Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review - Life is Strange

There is almost too much to be said about Life is Strange, an episodic narrative-driven game developed by Dontnod and published by Square Enix. It pushes boundaries and goes where few other games even attempt, much less succeed. After all, few other games would center on a female protagonist and her reconnecting with an estranged female best friend. Few other games would broach topics and themes more common to dramatic television than typical videogames. Make no mistake: Life is Strange isn't for everybody. But for those open to a game that eschews providing its players cliched power or revenge fantasies and instead delivers a captivating and personal narrative about friendship and the trials of adolescence, Dontnod's followup to Remember Me is beyond memorable. It's magnificent.

-- Review (Draft) - Life is Strange, by wangxiuming

I drafted this paragraph for a review of Dontnod's recently-completed episodic adventure game, Life is Strange after completing Episode 4, in anticipation of a glorious finale in Episode 5 that would cement this thought-provoking adventure as an incomparable piece of art in videogames. And to be honest, while Episode 5 did not exceed Episode 4's narrative climaxes for me, I still would have agreed with what I wrote two months ago ... at least, up until the game presented its final "choice" to me.

Yeah ... I jumped the gun.

That's not to say Life is Strange or its developer Dontnod are without achievement. The game itself, despite the final choice and its subsequent endings, still remains - on-the-whole - a provocative experience, one that is ultimately worth both the time and the money spent on it. It is courageous on many fronts, considering its protagonists, its subject matter, and - at least through most of its five-chapter run - its emphasis on delivering real choice with real consequences.

Unfortunately, while touting its adaptive storyline based on player choice as its greatest strength, the last choice in Life is Strange ultimately serves not to empower player choice at all. Instead, it undermines all of the choices that came before it, and ultimately the entire experience as a whole. It is a tremendous shame, especially when looking back just two months ago, I had been prepared to only heap praise.

Spoilers follow.

Life is Strange centers on Max Caufield, a teenage girl in her senior year at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in the seaside town of Arcadia Bay. Without explanation, she discovers she has the ability to reverse time. The player takes on Max's role and powers - frequently used as a tool for the generous dose of puzzle-solving that is required to progress. Not all is as it seems in Blackwell, and it's up to Max to uncover and connect the mysteries. Her interactions with her fellow classmates and the townspeople will build - or ruin - her various relationships. In turn, many of these decisions have a lasting impact on future events and those subsequent interactions. Kill a man's dog (you monster!) and he'll remember it. Through it all, Max will reconnect with an estranged friend, Chloe, while desperately wondering how to stave off an impending calamity.

It would be impossible to talk about Life is Strange without also talking about Chloe. Max reconnecting and re-establishing their friendship is central to the story, and her efforts to keep Chloe from danger is the impetus that drives the narrative forward. It's enormously compelling to watch them reminisce about old times and catch up with each other lives - especially since Chloe is hardly the same girl Max remembered from before she had to move away. Thankfully, both characters are portrayed beautifully by their voice actors, and so indeed is the rest of the cast. Still, it's Max and Chloe who are the real stars of the show and they are completely believable as two lost adolescent souls, struggling to make sense of what's happening around them and to do the right thing - for each other, as well as for the rest of the town.

And oh the things they'll stick their noses in. Throughout the narrative, Max will have to deal with a plethora of real world problems, not all of which there is an easy fix - or indeed, a fix at all: friends struggle with depression after being slut-shamed through viral media, the sacrifice of privacy in the Academy in the name of security, corruption or despondence in the ranks of authority at all levels, bullying, etc. etc. These are not your typical video-game challenges to overcome, and indeed, not all of these problems can be solved. The game will make you debate encouraging an oft-bullied loner to attend a party where he can potentially stand up for himself but risk more of his dignity, or stay home in the safety of solitude. What choice do you pick? Max's temporal powers only extend so far ... she might not be able to change her mind.

Then again, sometimes she is able to change her mind; rewinding time to the start of a scene can be done in most parts of the game, and it's fascinating to watch things unfold differently based on the different choices you make. Broaching one topic over another in a tense conversation might mean the difference between people ending up shot, and it's not always clear - though the game does leave clues - what option will result in a "best" outcome ... neither is there anything forcing you to strive for that result. Max is perfectly free to live with whatever mess she's stirred up if you so choose ... unless of course, the consequence is her death.

I struggled to find the right descriptor in reviewing Life is Strange when I first started this draft, and I'm still not sure I found it. Courageous, I think, might be the closest thing I can think of, but it's not exactly that. I wouldn't call it innovative either - maybe in its medium, it could be so considered, but it doesn't exactly broach things that have never been portrayed in media as a whole. Regardless, for its subject matter, its embrace of choice and meaningful consequences, and for presenting two strong female protagonists in Max and Chloe, developer Dontnod and publisher Square Enix deserve recognition. I'm even more thrilled that Life is Strange has already become a financial success, reaching 1 million in sales before the release of the fourth episode. The game will hopefully be a herald for other publishers and developers to recognize the market for these types of games, and continue to bring videogaming into the mainstream.

That all said ... I cannot help but feel disappointed by the final minutes of the narrative. A slew of minor quibbles also detract from the experience - minor plotholes that are unaddressed and questions that are left unanswered - but ultimately it was the ending(s) that ruined what was otherwise a thoroughly brilliant game for me.

I should mention it's difficult to discuss this without treading into spoiler territory, but I will do my best.

The last choice the game asks you to make renders almost all the decisions you've made through the first 4.9 chapters null and void, no matter what you choose in the end. I left the game feeling empty, questioning whether anything I did from the beginning up until the last few minutes mattered at all. I was particularly disappointed in one of the endings, which personally I felt could have done a lot to ameliorate that sensation, simply by showing us that Max had gotten something valuable out of the relationships she built from the game.

Instead, Life is Strange detoured into a fatalistic dive off a cliff.

Yes, the endings were different. No, it did not matter... and maybe that was the point?

Could this really be the message behind Dontnod's tale, after spending hours and hours, chapter after chapter, enthralling us, convincing us that what we did made a difference? Is this really supposed to be Max and Chloe's legacy? Is life not strange at all ... but merely the illusion of so being?

Even despite this surely controversial ending, Life is Strange remains a worthwhile experience. On its own, the game is a worthy - if flawed - entry in Dontnod's library. I think it will have to be another title, however, that serves as that developer's magnum opus.

Recommended For:
+ Fans of episodic adventure-narratives AKA "walking and talking simulations"
+ Gamers who want to explore different and real-world themes and storylines
+ Gamers who enjoy/don't mind playing a strong female protagonist and exploring her relationships
+ Fans of story-based games.

Not Recommended For:
- People who don't want to simulate walking and talking.
- If you didn't like Mass Effect 3 because of its last moments, I can't imagine you'll like Life is Strange

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