events spoiled if the delivery is good and the lines are memorable; hell I’d say a script that requires surprise is a bad script, but this is a game that deserves the blind treatment.

    And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like I liiiikkkee you… No, not that…

    When I drunkenly discuss superpowers I’d like to acquire from a microwave burrito accident, the one that stands out to me isn’t invisibility or flight or teleportation; it’s the ability to rewind time a little. As an awful, neurotic person the ability to magically tighten up every failed joke, vomit in more private gutters, never choke in a game of pool, or eat non-spicy food the night I gave the cute girl from work a ride home is the ultimate dream power; living in the best timeline. This is exactly what Life is Strange‘s core gameplay concept is built around. It’s both fun to mess around with and a solid method of dealing with the genre’s limitations with how far choice branches can go.

    There’s a sense of power and curiosity that comes with the ability to double check your answers or see the outcome of any possible event without consequence. Just seeing all options before picking your favourite is oddly fun, like a built in save scum. Early on I had zero affection for the characters, setting or plot, but the game still managed to get its hooks into me just for the gameplay structure. I didn’t care whether anyone made fun of Maxine, our loser protagonist, but I liked being able to see the results of every "what if?" option that arrived, and learning information from being wrong, then re-using it against who was right feels delightful in its deviousness. It’s inherently entertaining to manipulate others.

    This casual trickery of unknowing plebs is a disarming way to introduce the player to all the characters and all the things at stake at a casual pace before things get exponentially heavier. This cute little gameplay loop acting as the hook makes the twists and turns which occur much more affecting since you settle in with everything being chill and carefree. It’s similar to how Until Dawn spends its early of acts making it fun to mess with a bunch of genre archetypes as humorously as possible before anything serious starts happening; when your silly toy suddenly gets savage it’s a really effective way to ramp up the stakes.

    "I shot you!" "Nuh uh I dodged it!"

    Life is Strange‘s gimmick has one major advantage over Until Dawn‘s admittedly very fun one; in-built retcons. I loved my first playthrough of Supermassive’s ode to slasher camp, so much so that upon beating it I played again to save everyone or even get the plat, so I looked up guides to make sure I didn’t mess up and got my desired result… and the entire illusion of the game collapsed. You always know these choice games are mostly lies anyway, but actually seeing just how few of the choices truly influenced survival outcomes ripped out the tension and thrill of the game; basically every character only had two to four chances to be harmed, and when you successfully avoid all the threats the survivors mostly hang out in the background while the at risk people take the stage. I get that it’s unreasonable to expect a game to completely rewrite itself depending on your choices, particularly something as well acted and produced as that, but having the curtain fall down was a complete destruction of the wonderful illusion they’d created on the first playthrough.

    Life is Strange however has canon retcons since it’s a time travel game. The storyline completely wipes, resets, or overwrites the whole outlook of the game frequently and given its in-story it makes the "your choices don’t matter" issue a lot more palatable. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably single most "your choices don’t matter" game ever conceived, but it’s delivered so slickly that it doesn’t hurt the experience. The structure of the game then becomes a series of isolated but plot linked vignettes where you do actually have pretty major impacts on what occurs for the next hour or so, but after a bit the chaos will be retconned so the writers can take stock and refocus their story without needing to pull punches at any stage. It isn’t great for replays but that’s kind of a good thing, trying to hide the seams just makes noticing them more distracting; with it out in the open it’s easier to just ride the rollercoaster while it lasts. The game never feels like it’s trying to trick you or appear more clever than it is; it just wants to tell a story about a time-travelling hipster, and bringing in the player is more for the intrigue of the moment rather than simulating the long term consequences.

    As for negatives with the resets I think the endings are a little bit too willing to destroy all the work you did through the game, and some of the forced retcons happened after I was happy to say "I’ve tinkered enough. I’m ok with leaving this reality as is". I mean it makes sense, it’d be silly to let the player to end the game midway through episode 4 when the story still has two hours left, but it’s still a bit irritating to lose control of the game randomly.

    A very special episode

    The other string to Life is Strange‘s bow is how it doesn’t hold back on some pretty damn heavy themes while neither feeling manipulative through shock value, or preachy like an after school special. It’s all very natural, believable, and human; the writing and dramatic beats are all on point even if the characters themselves aren’t exactly beloved. The game touches on a massive range of serious issues/themes like revenge porn, suicide, abortion, same-sex relations, guilt, rape, loss, drug abuse, assisted suicide, bullying, gun control, disability, environmental damage, surveillance overreach, drug dealing, and many more. It’s impressive enough that the story doesn’t fall apart under the weight of all these heavy plot points, but the writers do such a good job with it that it raises the tension of the story rather than feeling like a political checklist. I’d say despite the swaths of serious-issue examinations, only one of them ever felt like a manipulative cliffhanger that gets retconned out with no impact besides a couple of shocking moments.

    As an extremely minor nitpick the realism of the package don’t work well with the "Previously On:" segments that start each episode. Like Until Dawn the game is broken up into chapters which each begin with a TV styled "catch-up" intro, but unlike that game Life is Strange is realistic and emotionally involving, trying to do such a brazenly meta thing doesn’t suit it. Until Dawn had the camp and knowing winks to pull it off, this doesn’t.

    I don’t like any of you people, but that’s ok.

    I’m typically not hugely interested in the plot of a game, movie, book or show and instead get most of my interest from the characters and dialogue rather than what is actually occurring. The fact that edgy teens could get too into the shallow anarchy of Fight Club doesn’t suddenly make the black humour not hilarious or Meatloaf’s boobs not as comfortable as a cloud made of well-aged ham. The Witcher 3‘s plot structure being barely more developed than Mario getting told Peach is in another castle is secondary to the fact that every character has a developed motive, opinion of Geralt, fun acting, and snappy dialogue. Plot is like 5% of storytelling, which makes Life is Strange‘s success a surprise to me; I basically hate everyone and how they talk and their horrible little town, but the plot is too good to not be sucked in.

    Which is good because the primary cast is horrible. This is a game set in an Oregon art college and boy does it make that clear. Max is a dweeby teen who loves retro cameras and her childhood toys and listens to the most asinine acoustic indie pop in the entire world and has art school drama with a snotty jerk kid ripped straight out of Gossip Girl. Her best friend, Chloe, is an irritating phony punk waste of space stoner who says "hella" a lot and screws everything up with a low-end teen rebel in-your-face-attitude. She’s like Poochie if he smoked and swore. Pretentious art snob interactions are all over the place about what artistry really means, along with inescapable lame recurrent insults like "Go f*** your selfie" or ¡°cute" friend chatter like plays on Max’s name. Things get better with the lesser characters at least, but the core players never really endeared themselves to me, and I quite happily let Chloe die or get screwed over several times only to have Max tearfully retcon my final decision.

    There’s a supporting cast of college kids which range from ok to stereotypical to obnoxious. There are some cringey skater "thrashers" ripped straight out of, like, Clueless (That joke time-travelled from 1995), some soft spoken loser nerds the game is a little pushy about being sympathetic towards, a couple of little love triangles which are very high school drama, but the gameplay structure works well with it as they’re fun to manipulate. Given so much awful stuff happens to them through the various time lines it isn’t too hard to grow some Stockholm empathy for these lesser lights. On the plus side, the older characters are really great. Sure the parents are mostly just suffer boxes to manipulate you into feeling bad when horrible things befall them, but their adorable wholesomeness rubbed off on me and I wanted nothing but happiness for them. The drug dealer and stepfather are well rounded, complex characters who can be both satisfying to hate but also worm their way into being sympathetic at times, while the caretaker provides some awkward and strange comic relief.

    The deafening cacophony of Hell’s hipster indie folk choir

    I don’t think I’ve ever devoted a full section to music before, at most I’ve added in a throwaway line to acknowledge something really standing out, but Life is Strange really struck a chord with me. A tooth nerve chord. This soundtrack is relentless throbbing agony that made me resent having ears. You’re gonna need a high resilience to indie folk to handle this one. I’m a pretty hip dude at heart, I love a lot of post-rock, random weirdo stuff, and aren’t repulsed by the odd neofolk band, but this is awful. You know how "indie" radio stations will get in a band and they’ll do a cover of another song, and 85% of the time they’ll just turn it into an acoustic ballad and it’s the worst thing humanity has ever done? That’s what accompanies every artistic shot or transition in Life is Strange and I despise it. There’s one effectively used Mogwai song and the song during the storm itself is a little more interesting, but otherwise it’s all fluttery acoustics and mumbly sadguy vocals. Prepare for hell.

    So the music isn’t my thing, why make such a big deal about it? This is the first time song choice has actually harmed the ending of a game for me. Early in the game Max and Chloe reconnect over "rocking out" to some "punk music" in Chloe’s bedroom, and if my sarcasm quotes didn’t clue you in, the music played is pop-rock so weak it makes Snow Patrol sound like Disfear. Sure it’s all personal preference but my metalhead disgust lobe was triggered, and really what’s more hipster than music snobbery? It’s what they’d want me to do. The music choice added to the already twee scene to give me some serious cringe, and this happens quite often like with the hallway scene at the start where you’re forced to listen to a looped travesty until you finish talking to everyone. The ending references both these scenes and it completely ripped me out of the moment. Without getting too far into it, the game has a pretty surreal sequence at the end with bizarre perversions of the past. It doesn’t make much sense but dang it, it’s got style so I was right into it… until it referenced those scenes. For the first time game music had really influenced my opinion of a sequence beyond providing a backdrop. The scenes being so bad because of their horrible music turned the sequence from a brilliant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind style disintegration of reality into a pathetic "oh they’re just doing nonsense because it looks weird" art school reject. I’ve never had music have such an influence on an experience, I just wish it was positive.

    Thankfully the rest of the game is pretty great

    Thankfully that’s just one 20 minute scene out of solid 8 hours of quality sans the waffling soundtrack and not overly loveable core-cast. This is a hard game to get into how good it is without spoiling everything; just keep the blinders on and dive in. This is a game I didn’t expect to resonate with me, but it did anyway. As someone who doesn’t like hipster culture, finds the art style kinda ugly, doesn’t care much about game stories, and likes to feel in control of their gameplay, I have to urge anyone with similar wariness to just give it a shot. It costs like 6 bucks during most sales, and even if you don’t find the time travel gameplay fun, that’s good financial value for a riveting 8 hour movie. It’s clearly not designed with me in mind and somehow it’s ended up my pick as the 5th best title for the generation, which is something I never thought I’d say about walking simulator about a teenage girl’s time in college bonding with her childhood best friend.

    … That sentence still sounds like insanity no matter how often I say it.

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