I want to get through this without too many spoilers, so I unfortunately won’t be discussing the plot in detail, but the basic setup of Life Is Strange is this: you play as Max, a girl attending a high school in her rural hometown for its photography program, who one day has a (very reminiscent of Alan Wake) vision of the future and discovers she can rewind time.
The story is front-and-center in this game, along with the butterfly effect system that promises to reflect player choice later on. On the spectrum of “movie but with a controller” to “just shooting at stuff!!!” the game is far closer to the former, but with enough interactivity provided by the dialogue/action choices to make it feel like the videogame medium does add value. The story is compelling enough to make me want to keep playing, which I suppose is necessary when it comes to episodic games, but nevertheless surprised me a bit. Part 1 is mostly about the setup of characters and the environment and doesn’t contain a lot about the big ol’ mystery that will presumably dominate the rest of the installments, so I am impressed by how what threads of intrigue were there captured my attention so successfully.
The main gameplay mechanic, the ability to rewind time a few minutes, is at its best when it’s supporting the player-driven narrative. There are puzzles that require use of the mechanic, but they’re all pretty easy and not terribly worth remarking upon. More fun is choosing a dialogue or action, seeing how it turns out, and then rewinding to see if the other choice’s consequences are more to your liking. Many times have I made a choice in a game only to see my character carry it out in some bizarre way that was not what I intended at all, so being able to rewind for once probably gives me more nefarious joy than it should. A lot of times Life Is Strange becomes a game about manipulating people—but if I’m honest, these characters kind of deserve it.
The main character, Max, is at times easy enough to relate to, at others rather frustrating. “Teenage girl” has to be one of the most difficult characters to write, since high school is a period of drastic change that everyone experiences differently. I think most of us have something of a difficult relationship with our teenage selves; personally, I get annoyed by characters that don’t act like I would have in high school, but if confronted with one that did, I would probably want to punch her.
It’s hard to say which type Max is, since her character is all over the place in this first episode. She’s smart, earnest, and seemingly unfairly ostracized by the other kids one minute, and then bratty, lazy, and pretty clearly uninterested in making friends the next. She apparently knows a ton about photography and books on the subject, but doesn’t study for her favorite photography class enough to know the Daguerreian process? A lot of this is forgivable when looking at her as a stressed-out teen—it’s dumb to get mad at someone in class for knowing an answer that you didn’t, but maybe not so much if that person is a snotty Queen Bee—but it still can make playing as her aggravating at times.
Thankfully, there are a few dialogue branches where you’re allowed to play Max as a meaner or nicer person—or one willing to fake niceness, in some cases. I very much hope that choosing those options will have an effect later in the game of making Max more consistently level-headed, or at least that such options will continue to appear. Overall, she’s a likable enough protagonist, and it’s always hard to write for characters whose decisions are supposed to be molded by the player, so hopefully this will even out in later episodes. And really, despite my complaints, I’d much rather play a teenager with attitude problems than a middle-aged man with a dark past again.
A bigger concern is the depiction of pretty much everyone other than Max. Media tends to portray American high school as if it’s one of the circles of hell, and my greatest disappointment with Life Is Strange is that it doesn’t try to eschew that tradition. Yes, high school is horrible for some people who are bullied or struggling or not getting the help they need, but I would wager that in most cases it’s not because every single person in the entire school is striving to win Most Horrible Person 2015. All of the characters other than Max, Warren, and the custodian are just nasty. The best you can hope for in your first interaction with each character in Episode 1 is being blown off. The principal gets angry with Max when she brings up that another kid brought a gun to school. The teacher that Max loves so much doesn’t say anything when another girl insults her in front of the entire class. Even Max’s “friend” Kate tells her to bug off. I’ve felt less hostility from the environment in games where I’m being actively shot at.
Could the characters’ personalities be there for plot reasons? It’s possible, but starting a character from as low a point as possible so their development will seem more drastic (I’m looking at you, shonen anime) is a worn-out trick that was never any good to begin with, so I’m guessing that at least some of these characters aren’t salvageable. Still, there are some characters that seem capable of genuine development, like Max’s childhood best friend Chloe, and I do look forward to seeing the two’s friendship properly reestablish itself as the game continues.
Overall, there’s enough good here to make it worth overlooking the cliche high school caricatures. Plenty in Part 1 piqued my curiosity; with Chloe’s bizarre circumstances, a missing girl, and an incoming disaster, there’s a lot to take in in this installment, and good reason to continue on to the next. Plus, I’m dying to know what effects the choices from this Part will have on future ones—will they be superficial, or provide one of those rare truly player-driven gaming experiences? This game has a lot of potential.
The bottom line is, at $5 and a few hours, what the first part of Life Is Strange has to offer is plenty worth your money and time. Bring on Part 2!