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RPS Chat: Life Is Strange Mid-Season Thoughts

Time Teen

The problem with trying to review the second episode of Life is Strange [official site], Dontnod's five-part teen drama, is that it would be largely the same as the first episode review except steeped in spoilers. That's why our episode 2 coverage is going to be a conversation between Adam and me. Full of spoilers. Like, SWIMMING in spoilers. Hella spoilers. From the start.

The other thing you might need to know is that Life Is Strange deals with strong material. There's a scene in episode 2 which deals with suicide/attempted suicide as well as a continuance of a plotline which involves issues of consent and potential date rape. There's a chance you might not want to deal with those right now, or would appreciate the warning that they're coming up.

Pip: One of the reasons I wanted to do it like this was because I was averse to creating an alternate save where I made different decisions. I thought it might ruin any investment I had in the ones from my "canon" playthrough.

My main attachment is to Chloe. I really like her in a way that I just can't do with Max. Max really winds me up and I would have unfriended her on Livejournal. That's why my choices tend to reflect whatever I think is the best option for Chloe or the one which shows her the most affection. I also really like Kate Marsh. She's the religious girl who ends up caught in this horrible viral video bullying thing after things go too far at a party. The episode goes to some really dark places with her and understandably so, which is partly why I'm itching to ask WHAT HAPPENED IN YOURS?

Adam: Kate is my favourite character. Not WAS my favourite character, IS my favourite character. I think, from what the internet has told me since I finished playing last night (and I was a bit of an emotional mess by the end) that Kate’s fate is the big changing point.

I want to talk about my thoughts on the writing, the teenageness of it all and the setting in a broader sense, since I haven’t written about episode one yet - but let’s cover Kate first. How is she in your game?

Pip: She is unhappy but she still IS. And yeah, I think that's the big point of difference between people's playthroughs now. I thought it would be the earlier moment when you have to decide whether to pull the trigger (on an empty gun) on some guy threatening Chloe.

How did you think it was handled?

Adam: The Kate story in particular?

Pip: Yeah. It's such charged territory and it left me needing some time to collect myself and my thoughts. I think there were a few bits of dialogue which seemed clunky – sort of...simplistic, I guess. But overall it felt like the build up had been there and the relationship I'd tried to build with her had led to a certain amount of trust for when I tried to help.

Adam: I was pretty much broken by Kate as soon as I saw her sitting in her room, hiding from the world at the beginning of the episode. And I think, from there, I expected something terrible to happen. I mean, it already is happening but I was surprised that it seemed to be coming to an endpoint so quickly.

It’s interesting that the aftermath of all of the cruelty and sadness is clearly going to be a focal point. And that could make Kate seem like a plot device, inserted to paint a picture of corruption and this blinkered little society, but she felt like a strongly written character in her own right. I believed in her and even though I tend to be dubious about stories that take a short route to high drama, I think the writing and performances here just about pull it off.

One of the things that strikes me is that for all the pettiness, unkindness and horribleness, it feels like a sympathetic game. It could so easily come across as exploitative - and I’m sure some people will react to it that way - but I feel simultaneously punched in the gut and cuddled by it in a weird sort of way. I think it’s because, in those scenes with Kate, it recognises victim blaming and allows you to see it as a grotesque situation rather than seeking some sort of immediate justice - there’s a revulsion about some of the behaviour that comes very naturally to me but it’s tempered by Max looking for what’s right.

But here’s where we disagree, you see. I think Max is great! You would totally definitely have unfriended me on Livejournal as well.

Pip: I might just unfollow you on Twitter.

I'm concerned about what happens next with Kate. This episode is also very much about expanding on the idea of this conspiracy and something malevolent. What's happening with Kate in the present is linked to the disappearance of Chloe's best friend, maybe girlfriend, Rachel. At the end of the episode when they're teasing for the next one there's this shelf with girls' names on folders with Rachel on the far right and then Kate as a creepy work-in-progress on the table.

It could turn out to have an innocent twist on it but I'm also concerned that the slut-shaming and cyber abuse might just end up as part of this wider anomalous creep stuff rather than a real concern.

Adam: Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. And it ties into something wider - one of the things that I think the first two episodes capture really well at times is the heightened intensity of being a teenager. Everything is the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. The end of the world or the start of a new life. Life is strange because it damn well is and that’s that. It’s strange when the nasty crowd actually have their own problems and fucked up lives. It’s strange when your friends kiss you or other people don’t kiss you, and everybody else seems to be getting kissed the whole time. That whole confusion of emotions with these intelligent and interesting characters is strange enough.

But it’s also a game about time manipulation and prescient nightmares, and weird weather anomalies (some of which are practically apocalyptic), and spirit animals (maybe) and conspiracies. So far I’ve enjoyed how the weirder stuff has played on the mundane, everyday highs and lows, but I worry that some of that is going to be lost as the Big Story takes over. And that’s when some of the really strong and quite unexpectedly raw emotional punches might start to seem like plot devices. Necessary dramatic beats on the route to a big finale. I really hope that’s not the case.

Does the game make you angry? I am very angry about some of the things that are happening. I shouted at the screen when I started getting threatening texts from Nathan’s dad. Kids being fucked up and cruel is one thing - but some rich asshole trying to push a teenage girl around? ARGH.

Pip: Actually not. When I was writing about the first episode I compared it to a bunch of teen original fiction I used to read and you'd get a lot of that in those dramas. There were always teachers who would cut the protagonist off when they were trying to share something important, or some rich guy's dad throwing his weight around or a local cop or parent who thought the secretly awesome teens were Up To No Good so I think it's something I was expecting.

It's where I've felt most obviously manipulated too, so I actively resist reacting to it. It's like, if you're pushing me this hard towards something I'll start expecting a twist and stop reacting, just let the story play out. Some of the characters will likely be berks, but you might have noticed a shade of that stuff with how the security guard gets treated. In the first episode he's basically a suspicious gun-loving maniac war veteran, then in the second ep you get context and he seems to care, just be a bit totalitarian in how he approaches that. I was annoyed there wasn't an option to be more pleasant to him in conversation, actually.

On that note, when you were in the principal's office at the end of the episode and had a chance to start pinning the blame on someone who did you actually go with?

Adam: I had an argument with my girlfriend about who we should go with. The joy of playing these things cooperatively is that you realise that you can be on different pages for the same reason. Take a guess of the three choices which one NEITHER of us was comfortable with.

Pip: Hmm. The security guard?

Adam: Bingo.

Pip: I was uncomfy with him because he actually seemed like a human being by that point, then the game had made it clear you can't pick Nathan (the creepy dickhead from your school who's being positioned as something, if not date-rapey, then on that spectrum) without some kind of irrefutable proof. It left the creepy photography teacher who had basically hinted that maybe Kate was asking for it. I mean, I was going to pick him ANYWAY because he's a dick but it didn't really feel like a choice so I'm interested that you and your girlfriend disagreed.

Adam: I was in the Jefferson camp. The issue with Nathan is that Claire (to give my girlfriend her name) is possibly less interested in paying attention to the choices and consequences as part of the game - she’s effectively treating Life is Strange as a TV show that I happen to be interrupting while I scratch my chin every now and again. And she’s incensed that nothing is being done about this guy who certainly appears to be - and I’m fairly sure the game hasn’t used the word (?) - a rapist.

Do you find it odd that it’s so strongly implied but never named? Is that in-character or is it a squeamishness in the script? Or something else entirely. I can’t decide. There’s part of me that suspects there’s a get-out clause in not naming it that allows for the impact of the implication without having to face up to the consequences of it in some ways. I’m not sure how I feel about it. And I’m not particularly good at thinking or feeling about it.

Pip: I'd been wondering something similar. What I'd thought was that Dontnod are being deliberately vague and it might have something to do with how the game plays out. Nathan is certainly painted as this dreadful person who abuses power and his treatment of women fits with that and plays into it – with Kate and, as you learn from a conversation towards the end of the first episode, with Chloe. It's also there in the closing moments of this episode as he moves towards Victoria in her room.

But at this point I still feel like Dontnod might try to pull a twist out of that. Nothing has been explicitly confirmed and when that's the case videogames and teen fiction have the habit of pulling out twists or making conspiracies or wrongdoing go to a person one step beyond the villainous characters they put in front of you at first. I don't trust Nathan not to end up being positioned as a victim of someone else before the game is out.

There's also another possibility here, in addition to your suggestions. It's the more mundane and infinitely sadder one. It's that this stuff is incredibly hard to talk about and a lot of women doubt their own experiences or are made the doubt them. In my version Max advises against Kate going to the cops because she won't be believed. Mr Jefferson insinuates that Kate might not be as innocent of blame as you think. Rape is a word which carries so much weight and has the capacity to bring so much harm and shame and all manner of other complicated negativity when you mention it that it feels very real to me that the characters involved would be reticent to say the word.

Adam: Yes, that second paragraph is pretty much everything I wanted to say when I said it might “in-character”. Said much better than I could have said it. I had a slightly different experience because I had Max tell Kate to go to the cops - I had the same concerns about lack of evidence, support and belief in her story, as well as being frightened of the consequences from the accused. But I was worried that advising against might suggest that I didn’t think it was a serious situation, or that I didn’t believe it was right for police involvement - in other words, that nothing criminal had occurred.

The problem with that approach - and, again, this may be intentional as part of the portrayal of a very difficult conversation - is that Max backs down quite quickly when Kate asks her to come along with her while she talks to somebody. As well as showing her own fear and uncertainty, it also conveniently allows the Kate story in that episode to play out without too much interference from Max.

Which leads me back to that nagging concern that some of the painful and very real experiences that the game touches on are going to be little more than bumps in the road in a story that is less than the sum of its parts.

But I’m being cautious rather than critical. As it stands, at the moment, I think the game is a powerful and mostly well-tuned piece of work.

Adam: I talked about the performances earlier, alongside the script, and I think that’s an important part of it. There’s the occasional piece of slang that doesn’t quite sound like it fits in the voice artists’ usual vocabulary, but I think the acting is good. And, unlike Telltale, Dontnod manage to convey subtle emotions with body language and facial expressions. It’s not all silent movie style over-emoting and flappy hand gestures.

One of the quieter moments, in the diner with Chloe’s mum, does a lot of work with Max’s frowns and little uncertainties. I liked that a lot. While I’m being positive, what have you particularly enjoyed? Apart from Chloe’s antics? Or, indeed, you could just talk about Chloe’s antics since we haven’t really delved into her punk rebel ways.

Pip: Chloe took more of a back seat this time because the Kate storyline dominated everything. I loved seeing her little hideaway though, with the trappings of this intense teen bond with Rachel. I also love her body language – she has this slight swagger, it's a kind of bravado to cover up her uncertainties and it comes across really well. There was also a moment where she's reclining on the bonnet of a rusted, busted up car, playing with a gun and Max makes this comment.

It's something about how effortlessly relaxed Chloe looks and I think that's right but that she's also just got that liminal not-a-kid-not-a-grownup aura about her at that point. She's a good balance of vulnerability, bravado, stupidity and warmth and I just want to make sure she's okay.

Adam: Where does your frustration - if that’s the right word - with Max come in? Too hipstery, cutesy twee? I think she seems a good counterpoint to Chloe. They’d do well together, I think.

Pip: I find her bland. The choices I make with her don't seem to hang together to form a proper personality and so I'm left with this do-good Mary Sue of a thing. I think it's partly because I feel the game pressure me with some choices so I step away from things I suspect Max would have done in character because I'm trying to work with a system. Like, I don't think she would have pointed out Mr Jefferson for blame in the principal's office but that never felt like a real choice.

I also had a section on the roof when I was trying to save Kate where the dialogue offered some Bible verses along with a generic "God doesn't like suicide" type statement. I happened to know the Matthew verse and it fit with the situation so I picked it but I don't get the impression Max would have known it. Does that make sense?

Adam: Yeah. I’m interested in the Mary Sue author-insertion idea because in this kind of game, the main character is a sort of player-insertion vessel. I’ve never really thought of it in terms of letting the player be the best of all possible people in every situation but there’s an element of that with Max.

For me, the rest of the characters have enough of a suggested internal world, as well as a life outside the little scenes we see them in, to make me believe Max is only such a ball of sweetness because we hear her thoughts. There are moments when she feels forced - too knowingly innocent to believe in - but I find her sweet, particularly when she’s around Chloe. She has a need to impress her but is far too serious to just jump up and down, giving her a hug, which might be the most impressive thing she could do.

Speaking of working with a system though, what do you make of the timey-wimey stuff? I want it to do more than it is at the moment, in terms of tying into the regrets and worries of impulsive decisions. It’s a lovely tool from a design perspective but it’s also a beautiful thematic fit with the emotional stumbling of the setting. I don’t think the game is playful enough with that second aspect yet.

Pip: I'd like to see some implementation that's not just about tinkering with the plot or the repercussions. I'd really like just a few opportunities for Max to do something lighthearted with it, and not at Chloe's behest. I think that would make me warm to her. Nothing mean, because that would be out of character but just a bit more of the taking advantage of it stuff. In the first episode she basically uses it to cheat in class (although the game only lets you do so after you sit through the sodding thing a few times) and I'd like more of that.

I mean, being able to rewind time and get a do-over is like the biggest teen fantasy of all, right? Being able to repair all those embarrassing moments? I would have given a lot for that ability and I still would. I still get hot-faced thinking of minor teen things – bad makeup or tripping over in front of class. I'd really love it if maybe Max was just walking down the hall and slipped over in front of some cool kids then used her power to undo it. That would be really humanising, just doing things for the sake of alleviating the embarrassment rather than to manipulate people for game reasons.

Adam: She seems like a doofus. I bet she trips over all the time and then rewinds time while WE’RE NOT LOOKING. Constantly spilling drinks and taking pictures of her thumb. Speaking of which, I wish the photography and the time manipulation were related in some way - they seem like two separate features that could work well in combination.

Perhaps this is partly because I’ve become accustomed to the stylised and slightly crude graphics of Telltale games - which this is comparable to structurally - but I’m delighted by how beautiful Life is Strange is. I’m hardly setting the bar high here, but there’s an understanding of cinematography and blocking that’s on a par with a decent television show. That’s better than most games manage because they’re so often tied in to the idea of the camera as a player-proxy of some sort.

During the drive to the diner and during that whole scene in fact, there’s a lovely sense of place. It helps that it’s all lovely and Autumnal as well. Is it Autumnal actually? It feels as if it is in my memory but now I think that’s wrong. It’s very WARM at any rate.

Pip: It tends towards this golden afternoon light effect. They do actually discuss the time of year if you talk to a science teacher and she says it's autumn, though. As someone who spends a lot of time on Instagram the constant Instagrammyness of the aesthetic sometimes grates but overall it's a pleasant thing and taps into that teen hyperemotional sense.

I feel similarly about the camera stuff, although I feel like it might become more relevant as that photo assignment/competition plot point draws on.

Adam: Let’s declare some kind of semi-judgement on Life Is Strange SO FAR. For all my criticisms, I’ve been completely won over by it. I thought I’d find the slang and now-ness far too difficult to get along with, and it does occasionally hit a bum note, but I’m glad that it’s making space for this kind of conversation. And compared to its episodic adventure competitors, it’s setting a new standard in thematic and aesthetic terms.

If it does finish well - and that’s by no means guaranteed - I think it’ll be quite an important game as well as a good one. Not important in the sense that it’s doing anything particularly new - as you’ve mentioned here and in your review of episode one, it draws on all manner of existing material - but important in that it’s a fairly high profile game that is content to be a drama about these people in this place. With a bit of sci-fi time stuff. And the possibility of a silly conspiracy that undermines my entire argument.

BUT YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN PROBABLY

Pip: I do. I feel similarly in that I like what it's done so far and I'm glad to see this type of fiction and characterisation in a decent-sized release. I'm still really cautious because I'm worried that it might go full Fahrenheit. Is that a phrase? Like, it's brought up all these situations which are rooted in real teen problems and it's so far dealing with them in a way which seems – as you said earlier – sympathetic. If it suddenly says AN EVIL GUY AND A TIME GHOST DID IT that would be awful. That's where I'm at with it – so far, so good, now don't fuck it up.

Adam: In conclusion - more games about teenagers, less games about time ghosts.

Life Is Strange Episode Two is available now. You can read Pip's thoughts on the first episode here.

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