Release Date: 30/01/2015
Played On: PC / PS4
Available On: PC / PS3 / PS4 / X360 / XBO
Time Played: 13h 26m
Progress: 100% Complete
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
I think it's fair to say that narrative focused games got a real boost when TellTale came out with their version of The Walking Dead. It was arguably when the mix between visual novels and point and click adventures became popular. So why haven't we seen more clones of the formula? Why is it that Life Is Strange feels like the only direct competitor around?
Caveat time: of course I haven't played every game and I realise there might be some very similar games out there that I simply don't know about. However, I would still argue that there hasn't really been anything comparable to a TellTale game, until Life Is Strange came along.
The Walking Dead wasn't even a new idea for TellTale, as they'd been making the same kind of games for a long time. I remember play Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People (2008) and Bone: Out From Boneville (2005), which both followed the same formula. Each of these games were episodic, three dimensional point and click, story driven games, much like The Walking Dead. They're also both really good if you like the source material, so check them out if you do!
I'd posit that The Walking Dead struck at the right time with the right license. After all, it's the only thing that's different about that game, compared to the rest of TellTale's catalogue. The license made everyone pay attention to the game, but the good writing and polished gameplay is what really sold it. I've never seen the show, but I've played the games and enjoyed them a lot. These days TellTale are synonymous with that style of gameplay and storytelling; so much so that the genre is often referred to collectively as "TellTale games".
With all that in mind and the success of everything that's come after The Walking Dead, it surprises me that we haven't seen more copycats in the mix. Especially because these are not triple A super technical powerhouse games. Not to diminish the achievements of everyone that works on these games, but they follow a pretty standard formula that appears easy enough to replicate.
Perhaps it has something to do with the heavy narrative style of these games, as they require some good writing to even stand a chance. Even TellTale fail at it every now and then, as their games seem to hit or miss based purely on the writing. I never thought I'd enjoy Tales From The Borderlands, but I've played it twice now and loved every moment. On the other hand, Game Of Thrones fell flat for me and is widely regarded as one of their weakest games, largely due to the writing. So maybe writing is what holds back the copycats; at least until Life Is Strange came along.
If you haven't played Life Is Strange, then maybe go play it for yourself, as I'll probably mention a couple of spoilers. It's hard to avoid in such a story focused game, so if you don't want even a hint of some late game elements - look away now.
I originally played the first episode of Life Is Strange on PC when it came out. It looked like it would be a decent rival to TellTale's throne on the mountain, and it was critically well received. I think it's fair to say that Life Is Strange has always been well received and adored by many, but when I played that first episode, I couldn't finish it quick enough.
Mechanically the game is sound, as it uses a few interesting systems that play with the whole "your choices matter" thing. Having the ability to rewind time and choose different responses is basically a sanctioned form of save scumming, so you can experience short term outcomes without any downside. It speaks to the completionist in me as I often replay these kind of games to see the outcomes I didn't pick the first time through. Often the differences are tiny and have little impact on the overall game, but I still enjoy seeing where the branches of the tree go.
Life Is Strange uses the whole rewind time thing as a bit of a crutch in the early game, as it really is nothing more than a gimmick. The choices you make actually don't matter as much as the game wants you to think they do, but that's nothing new for the genre. In fact, I'm not sure that there are many examples of games that actually do have severe consequences for choices, so it's not really a deal breaker anyway.
Other than rewinding time, the rest of the game consists of talking to people and exploring locations. The former is perhaps the most divisive element of Life Is Strange, as talking to people is what made me finish playing at the end of the first episode.
This may come as a shock to some of you, but I'm not an eighteen year old girl in America, and I never have been. I mention this because I saw a lot of critics talking about Life Is Strange as a "trip down memory lane" because it was just like being back in school, and so on. It seems that what many people loved about the game and could directly relate to, I hated and wanted to burn in a fire.
The main character is a student at an arts school circa sometime after 2000, so we're already into unfamiliar territory. Not that it matters all that much, as I've played games for contemporary audiences many times before. However, this is a bunch of pretentious art students who are all "so quirky" and "unique" that I threw up a little in my mouth every time they spoke to one another. The game tries to make you like the main characters so much that I was banging my head against the wall to drown out all the "cool"/"hip" speech that was obviously meant to make me fall in love with them.
I mean, when you finally meet the second main character in the first episode, you're meant to believe that she's some sort of tortured child, but she's basically just a bitch. Your characters hasn't seen her in years, so she's all angsty about being abandoned one minute, then posing for you to take photos the next. I don't think I've ever met such a shallow portrayal of character in any other game. I can't stress it enough: EVERY character in the game is a vapid superficial shell of whatever stereotype they exist to represent.
At this point it's fair enough to say that I don't think the writing in Life Is Strange has held up to the TellTale standard. The gimmicky time rewind gameplay is interesting, but ultimately there's nothing compelling about Life Is Strange. I mean, to put it in perspective, the game is like the character who thinks that "punk" is a fashion statement. You know those overpriced jeans you can buy from designer label stores that already have rips in the knees? That's Life Is Strange.
Life Is Strange is a $50 flannelette shirt.
I would have lived my life happily without ever playing another second of Life Is Strange, if it weren't for Playstation Plus offering the full the game as one of its monthly free games (yes I know you pay for PS+ so they're technically not free). I had just seen everyone get excited over Life Is Strange 2 being announced, and I knew it was still highly regarded as a great game, so I figured maybe I should grit my teeth and finish the story to see where it goes.
By the beginning of the fourth episode I was ready to stop playing again. Playing the first three episodes is like being stuck in a dentist's chair while that drill squeals away on your teeth. Except at the same time you're forced to hold a conversation with a narcissistic teenager who's trying to convince you that The Shins are a really unique and deeply moving band.
Then all of a sudden, the game went from being a torturous battle of attrition, to an interesting surreal exploration of existential causality. I mean, what the hell happened? Somewhere during the fourth episode, the game took a hard ninety degree turn and took off on a random perpendicular tangent. What's more, it stays on that path until the end of the series, effectively loading the final couple of chapters with a compelling narrative out of the blue.
On a superficial level, the plot remains fairly predictable and banal, but the rewind time gameplay really takes off after a while. There's a point in the story where the time mechanic goes from functioning as a save scum for choices, to an actual interesting element of the game. We start to travel further back in time and make changes that are felt in the future. It's the first time in Life Is Strange that the butterfly effect of choices is actually explored and given some weight. We start to see how wielding this power has an effect on the main characters and starts messing with her psychologically. We stop being beaten over the head with how cool these characters are meant to be, and actually get to sink our teeth into some compelling narratives focusing on time travel and consequences.
In fact, I think that's the main difference in the late game of Life Is Strange, as the narrative shifts abruptly from telling, to showing. Instead of telling us how interesting all the superficial characters are, we're shown the breakdown of the main character's psyche as they wrestle with insecurities and the consequences of their actions.
It becomes a genuinely fine example of how video games can portray a surreal experience in ways that other media cannot. At one point you're effectively walking through a Dali-esque maze of the main character's fears and regrets, trying to cope and survive this gauntlet of existential chaos. It's in these moments that I can finally understand why Life Is Strange might be so well regarded. I just wish that I didn't have to wade through over three episodes of absolute garbage to find just over an episode's worth of value.
With that in mind, I'm still confident that I would have felt ripped off if I had paid full price for the full game. As part of my Playstation Plus subscription, I still felt ripped off, but only because my time was so vehemently wasted by the first three episodes of the game. I would even eat my hat a little and say that the final act of the game is good enough to make the rest worthwhile. Although, I'm not sure I'd ever say that out loud to anyone else, so let's make that our little secret. I would hate to be responsible for making someone crawl through the barbed wire that is the train wreck of the first two thirds of Life Is Strange.
Thus, I'm left wondering what I think about Life Is Strange and whether or not I enjoyed the experience overall. Part of me wants to cite it as a good example of what not to do when telling a story. The way the game pivots so drastically can't be ignored, and is perhaps the best way to sum up the game's primary flaw. Until the shift, the entire experience involves a rewind gimmick with little to no purpose, and a bunch of characters who are so far up their own butt that hearing them talk felt like wading through quicksand with underpants full of broken glass. However, what changes as the game shifts direction is everything that sucked up until that point.
Suddenly the characters are talking and thinking about the world and the consequences of their actions. We're experiencing their emotional journey through the actions and experiences they encounter, rather than being told "I am so angst" all the time. What's more, the rewind time mechanic starts to have weight and actually begins driving the story forward instead of acting as a short term save scum system. At this point we're no longer just watching a mound of faeces bake in the sun; we're given a compelling narrative that's compelling and relatively unique.
It's hard to ignore the abysmal mess that made up the first part of Life Is Strange, and I would argue that the end game isn't as incredible as it felt at the time. The sun always looks brighter and warmer after being locked in a damp dark dungeon, so maybe the end game was so impressive to me, because the rest was so terrible.
Overall I think Life Is Strange could have been so much better and really explored the surreal aspects that show up in the last couple of episodes. Of course you need the normality of the first half to make the final act have some weight, but I'd rather they made some characters that actually had something worthwhile to say or do, rather than a group of pretentious teens telling me how cool they are.
I like that someone had a go at the TellTale formula and tried to raise the bar a little. You can definitely see that the developers were trying to take the genre forward and innovate on what is fast becoming a stale formula. Unfortunately though, Life Is Strange feels haphazard and misdirected with its split personality of pretentious superficial stereotypes and surreal existential consequence.
I honestly hope that the sequel learns from these mistakes and manages to tell a cohesive story this time. There's definitely some talent there and oodles of potential, so long as it isn't squandered by bad writing and meaningless execution.