Life is Strange is a Choice and Consequence game by Don’t Nod Entertainment. The game auto-saves at checkpoints but if you want to revise decisions your character has the ability to rewind time to select different options and change the outcome. It’s almost as if you had the ability to reload in ‘real life,’ except you have to endure the really slow rewind-time animation every single time. At least you get to skip dialogue after you’ve heard it once but not before, so replaying Life is Strange is a repetitive experience as the cut-scenes are incredibly long. In fact probably more of the game is cut-scenes than actual game-play.
However the cut scenes are very beautiful and cinematic. Life is Strange does a good job at conjuring atmosphere and emotion even if the characters do forget to move their lips when speaking every now and then. To be honest that’s forgivable because they create easy to connect to characters. There’s even the option for the two female protagonists to have a romantic relationship. The game really shines exploring the relationships between the different characters. If anything it would have been nice to bond more with side characters that were not as fleshed out.
Alas, despite the games reassurances that player decisions do indeed matter they don’t matter a jot. You will be railroaded down the very liner narrative it wants you to play (featuring an actual railroad no less!) with very little influence. Some of the conversation options you get will literally result in the same responses no matter what you choose. The game particularly likes to track decisions you made at the end of each chapter and compare them to those made by other players. A surprising number of these decisions have zero payoffs.
I think this would not be so disappointing if Life is Strange did not bang on so much about The Butterfly Effect. This is a concept that small causes have large effects. Basically it built up a sense of anticipation that there would be Big Consequences.
“Ah!” I hear some people say, “but what about the Big Consequences?” The trouble is it isn’t really a consequence of anything that you/Max does. You are told it is, but never shown. Really, Game Designers, how hard is it to obey the “Show don’t tell” rule? This part of the plot reminded me of the final Star Trek : TNG episode ‘All Good Things.’ Star Trek did a very good job of showing a space anomaly grow as a result of Picard’s actions in different timelines. Life is Strange could have shown the Storm growing in Max’s vision every time she pulled more time-shenanigans. But they didn’t. So it feels less like cause-and-effect and more like contrived plot device.
Max concludes that her time-travel powers were responsible for the weird shit, rather than that the weird shit was responsible for her time travel powers. The origin of Max’s time-travel powers are never explained. But sure, teenagers often manifest superpowers for no reason.
Which brings me to Max’s superpower. It evolves throughout the game from the ‘rewind’ ability which gifts her with foreknowledge to a form of teleportation. Then she gets the ability to make large leaps back in time via photographs (at least within her own timeline) and (possibly simultaneously? It is not made clear) the ability to jump to alternate realities. Finally cause and effect break down so much nothing makes sense. For those who have played, I’m talking about where Jefferson burns all Max’s photos in response her destroying her contest entry in the past, thereby preventing her from going back into the past to… do that? Paradox? There have been many long-winded fan theory’s to try and explain it, but I’m going to. The paradox sends her to a parallel dimension, similar to the one where she’s a member of the Vortex Club. It looks like her reality but it’s a little bit different. There. That is the best I can do!
Max really does have some amazing powers. Sadly she does not use them very effectively. In fact Max and Chloe seem to be going out of their way to avoid sensible decisions (even for teenage girls). Personally I wondered if it was taking the piss every time someone suggested calling the Police. Could I the player have some influence on these decisions? Apparently not.
Dear Max Caulfield. You are a photographer. You work out you can travel back in time via photographs. Yet you hardly take any. Even the few we do have you won’t do your time-travel shtick on. What gives?
It was probably a good call on the developers part to make the end as surreal as possible. Technically I suppose any plot holes could be explained away as reality-deteriorating dream-sequences. But nothing is explained and it isn’t very satisfying.
Killing Chloe felt like the Bury Your Gays trope (particularly as it’s only in the Sacrifice Chloe ending that she can declare her love for you). And, honestly if Mass Effect is going to get shit for it’s three endings which did not reflect the decisions you made through the game the Life is Strange Deserves equal flack (although I recognize it is a smaller studio) for its two endings that do the same thing. I actually felt more offended by the ending(s) of Life is Strange because it/they made everything I had done in the game pointless. It was in interesting new take on the ‘trolley problem,’ however.
The ‘Save Chloe’ ending seemed particularly lackluster. After Max tried to save everyone she could during the storm (with the exception of killing her best friend which, arguably, might not stop it anyway.) she just drives away and doesn’t check for survivors? And there are no search and rescue teams? And (in both cases) we are supposed to believe that Max never uses her powers again and everything is fine now? I suppose when Max talks to an alternate universe version of herself it suggests that although everything is sunshine and rainbows for her she has left multiple devastated Maxine’s in her wake.
The real ending for me was staying in the Gallery and being a super famous photographer while Chloe waited in a perfectly safe location.
Despite my complaining I liked it for being artistic, atmospheric and imaginative. To be fair time travel is always going to be an ‘iffy’ mechanic at best. The story holds up until the last chapter and I was emotionally invested in the characters. Let’s face it: it is all about the relationship between Max and Choe and I was eating that up.
Possibly Don’t Nod were overambitious and fully intended at the beginning of the game to make every, tiny decision count, but only understood what an impossible, mammoth task this was when they came to the end and had to simplify! Fair enough.
Don’t Nod has since released a Prequel Game Life Is Strange: Before The Storm set in the same universe and featuring the character of Chloe, but with no time-travel powers. A good call in my opinion.