Remember those breezy days as a teenage girl at a top private photography high school in suburban Oregon? I sure do, and that’s why I love Episode 1 of Life is Strange, a Telltale-esque adventure title published by Square Enix. Worry not, though: while Life is Strange presents early on as catering to a niche market, the themes and quality of storytelling surpass what initially appears to be trite subject matter.
On its face, Life is Strange revolves around the epitome of first world problems: a poor girl who’s earned a scholarship at a reputable photography school, but who just can’t fit in with the divas and geniuses of her age. Of course, the tale runs deeper than that. After a somewhat insufferable opening, our protagonist, Max, witnesses a horrific event that seems to bring out an otherworldly power to turn back time. Most of the episode surrounds this incident, the realization of supernatural power, and how Max tries to learn more about it while using it to benefit herself and those around her.
Although Max seems a little too comfortable with this unusual power within the first twenty-four hours of discovering it, the writing and gameplay work well in disguising this unlikely glimpse into human psychology. This is necessary for the sake of narrative and game design, so I won’t hold it against the developers too much. The rest of the episode also involves friendship vs. proximity, an odd disappearance, and a cliff-hanger ending that potentially sets up the core narrative. Again, while Life is Strange focuses on suburban American culture through the lens of a teenage girl, the content and writing quickly turn this into a tale accessible to even a thirty-year-old male who’s artistically inept and definitely doesn’t regret his life decisions as he equates his age with “waiting to die.”
The developers tactfully weave the narrative implications of this newly discovered superpower with unique adventure genre gameplay. Those of us who wonder “what if I had done something else?” may rest assured that every dialogue possibility can be explored with Max’s time manipulation. In fact, the game frequently reminds players that something that has occurred may have future implications and that a different decision might change the outcome. This caters to players who want to optimize their experience by modifying outcomes to see what might happen, as well as wistfully nostalgic adults who spend too much time wondering what could have been if they had gone down other paths in life.
As far as modern adventure titles go, navigating the environment in third-person and clicking on objects or people to interact with should be familiar and intuitive to those who’ve played a Telltale title or even to those who are completely new to the genre. The developers clearly adopted this style well, taking few risks other than the aforementioned gameplay mechanic. While time altering can feel gimmicky, using this ability to manipulate the environment or people can be briefly satisfying.
Visually, Life is Strange is stellar both in terms of raw graphics, artistic direction, and use of camera. Characters animate awkwardly at times and lips don’t always synchronize with dialogue appropriately, but the ambition and attempts at emulating human movement are not only appreciated, they’re also successful more often than not. Life is Strange definitely takes a step up in the production department compared to other adventure titles, but more frequent successes would certainly enhance immersion. One aspect of the environment that I hadn’t initially noticed was the blur of foreground and background depending on the focus of the shot, as if the game took place in front of a camera or through the tears of a grown man wishing for a second chance. What makes this visual tactic especially successful is that I was not aware of it until I went back to look at the game. Unconsciously, this likely amplified my immersion, similar to the strong voice acting.
Life is Strange hosts a cast that may not appeal to every gamer. The setting and circumstances of this tale are narrow and not entirely relatable, but the second half of the episode hints at more mature themes and an opportunity to escape the mundane 9-to-5 grind as each day blends together until one is too tired to do anything worthwhile on the weekend. With novel mechanics and sound writing, Life is Strange will have you reliving your glory days wondering how it’s already been twelve years and that you haven’t done anything meaningful in that time.