Adventure games are back. Or perhaps they never left? I guess it depends where you look and what your adventure game criteria are. Does it involve hunting for items and pairing them with other items to yield a solution? Does it involve making tough choices and conversing with all manner of characters? After finishing TellTale’s The Walking Dead in 2012, I placed those kinds of adventure games on hiatus — I didn’t even bother picking up the second season despite enjoying the first season so much. Since then it’s largely been “walking” simulators and other titles that explored spaces rather than people.
Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange created quite the following and their adulation for the episodic adventure game was tough to ignore. Would an adventure game starring a teenage girl attending a photography school in the U.S’s Pacific Northwest appeal to me? It was a tough sell but after watching GiantBomb’s coverage of the first episode, I was on board.
Max Caufield’s classmates showed shades of Mean Girls with the bitchiness and teenage slang that could only be described as “deliberately abrasive”. They threw paper balls and fronted with stereotypical teenage attitude. There had to be more than that, right? More than just Max standing up against bullies and trying to survive high school? Yes. For some unknown reason, Max witnessed the destruction of her hometown through a vision and emerged with the ability to to rewind time.
Looking pass the hipster twee veneer, Max was just a regular teenager who was trying to do right by people. Inner monologues showed that she cared about her classmates, her friends and aspired to be a world famous photographer. She had crushes, she hated bullies but also showed sympathy towards them — or at least, my version of Max did.
I helped shape Max’s personality through key decisions and actions. It was impressive how many little details contributed to key moments in the game. Erasing graffiti on the wall or choosing whether or not to answer a phone call swayed opinions of Max significantly. Some of the reactions may not have been as natural as one would hope but I understood what they were trying to accomplish. And after making so many little decisions along the way, it all began to mesh nicely.
What actually sold me on Life Is Strange was that the developers condoned save scrubbing aka reloading a save after you’ve made a decision. Max’s time rewinding powers allowed her and I to witness the outcome of both decisions before making committing to one. The rewinding allowed me to explore my options and become 100% comfortable with what I thought was the best choice.
Max was able to keep certain objects and remain in her exact spot as she rewound time which lead to some unique puzzle scenarios. One example had Max breaking into a locked office. She used a small explosive to break the door lock, entered the office, rewound time back to be before the lock was blown off and unlocked it from the inside. Dontnod took advantage of the time manipulation powers and lead me to exploit those mechanics in mind bending ways. I often felt like I was cheating the game when I used those built-in mechanics.
I was quite paranoid when it came to Max’s actions. Even though it probably didn’t matter if I didn’t put back a vent cover or close a particular door, after retrieving a particular item, I always rewound time back to before Max disturbed the environment.
The story started out as high school drama and Max using her powers to save her best friend, Chloe, from certain death but it quickly turned to a search for a missing person and other conspiracies surrounding the school, the town and its residents. Each episode revisited locales and characters which bred a feeling of familiarity and comfort with normal life. There wasn’t a fixed daily routine of things to do like in the Persona titles but I felt compelled to check in with everyone and re-explore spaces that I’ve already been to in hopes of finding something new. I was often rewarded with new info and insights which kept me invested.
Little by little, a relationship between Max, Chloe and everyone in their lives began to form. I became increasingly familiar with key characters through nosy dives into their personal spaces. Tidbits on relationships and interests surfaced in old photos, social media accounts and other decorative knick knacks. SMS messages exchanged between Max and other characters also gave insights into people through little details like how they exchanged messages, what they typed and how often they sent messages. Warren was particularly anxious with his texts, for example.
It’s no surprise then that the end of episode 3 was misty eyed affair. Dontnod Entertainment established a norm through two episodes and then disrupted it just enough to make me feel uncomfortable and wanting to go back to what I knew. Max and I felt the same sense of dread in what transpired in that pivotal episode. They taught a lesson in the dangers of time traveling in a very personal manner.
Having played and enjoyed other murder mystery games like Persona 4, I should have seen the twist coming but I didn’t and was genuinely surprised by who the puppet master was. I guess I let myself be fooled.
Unreal Engine 3.0 continued to impress with its ability to produce stylized visuals. It was much easier to forgive the clay hair and poor lip syncing when they were not striving for realism. Every so often, in cutscenes or in-game, canned animations impressed with their fluidity and stuck out in my memory. It’s an odd highlight to remember but when everything else felt stiff and robotic, lifelike gestures resonated.
Life is Strange was a lightning in a bottle moment for Dontnod Entertainment. They managed to create a standout experience in a sea of similar experiences since TellTale’s The Walking Dead made its mark. I don’t know if will resonate with everyone like it did with me but it certainly was a memorable experience for me.
I love it