Author’s note: Article may include mild spoilers, but no major plot points outside of the official trailer.
Even before you begin playing Dontnod’s second game, Life is Strange, they caution you, “…the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present, and future. Choose wisely…”
As I sat in front of my Xbox 360 around 7pm last Friday night, I couldn’t help but laugh. “Did this game just Last Crusade me?” I thought, harkening back to the iconic Indiana Jones scene when he must choose the correct Holy Grail. After around two hours of gameplay and finishing Episode 1, I realized that the game did exactly that. However, unlike Indy, I was equipped with a tool more powerful than just a musty journal — I could control time.
The game opens with our protagonist, Max, sitting in a high school photography class – an average routine day by all measures. As the teacher’s lecture drones on, we start to learn more about Max’s life through the journal we can peruse sitting at the desk as well as her interactions with classmates.
When it comes to capturing atmosphere, the developers got this right. I was itching to get out of my seat after a few minutes, and when the bell rang signaling the end of class, I was back in high school again, ready to pop into the hall and explore.
After a brief but annoying pause to speak to the teacher after class, I was free to stroll through the school. Filled with graffitied lockers and bulletin boards, I could tell very early on this was a game about exploration. I started reading the minutiae; discovered a local girl had gone missing, and found an after school club I was interested in checking out. Finally, I ended up in the bathroom, where I witnessed a murder (that’s the “inciting incident” for you writing folk), and shortly thereafter found myself back in time sitting in class like nothing had happened.
If that surprised you, it surprised me too, just like Max. The whole scene seemed surreal as events that had just taken place happened again, this time with different outcomes based on my pre-existing knowledge. If I was anxious to get out of class before, imagine how this play through felt, knowing I had to make it to the bathroom more quickly than last time. At this point in the game, I knew little about Max, and even less about the killer and his victim…but the developers had created an environment so lifelike and detailed already, the tension was there and it was real.
When confronted with creating a distraction to prevent the murder, it was nerve wracking; would I be fast enough? I started using my new found power “just in case” I ran out of time.
Unlike other RPGs of a similar nature, Life is Strange takes what could be the average and mundane and breathes into it fresh air. Exploration or side quests aren’t tedious but informational — the things you learn open new in game paths to you, and the narrative is woven through these details. Your relationship with other characters is also so intimate and familiar; this story is not told on an epic, end-all-be-all scale.
That human element is what makes this game so real and so interesting. Finding ways to learn information from characters and rewind time to say just the right thing is such a cool facet to both the gameplay and the story; a scene will never play out the same way twice, and it speaks to everyone who has ever thought, “Oh if I had just said this!”
You can bend conversations to your benefit, manipulate characters you don’t even like, and avoid death. For all intents and purposes, you’re both a superhero and a normal girl who doesn’t know how she possesses this ability. The saying “with great power comes great responsibility” holds more weight here, than in any Spider-man game I’ve ever played.
So with a game undeniably thrilling and fascinating unfolding before me, I was shocked when I found out that it had almost never come to fruition. When Dontnod Entertainment shopped the game to publishers, many of them wanted to change the lead to be male instead of female, which wasn’t going to fly with developers. It wasn’t until Square Enix stepped in (you might know them as the team that rebooted Tomb Raider in recent years) that the game was able to go forward; they wanted the game exactly as it was — girl protagonist and all.
As a female gamer I love when women are playable characters, even more so when those women have a developed voice and character arc and compelling story. I’m grateful to Square Enix for taking the plunge and publishing this game exactly as it is, but I’m more grateful to Dontnod Entertainment for telling a story from a girl’s eyes, and not backing down from their original intent.
That being said, this story is not defined by the sex of the main character. You can enjoy this game if you’ve ever felt slightly out of place, or been less than confident in your own abilities, or lost touch with an old friend.
This isn’t a “girl” game, this is a game about life and the writers have done their part crafting dialogue that isn’t dull, that covers themes ranging from loneliness, to depression, to abandonment, to abusive relationships. A sense of normalcy pervades these characters and the town they live in, so much so, that the narrative can’t help but feel like a story you’ve experienced… with the added bonus of time travel.
If you enjoy a compelling story and well developed characters, Episode 1 is absolutely worth checking out. Life is strange, for all of us, it’s the decisions we make that define who we are. Will you choose wisely?
Dontnod Entertainment is an independent game publisher based in France. You can learn more about Life is Strange and their other games at http://www.dont-nod.com/.
Disclosure Notice: I have no material connection to this work, and did not receive a review copy.