Life as a teenage girl in a picturesque Oregon town is much harder than I anticipated. As it turns out, even the power to bend time to your will doesn’t stop you from making mistakes or even second-guessing the right choices.
I learned these important life lessons while playing “Life Is Strange,” an episodic action title a la the Telltale Games model released throughout last year by French developer Dontnod Entertainment. It received rave reviews from critics and has a nearly perfect user score on PC gaming distributor Steam, so I checked it out as my first catch-up review after a busy 2015.
I understood the hype right away. The graphics and art style, while not technically brilliant, meld beautifully into the coastal setting. A great indie rock soundtrack provides the cherry on top.
What is it about the Pacific Northwest that perfectly suits supernatural teen angst? The rain and deep green colors really make me feel as if no one will ever truly understand me.
“Life Is Strange” is as quirky as its main character, Maxine, who spends most of the 10-hour storyline juggling typical 18-year-old high school drama and the massive responsibility of stopping the impending destruction of her town. About half the game was spent trying to stop the popular girls from destroying the lives of those they deem less fortunate, and the other half was spent solving rape cases, stopping murders and uncovering horrible secrets. It was really odd, but in a good way.
Maxine can rewind time, which provides unique puzzle-solving opportunities and rips the teeth out of the traditionally treacherous episodic action genre. In Telltale Games’ “Game of Thrones” series or “Until Dawn,” some wrong decisions can immediately lead to death. In “Life Is Strange,” you often get a chance to test one option, then rewind and choose the other if you don’t like the outcome. The game also automatically pauses to prevent Maxine from being crushed by rocks or hit by a train, allowing the player to rewind time and stay out of danger – rather than killing player and forcing you to load a saved game.
This creates a much more tame, relaxing experience geared toward exploration and conversation with the game’s complex characters over heart-pounding action. It is a relaxing change of pace, but I have to say I prefer it when my decisions carry more weight. That feeling of each choice carrying a heavy weight is diminished in “Life Is Strange,” which does a disservice to the game’s fantastic story.
And it is a fantastic plot. The main reveal of the town’s major bad apple totally floored me. The various story arcs – the trivial teen dramas as well as the looming apocalypse – weave together. I wasn’t a big fan of the final ending. There’s one major event that repeats itself several times throughout the main story that loses its dramatic effect with each rewind. But overall, the story works in a big way.
Perhaps the most important element found in “Life Is Strange” is Maxine herself. Much of the game’s praise centers around her character. Critics, many of whom have a much firmer grasp on life as a young woman than I have, have written eloquently about what a positive step Maxine is for gaming as a whole.
It bears repeating: Maxine, despite having godlike powers that act as the main engine for the game, is one of the most relatable female lead characters in all of gaming.
Dontnod avoided all the typical pitfalls. Maxine doesn’t need a boyfriend. She has some general interest in love and relationships, but they are by no means required. On the opposite end, she isn’t hyper-masculinized the way a Lara Croft is. She doesn’t need to beat the boys at their own game to be the hero; Maxine is content to be herself, and that’s heroic enough.
One of my co-workers summed up this major achievement pretty well – probably by accident. Editorial board member Gail Marshall passes by my desk every day on the way to her office, but she stopped Tuesday to glance at the game as I was playing it.
“Wow, a female video game character who’s actually wearing clothes,” she said before continuing on to her desk.
It’s pretty lame that dressing a woman in actual people clothes is something to celebrate, but that’s the world we live in. Or at least that’s still the perception of many people unfamiliar with the evolving video game landscape.
Even if you don’t really care about gender roles, “Life Is Strange” is worth spending some of your precious, unfortunately not rewindable time on. It combines great storytelling with a warm cinematic feel. A few of the puzzle and time-traveling mechanics chip away at the finished product a bit, but it is well worth the $20 price.
I look forward to seeing what Dontnod will do with a second season.
Life Is Strange
Video game review
▪ Rated mature for blood, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language and drug/alcohol use
▪ Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
▪ Publisher: Square Enix
▪ Out now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC