With Life is Strange, Dontnod has possibly out Telltale'd Telltale - but it doesn't quite stand up to Game of Thrones. Yet.
Life is Strange really does play much better than any Telltale game to date. Moving around and interacting with objects is just so much smoother and more comfortable.
Yesterday I "found a few hours" (procrastinated my packing) to play the second episode of Telltale's Game of Thrones and the first episode of Life is Strange, both of which released within the last week.
Playing the two back to back like that brought home several things to me. One: the Telltale adventure formula is perfect for episodic play but doesn't hold out well over marathons if you're as restless and easily distracted as me; I've never played two episodes in a row before and gosh, did I get antsy. (In related news, I have a new high score in Pocket Harvest.)
Second, there are things that, at present, only Telltale can do - but there are also areas it could improve on, and a new challenger stepping up to the plate has really highlighted that.
So let's talk about Life is Strange, and what it does very well, because it's a far from bad game. For starters, in its aesthetics and atmosphere, it nails a nostalgic vibe that went so far as to bring a little tear to my eye.
Not that I ever attended at a US high school, was an arty type, lived anywhere near the woods or in a small town during my adolescence. But I did watch a lot of TV and movies, as did all we 80's and 90's kids, which made us feel like we own certain kinds of lives somehow. Also, almost everyone can relate to feelings of being excluded in a new place, and of disconnect between old friends, long out of contact.
The story is pretty interesting. As well as the whole rewinding time sci fi thing, which seems to be related to some sort of over-arching threat, there are several interesting, more human-scale subplots which we don't know enough about yet to predict the ending of - and that's quite a rare thing in a video game.
In fact, I'd say Dontnod has done a better job of juggling subplots than Telltale has. Telltale has started fronting multiple protagonists, but even so its stories are largely straight forward, A to B affairs. Life is Strange is almost RPG like, in that as you explore you feel like you're stumbling across side quests. This is an illusion, I suspect, but if you're a nosey person you can dig around a little more on your own impetus, which is nice. Your brain is carrying around multiple little mysteries that need to be solved.
On the subject of out-doing Telltale, Life is Strange really does play much better than any Telltale game to date. Moving around and interacting with objects is just so much smoother and more comfortable than in Telltale's somewhat janky point and click interface. It's much more obvious where you can and can't go as soon as you begin a scene. Explorable areas are much bigger. The game lets you know when you're about to commit to something that will advance to the next game state, so you don't accidentally pick up the one item you need before you get a chance to look at everything else (you can also rewind decisions at will until you exit a scene, but that's a separate issue).
Finally, the rewind mechanic while not immediately intuitive makes for some neat puzzles and even action sequences. I'd like to see this developed further now that we've all got the hang of it. That and the optional collection make it all feel much more game than interactive movie.
All in all, playing Life is Strange was a much more engaging experience than Game of Thrones - except for one thing.
But Telltale does one thing better
Life Is Strange's writing is dire. Not only is every plot point laboured and hammered into the player's head, the dialogue is just appalling.
From what I've said so far you'll be forgiven for thinking that Life is Strange is a much better game than anything Telltale has produced. Well, no. Life is Strange is pretty great but it has one major flaw that suffuses the whole episode and downgrades it from "simply wonderful" to "painful to experience": the writing is poor.
We're used to bad writing in video games, of course, but in a game that's pretty much all about dialogue, narration and reading, it's foregrounded - especially in comparison to Telltale's efforts. Telltale, like any developer, doesn't have a perfect track record, but in general its writing is the best in the business, with of a full range of laughs, genuine dialogue, and rapid verbal fencing.
Game of Thrones is superbly written. Despite the temptations of the setting, Telltale doesn't retreat into high-faluting fantasy speak. Apart from one section where Uncle Malcolm gets a bit awkward trying to shoe-horn Asher into a leadership position, every dialogue choice feels natural and comfortable. The various stories unfold beautifully, despite the potential snarls of the interwoven plots.
I normally don't mind sticking the boot in when I think there's something wrong with a game (and it has led to some awkward encounters at bars, let me tell you; video games) but for some reason I feel quite bad about it this time. Maybe it's because while I was playing Life is Strange I kept thinking to myself "I could do better than this" - despite being no expert myself - and that made me imagine being the person who did it (a thing that's not totally inconceivable, or wouldn't be if I had a lick of talent and any life motivation whatsoever). Doing that made me feel terrible, because I can barely handle the insane blithering left by clearly unstable people on my Twitter, let alone a critic writing a whole, considered article using words like - oh my god - dire, about something I'd laboured over.
It is dire though, for real. Not only is every plot point laboured and hammered into the player's head, the dialogue is just appalling.
I feel like it's probably this way because Dontnod tried very, very hard to sound "down with the kids". Hell, most of us can't write natural dialogue in their first language, let alone at two removes (language, age) from the world of their subject. Sit down even a famous, gifted writer and tell them to write teenage dialogue and I bet they'll start to sweat a bit - tell them to do it in their second language and they'll shit cats (that's a great phrase I learned from Life is Strange and the absolute highlight of the writing).
For episode two, Dontnod's writers should take their great ideas and terrific characters and draft up a ton of words all about them - and then put those words in front of a very talented editor who will ruthlessly correct them. Every good writer learns to love the magic editors do; hating the butchery of editors is a rookie stance.
If Dontnod does up its game in that regard - gods send us, when it does that - why, then Telltale will have to start looking over its shoulder. In the end, that'll be good for everyone.