Life is Strange has escalated so quickly that players are coming away with the bends. Very light spoilers follow.
I have to tell you: Life is Strange is pretty good.
If you enjoy, at all, the episodic point-and-click adventure thing Telltale has got going on, then Life is Strange is worth a look. Yes, the dialogue was and is and will probably remain painfully patchy, but as I’ve argued before, the Life is Strange gameplay experience is superior to Telltale’s ageing format.
But I don’t want to talk about gameplay today; I want to talk about content. Cats, Life is Strange has turned it up to 11. It has gone nova. It goes like a steam train and hits like Muhammad Ali. It is glorious. It is devastating. It suggests you consult a list of support services after completing the latest episodes.
Some people are really going to need that.
When I first wrote about Life is Strange I’d only played the first episode. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that the game concerns a mysterious threat to the whole town, and two young women exploring the power to rewind time. At the end of the first episode I’d had a pretty good time, kicked off a number of intriguing subplots, and wondered vageuly how it would all end up.
But I wasn’t really moved to find out. The second episode turned up and I didn’t bother to start it for weeks. I stopped part way through, annoyed at a missed optional photo, and didn’t come back to it.
Then Episode 4: Dark Room released and my Twitter feed went wild as everyone very carefully avoided discussing something except to say “holy shit” over and over again. Okay, I thought. I’ll take another look.
I left the game unpaused, with Max simply seated on the end of a bed, while upbeat music played, and I cried, harder than I have in years. And cats: I am a champion crier
Several hours passed. At one point I had paused the game and gone to stand at the window, staring out, for several minutes, thinking. Not long after I left the game unpaused, with Max simply seated on the end of a bed, while upbeat music played, and I cried, harder than I have in years. And cats: I am a champion crier. I have more feelings than you’ve had dinners of any temperature.
“Things that make Brenna cry” is a broad and inclusive category (not getting enough sleep, home loan commercials, running out of butter, thinking about snails being stepped on), and therefore not necessarily a good basis for recommendation. But I don’t think I’m alone in Having Feelings on this one, and not just because of my Twitter feed; the stats tell a similar story.
At the end of each episode of Life is Strange, you’re presented with a screen showing your major decisions and what everyone else chose. If you’re paying attention you’ll notice an option to restrict the results to your PSN friends list. I found this really interesting, since my PSN list is pretty tightly curated, and so I think I can gather meaningful data about how my friends play.
What I noticed was that they all stopped playing after the first major decision in Episode 4, which is a doozy to say the least. All the other decision screens were fully populated with a mix of results, and then the Episode 4 screen just stops. They had to put down the control pad. They had to walk away.
Life is Strange is so good at getting you to think – not about trying to get the “best” consequences for your playthrough, but of the repercussions for other characters. You think about what affect your choices might have on them, not the ending.
I don’t want to talk about the specifics of choices until after Episode 5 is out, so we can look at the series as a whole and stand less chance of spoiling the experience. But Square Enix and DontNod sent along some documents detailing how one of the sequences in Episode 4 relates back to numerous other choices, and how many potential outcomes there are – some of them really very dramatically different. We’ve already seen some huge differences from Episode 2 handled very well in later episodes, too.
There were several choices that gave me pause. I don’t want to go into them all, especially as it could lead to spoilers, but in Episode 2 there’s a sequence of choices which, depending on your earlier actions in the game, can have tragic consequences. I got this bit “wrong”, and spent a while wondering whether I should use the game’s excellent save-splitting system to go back and do over some key points.
This is save scumming, I guess, but it’s hard to feel guilty about it when the game menu itself supports it, and the core, thematic mechanic is about going back in time to undo your mistakes. I let it stand, in the end, because it had made me feel something – and I didn’t want to erase that and rob it of its meaning. I wanted to keep thinking and feeling about it.
I did read up on the alternate path and while it’s definitely a “better” outcome, it still feels like Max made a series of mistakes and saves the day only by the skin of her teeth – and the happy ending isn’t happy at all, either. On either path the whole sequence hammers home the themes of choice and the effects of your choices on other people.
In case you missed the lesson, Episode 3 then ratchets it up another few notches. You don’t get a choice in this one, but Max’s decisions seem pretty natural, and when you see the consequences it is breathtaking. Max takes a step back and puts her hands over her mouth. I mirrored her, unconsciously.
In Episode 1, you’re making decisions that matter to Max, to her friendships and her school. In Episode 2, the scope broadens and consequences get heavier. In Episode 3, it gets worse. At the end of the most recent Episode, I felt like I was holding life and death in my hands – not just for Max, Chloe and their immediate friends, but for everybody – maybe the whole universe.
Throughout the events of the four episodes to date, we’re constantly reminded of the mysterious, possibly apocalyptic threat from Max’s dream right back at the start of the game. Apart from the dream and a second vision in Episode 1, we’re not shown what this threat might be, but little signs pop up all the time. Things are wrong. Things are bad. Mostly, things are very strange. And getting worse.
Max’s grip on her life and the consequences of her actions is coming apart – and so, it seems, is the universe. Max’s control of time makes it seem like she has power over consequences, but everything else in the game screams that this is an illusion, from the weird weather to the way adults never prove helpful to Chloe’s sudden rages to the self-centredness of Max’s peers. The wind is rising, danger is coming, nobody understands anything and Max is just a scared weird nervous little girl who fucks everything up no matter what she does.
Life is Strange? Too real, cats. Too real.
Life is Strange is available for PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. The fifth and final episode has not been dated but is expected in September.