In a previous editorial, Choices Are Strange, I tried the first episode of Square Enix and Dontnod’s pointy clicky offering, Life is Strange, which seemed to leave me no shortage of material to remind me of my deep loathing for teen angst. While that initial episode had some merits, I finished up my play of it with a particularly obnoxious doubt that I was once again going to invest myself into another empty promise created by my own arguably high standards when it comes to telling a story. The second episode is fresh in my mind, and it brought with it some slightly more palatable morsels to mull over while I downed an entire thing of Jolly Rancher Bites. While I am not completely sold on idea that the story will do any sort of mind blowing, the second episode did improve my overall opinion of the game thus far.
When it comes to science fiction, I am an insufferably picky nerd. The aforementioned standards with which I measure science fiction writing is what causes me to place something as wonderfully enjoyable as Star Wars in the category of fantasy space opera (sorry, but it contains magic). It is not difficult to see where this probably places me firmly in minority thinking and might ignite certain fires, to boot, both of which I am quite okay with. I approach science fiction with a heavily critical eye only because I seek something grand from it; that the author inspire me to ask very interesting, sometimes ‘unanswerable’ questions through scenarios that reflect a relatable reality, be it current or future.
I suppose it is important to address why I think Life is Strange is science fiction. Generally speaking, a story with only one major “what if” involving time is going to involve, at the very least, an attempt to understand it. Well, I expect it to anyway. Again with the standards. Temporal meddling should never, in my opinion, be thrown into a story when the author has no intention of explaining it, and in saying that I also expect them to be capable of doing so in a coherent manner. In essence, I do not believe time manipulation is really possible, but I want to. It is the author’s job to make that happen.
What makes me think Life is Strange may be headed down that road was a tiny moment near the beginning of the second episode. Max, hoodie-clad protagonist, was apparently hitting the quantum physics books hard between episodes as evidenced by notes and tomes scattered about, coupled with her comment “I know there must be a scientific answer.” This pleased me, especially given that were I personally able to suddenly tweak time, I would barf with intense curiosity after getting over the gut-churning terror. Knowing that the character was made to be curious rather than just diving right in with an entirely “gotta save the day” mentality made her that much more identifiable in my eyes. Superman rarely seems to question how his powers work, which is why he is a terrible bore of a superhero.
Yes, there appears to be impending doom on the horizon, but I feel any intelligent person would hesitate and wonder what the limits and negative affects are. Again, I put myself in her shoes for a second and decided that the last person I would probably tell is Chloe, only because of her impulsive nature that disregards consequence. This is something the authors missed in my opinion. A great choice to have included in the game would have been to allow the player to pick between Chloe and Warren as a confidant. This would have presented nicely, contrasting Max’s longtime relationship with Chloe versus the more rational and cautious Warren.
One choice that did ring a sizable bell was near the end of the game, when I was put in the predictable position of having to throw one of three people under the bus; Nathan Prescott, resident wealthy scrotum rash, Mark Jefferson, hipster photography teacher, and David Madsen, security mustache. As it turns out, I was in the small minority who chose to finger nice guy Jefferson. While that is not in itself interesting, my reasoning may be. Madsen and Prescott are both under extreme suspicion, however, in my game and because of some minor choices I made, I have no proof against either of them. Jefferson, on the other hand, has really done nothing wrong so far, and is thus useless in the equation. I decided, assuming that I was about to vote someone off the island, so to speak, that I needed to keep the other two around for the sake of obtaining damning evidence and claim victory over their antics. That and I also suspect that it will be important to have Madsen around later in the game, possibly on my side. He seems like an archetype of a shady character with certain issues, but turns out to be on the protagonist’s support team in the end.
The choices do seem to matter a bit more than what I experience in Telltale’s offerings, so much so that I am not really excited about the third Game of Thrones episode. This is without even mentioning the performance issues with Telltale’s sad, rusty engine. Life is Strange, on the other hand, runs smooth like butta’ on my doddering old 360, and is giving me strong indications that I am, at least a little, shaping the game. The photo evidence against Madsen that I could have obtained is just one such example. In order to get it, I would have had to burn a bridge with Kate Marsh, a character I suspected I would have to help at a later date. This also coincides with my notion that Madsen might be a useful ally later.
Speaking of Kate, the second episode actually had two contrasting scenes dealing with death, differing severely by how tension was created. In the first scene, where Chloe is stuck in the tracks of an oncoming train, I felt no sense of urgency what so ever because I could just keep rewinding time and trying different things without consequence. In fact, I ended up screwing around with that scene for far too long, looking for alternative ways to save her and possible Easter eggs. Then I came to the scene where Kate attempts suicide (indeed, she lives in my game). Not only does Max arrive on the scene only seconds before Kate jumps off the dormitory roof, but in her effort to act quickly, her powers take their toll on her again, this time suddenly disappearing. Well, crap. Now I had one shot to make all the right dialogue choices, which instantly made them feel more meaningful.
Before I wrap this up, there was another scene that I feel deserves a mention, since I thought it was done well simply because of one minor detail. Many times in the game, the results of a minor choice are shown from a different camera angle, generally allowing the player to see clearly what happened so that it can be corrected in a rewind. In the diner scene where Chloe asks for proof of Max’s power, the player has to watch for four events in the diner, rewind, and list them for Chloe. The whole scene is shown from Max’s perspective, where the player can see most of what is going on save for the last event which I missed because I was too busy watching in one direction and rushed. Not only did I not think to turn the camera and see what was out of my field of view (and thus easily visible from Chloe’s position), but once the scene got quiet, I waited a few beats where nothing happened the snapped the rewind just before the jukebox turned on which would have alerted me. I only accidentally noticed the cockroach at the beginning of the scene when I swung the camera on my second watch. Perhaps this is dumb, and obviously the result of how I played the game, but I thought it was a nice touch.
Opening the game with “Something Good” by Alt-J was also a nice touch, as they have been on heavy rotation in my limited music listening for the past few years. Aside from noting that the soundtrack does fit the mood of the game well, I can not say much else for the rest of it simply because it is not my style. Overall, the game is making me like it more, which I am not opposed to. It does have me curious what is coming in the third episode, and the teaser at the end of the second indicates…well…not much at all. We shall see, but it does make me wonder, righteous readers, what games out there started off as sour grapes for you and ended up ripening, albeit slowly, into a more delectable fruit?