Sunday, February 12, 2017

Life Is Strange

The reason I bought Life Is Strange was me being interested in how Dontnod Entertainment's second game had turned out. The overwhelmingly positive user review consensus on Steam suggested that Square Enix had done wisely for deciding to save Dontnod from bankruptcy. Not many titles have so positive a reception among players.

An adventure game?

Life Is Strange is not the kind of game I usually play. I would like to think that it is sometimes good to expose yourself to something different, though. And I reckon there are not even many very similar games out there and maybe that is why the exact genre of Life Is Strange is bit undefined. I suppose the vague classification of adventure game covers LIS. But it does not describe the title very accurately. As literature, it would definitely be young adult fiction.

I am not so sure about the episodic nature of the game either. Financial reasons are obviously why they did it -- to test the waters with the first episode and see if it is worth it for Square Enix to continue funding the game's development. The developers suggested in the commentary videos that the episodes allowed them to also try things normally seen only in TV shows and such. I am not convinced, however. In my opinion games should be released as full packages or not at all.

Time manipulation mechanics

In Life Is Strange you play as 18 years old Maxine Caulfield who has returned to her childhood town of Arcadia Bay to study photography in Blackwell Academy. After witnessing an accidental murder at the beginning of the game, Max discovers she can rewind time. It is bit of a coincidence I played LIS right after Shadwen which also is big on the time rewinding thing. The mechanic was not that unexpected in this one, though, since it kind of was in Remember Me's memory remix sections already. In Life Is Strange it is just more refined -- you can rewind almost everywhere. (And you merely need to hold down buttons, no need to rotate controller sticks. Albeit you sort of get to do that later on, too.)

They obviously wanted to use the already-developed feature more. It did not surprise me one bit to see the game running similarly on Unreal Engine 3 -- it is often good to stay with familiar development tools. Life Is Strange is not visually as detailed, or rather, as high definition as Remember Me, though. They went for quicker to accomplish, more artistic looks -- bit like Dishonored. The game does have working mirrors, though, albeit in confined spaces. Even with the low quality reflection, the game still needs to render the scene from two different angles. That is costly, and the reason why many games do not bother with it.

Focus on the narrative

Apparently Dontnod put most of their budget into writing and voice-acting, which were both done adequately, I admit. Well, writing could have used more work at times -- I felt there were quite a few "How do you do, fellow kids?" moments. I do not claim to be an expert on how young adults speak in Oregon, though. (Am I out of touch or is it the children who are wrong?) I would probably have appreciated things like better lip-syncing as well. In some dialogues of the final episode, Max's face was not even animating at times.

Dontnod Entertainment is a French studio but since they decided to set game in the United States, they hired an American writer to alter the script to be more authentic. The writer, Christian Divine, for instance found the game's parking spots needing to be made larger for American cars. And a male friend kissing Max on the cheek for goodbyes is probably not that common in the States.

Is that your final answer?

The time rewinding is an intriguing mechanic to be combined with decision making. In LIS, if a conversation's outcome is not to your liking, you can immediately rewind and pick another option -- sometimes even a whole new one that was unlocked from the knowledge you gained from the yet-to-be-had dialogue. You would think that the way you can undo your action right away like that makes the decisions less meaningful. However, the developers commented that it was surprising how many players ended up considering their options for minutes on end even with knowing they could just rewind.

There are plenty of decisions whose outcome is not apparent until later too, sometimes even not till the next episode. And thus rewinding will not be possible anymore after learning what happens. The game informs you afterwards if an action will have a consequence, and sometimes Max even sort of tries to pressure you to rewind with her inner dialogue:"I could always go back."

Choices matter?

I find it ironic that the game's probably greatest scene in my opinion, towards the end of Episode 2, Out of Time, happens when you are not able to use your rewind power due to having played with it carelessly all day. Instead you are stuck with the decisions you have made up to the point and dialogue options that require you to have interacted with seemingly unimportant stuff earlier and remember those. (The game does few memory puzzles like that here and there.)

The influence of The Butterfly Effect had been so prominent from the start that Max's nosebleeds were very expected. I speculated it would get worse based on the number of times I had done something involving rewinding. Maybe at some point I would be unable to use the power because I had wasted it on making various characters needlessly to like me. But as it turned out, that was not to be the case. You are free to use the power as you like. When you cannot, the reason is narrative rather than mechanical.

In addition to decisions, the rewind power is curious because it does not move Max in place. Thus it is sometimes used for things such as breaking through a door, and then rewinding to make the door untouched again once you are inside. In Episode 3, Chaos Theory, when you are at a swimming pool, Chloe (Max's childhood friend), asks if you want her to open the girls' or boys' side. I picked one, explored the place, and then rewound time to see what kind of response Chloe gives for the other option. I had not realized I was doing the rewinding on the other side of the future-past locked door and could then open it from the inside. Which then prompted Chloe to comment how she had already seen that trick. I wonder if I missed many such little interactions throughout the game.

Am I being judged?

What made me truly ponder, or even bothered me, for the whole first episode at least and longer, was how I did not know if there were optimal choices. Would I be locked out of the best outcome if I did not comply with the writers' moral views? Should I have rewound to stop the football from hitting Alyssa? How big of a consequence would that action have? Maybe for that reason I found Episode 1, Chrysalis, to be the most interesting one.

At the end of each episode, you get a list of the choices, your decisions, and the percentages of how many players picked which option. It is a really cool feature to have but seeing I had went with something that the vast majority had not, made me worried. Eventually I decided I would stick to my decisions and not replay the first episode. What is the point of having choices in a game if everyone picks the same one, like TotalBiscuit always likes to comment when certain viewers want a streamer/youtuber to do everything the same way as they.

One really curious statistic in a later episode to me was:"David didn't get a scar during the fight: 6% of players." That must require more than decisions. There must be something small to notice in the scene to interact with. Like in Remember Me I recall there being an achievement for some memory remix's rare failure state. I wonder if every choice by a player even after a rewind is counted in the statistics in LIS. That could possibly make the numbers unreliable.

A journey of issue exposure

Where I became absolutely certain Life Is Strange does not judge you, was when Max used a photograph to jump far back in time and her actions changed Chloe's life dramatically. It was very obvious that Max would undo it later on. There was no way the game would continue from there like that (it was just the third episode I think). It was interesting to see the numbers for the decision you make in that alternate timeline even if many players probably realized the choice was not that much about the story rather than what you feel about the situation. (57% of players have granted Chloe her wish, which is honestly surprising to me. I expected a larger majority.)

Watching the developer commentary made me realize how many potentially really difficult issues there are presented in the game -- all so very carefully. LIS only puts you into situations, asks questions, and gives consequences but does not say if you did the right thing. (Although I guess sometimes the characters do try to make you feel guilty when things do not go their way.) Video games are such a perfect medium for that.

Another thing Life Is Strange does, is have people that appear very stereotypical at first but are not. It was clear to me how characters like Victoria and David had more to them than what the first impressions given tried to make me think. I would thus also like to say that the twist in Episode 4, Dark Room, did not surprise me. But while I was sure there would eventually be some revelation with certain character despite the impression given so far, I had not quite expected to see it coming like it did.

Falls apart in the conclusion

I think that in the last episode, Polarized, they seriously dropped the ball. Most of it felt so pointless, filler. Max in the alternate timeline was almost like Aros Ralston in 127 Hours hallucinating he was not stuck under the rock. And the nightmare parts too with the extended stealth section -- what purpose did they serve? And then you are faced with the final decision of Life Is Strange, a variation of the trolley problem: undo everything to save Arcadia Bay from the tornado your power hypothetically caused and let Chloe die, or let her live and the tornado to eat the town.

I have actually been typing and re-typing the following few paragraphs for a while now. At first I just going to write how the choice completely failed to engage me. I did not care at all. I chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay (47% of players) because I might as well keep saving Chloe like I had been doing the whole game. It was an easy and bit of an indifferent decision. And that is still true. But then I started wondering why it was so easy. Had I actually cared about it. I ask myself now could I really have sacrificed Chloe instead to save the town. And the answer is no, never.

Why? Because even though I did not care about the town and its folks, I did care about Chloe. Chloe who is quite unlikable character for a good while (for understandable reasons) but who grows (or can grow?) over the course of the game thanks to your actions. She is self-centered, gets pissed off if you are not paying attention to her like when answering to Kate's phone call. But later on Chloe is sorry about it.

Especially the alternate timeline gives you a glimpse of what she could be had things been different. And then you tell her -- or can tell, I am not sure if it is necessary -- what happened in the dark room and about the alternate Chloe and her request. I think she really changes after that. When you are at the lighthouse in Episode 5, it is not the same Chloe you were there with in Episode 1. And that is why the town had to go. (Also, the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of hundreds a statistic.)

Few changes would have helped

The final episode is still shit in my opinion, though. What I would have done is ditch the nightmare sequence and the fucking tornado from whole the game, as well as the unscheduled eclipse and double Moon crap. The birds and whales could stay as indicators of the chaos theory. They are believable. Then I would expand the whole mystery of Rachel Amber, or at least its conclusion, to have material for a full episode. Keep the game slightly more grounded in mundane matters.

I feel Victoria's death did not get properly addressed. At least I assume she was still dead even after the photo jump to the party, probably thanks to my (and 74% of players') misguided warning to her. Stuff like that could have made up the content for the last episode.

Life Is Strange hardly is my favorite game of all time. But I would say the experience was very much worth it. Dontnod Entertainment is an interesting developer and I look forward to playing their next title, Vampyr.

There are couple things I would like to mention still. Firstly, ripping polaroid film in two like Max does couple times is not actually very easy but the developers kept it because it felt so fitting. Secondly, I was absolutely certain someone would drop the game's title at some point. And it did happen but it kind of went... wrong.

Max: "Life is..."
Me: "Strange. She said it!"
Max: "...weird."
Me: "...What?"

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