Review: Life is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis
Can we make a new rule for game developers? If a game script has anything to do with highschool or teenagers can we make it mandatory for the developers to actually spend time with some kids? Or better yet, forget the teenagers, can we just ask that before they finalize that script and get actors into a recording studio, could the developers themselves just speak their dialogue out loud? Then maybe when they realize that their conversations don’t sound anything like how actual people talk they might rewrite it before subjecting an audience to their awkward dialogue? Can we make this a thing? Please?
Okay, okay, okay, I’m getting ahead of myself and not being entirely fair because the first episode of “Life is Strange”, an indie title from Dontnod, is not a bad game. The premise alone was enough to pique my interest. A mere five minutes into her day Max, the shy but eager photography student with a passion for analog cameras (gasp!), suddenly finds herself witnessing a brutal shooting in the girl’s washroom while at the same time discovering she has the power to rewind time. That is a lot for anyone to take in let alone a teenager who must still navigate the psychological minefield that is highschool society.
This leads to a somewhat refreshing take on the choice based, story driven episodic games that have gained in popularity over the last few years. Unlike Telltale’s model, in which your choices are final and often made under an intense time limit, Life is Strange gives you the ability to rewind time to try out the other options. It’s a brilliant integration of game mechanic and plot, with Max fully aware of every rewound moment.
For constant worriers like myself, it was a delight. Imagine having the power to go back in time and change your decisions consequence free. There is a point in the game where you have the choice to make fun of the mean girl in school or try to be friends. Sure, I figured being the better person was the option I wanted to go with, but that didn’t stop me from satisfying my curiousity and seeing what happened when I did make fun of her. Better still, Max manages to retain information from any and all variations of a particular event. You might get into a fight with someone but learn some vital information. If you rewind, that information that you learned is now a dialogue choice.
Whenever you make a choice which could make game changing consequences, a small butterfly appears in the corner of the screen. Every time that butterfly emerged I was left wondering if I should rewind. Was the choice I made good? Bad? Would it matter either way? Sometimes the choices are obvious, other times not nearly as much. I felt conflicted over whether I should tell an authority figure about the shooting, or whether I should keep it to myself. The lines pros and cons of the each decision were extremely blurred andI’m still wondering if I made the right choice. I actually wish the game had more moments like those.
Also good is the game’s rich and detailed world which drew me in almost immediately. I was amazed to see the diversity of students in the school. I’m not just talking about ethnicity either. This is probably the first highschool in any entertainment medium that has a wide range of body types: thin, chubby, tall, short. It was kind of nice to see a highschool not just populated by beautiful people played by 30 year olds.
In fact, there were many things that worked: the smooth animation, fantastic voice acting, the sense of nostalgia wandering those school halls, the indie soundtrack that suited every scene perfectly, the supernatural elements. Then there’s the central relationship between Max and her former best friend Chloe. Despite having been childhood friends, they act like total strangers to each other. It was achingly familiar to me and really, I can’t see why most people wouldn’t feel the same way. Most of us at one point or another have met an old friend only to realize they are a completely different person from what we remember. This is much the same…just add time travel.
It has the potential to be an astounding game experience. But then…there’s that dialogue issue. And yes, it’s pretty distracting. Every character in the game sounded awkward and spouted strange catchphrases. At first I thought it was just a case of me getting old but after conferring with friends and reading other reviews I confirmed that no, I am not quite as big a loser as I thought and that no highschooler anywhere seems to speak this way.
It didn’t really help that the characters are painted in broad strokes: the mean girl club, the unhinged evil school bully who honestly would be institutionalized in the real world, the rebel with a troubled home life…actually, now that I think about it, it’s pretty much like Stephen King’s idea of highschool. The bullies are pure evil, the main characters are troubled and misunderstood and authority figures are just….dense.
As for the main character herself, I actually would have liked to get to know her a little more. This is the first episode of a series and so it makes sense that the majority of it is spent simply introducing the various characters. And yet it felt strangely rushed, giving almost no time between the time we meet Max and the moment she discovers her powers. Event though the aforementioned death at the beginning of the game is a huge event and one that would have a huge emotional impact on young Max, I didn’t feel particularly moved by it because within seconds Max is rewinding time and doesn’t seem all that concerned about everything that’s going on.
What if the game hadn’t decided to time travel the moment that event occurred? What if we stuck with Max for a day or so as she suddenly had to live with the horror of what she saw and who exactly was shot? What if we had to see her deal with her guilt, wondering what she could have done differently? What if we saw the serious ramifications and got to know her as a person in the process? And THEN, without warning, we discover her power? It makes us a bit more invested in the fates of these characters.
“Life is Strange” still has potential though. I am intrigued enough to see where it goes and just how exactly someone manages to get time travel powers. I am excited to see more of these characters. Unlike its character, Dontnod may not be able to rewind some of its choices, but it can look forward to make this the best story it can be. Here’s to the next chapter.
Despite some awkward dialogue and pacing issues, Life Is Strange possesses an intriguing storyline and the potential to expand into a deep and thought provoking series.