The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 17th: Life Is Strange

What is the best story of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Life Is Strange!

Adam: I could write about the way that Life is Strange managed to validate my love of Telltale’s episodic story-driven adventure model, while at the same time surpassing the veteran studio’s work in almost every way. The beautiful aesthetic of Arcadia Bay shows the value of an art style and palette that supports the characters and theme of a story, rather than sticking to similar wide-eyed cartoons for every license, and providing areas to explore makes the world that much more convincing than the isolated chambers of recent Telltale efforts.

Dontnod seem so comfortable with the pacing of this particular genre in this particular episodic style that Life is Strange could pass as the culmination of years of releases. That it arrived on the back of Remember Me, an entirely different proposition, gives me hope that the studio will be able to shift gears again when they release their bloodsucking ethical quandary RPG, Vampyr.

I don’t want to spend these few paragraphs writing about the quality of the game though – while swatting aside the people who can’t deal with its lingo while lapping up Yodaspeak – because I’d rather talk about how much I appreciated its treatment of abuse. The way that the coming of age story collides with catastrophic events, bullying and abuse touches on some of my own experiences with abuse, and how I struggled to distance myself from them.

Note: there are spoilers ahead – they’re vague and thematic rather than specifics, but go see what Alice has to say if you don’t want to see ’em.

Feeling trapped in an abusive situation, it’s common to either withdraw or to try and make the world bigger so that the worst parts of it are barely noticeable; drowned in the noise and action of life. Both of those reactions are in Life Is Strange. Max has retreated to home, Chloe has been trapped there trying to kick down the walls. The time mechanic is both a way of reducing the world by testing its limits and a way of exploding those limits by finding ways around them. But every attempt to rewind, every would have could have should have, is actually a way of pulling the threads tighter rather than unpicking them.

In trying to tie a tourniquet, it’s easy to end up with a noose.

I’m not sure that this reading of the game is intentional, and it doesn’t fit every part of the game, but Arcadia Bay, at times, seems like a memory of a wound. It’s not dark all the way through because the worst parts of youth don’t necessarily overshadow every bright spot. But the storm is always there and there are hideous and dangerous people waiting in the wings.

In trying to try to protect those she cares about and Arcadia Bay itself, Max is replaying could haves should haves and would haves, but in the end she an choose to accept that the storm has already passed. The damage is done. Turning the clock back is a way of reliving the pain from different angles, and that may be a necessary part of acceptance, but it’s never going to fix what has been done.

And the beautiful thing, in these situations, is the realisation that it’s never your job to fix things. What happened is done, and it may have been to do you or to people you wanted to protect, but that doesn’t mean you’re finished. Far from it. You’re ready to begin.

The story of Max, Chloe, Arcadia Bay and everybody else who lives and dies there so often feels like an ending. But when it does come to a close, I was left in no doubt that Max was finally ready to start something new.

Alice: Awkward things, teenagers. They turn up, all weird and half-formed and you don’t know what to make of them. Then they say something like “hella” and you squint as you try to figure out if that’s something they’ve started saying because one of The Cool Kids said it. But you see something in them, gangly as they are, and before your eyes they grow into a confident, rounded adult and then oh shit, shit, they have to grow up very quickly, oh shit. Life Is Strange is a bit like that.

After an iffy start, floundering a bit too much like a cheesy Saturday morning teen TV drama, Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic time twister found its identity and became one of my favourite games of the year. Like a good teen drama. Chloe and Max’s friendship at the heart of the game feels… not quite real, but familiar as the stuff of teenage dreams. The way I might have wished my teens had been. Beautiful sketchy art world filtered through Instagram glow creates a dreamy world where everything revolves around these two friends, which makes it all the more jarring when things twist unexpectedly and ‘get real’, as I understand the youth say.

Like Pip, I’m not sure what more to say about Life Is Strange. We’ve certainly chatted a lot about it on RPS over the course of its episodes. I suppose we focused a lot on the central relationships, probably because at times Max and Chloe sometimes weirdly feel like they mirror our own friendship, but its puzzling became pretty satistying at times too. They were never difficult, and at times could be tedious, but its use of time travel felt… good? Satisfying. Pleasing. Which may not sound like high praise, but I’ve usually no patience at all for adventure game puzzling. Episodic adventures are increasingly skipping puzzles, but Life Is Strange was fun (mostly, ish) in using them to show Max mastering her powers. That can be my next hot take: In Praise Of Mild Puzzles That Are Pretty Okay.

I’m still surprised by the choice many made at the end of it all – not only made, but were convinced was right. It’s good to disagree so strongly with them, showing how deeply we were pulled in and how personal it felt. I’ll not go too much into The Stuff Wot Unfolds because we’ve done that plenty already, but, as the immortal bard James Hurley says on what we seek in a journey, “It’s not really a place, it’s a feeling.”

Pip: This is a weird one. It’s my Game of the Year but I’ve started to hate talking about it. I don’t think it’s a game everyone will love – some won’t even like it – and because I loved it I’ve found myself called to defend it. I don’t want to. I just want it to sit in my memory as a thing I loved and that became personally important and to stop needing to share that with other people.

Graham: People were upset when we named Life Is Strange Game of the Month in November but then didn’t write anything new about the game. I understand that, and we wished we’d been able to do more, but part of the problem was that we wrote so much about the game over the year as each new episode was released. A lot of people suggested that they missed those articles at the time, so here’s a quick list: Pip’s episode 1 review; Adam and Pip’s episode 2 chat; Quintin’s Cogwatch episode on its rewind mechanic; Pip, Adam and Alice’s episode 3 verdict; Marsh’s Fail Forward on Life Is Strange’s dialogue and art style; Pip’s episode 4 review; Pip and Alice’s spoilery episode 5 verdict; and Pip’s overall Life Is Strange review.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

48 Comments

  1. Zekiel says:

    Thanks so much for championing this game, RPS. Having played the first episode earlier this year I was so-so about playing the rest, but when it got Game of the Month I thought “that’s good enough for me” and played the rest of it without reading anything else.

    For me its not just my game of the year, its the most amazing game I’ve played in a long time. It’s a game that made me laugh with joy and sob my heart out. I don’t think any game has really done that for me before, certainly not as consistently and certainly not moving me as deeply. I grant that (as Pip says) its not a game for everyone, but it really, really was for me.

    (And sorry for complaining a couple of times in comments about the lack of coverage post naming it game of the month – I played it weeks after all the wonderful coverage RPS had done and just wanted the opportunity to ramble about it to other people on the internet.)

  2. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    A great journey to a bad destination.

    • Banks says:

      And it’s a shame, because the first 4 episodes have some of the most emotional moments in gaming.

      But episode 5 was so bad that I instantly deleted the whole game from my memory.

  3. daphne says:

    Despite the permanently bad taste that caricature of a final episode left in my gaming memory, I can’t bring myself to discount the rest of Life is Strange. It’s a wonderful journey marred by a final few missteps.

  4. somnolentsurfer says:

    Ah, disappointing. I thought at least here it had a shot at game of the year.

    • Zekiel says:

      Expected (given MGS V and Witcher 3) but still a little disappointing.

      • welverin says:

        You two forget the last time they did an advent calendar the overall winner got one of the categories as well, so don’t discount anything yet.

  5. Laurentius says:

    I kind of wanted to try it but I feel so burned on two TellTale games I played: Wolf among Us and Tales from Borderlands. Their episodic nature doesn’t work for me. I feel both of these game feels so uneven during their episodic course or at least that’s main experience, generally hitting huge nosedive after first well rounded episodes. I don’t know, I watched Life is Strange Ep1 on someones LP’s, it wasfine but I didn’t feel like I wanted to contionue.

    • Zekiel says:

      If it helps, I loved it in spite of (a) not really liking The Walking Dead (the only TT game I’ve played some of) and (b) not being sold on episode 1 of Life Is Strange. If you can afford it, I’d recommend playing through episode 2; if it hasn’t clicked by the end of that, it probably won’t.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      LIS is the only game I’ve played where its episodic nature has worked in its favour. Having some time between episodes was important both for pacing and to digest what happened. I would recommend not starting the next episode the same day you finish the previous.

  6. GameCat says:

    LIS not beign a GOTY is so wrong.

    It’s probably the most memorable game I’ve ever played.

  7. Paul says:

    This would probably be my GOTY if not for Witcher 3. Really beautiful melancholic, profoundly sad experience.

  8. JakeOfRavenclaw says:

    Ah, I was wondering if this one would sneak in as the overall GOTY. I’m of the people who didn’t like the ending, but so much of what Life is Strange does is so extraordinary that’d I’d still recommend it to anyone. Max is one of the all-time great video game protagonists IMO, and to see a game that revolves primarily around friendship is a rare and wonderful thing.

    • Zekiel says:

      Nice to see others who feel the same about GOTY. I actually loved the ending but I can totally understand why others didn’t…

      My opinion of Max was quite fascinating… I started off being somewhat irritated by her hesitancy and lack of confidence (especially in contrast to Chloe who made a fantastic first impression and basically stayed awesome throughout). But somewhere in episode 2 or 3 I realised I had started thinking not as “what decision should I make” but instead as “what decision would Max make”. Her character had solidified enough that I felt like I was roleplaying as Max Caulfield, not just watching her story or doing what I’d do. I felt like the game managed to hit a sweet spot in terms of defining her character while also allowing me freedom in decisions. I guess that’s probably why the relatively lack of choice in the final episode didn’t annoy me, because by that point I was completely invested in Max’s (and Chloe’s) story.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      Well said. Of all the heroes in games I’ve played, Max is the most humbling. She isn’t just some glorified mass murderer with a faux-conscience *cough*TombRaider*cough*.

      And there was definitively a lot of WWMD when I played the game. It’s a character that is easy to empathise with, so much so that I would feel her anxiety at times.

  9. DrGonzo says:

    I’m a fan of Veronica Mars, but just couldn’t get into this. Played the first episode and a part of the second. It felt very Veronica Marsy, but was missing something I thought.

    • DrGonzo says:

      Edit-

      I guess its the humour, where V Mars had a Joss Whedon quick witted vibe. This had an instagram filter indie film vibe. Only got to episode 2 though so does this change at all?

      • Zekiel says:

        Not sure the humour ever changes. The story gets progressively darker as it goes on (which kind of surprised me) – not sure if you’d regard that as a positive, negative or neutral thing but there it is!

      • Poison_Berrie says:

        The indie vibe doesn’t change all that much, though that’s pretty central to it’s style, and I don’t think it will become funny the way you want it either.

        That said try to finish Episode 2 and you’ll see it can take quite dark and emotional turns. It also does a good job of fleshing out several of it’s characters.

  10. Von Uber says:

    My GOTY by a long way, not really played anything like it before, nor something I have become so invested in (Mass Effect was another but ultimately more shallow after ‘the feels’ are discounted).

    It’s odd because I am a 36 year old male, so it’s surprising to me that a game about an 18year old student was do engaging.

    I had no issue with the ending either – a few misteps aside it was a satisfying conclusion (although one ending could certainly do with a little more of a tidying up loose ends).

    Also, Warren is weird.

  11. ariston says:

    I’ve played fantastic games that didn’t move me one bit. I’ve played flawed (and sometimes deeply flawed) games that made me think and laugh and cry and stuck with me for days and weeks and months.

    Guess which I prefer?

    Thanks RPS for championing this treasure.

  12. Buggery says:

    I loved this game when I played it, and surprisingly, have continued to deepen my appreciation of it long after finishing it.

    Like Gone Home, it took game narratives into a new place, and I respect that. Plus, it made Telltale look like they’re phoning it in now.

  13. Zekiel says:

    By the way does anyone have any recommendations of other games that provide emotional experiences akin to Life Is Strange? I was hugely impressed by how well this game characterised its main and supporting characters, and how much it made me care about them. Now I’m a bit mystified about what else to play that might come close to that experience – the only things I can think of (that I’ve played already) are Gone Home, Brothers A Tale of Two Sons and (don’t laugh) the Mass Effect trilogy.

    Suggestions appreciated.

    • James0 says:

      The only others that jump out at me are To the Moon and The Longest Journey and its sequels. I agree on all the ones you listed. The Final Fantasy games I played growing up (especially 7 through 9) affected me a lot, but I’m not sure I would have felt the same way if I had discovered them as an adult, and I’ve found it hard to take the more recent ones seriously. I suppose some of the other Bioware titles too, but I don’t think any of them are as focused on character development as Mass Effect.

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      I mean, the stock answer is going to be The Walking Dead, and The Wolf Among Us.

      If you can get into old-school point and click adventures, The Longest Journey and the Blackwell series can really be affecting.

      Finally, it’s a complete change of pace, but The Talos Principle is game that you will be thinking about weeks after finishing it.

      • Zekiel says:

        Thanks for the suggestions (both James0 and gritz). I’ve actually got Tales from the Borderlands (TT game) so will give that a go, and I’ll have another look at Talos (which I’d dismissed as being too puzzly for me) and the Longest Journey et al. Thanks!

        • Faxmachinen says:

          TLJ, and in particular its sequel Dreamfall, are among my favourite adventure games. And that is despite Dreamfall having an absolutely awful fighting mechanic that occasionally rears its ugly head.

          But I’ve been playing Dreamfall: Chapters lately, and although it’s not actually bad… I think Life Is Strange may have ruined other adventure games for me.

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          alison says:

          Don’t hold out too much hope for Tales of the Borderlands. I played the first chapter before Life is Strange and i thought it was awesome. Then i played Life is Strange. Borderlands has some insanely funny set-pieces and tremendous voice acting, but it’s about as emotionally deep as a bag of crisps by comparison.

          Interested to hear how you find Talos, though. I also have skipped it because i am not interested in puzzle games, but a lot of people seem to love the story.

          • Zekiel says:

            @Alison Thanks for the warning. I find its always better to go into something with low expectations and be unexpectedly impressed than… the other thing. But I’m hopefully that TftB will at least have good writing even if it doesn’t have emotional depth.

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      alison says:

      This is a tough call, because emotional reactions to games are quite personal.

      To The Moon is definitely a good recommendation for a unique and touching story, but the gameplay is so insipid that getting through each level to the parts where the story advances is a struggle. Perhaps you have to have played console games to “get it”. Back in more familiar PC gaming territory, i also have to echo the recommendations for The Longest Journey trilogy. In particular the second game (Dreamfall) had me in tears through much of the finale. The characters are great.

      Gemini Rue. Whoever would’ve thought that a 90s throwback adventure could be so well-paced and poignant? It truly is one of the best sci-fi games i have ever played. A New Beginning, while nowhere near as good, is another graphic adventure that i somehow felt really attached to as the story drew to a close.

      On the AAA tip, i choked up at my ending of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But similar to my ending of Mass Effect 3, i suspect it was more because i had invested so much time into the world. There was that sense of triumph tinged with sadness at my inevitable sacrifice, rather than a strong affinity with the characters per se.

      Some Steam cheapies that caused me to get a little grit in my eye… The Plan. It’s free. Get it. Play it. You will not regret it. Drizzlepath. It’s a walking sim. Absolutely nothing happens. But the journey is quite evocative. Proteus. It’s a walking sim. Almost absolutely nothing happens. But the way the world around you reacts takes you on a fabulous little emotional journey.

      Of course, i found Brothers: Tale of Two Sons trite and frustrating and not in the slightest bit emotionally interesting. So take these recommendations with a grain of salt.

      • Zekiel says:

        Thanks very much for lots more recommendations! I’ll check them out.

        I actually played To the Moon and did really enjoy the story. There was definitely something in my eye at the end… My beef with it is that the actually “game” bits are generally rubbish and I can’t see what would be lost by turning it into a film. (Apart from being more expensive to make I guess!)

        Contrast with Life Is Strange which would still be great as a TV series (I think?) but gains a huge amount by being interactive. Having to make that final decision really, really worked for me.

    • Person of Con says:

      The game that kept coming to mind for me while playing Life is Strange is Magical Diary, from the maker of another game FPS has featured, Long Live the Queen. But it comes with a few major caveats, that it’s very clearly cribbing from Harry Potter and it’s based on the Japanese visual novel tradition, which means the relationship parts take precedent to a greater degree. (It’s worth noting that it avoids some of the grosser dating sim genre conventions in depicting women, too.) It was really good at making me feel invested and interested in the characters involved, but probably not for someone who veers away from anime-style things.

  14. Frank says:

    It’s my GOTY. Thanks for the links, Graham; I can understand Pip’s point about not wanting to write about it only to get into a tussle with folks who aren’t into it.

  15. draglikepull says:

    To each their own, but I’m amazed at how many people love this game. I played about 45 minutes into the first episode and gave up because the writing was so astonishingly bad.

    • UncleLou says:

      Same here, although I didn’t even make it that long.

      It frustrates me a little, because lots of people I know/trust (online) love it, but what they say about the game is completely at odds with what (little) I’ve played.

      • Poison_Berrie says:

        It depends of course on why you think it’s bad, I guess. I’ve seen a lot of people complain and fall over the characterization in the first episode and the teen-lingo. But the former is just the game setting itself up and general consensus is that it gets better in the following episodes. The latter is part the first episode going overboard with it and part people taking it to seriously.
        Of course it could just not be to your liking and that’s fine.

        The love it get’s is I think mostly down to it touching on serious subjects with respect and it’s ability to evoke emotions in it’s fans.

  16. Monggerel says:

    no

  17. Wagrid says:

    “I’m still surprised by the choice many made at the end of it all – not only made, but were convinced was right. It’s good to disagree so strongly with them, showing how deeply we were pulled in and how personal it felt.” Also sums up how I feel about the last decision – except I made the opposite choice.

    What a special game. It’s not for everybody, but I loved it.

    • Faxmachinen says:

      I too am impressed by the nearly 50/50 split at the final choice. And most of the other choices had a good distribution too. DONTNOD did a good job.

  18. unit 3000-21 says:

    I’ve finished the game recently, and it left me with a strange, and quite strong feeling. Not of simple nostalgia, but more like nostalgia for something that never existed. I think Alice put it well (and that’s why she is my favourite RPS writer) – “Chloe and Max’s friendship at the heart of the game feels… not quite real, but familiar as the stuff of teenage dreams. The way I might have wished my teens had been.” It’s a thing most teen dramas try to do. Which left me wondering – why? Am I wrong in thinking that most people (like me) never had experiences like those in their youth? I mean my youth was made of playing computer games, consuming pop-culture, arguing with my mates which band is the most metal, and which girl is the hottest, and drinking the way only teenagers can drink. And then this kind of fiction comes in and tells me my youth should have been full of drama, and friendships so strong I would do anything for them. And why do I kind of feel that way, even if I know it’s manipulative and untrue?
    Going back to the game – it starts rocky, but gets better with every episode. Characters become more complex and likeble – at the beggining Max was too dweeby and introverted (while also being judgemental of others) for me to really like her, and Chloe was annoying and childish (not to say anything about secondary cast made out of cardboard cutouts), but by the end they grew on me and I’ve become really attached to them. I liked how the game became progressively darker, and I liked the overall message of living with consequences of your actions, and learning when to let go. Even the music worked despite it being the most annoying twee-indie sedative guitar plinking. It actually really suited Max (though not Chloe), even if the whole game felt more like “In the Aeroplane over the Sea”.
    How strange it is to be anything at all, indeed.

    • Premium User Badge

      alison says:

      That weird longing for something that never really existed is also a feeling i get from quirky coming-of-age films, and Life is Strange brings those themes to gaming extremely well. The older i get, the more i remember my teenage years fondly, and i understand why our parents would say “these are the best years of your life”. At the time they can feel pretty shit, but as an adult it is a fabulous fantasy to imagine how it all could be if only the world were so full of secrets and promise and wonder again. Nostalgia is exactly about that fantasy, and it’s great that a game like this can evoke it in players of so many different backgrounds. It’s a really excellent work, and still my GOTY.

  19. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Huh. Just saw the news that LiS2 has been confirmed. Worth mentioning, although as I recall they want to do a completely new story next season, à la True Detective (which worked out so well for them – 20% drop in aggregated review scores). Still, good news, all things considered.

    • PikaBot says:

      While it didn’t work out for them, I think it’s hard to argue that the idea behind True Detective season two was pretty much the only viable way to follow-up season one. A direct sequel would be a doomed proposition from minute one.

  20. Phil says:

    Yay! Loved LiS. A game that had emotional heart that grabbed hold of me regardless of all the flaws and awkwardness. Maybe even because of them?

    But I’m a sucker for atmosphere & this game had that in spades.

  21. PikaBot says:

    I don’t think LiS quite stuck the landing – there was a lot of good stuff going on in episode 5 but pretty much nothing to do with the tornado was worth anything – but the journey to get there was so well done that I can’t count that as anything but a minor blemish on it. The dialogue could be a bit iffy at moments, but the overall shape and arc of the story, and the unflinching way in which it dealt with difficult subject matter, make it extremely worthwhile.

    My favorite thing about it is how it refuses to let any stock character go without nuance. Even Nathan Prescott had more going on than it initially seemed. It says something good about the game that the most emotional moment of episode five, for me, came from a character who I’d just spent four episodes despising and sabotaging at every turn.

    • Zekiel says:

      Agree about Nathan. It says something that (massive spoilers) by the end of my playthrough he’d killed two of my favourite characters and I *still* felt sorry for him.

    • rmsgrey says:

      Yeah, Nathan’s redemption came almost out of nowhere, but was extremely effective for me – his last message…

      It’s a shame that Don’tNod either couldn’t plan the project well enough, or couldn’t secure the funding to finish the game properly – if the ending had lived up to the game’s promise, it would have been brilliant, rather than leaving a lot of people with a bad taste in their mouths (and a bad case of unanswered questions).

      Apparently the tornado was all Max’s fault because… Warren says so? And letting Chloe die when she would have if Max’s powers hadn’t let her intervene will fix everything because… Chloe says so? And wiping out the town will end the chaos because… Anyone? And it will kill everyone else you’ve met throughout the game except the two of you because… Ummm… Quantum?

      I mean, it’s a dramatic choice – sacrifice everything you’ve done over the game, let Chloe die, and have everything else work out for the whole town without needing your help; or accept the situation, stop messing with time, and save Max’s best friend at the expense of everyone else. The trouble is that there’s nothing to establish that either decision will have those consequences except some last minute announcements by characters who have no way of knowing these things, which we’re required to embrace as divine revelation so that the final choice will work…

      It doesn’t even make sense – Max saw the tornado even before Chloe got shot, as though it were going to happen anyway even before Max had the chance to save Chloe or not.