Thoughts on Life is Strange: Episode One

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Conceptually, I admire Life is Strange. It wants to take the Telltale formula and ground it, both in a new IP and in something more identifiably human. Even more than that, it wants to be important. Its protagonist, a shy teenage girl, is an uncommon video game hero. It tackles serious issues, including rape, depression, and suicide. Its two main characters are explicitly gay. These are things that made me enter the game with a fair amount of goodwill. Goodwill that the game set on fire within 30 minutes, pushed off a cliff with 45, and then obliterated with 90.

Life is Strange is a bad game. Its pacing is confused. It features writing that is too stilted to be good, not earnest enough to make up for it, and far too self important to be enjoyable at all. Even the story it wants to tell changes from scene to scene and never gains any coherency. Worst of all, it fails to respect the people who need its story the most. Its fleeting moments of grace cannot save a game that seems determined to ruin itself.

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You are Max, photography student at the prodigious Bullworth Academy (which is a cross between a high school and a college because the writers couldn’t decide where they wanted to set it and just went for both.) After witnessing the murder of her friend, Chloe, Max discovers that she has the ability to reverse time and prevents her death. Here is where our problems begin.

Max’s abilities are never explained; there is not even a catalyst for them. This is theoretically not a problem. The force is never explained right? Well, no, but the force is contextualized in the world. It is woven up as something that actually exists, that the characters perceive in different ways. Star Wars contextualizes its supernatural elements. A closer example to Life is Strange might be Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It grounds its arbitrary supernatural rules as part of the natural order. This gives its mythology a kind of realism, because its rules have reasons for existing.

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Life is Strange is not smart enough to do even the most basic version of this exposition. Max suddenly gains powers, that not only change the way the game is played, but fundamentally alter the way she can see the universe. Introducing such a dramatic supernatural element without a catalyst or grounding is nothing but lazy and stupid. The game even proceeds to introduce new powers and abilities or restrict the use of the powers, at a whim, a hand wave, whenever the “plot” requires it. The powers are only there because the game needed a mechanical hook and something to move its vague plot mechanizations.

This kind of arbitrary storytelling is everywhere in the game. It constantly flips between different plot lines that it quickly drops without letting them build to any sort of dramatic head. After two hours of playing this game, I honestly could not tell you what it was principally about. There’s a missing girl you need to find, a rich kid who is trying to silence you talking about his attempted murder, your powers, a huge storm that is threatening to destroy the town in five days, and Chloe’s relationship with her father. You don’t have a clear stake in any of these things (except perhaps the storm, which you have no clear way of being able to prevent). Thus you have little motivation to pursue any of these threads, much less any reason to believe that they are related in any meaningful way. Max herself is equally vague. I still don’t know who she is, what she wants, or why she wants it. Her one character trait is shy. One that is constantly contradicted by the options the game gives the player.

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Even worse, the game justifies its many of its characterizations with hand waves. The rich kid is a psychopathic murder because he is rich. Chloe’s dad is abusive and paranoid – he even places security cameras in his house, this is not a game for subtlety – because he was in the military. You don’t get to stand for emotional honesty and truth, while using a background detail to justify the evil acts of a character. You cannot fight discrimination through simplistic judgement. This is a game that claims to stand for marginalized people and then fails to express their struggle in a way that is anything other than patronizing and simplistic.

Now, to be fair, cartoonish villains are not always bad. I’m not about to take The Muppets to task for having Mr. McEvil Oil Baron as its bad guy. However, The Muppets is a movie about talking puppets that have a TV show. Its emotional beats and its characters are silly and broad because that is what the piece itself requires. Life is Strange, on the other hand, oozes with a desire to be taken seriously. It namedrops serious issues, but then fails to do anything to make those issues matter or even to make their exploration coherent.

This laziness is pervasive. This is a game that thinks it can create emotion by playing folk music and having dramatic lighting. This is a game that thinks it can write authentic teenage dialog by inserting outdated slang every other word. I question whether the writers were teenagers at all, because the lack of understanding of how teenagers act and talk is astounding.

In one particularly cringeworthy moment, Max is kind to Victoria, a blonde queen bee who was mean to her. Victoria proceeds to send this text message in reply:

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No one would actually say this. Besides, if Max’s and Victoria’s relationship is so antagonistic, why do they have each other’s phone numbers? Why does Victoria feel the need to affirm that lack of friendship at all? What narrative point does this exchange serve anyway? Wasn’t this information that we basically already had? This tells little and shows nothing.

Most of the writing is just as useless. As you move through the game’s environments, Max constantly adds meaningless commentary to everything she sees. The game can’t even bother to allow for the possibility that its players might have basic deductive skills. It refuses to let the environment or the characters actions spell out their feelings, but instead opts to have them shout it. Even the engine itself, with its stilted character models and mannequin-like faces doesn’t allow for subtlety or performance, even though the game clearly wants it.

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The fleeting moments when the game works are when it shuts up. Its spaces are evocative and feel surprisingly real. When the game lets you be somewhere – just lying in a bed listening to music or sitting on a bench in the park – it manages to hit something that feels emotionally true. Life is Strange did one thing right: It made me long for another game that was like it. A game that had new verbs, like picture taking, talking, or lying down. Somewhere in Life in Strange is a game that would transform the mainstream medium.

But the fact is, games like Gone Home and Cibele do what Life is Strange is trying to do much, much better. They are true both to their medium and to their characters. They are layered with emotional honesty and subtle storytelling. They have an emotional authenticity that Life is Strange can only dream of. They create game worlds that feel real, because they don’t feel the need to endlessly explain them. Even Telltale games, which Life is Strange may or may not deride, but certainly slavishly imitates, have a real understanding of craft and of episodic structure, even as they hold on to established franchises and genres.

Life is Strange was released to a fair amount of praise and still holds claim to an active fanbase. Despite all of my harsh words, this is something I understand. So many people long for these kinds of stories, for games with new verbs in which they can see a reflection of self. I long for those games too. Despite all of this, or even because of it, the people Life is Strange claims to represent deserve better than anything it has to offer. Go play Gone Home instead.

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PS: Errant Signal’s videos on this game were invaluable in helping me construct my argument and giving me enough context to make sure that I could properly condemn this thing. I’ll put a link to them here(A video on episode one specifically) and also here(a video on the series as a whole). He is much kinder to the game than I am, but I think he has a pretty good read on its strengths and weaknesses and is smart and articulate as usual.

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