Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment (2015)

This game fucked me up.

Now, this will be my first game review. I’ve never reviewed a game before, and I’ve never planned on it, either. But I’ve been obsessing over this game for the past week or so, and I would love to share my thoughts.

And, of course, since this game is very story-driven, I’ve created a spoiler-free section at the front of this review and a more in-depth spoilers section at the end.

Note: I watched a Let’s Play of this game, and most of the game’s story is told through cut scenes. Therefore, I’ll often say “when I watched the game” instead of “when I played the game.”

Entertainment: 4/5

Intellect: 5/5

+1 for originality/genre-breaking 

Overall: 10/10

Entertainment:

In my view, whether or not someone likes this game is entirely dependent on how they view Chloe Price by the end of it. Chloe has a strong personality, which will polarize people: either they will be fond of her at the end, or hate her at the end, with hardly any in between. This makes the game fuck up people who learn to love her (like me). I do want to mention, however, that I hated Chloe at first. More on that in the spoilers section…

The game builds up like To Kill a Mockingbird. The whole time, you’re thinking about all the small, seemingly insignificant details that are accumulating and how they could possibly be related to each other. For the first two or three episodes, the game builds up, and after that, shit hits the fan. Hard.

Apart from the plot, many people have commented that the game is also visually beautiful. It doesn’t have especially detailed graphics or well-synched voice acting, but the game still feels beautiful because of the sheer amount of time that it spends looking at the Oregon scenery, contemplating life, and (sometimes) just listening to music.

I didn’t cry while watching the game. A few times it brought tears to my eyes, but it was really the tension and haunted feeling that it built up in me that eventually made me cry afterwards. I haven’t connected with fictional characters like this in a long, long time. I was starting to think that I didn’t have it in me anymore. But this has got to be the first videogame that has ever made me really feel something.

Intellect:

I was really waffling over what to give this game for intellect. Overall, I’m giving it a point above the neutral 3/5 for several reasons — all of which are listed in the spoiler’s section, but one of which I can say here: the game makes you make some really hard choices, and there’s sometimes no “best” answer. At the very least, it makes you think about how one small action in one very small time period can make a huge difference in people’s lives.

And, of course, there’s all the debate it stirs in its players…

Spoiler Section:

Entertainment:

As I was saying about not liking Chloe at first: when she first drove Max home, I was thinking to myself, “Please don’t let this be the romance I’ve been hearing about, please don’t let it be this girl…” She was always angry, bullied Max, picked fights with her poor mother, and frequently joked about violently killing people in town. She was not an enjoyable character. But as time wore on, there were a few moments where Chloe was genuinely happy. Not “Yeah, let’s fuck shit up!” happy, but an innocent happy. Like when she yells, “Photo bomb!” She sounds just like the little 14-year-old version of herself saying “That’s a dollar for the swear jar!”, and those are the times when she’s the most appealing.

Let’s talk about finding Rachel. A few weeks ago, I read a book with a similar plot: searching for a long-lost bff that (by all common sense) should be dead, but the main character has a strong feeling that they aren’t. When I read that book, it turned out that the bff really was dead. And at the time, I thought to myself, “There’s no good way to do this.” In one scenario, the bff turns out to be alive, which implies unrealistically that people who “feel like” their best friend is still alive are actually correct. In the other scenario, the book sends you on an unsatisfying wild goose chase (dead goose chase?). Neither ending would have worked out. But after watching Life is Strange, I realized: there is a good way to do this. Because the scene where they find Rachel was so well done that I’m putting it up there with the stampede scene in The Lion King. It might even be better than the wildebeast stampede for me, because I first found out about the stampede when I was three or four, so it’s never been a surprise for me. But in Life is Strange, I didn’t catch onto what was going on until halfway into the digging: “What? Why would you think Rachel would still be at the junkyard? Why are you digging? Why is there a trash bag — oh fuck.” Everything about it is perfect, and it’s so painful that I can’t stop rewatching it over and over again. I used to dislike that song, but now I both love it and hate it.

Additionally, I think that the game handled the secret villain twist at the end perfectly. I absolutely did not see that coming, but looking back it still seems plausible. Throughout the game, I was thinking to myself what a shame it was that they were going to make the villain a mentally unstable teenager. It seemed lazy: “Bad things happen because a spoiled brat was born a psychopath.” Mr. Jefferson is still somewhat unstable, but he has an actual motivation for what he does, and he was driven to it by particular events in his past. The only part that makes him a villain is his willingness to hurt others in pursuit of his goal, which is much better than the “bad people were just born crazy” villain in Nathan.

Now, the game is not perfect. There are some scenes that feel really forced (ex. the pool scene), unnecessary (ex. bottle collecting), or cringey (ex. the dialogue). I feel like some of the supernatural events still aren’t explained at the end, and it’s obvious that the game makes some choices easier than they would be in real life (ex. the wheelchair reality. More on that in the Intellect spoilers…). But none of that has stopped me from rewatching the entire series.

Overall, was the ending satisfying? It’s hard to say. Normally, I would be fine with a main character who I absolutely love dying in the end. It makes for a powerful story. But here, it somehow feels empty. I’m not 100% percent sure why this is, but I have a few theories:

  1. The choice seems shoe-horned. Since I was watching this on YouTube, there were recommended videos on the right of my screen. Like an idiot, I looked over, and there was a video called something like “How to save Chloe and Arcadia Bay.” Jeez, spoilers much? But that actually made me even more interested. I wondered how the game was going to set that choice up. I thought I’d found it in the wheelchair reality, or maybe something like the second Dark Knight movie, or maybe Chloe kills herself over William’s death, but William actually turns out to blow up the town if he lives. But instead, we get, “Hey, the universe doesn’t actually want you to use your time-travel powers, it just wants you to solve the mystery. So you could have watched a stranger die in the bathroom, but now we’re going to make sure that you fall in love with that stranger dying in the bathroom.”
  2. No one ends up knowing about what Max has been through. I have this weird thing where I feel like things don’t count unless other people know about them. Did you pull a great prank? It’s not as fulfilling if the victim doesn’t know it was you. Things like that. With Chloe gone in the end, no one knows about what Max did, how great Chloe could be, etc. Maybe Max eventually tells someone, but I don’t know for sure. So I might have been really satisfied with the end if someone like Joyce or Warren ended up knowing, as well, and they solve the crime as a trio before Chloe dies.
  3. You don’t learn anything. This game reminded me a lot of the movie Your Name. It focused a lot on nostalgia and beautiful scenes, it had a time-travel aspect, and it had a major impending natural disaster. But whereas Your Name offered a clever solution to the whole “you know the world will end but no one will believe you” problem, Life is Strange does not. By the end of the story, you might know a little bit about why Chloe or Victoria act the way they do, but in the end it doesn’t feel like you’ve gained anything else.
  4. The ending scenes just aren’t that good. Like I said: the Rachel scene was amazing. Perfect song, perfect pacing, perfect choreography, perfect everything. But the two ending cut scenes I just don’t like. Maybe I would if, in the Bay ending, ghost doe appears next to Chloe’s coffin and lays its head down on top (now that would pull at the heart strings). The ending bathroom scene is also nice, but the funeral scene just seems bad.

Intellect:

Now, let’s talk about whether or not choices matter in Life is Strange. I’ve been so obsessed with this game that I’ve already entered the fandom, looking at memes and joining the subreddit. And one common argument that I’ve seen is over whether or not your choices matter in the game. To give a simple thesis statement: your choices do not matter in the game, but the game does show you that, in real life, your choices do matter.

Let me explain: possibly the most important choices in the game are the ones that determine whether or not Kate will jump. If you make the right choices, she doesn’t kill herself. But if you mess up, she jumps. This proves that, in real life, there are things that you can say or do (that only take a few seconds) to save someone’s life, and choosing not to do so can be disastrous. However, if you look at the very end of the game, Kate living or dying only depends on your very last choice of what to sacrifice. If you sacrifice Arcadia bay, then Kate dies no matter what. If you sacrifice Chloe, then Kate survives no matter what. And those two choices are there no matter what. Those two options at the end are not affected by your game play at all. This is the same for everything that happens throughout the game. Everything you do with every character is either undone by sacrificing Chloe or undone by killing off everyone you’ve interacted with. Sure, Chloe survives in one timeline, but let’s face it: the game pushes that romance no matter what. The only difference is whether or not Pricefield kisses at the end. So no: in the game, your choices don’t matter (as opposed to, say, Skyrim, where every action sticks with you forever). But at the same time, the game shows you how things change based on what you choose to do and say (since in real life there aren’t giant time paradox tornadoes).

And, at the very least, the game forces you to make some hard choices, a lot of which don’t have any “best” outcome (also like real life). Though some of those choices are made easier than they should be, like Max’s choice to let William die instead of Chloe. It would have been a much harder choice if wheelchair Chloe wasn’t literally begging for death or about to die. If the choice was instead between a life paralyzed from the neck down and being a financial burden but still capable of finding joy in life, versus the swift death of a family member, that would have been a lot harder. Other choices are blown a little out of proportion, like the ending sacrifice choice. Hmm, let’s see…kill hundreds of innocent people and then live your life with that guilt (and yes, Chloe would feel bad about you killing her mom, I’m sure), or kill a person who has explicitly given you their consent and who the universe apparently seems pretty adamant about killing over and over again. A real head-scratcher. But even though the choice is easy, it still hurts. What hurts me the most is the knowledge that, technically speaking, Chloe died without ever having reconnected with Max and had all those wonderful times that made her willing to sacrifice her life. Don’t say that that reality still exists: because if the reality where they bonded still exists, then so do all the other realities they left behind, including wheelchair Chloe, including dying from a heart wound from messing around shooting cars in the junk yard, including the reality where she dies in the tornado while Max is in San Francisco. Either none of them exist now, or all of them do.

I’m not sure whether or not to count the game’s characters as contributing to intellect or not. On one hand, I love how the game can make characters both good and bad at different times and depending on who they’re interacting with (like in real life). Chloe becomes happier the more time she spends with Max and angrier when around her parents, Mr. Jefferson seems like a genuinely good teacher, David has his sexist and abusive moments but is really trying his best, Victoria actually has a legitimate reason for picking on Max (though explanation isn’t justification), Joyce is nice to Max but tough on Chloe, and the drug dealer can be an asshole and still rescue dogs. This doesn’t mean that all of these characters are sympathetic, or that everything they do is justified, or that any of the crimes/ills I mentioned above are on par with each other (making a sexist comment is one thing, kidnapping and murdering teenage girls is another…). It’s just a more accurate reflection of life, where people might paradoxically be intolerant of one group but completely accepting of another, where peoples’ behavior changes depending on who they’re with, and where poorly-controlled jealousy and insecurity cause far more problems than “this person was just born an asshole.” This is all great, I just don’t know if the game did it on purpose. With David, Joyce explicitly says on at least two occasions that he’s trying, but is just old fashioned and has anger management issues: the game did that on purpose. Same with Frank rescuing Pompidou. I want to say that the others are intentional, and that I’m not just reading into this too much. I think Chloe heavily implies at the end that Max brought out the best in her, and it’s pretty obvious that the game made Mr. Jefferson a great teacher to make the twist all the more unexpected, but unless someone says it outright, I can’t pass any judgement.

Overall, the game gets a point in intellect. It doesn’t directly comment on a lot of these things, but it’s pretty obvious that the game wants to force you to think about some of the harder things in life. And it’s been very successful in doing that: the fandom debates about this kind of stuff all the time. So even though I’d prefer it if the game just put in a few more comments on that (instead of so many comments on random items you find lying around) it’s definitely a smart game.

Overall (no spoilers):

Should you play this game? Absolutely, 100% yes. It’s possible you might not like it, but I don’t think you’ll be apathetic about it.


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