COGWATCH – 5. Life Is Strange (Spoiler Free!)

Hey! It’s a new episode of COGWATCH, a weekly video series in which Quintin Smith examines one mechanic in one game. This week, the ability to rewind time and re-play decisions in episodic adventure game Life is Strange [official site].

Like it? Part one was on rhythm in roguelike Crypt of the Necrodancer, part two was about co-op in cart-based platformer Chariot, part three was on risk and reward in procedural stealth game Invisible, Inc, and part four was on item degradation in The Long Dark. Stupid items.

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26 Comments

  1. ShDragon says:

    I’m confused.. Quinns says “The time rewind feature makes Life is Strange so much better than those Telltale games!” and then goes on to play LiS WITHOUT using the rewind at all, which means he’s playing it exactly as if it was a Telltale game.

    And Telltale games have a rewind feature, though you rewind to checkpoints, not ‘Prince of Persia’ style, so you do have to break immersion by going through a menu to do it. So I guess what makes the rewind feature good is that it’s seamless in the game and doesn’t require going to the menu? Because that’s all I see that’s different.

    • zarnywoop says:

      I think he is saying that because the devs were able to make the game more interesting because they can load each moment on the fact that of a typical player using the rewind ability, that even when you don’t use it, it makes the game and characters more interesting because of the way the game is designed for using it.

    • maninahat says:

      In other words, a superhero can be compelling for not using their superpowers when they can. Like Quinns, I played through the game, avoiding the use of time travel where possible; what kind of person doesn’t bother to use her superpowers, even when it would be easy to help anyone, or to repair things? An asshole! But an interesting one.

      • Oracizan says:

        I agree, but I don’t know how many other people would. While you, Quinns, and I think that a character can be more interesting by not doing the interesting thing they can do, I don’t think it’s a widely held position.

        I do think that the time travel mechanic will enhance the game for people who don’t use it, but as a side effect of its existence. As Quinns mentioned, the developers don’t have to worry that their content will go unseen, so there’s less push to quickly consolidate branching stories and railroad the player. Whether I use time travel or not, I can have more confidence that the choices I make are going to have a tangible, lasting effect on the world around me – that they’re going to matter.

    • Splattercakez says:

      “Rewinding” to checkpoints isn’t the same thing at all because the developers aren’t going to design their game around you actively employing it as a tool throughout. Life is Strange is clearly designed with the knowledge you’re going to metagame your choices to an extent, no Telltale game is and this is reflected very clearly in how the consequences play out, or at least appears to be given what we’ve seen of LiS so far.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    Regarding the feeling of “seeing behind the curtain” when you replay something and discover all the dialogue options returning to the same path with minimal consequences — yes, so much yes.

    I tried to like Dragon Age: Origins, I really did. I started playing it, and I got to a some point (probably the Mage’s Tower or just after it), and then something shinier came up and I got distracted for a month or two. I came back to it, but didn’t feel I remembered enough about the world or my character to continue my old save, so I just restarted with a different character build, different roleplayed personality, etc. But as I went through the plot, my memories of the previous playthrough were coming back to me, and I was realising — hey, I’m choosing completely different dialogue options here, and yet everything is happening exactly the same. Not just major plot events, but entire dialogues were pretty much unchanged.

    So I started “rewinding” by saving before dialogues, and trying all the different forks, and … nothing changed. Sometimes it was a brief diversion, sometimes the thing they said was so vague that it could answer any of the dialogue choices (even if they really did seem like they were responding to you), and sometimes they literally just ignored what I said entirely.

    I pressed onwards, but I got even less far before something distracted me. I later tried to come back to it at least once more and give it a fair shake, but it was just so flimsy (and the combat so annoying and repetitive by now) that I couldn’t be bothered to stick with it.

    Maybe it’s rose-tinted glasses, but I don’t remember any of that “railroading” back when I played Baldur’s Gate 1 and 2. I feel like this insistence that every single line be voice acted — and the budgetary restrictions, railroading, and limited dialogue options that come with that — are what really killed Bioware RPGs for me.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      Oh oh, and I forgot to add:

      More on-topic, I did find some of the same aspects when I replayed Life Is Strange, but it manifested less as me feeling ignored, and more as characters going through weird mood swings when segments were stitched together. Every reaction felt unique and correct, but then a few lines later, they’d go back to what was obviously the main (more neutrally-delivered) main plot.

      This was particularly jarring in two cases [INTENTIONALLY VAGUE SPOILER ALERT]: when Chloe was either mad at me for ratting her out / happy for me standing up for her but then reverted back to default when we got to the lighthouse, and when I was on the roof trying to talk down you-know-who and she seemed ready to come down, and then suddenly she’s yelling and ready to jump again.

      Also, when the game wanted me to choose between making you-know-who happy or making Chloe happy, it was an easy choice — Chloe’s part of the main story, she can’t do anything hugely irrevocable. it’s like saying “who do you want to send on this dangerous mission? The redshirt, or the main cast member?” Duhh, send the main cast member, they can’t die.

      • caff says:

        I agree totally with everything you have just said about more recent Bioware RPGs. It’s almost like you went into my brain and pulled out the impression I’ve had but denied myself thinking, as a result of reading praise of such games. My mind struggles to come up with a rational argument for why I’m not enjoying myself. I feel like an idiot, why am I not seeing the fun of these stupidly long dialogue trees?

  3. caff says:

    I will check out King of Dragon Pass. It sounds… of interest.

    I would say that I find the gameplay in Life is Strange refreshingly open, in that the usual gaming confinements of choice and consequence are reversible. I will feel no need to replay it, unlike the Telltale approach of “hard decisions” affecting your outcome(s).

    Kentucky Route Zero is another game that springs to mind when comparing the two approaches. The choices made in KRZ seem more gentle and endearing, such as picking the name for your dog. I like this – it balances the open feeling with choice affecting narration.

    • Tacroy says:

      I thought it was neat how you pick your dog’s gender through incidental dialog also. More games ought to do that sort of thing.

  4. thedosbox says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure if this is a function of Quinns not using the rewind mechanic, but while many of the decisions have obvious short term impacts they also have long term impacts. For example, how you respond to a certain character being treated in Episode 1 affects your ability to talk them down in Episode 2.

    And even if you “follow your gut”, the different short term outcomes aren’t always easy to choose from (e.g. what happens when Chloe’s step-dad busts her for smoking pot).

    Having said that, I absolutely agree that the mechanic makes for a better experience for everyone – even if they don’t choose to use it.

  5. alms says:

    The size of backlogs these days, it’s downright criminal that you’re making me want to go back replay (or should I say fail awfully at) KoDP.

    Enjoyed the video, can’t wait for the moment the season will be complete.

  6. Babymech says:

    Could they maybe have implemented this mechanic without large chunks of the game being about forcing you to watch a scene and rewind it enough times until you’ve memorized it, or about forcing you to make random choices and rewind them until you find out which random action causes which random outcome? No? Ok, life is strange, you carry on keeping it hella f’realsies then

    • ribby says:

      Oh god it’s like the groundhog day scene in the diner but 1000 times more boring

    • thedosbox says:

      Um, you can FF through the scenes after a rewind, so no, you don’t need to watch the scene endlessly. And as I mentioned above, decisions really do have consequences that don’t become apparent immediately.

      • abardam says:

        I believe s/he’s talking about the diner scene and the shooting scene, which were the low points of Episode 2 imo.

        Probably the devs could have made these sequences more compelling by making the player actually want to see all the outcomes, but it’s the part of the game where you are trying to convince Chloe that you have powers, and it’s tiresome and Chloe why won’t you just believe me and oh my god, I just want to get out of this junkyard

        • Babymech says:

          Yes.

          • thedosbox says:

            Fair enough, those could have been done better. However, they were clearly meant to prepare the player for the scene on the roof – i.e. “I hope you’re paying attention, as this is going to happen again”.

  7. heretic says:

    I will pick this up at some point, unlike Quinns I like the idea of seeing the different outcomes in one playthrough – these days without much time it’s hard to commit yourself to another playthrough of any game to be honest!

  8. Flit says:

    “Ethical parking space”

    Yes, yes, delicious wordplay

  9. Splattercakez says:

    Time rewinding isn’t purely a gameplay shtick or a little splash of sci-fi to the story, it’s directly relevant to the theme of the story because it’s the catalyst that causes Max to actually reach out and interact with people when she otherwise wouldn’t. It also plays into the photography themes but Errant Signal’s episode on the game details that far more eloquently than I could.

    As for the making of the choices, I actually agree and disagree in that rewinding definitely makes them more interesting, but for the opposite reason you do, sure you can rewind and choose whatever outcome you think is “best” but Life is Strange isn’t written like a Telltale game, there are far less immediate heavy consequences and at least with the way it’s written so far, it appears to instead set-up much longer term ones, that gradually build up. Consequently you’re still having to ride out your decisions, but they’ve traded out the stress of having a limited time window to make an important decision with instead giving you as long as you want and you can even change your mind before you set it in stone, but once you move on you are still stuck with it which to me at least actually makes it way more stressful and gives it a much heftier impact, because I never feel I’ve gone and made a split-second decision and failed to consider my options, instead I’m given time to do so which is tense enough in and of itself, but the decision making always feels final, it always feels like you very clearly chose this and the game pretty much always asks if you’re sure just to nail home that you you CAN change it, one last shot you sure you want to commit, and as a result the fallout feels much more of a “I did this” kind of deal.

    I mean this is all based on the premise they can actually make good on what they’ve started, I definitely think the finished product will be a whole lot better than any of Telltale’s efforts if they can deliver but naturally we’ve seen less than half the game effectively. Regardless of whether Don’t Nod deliver with LiS in particular, at the very least they’ve clearly established the rewind as a significant mechanic that’s both thematically relevant to their story and most importantly a brilliant twist on the formula for these kinds of games.

  10. bill says:

    This sounds interesting in a buffy kinda way, but I’m not sure you persuaded me this time on the game mechanic.

    The thing that made Walking Dead special to me was how much the decisions mattered to me, and not knowing if i’d made the right decision. I only played the game ones. One thing this video has sealed me on is that I’m not going to replay it and try other options.

  11. Shaun Green says:

    Everyone should play King of Dragon Pass!

    I would actually recommend the mobile version over the PC version as the UI was completely rebuilt. Personally I think it’s a lot nicer – and that’s based largely on experiences with a 3rd gen iPod Touch, so not exactly a massive screen.

    That said, if you’re not prone to playing lengthy, deep games on pokeyslabs, go grab the game from GOG. The UI isn’t bad, just… aged.

    • malkav11 says:

      It’s not just you. The mobile version is expanded and enhanced in a whole bunch of ways over the PC original being sold on GoG, including UI, yes, but also more events and such. It’s the definitive version for now.

      It appears there’s little chance of the improved version coming back to PC because the original development tools for the PC version no longer exist, the iOS version was developed with an iOS specific toolkit, and so porting it back to Windows would require a significant effort on the part of a very small development team. See this blog article: link to kingofdragonpass.blogspot.com

      On the plus side, they’re working on a spiritual successor called Six Ages, albeit it’s some ways off.

  12. deckarde says:

    I think that for me, i t’s more about when I feel I did the wrong thing I can change it, rather than as a tool for exploring everything for the sake of it. At least when I play it through the first time. That makes my connection to Max stronger, and she becomes me in a much more interesting way, because I decide when she feels that she did something wrong.

  13. somnolentsurfer says:

    I’ve been playing LIS after picking it up in the summer sale, and coming back to read the coverage on RPS up to the point I’ve played until. From this video and Adam and Pip’s chat, I think I’ve seen considerably less of the content in one play through of this than I ever did in a single play of a Tell Tale game.

    Episode 3 tomorrow for me!