The final episode of time-meddling drama Life is Strange [official site] has arrived. My thoughts about the game still haven't entirely settled so I might revisit the game in a few weeks when they're firmer BUT right now I'm going to do a mini Wot I Think (no spoilers) and then a separate chat with Alice who has also played (that one will have spoilers coming out the wazoo).
In case you've missed us chatting about it on here, Life Is Strange tells the story of Max Caulfield, a teen girl who discovers she has the power to rewind time after witnessing a crime. With her newfound power and the reappearance of a childhood friend she finds herself investigating the disappearance of a fellow student and fielding visions of an impending apocalypse. As the player you get to fiddle with time in order to make and remake choices, adjusting the adventure as you go.
Here's Wot I Think [At The Moment, Before I've Had A Chance To Really Let Everything Settle]:
TL;DR: Life Is Strange is really, really good.
So the thing about episode five was that it had a lot of work to do. I'd found myself charmed by Life Is Strange since the first episode way back in February, despite not warming to Max at first and despite some rather awkward dialogue choices. More than half a year later, and with time to develop theories and counter-theories, dip into the Tumblr fandoms and cosplaying communities, build expectations and develop worries I finally hit the final chapter.
But talking about a lot of Life Is Strange is out of the question because it runs the risk of spoiling so much. Basically, if you're going to play it, you'll want me to talk about it as little as possible. With that in mind I'm going to try and summarise the general experience and leave picking into a lot of what works and what doesn't for the chat.
When I wrote about episode one (Chrysalis) I talked about how it reminded me of teen-based original fiction posted in subsections of internet fanfiction hubs. This was the conclusion:
"I know it sounds like there’s a lot of criticism there but episode one is also earnest and gawky and sweet. Life Is Strange itself feels teenaged. It’s not realistic and it’s not subtle but it taps into a vein of fiction I’d forgotten existed – one which is imperfect, exploratory and full of liminal charm."
That remains broadly true across the entire series (although on the realism note I would stress that the characters had a lot of moments together which I recognised from my own experience of being a teenager which really took me by surprise - I've never felt that in a game before). I was willing to forgive it some irritating puzzles or clanging dialogue because I bought into the characters' relationships and wanted to pursue the central mysteries. However, the balance of gawky, earnest charm/emotional punch to imperfection and criticism shifts around a little leading to some episodes being far stronger than others.
The most notable contrasts are episodes two (Out Of Time) and four (Dark Room). Two is a quietly powerful experience which uses your reliance on your power to great effect - it's the sort of thing where I just wanted to sit there after the credits for a few minutes and put myself back together. Four tries to cram far too much into one session and the pacing ends up really weird towards the end. It also follows up on a cliffhanger in a way that didn't assuage my doubts about the whole scene, it just kicked them down the road, leaving the finale to answer for whether it had been working towards a point or had lost its way.
So which was it?
Playing the final episode (Polarized) there were two parts when I stared at the screen, needing to make a choice but not feeling ready.
The first time it happened was when I came to boot up the episode. I found myself answering emails, making a coffee, checking the work Facebook page - anything that would stave off finding out whether a series I was emotionally invested in had been... good? worthwhile? I mean, the positives would have still existed but a bad finale can cause you to reassess earlier plot points and casts a shadow over the whole thing. Have you ever had that with a favourite TV show? It's the finale and you don't know if it's going to satisfy or - and I believe this is the technical term - "do a Lost".
The second time was the very last choice you get to make. I was so torn and so uncertain that I sat with it for maybe five minutes before picking an option and it still broke my heart. Then I texted two people in real life to tell them I loved them. Right now I'm considering playing the whole final episode again, just so I can undo what I did. I don't think I will, but I bring it up because it highlights how much I came to care about Life Is Strange and its characters.
Personally, though, I think it will take a little longer to unpick whether I'm happy with how developers Dontnod dealt with (or didn't deal with) a few of the elements I've found problematic over the course of the series. I'll go into a lot more detail in a conversational and spoiler-ful post with Alice, but my current thinking is: it doesn't answer all of my specific issues satisfactorily but generally the mass of them are resolved through an ending which worked. I will add that I think Life Is Strange benefited very much from the episodic format and that the gaps were important in giving you time to reflect on the game, or even to put it to the back of your mind and leave it there for a bit. If you're binge-playing episodes back-to-back you'll obviously lose that.
So should you buy it... I want to say everyone should but that's a bad answer because it won't be for everyone. Nothing is. What I will say is that it is probably my Game of the Year. Not THE Game of the Year but mine. Sure, it irritated me in places (there were two sections in particular which outstayed their welcome and one where I settled for an outcome I wasn't happy with rather than repeat a scene again).
There are also several plot points which never really get explained and I suspect - based on other people's responses - there are ways to play it and choices you can make which feel unsatisfactory. The statistics you get at the end of the episodes sometimes show a clear bias towards one choice over another - I felt that was because Dontnod had a clear vision for who Max was and deviating from their choices could be hard. With one particular friendship I sometimes felt I was fighting the game.
But I found Life Is Strange affecting in a way I rarely experience with video games. I shared it with friends. We messaged each other at the ends of episodes to say "Holy shit!" before grabbing a cup of tea and talking through the chapter. It was a wonderful thing.
Imperfect, exploratory and full of liminal charm.
Life Is Strange is out now for Windows.