Since upgrading my media PC I’ve been installing and starting games like mad. But similar to finding a new TV show to get into, I was having trouble picking one game to really settle down with. I installed Dishonored. I tried out Mad Max (loved the scenery but didn’t feel like getting into that much grinding based on reviews). I even started up Arkham Knight just to make sure it would run (it did). Watch Dogs, Borderlands 1, 2, and Pre-Sequel, Antichamber, Shadow of Mordor, Jazzpunk, GTA 5. I considered The Witcher series but didn’t know if I should start with one or not, and then the prospect entering that giant world became so overwhelming I just set those aside for another time.
In the end, after tweaking all the configurations to get the best performance/graphics balance for each game, I kept coming back to Life is Strange. Style-wise it’s most similar to a Telltale game. You play Max, a high school student who discovers, after a strange dream about a storm, that she can rewind time. You explore small areas, inspecting and sometimes photographing items, and then interact with other characters. These interactions are sometimes conversations, sometimes actions, and are branching. At the end of each Max often makes a sort of a Cliff’s Notes pronouncement about what just happened. They start off along the lines of “I should have stuck up for her more” or “I can’t lie for anyone if I want to keep my scholarship”, but things to intensify as the game goes on. If you don’t like how things turned out you can jump back and redo it. There are also times when you need to proceed with events and fail at something, returning to the recent past with more knowledge to save people or just save face.
What surprised me was that those review statements, which struck me as simplistic and cheesy at first, began to build up some emotional heft. You have to remember, you usually get criticism of your choices no matter what you do. Stand up to someone’s angry step-father and you feel nervous that the adult will get you in trouble with your school. Remain silent and feel guilty when your friend gets slapped. I thought the ability to reverse decisions and play them out again and again would assuage any doubts I had about my progress but it didn’t. It had the opposite effect. I sort of became the living embodiment of Max’s doubt. That thing that you may sometimes do, replaying a situation over and over, wondering how it could turn out differently? That’s what this game can become, which is bizarrely engaging. Telltale games let you select branching interactions, but you have to replay the game to modify your choices. Life is Strange lets you do it one scene at a time, so you feel that you have less of an excuse when things go wrong.
The overarching story seems to be about a town-destroying storm that’s due in a few days, according visions that Max is having. The more immediate plot is dealing with your friend Chloe and her missing girlfriend. It’s episodic so I assume more and more issue will pile together as the storm approaches. But the game feels much more personal than just a list of quests to finish. Interactions are based on conversations or small actions so this is less of a doing and more of a being game. To get the results you want, you need to be a better Max. That character focus is refreshing.
The voice acting and script have gotten a rough reception in reviews, and I can see why to an extent. The conversations are sometimes awkward for a number of reasons. One of which is the script, which tries just a bit too hard with casual slang. The other is the voice acting, which is sometimes halting and disconnected. I have to give the game a little leeway since the pauses in these exchanges are often due to the player having a choice. But for all of its flaws, this game is engaging and that’s why I settled into it for now. I have all of these explosive open world AAA titles waiting to be played, but I picked on a small, cheap game about a girl in an arts high school. Go figure.