Review: Life is Strange

A Tale of Two Games

“It was the best of games, it was the worst of games…” – Ries Murphy, circa 2016.

(Spoiler Disclaimer–this review discusses the conclusion of the game.)

Life is Strange poses a challenge for me. On the one hand, I loved this game. On the other, I really, really didn’t. I think that this dissonance can in part be traced to the fact that Life is Strange is broken into five parts, (in this case called “Chapters”) that are of not only varying quality and varying playtime, but varying tone and – honestly – varying genre. Each of these parts take at least an hour or two to play through, especially during a first time if you’re like me and you need to compulsively read everything you stumble across. Normally, I’d praise this sort of complexity, and would celebrate its willingness to be many different things at once. Here, on the other hand, I almost lament it as it distracts from the whole.

I actually started playing Life is Strange a few months ago. It’s not uncommon for me to take a break from a story driven game, but this was a little different. Typically, “walking simulators” such as this (think Firewatch, The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead) don’t last me very long, as they don’t require much in the way of twitchy thumbs or skill. Life Is Strange was different in that the first two parts (of five) bored me so completely that I quit for over three months to move onto greener pastures. Looking back at those first two parts now, knowing the full arc of the story, they are only more unforgivable, especially since Chapters 3 – 5 are some of the finest hours I’ve ever spent with a game.

Life Is Strange, for those of you who don’t know, focuses on a heroine named Max (short for Maxine) and her blue-haired friend Chloe. Whether Chloe is a lesbian or not is something I expect we the players are supposed to decide on our own; in the mythos of my experience with this game, Chloe was in love with Max, but that love was unrequited. Max is malleable and easy to project ourselves onto – almost to a fault. I never quite felt like Max was her own character in the way that I felt about other characters (such as Joel, from The Last of Us.) Yet even as I write that, I realize it’s not entirely true: Max came into her own in the game’s last two chapters, best evidenced by my decision at game’s end (which I’ll get to here in a bit.)

There are other characters, of course, both villainous and heroic (and plenty of characters in the gray space between) and while they added up to a strong supporting cast, I would argue that they “aren’t the point” in the best of ways. Come Chapter 5, I really cared about this supporting cast, and cared what happened to them. Which brings me back to my original complaint – that chapters 1 and 2 were so uneven and…well, boring. It wasn’t until I finished the game that I understood why this was.

Amanda often tells me about the need for a “balance” to start out a good story – to show the world as it exists before we go in and change it around with drama and problems. In a five-part story, therefore, the balance should probably sit somewhere in the first part. Life Is Strange establishes the balance over two parts – and in some peculiar ways, even over parts 3 – 5. It’s got time travel, which shifts the balance around from here to there, now to then…is timeline A the real story of Max and Chloe? Or is it timeline B? I’m not sure by the time we get to chapter 5. This isn’t a bad thing. It just might explain why the narrative structure of Life Is Strange feels so ungainly at times.

The game’s presentation is oddly evocative of its narrative; the imagery ranges from beautiful to awful. I’m not sure what engine the game developers used to create the game, but I’m hoping for Life Is Strange season 2 they follow a new creative process. Which brings me to the second part of this review: that I sincerely hope there is a Life Is Strange Season 2.

Look, I loved this game. Even as I write this review, I am stunned at how hard it is to speak about it in a way that doesn’t feel incoherent or self-contradictory. So many things about this experience didn’t work – yet so many things did work. They worked to create something unique and lovely; the haunting and nostalgic soundtrack, for instance, or the difficult and uncompromising plot driven by a healthy dose of compelling science fiction.

I loved this game the most when it took the biggest risks. I loved it when it stopped pretending to be about high school drama and started being about friendship. Fortunately, once it drops the “high school drama” outfit it never quite puts it back on. Chapter 3 onward is an entirely different animal than Chapter 1 and 2. The story takes a turn for the severe and the uncompromising. Characters reveal hidden rooms in themselves, rising and falling in my estimation organically through moments both huge and tiny. I found, at game’s end, that the character I loved most was the character who frustrated me most – Max’s friend, the blue haired enigma, named Chloe.

Chloe is unlikeable. She’s selfish, childish and dismissive. There’s something inherently defensive about her – as though any interaction could explode into violence at the drop of a pin. Dialogues with Chloe are consistently exhausting, and feel more like balancing acts than cuddly heart-to-hearts with a loveable companion, a la late game post-loyalty mission Mass Effect companions. Yet at game’s conclusion, I chose to forsake the entire town of Arcadia Bay to save her. I didn’t even hesitate.

Why?

It’s because Chloe felt real to me.

It was the best kind of magic trick – the kind of trick you don’t even appreciate until after its happened. Somewhere along the line, this annoying, “punch myself in the face” companion of mine had become important to me. Not just important – vital. Non-negotiable, not expendable. She might be something of a bitch, but she was my bitch, by God. She was…my friend, and in the moment when I realized she’d become my friend I understood why Max kept her around at all. Amanda was surprised I chose Chloe over the town. I wasn’t, but in retrospect I can see why it was surprising. I had, after all, spent most of my play time cursing her name and rolling my eyes at her actions.

I think this happened by design. I doubt very much it arose by accident. Chloe is the very game she inhabits; like Life Is Strange itself, Chloe is unreliable, unlikeable, beautiful, colorful, harsh, yet also prone to whimsy and profound emotion. She is intermittently vulnerable, and is always fueled by some form of love that’s gone terribly wrong. Whether seeking to disguise the pain she feels at the loss of her father, or act the part of a grungy paladin avenging her missing lover-friend, Chloe is always motivated by the absence of somebody she cares about. She doesn’t appreciate Max while she’s there, she never acts out of Max’s best interests. Yet I could not shake this feeling that, if Max abandoned her, Chloe would fall apart. What’s more is – I didn’t want her to.

There’s something painfully honest there. The impossible relationship between Max and Chloe is the key to understanding Life Is Strange. It wasn’t until I had some time to think about it that I realized the truth of the matter: Max is not the main character of this game – Chloe is. Chloe is the one with the arc, the one we fall in love with and fall out of love with on an hourly basis. Chloe is the one who, in the game’s final moments, offers herself to save everybody else – to save Max, to save her estranged family, to save the player. In her final moments, Chloe is heroic. We fight and fight for her, hoping she may become the beautiful woman we see hiding behind the baggy clothes and stupid hats. When she finally does, it’s akin to a butterfly breaking free of a chrysalis. Our faith is rewarded. As I told Amanda when she asked me why I chose Chloe, “You’ve always got to take care of your friends.”

It’s hard for me to recommend this game. It’s got so many flaws, so many faults, so many stretches of “Why am I here?” that I’d be hard pressed to lawyer it up in anybody’s life. Yet it’s easy for me to say with full confidence that if you are a gamer and you don’t play Life Is Strange, you are missing out on one of the best experiences gaming can offer. I won’t soon forget Chloe and Max, nor Pompidou the dog, nor the strange sadness I felt as the Two Whales Diner stood alone against an oncoming tornado. These characters and their town has a little cubby hole somewhere deep inside my heart. Perhaps there, I can keep them safe.

Score: 8/10

-R

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-A & R, Intercoastals