When Life Is Strange got put on PS Plus for free, I finally had no excuse not to play this episodic adventure. I will admit that when the game first came out, I was really interested in it, but I couldn’t justify putting money forward, not to mention I was already beyond busy shooting aliens galore in the latest Destiny expansion I was running around in. But with it being free and with a quiet period going on as I wait for Destiny 2, it made perfect sense to finally get a hold of this teenage adventure and see what it had for me.
Holy shit, I was not prepared for what I saw!
***MAJOR SPOILERS FROM THE ENTIRE GAME WILL BE CONTAINED IN THIS ARTICLE! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!***
Upon the start of Episode 1, the general world is pretty straightforward. You’re a teenage girl with teenage problems. Oh, and you have time travel powers! And that’s what brings the game’s core strengths into the forefront, the ability to see all the outcomes of major decisions and then decide on what’s the right one. In many ways, you’d almost think of this as a way to break the immersion of this type of game, after all how would you play a game like the Telltale Walking Dead games if you could see what would happen for the next 15 seconds? But in Life Is Strange, this mechanic fleshes out the story and makes your decisions really count, because the consequences of each decision isn’t necessarily marred in who lives and who dies, it’s purely on the basis of how certain people will feel about you and act around you in the future. By helping people, you might save yourself some trouble later in the game, while if you’re an asshole to people, you could make the following chapters hell for yourself and may even lose people along the way.
Enter Max, the main character of the game. While she certainly knows how to pick her best friends (I’ll get into her later), Max herself is a difficult character for me to judge. Beyond my gender being the complete opposite of hers, I found it extremely hard to place myself into her shoes as this went on. I could associate with her feeling left out, like an outcast, a target of bullying, but in terms of her thought processes and such, I had a real struggle on my hands trying to make the decision that fit my train of thought the best. At times I felt Max was being completely unreasonable and I was making decisions that didn’t make any sense to me. In the final chapter when she knows the full truth of things, the way she talks to a certain person is completely different from how she’s talked to anyone before and really makes her look stupid given the situation she finds herself in.
Thankfully, the story does a good enough job at keeping you more than fully invested through the difficult sections of Max’s narrative. This is usually large in part due to the amazing character of Chloe Price (voice acted by Ashly Burch, shame she won’t in the prequel due to the SAG-AFTRA strike) who pretty much keeps the plot together through the annoying and pretentious sections of the game. The game is pretty much a two-person game, Max and Chloe are the center stage of the game, I didn’t feel like anyone (including the villains) stood out and in some cases like Daniel and Samuel, there were characters that I thought needed a complete overhaul as they came off just so uninteresting and unimportant. Granted, the story revolves around a school campus, so of course there will be dull and annoying characters, but in the confines of a fictional video game, steps could have been taken to make them a little more interesting.
Speaking of that, the first major point where the game starts to take the kid gloves off happens in Chapter 2 where fellow student Kate Marsh attempts to commit suicide after a long run of bullying after a video of her making out at a party goes viral. Taking the truth of what happened aside (we’ll get to that when we get to the final chapter), this chapter gives off the same feeling I got during the Kamoshida chapter of Persona 5, that really gross and disgusting feeling you get seeing someone go so far down in the dumps that jumping off a roof seems like the only logical outcome to make. I was convinced that Max was too late, that her power only worked so much, that this point in the game was going to be where the game explains to you that you’re not the hero that can save everyone. Instead, the game gives you a new ability (that you only use once, more on that later) to stop time and in the end, I managed to save her, though it is still possible to mess that up and she dies anyway and you can’t reverse it. Regardless of the random solution to the situation, it was a moment where I spent time considering each thing I said to Kate, positive that one false move and there’d be a pile of human flesh on the asphalt below.
Where the game truly frustrates me comes in Chapter 3. Taking away the fun of having a pool party with Max and Chloe (in her awesome underwear), the tail end of the chapter brings up my major problem with the game (aside from the controversial ending). At the end, another power arises with Max where she can stare at a photo she’s in and transport herself back in time to that picture. She does so and ends up moments before Chloe’s father leaves and is killed in a car accident, a moment that completely changes Chloe into the punk badass we know and love. In order to make a shocking moment at the very end and thus lead into Chapter 4, you are forced to save his life, even though anyone who understands time travel knows just how massive changing an event that took place five years ago will change everything.
In order to push the narrative that eventually leads into a “you can’t change history without consequences” kind of story towards the end of the game, you’re forced to make a major decision. Episodic games are supposed to give you the freedom to at least choose an “A or B” level of decision, but in this moment, arguably one of the most important decisions in the entire game, there’s only one option: you have to save William’s life. As we find out at the end, leading into Chapter 4, all this does is change who dies, as Chloe not long after gets paralyzed from the neck down and will eventually die, whether you make the out of nowhere decision to commit assisted suicide for her or not. By the end of Chapter 3 with you being forced to save Chloe’s father and end up paralyzing her in this alternate timeline, this is the moment when the game starts losing me and starts to become extremely pretentious.
What I hated the most though was that this was the second major missed opportunity to tell a much more interesting narrative towards Max’s time travel powers. The game instead decided to turn this into a “you tried to be the hero and look what you did!” kind of game, a la Spec Ops: The Line, which was cool the first time, but in retrospect, it’s a completely pretentious way to tell a story in a video game. Of course we want to be the hero and save everyone, it’s a natural instinct the majority of us have, why chastise us for it? But what the game really missed out on by telling the story it wants to, is they had two instances where it could’ve told you point blank that you can’t save everyone. While I liked Kate Marsh and William Price is an awesome father, by forcing you to watch them die and show that you are still powerless in the end, it would be a fantastic piece of storytelling where yes, you have time travel powers, but you can’t control them completely, thus there will be times you cannot use them to accomplish what you want to do. Kate dying would’ve been a great starting point for this, but if you want to keep that tense ending of Chapter 2, then being unable to stop William from leaving to his eventual death would’ve been the perfect way to show the player this. But instead we had to revert Chloe into a boring, lifeless figure for half an episode.
***LAST CHANCE, SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE GAME ARE BELOW!!!***
Speaking of a lifeless Chloe, enter the end of Chapter 4. I would love to know how many people had no idea that Mark Jefferson would become a part of the events that caused so much trouble, let alone being the actual one responsible for all the missing girls and presumably deaths of said girls, though we can attribute Nathan Prescott to Rachel Amber at least. We don’t know what happens to any of the girls he does what he does to Max and Kate beyond Kate Marsh, as we’re never told, which is extremely irritating, because if all these girls suffered through this and Max was awake enough to notice who he was, how did no other girl who survived this (Kate included) identify him? The entirety of Chapter 5 is extremely frustrating though and I’ll get into that after I finish with Jefferson here. The uncomfortable vibes of this section of the game with him taking pictures of a tied up, drugged and scared Max really puts you in the worst possible place. While games like Walking Dead put you into more sad, depressing or rage-inducing sections, this is the first episodic game that really put me into an uncomfortable, disgusted state of mind. And props to Dontnod for that, because they were willing to go down a road that you know the vast majority of game creators would never dare to go down. The one step away from rape nature (though what Jefferson does might as well be just that) the game brings in this moment truly makes him an easily despised character that you’re more than happy to see get his shit pushed in.
After the ridiculous transportation through various alternate realities, only to end up back in the real timeline where you’re supposed to die by Jefferson’s hand, you’re saved by a person who through the entire game is a giant asshole, David Madsen. From this point on, the game in my opinion goes full retard and becomes a pointless mess. Whether he kills Jefferson or not, it doesn’t matter as you just go back in time once more just to reverse everything one more time. Along the way, you watch people die that should elicit a reaction, but they don’t because again, you just go back in time anyways towards what will be the final decision that truly writes the actual story of the game.
And here we are at the ending. Before I even get into the ending itself, here’s my biggest problem with the game. Everything you do from Chapter 1 to the final moments of the game, whether it’s saving Kate Marsh, being nice to Victoria (doesn’t matter, you can’t save her in that timeline no matter what), dealing with the bullshit of what happens when you go back and save William, hell even whether you decide whether Jefferson dies or goes to jail, all it doesn’t matter because the final decision of the game wipes it all away, one way or another.
The game decides to tell you that everything that has happened is your fault, because you had to use your time travel powers. The game actively tells you that you’re an idiot for using something given to you and by doing so, you’ve fucked up everyone and everything. Even worse, the game tells you that the only way to fix everything is to kill your best friend and realistically the only, truly likable character in the entire game.
So basically this is your final decision in the game:
- Sacrifice the girl you’ve been trying to save the entire game by going back in time and letting her be killed in the opening moments of the game, thus erasing everything you have done up until this point.
- Allow the tornado to destroy the entire town, leaving only you and Chloe alive, thus erasing any point in all the decisions you’ve made as you’ll have essentially sentenced every person you’ve met in Arcadia Bay to death.
That’s it, you have two choices and both of them completely erase everything you’ve done leading up to that point, all your decisions, all the relationships you’ve cultivated, everything. It’s all gone. Poof, whether through a time paradox or a tornado, it’s all gone. It was pointless, a waste of time.
And you know what? I told “destiny” to go fuck itself and save Chloe, because even though I would normally save multiple lives at the cost of the one, the entire game has you trying to save a single character, why would I ever deviate from the point now? What’s even more ridiculous is the idea that because Chloe dies, the game tries to tell you that her death signals the end of Nathan Prescott, Mark Jefferson and apparently the tornado will never happen. What facts does the game show that this is the case? Why would I believe that just because I didn’t let Chloe get shot in that bathroom, that the apocalypse comes to Arcadia Bay? I have no reason to believe that Chloe’s death signifies anything, considering Max gets her vision of the tornado and her powers before Chloe is killed. So in my mind, everything after that vision has nothing to do with Max’s actions beyond that, as far as I’m concerned, the tornado was going to happen, in the same way all the accidents at the beginning of Final Destination movies happen.
So I left the game quite frustrated and underwhelmed by a poor ending and now after watching Dontnod’s 20-minute gameplay showing of the prequel Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, I’m very troubled with being interested in this game showing the relationship between Chloe and Rachel. The loss of time travel is a huge negative, as it was an extremely interesting mechanic with this original game, but also the vibes I’m getting from the game are coming off even more pretentious than ever. So I’m certainly not reaching to put money forward on this Life Is Strange game either.
In the end, I liked Life Is Strange for what it is, an episode adventure with an extremely interesting concept and a story that pushes boundaries into directions not many games are willing to go into. It felt real at times. But along the way, there are a ton of stupid mistakes and missed opportunities that are mad that really break me away from the game the more I think about it. The story is really good up until the end when it shits itself and erases everything. Time travel is such a difficult beast and while the writers of this game had good intentions, they didn’t quite know how to write it properly and thus the game suffers tremendously for it. It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but man oh man did this game crash hard at the end!