2020 marks the 5th anniversary of DONTNOD Entertainment’s Life Is Strange, published by Square Enix and released all the way back in 2015, in five episodic instalments. With DONTNOD having recently released the final episode of their latest game, Tell Me Why, and having just watched my girlfriend play Life Is Strange for the very first time during quarantine, I figured it was about time (no pun intended) to revisit Arcadia Bay. I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible as we look back on the good, the bad and the hella weird aspects of the game that put DONTNOD in the spotlight, and ask: what is the legacy of Life Is Strange, and is it still worth picking up?
First off, a quick rundown for those who never caught this game when it came out, or anyone who needs their memory jogged. In Life Is Strange you play as Max Caulfield, a shy eighteen-year-old who dreams of becoming a professional photographer. After five years spent living in Seattle, Max has returned to her small seaside hometown of Arcadia Bay to attend a photography course at the prestigious Blackwell Academy. The game begins with Max witnessing a murder in the school toilets, and discovering that she can rewind time. The victim of the would-be murder (undone by Max’s new powers) turns out to be Max’s childhood friend, Chloe Price, and the two embark on a Lynchian quest to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young woman named Rachel Amber.
Really, however, Life Is Strange is about Max and Chloe. The core of the story is the two girls’ estranged relationship, and their struggle to reconnect. When this element of the story works it works. Life Is Strange is a branching narrative game, and the player determines the exact nature of Max’s feelings towards Chloe but in any case the emotional impact of the story hinges on the strength of these feelings. This makes it essential that Chloe be a compelling character, and at her best she is witty, charming and fiercely loyal, with an infectious, playful exuberance that makes her one of the best player companions in gaming. This is thanks in no small part to Ashley Burch, who won several awards for her portrayal of Chloe, including a Golden Joystick Award for Performance of the Year. Other characters, like Chloe’s mother, Joyce, and Max’s fellow classmate, Kate, also deserve a mention as standout characters.
The game is also rich in atmosphere. The soundtrack is filled with more indie hits than a high school coming-of-age story, and at least once per episode the player is invited to take a moment to sit and listen, as the camera gently pans across the scenery—sometimes vibrant, sometimes calm, sometimes eerie—and soak in the world DONTNOD have created. Echoes of these quiet moments can be felt in more recent games, like whenever the player stops to practice guitar in The Last of Us: Part 2.
Okay, let’s get into it. Life Is Strange is…messy. The (thankfully rare) stealth sections and fetch quests are tedious, and the time travel puzzles are repetitive. Speaking of Max’s powers, the nature of her abilities tends to change on a whim whenever the plot needs it to. The plot itself has some thrilling and tragic twists and turns, but also many contrivances, and an infamous ending that polarises fans to this day. Critics and analysts with more time than me have gone into greater depths on why the ending was disappointing to so many, including a fantastic essay by Innuendo Studios (beware of spoilers however). Suffice to say, Life Is Strange suffered not only from instances of clashing tones, but an overall clash between the two narratives it was trying to thread: Max’s personal journey into adulthood, and the terrifying cosmic implications of her reality-warping powers. Immersion in that rich atmosphere I discussed is also sometimes broken by stilted dialogue, poor lip syncing, and outdated slang (though I’d argue the latter is sometimes so outrageous it comes full circle into so-bad-it’s-good territory). And while Chloe—whose relationship with Max is, as I said, the heart and soul of the game—is a fan favourite for many, others found themselves put off by a character who can be domineering and aggressive, sometimes with little provocation.
Yet, for all its faults, Life Is Strange remains for many an iconic and beloved entry in the adventure game genre. One can argue (and I will) that its butterfly effect on gaming can still be felt today. DONTNOD were rejected by several publishers before Square Enix, all because they refused to swap out Max for a male protagonist. Perhaps the game’s commercial success helped pave the road for female game protagonists to come. Life Is Strange was praised for tackling subject matter rarely seen before in games, including topics as dark as suicide and sexual assault, but also more general themes of adolescence and coming-of-age. Similar themes can be found in later games like Infinite Fall’s acclaimed Night In The Woods, another story about a young woman returning to her financially struggling hometown, full of sinister secrets, and trying to reconnect with childhood friends. If NITW tackles such concepts with more nuance and less melodrama, and does a better job of interweaving the supernatural with the slice-of-life, perhaps this is because Infinite Fall had the chance to learn from DONTNOD’s mistakes.
In any case, Life Is Strange endures. 2018’s Life Is Strange 2 boasts an entirely new cast and story, for those who fancy a more polished offering from the franchise, while Max and Chloe’s story continues in an ongoing comic line from Titan Comics. With the first episode of each game being free on Steam, there’s no reason not to check out Life Is Strange for yourself today. Just avoid Deck Nine’s clumsy prequel, Before The Storm, unless you’re a super fan…
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