You Should Play This Episodic Supernatural High School Game

You Should Play This Episodic Supernatural High School Game

Max isn't a stereotypical outcast teenager; she's a rather quiet, intelligent girl, just trying to get by. Also, she can rewind time at will.

Developer Dontnod's new downloadable episodic game Life is Strange, which is out on January 30 on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, begins like many high-school stories. Max, an 18-year-old who's spent most of her life in a big city, returns to her small childhood hometown on a scholarship to study photography at a prestigious private school. She has to deal with making new friends and figuring out how to cultivate her talent, in the kind of company that you might expect at a private arts school: shy nerdy types, entitled rich kids, insecure loners.

Max's interest in capturing moments on film is part of Life is Strange's larger thematic preoccupation with time, memory, and nostalgia. The game frequently transported me back to that time in my own life, and I feel like that will be true for a lot of people who play it.

The central conceit - introduced within the first twenty minutes, which you can watch above - is that Max can rewind time. Only by a few minutes, so not enough to seriously mess with the space-time continuum, but enough to undo a mistake, or unsay the wrong thing, or unspill a carton of milk all over the floor. This is a power for which we would surely all have been grateful as teenagers, a time of life when errors in personal judgement are more likely both to happen and to be amplified by intense embarrassment.

Many games force the player to make narrative-altering choices. Life is Strange's twist is that, upon reaching a juncture in the story, Max can rewind time. This means that you, the player, can try out both scenarios and then pick the one you want to stick with. It's a stroke of mechanical genius for this genre.

It's not like there's a right or wrong option — the real consequences of the things you do don't become apparent until later episodes, far beyond the reach of Max's time-rewinding capabilities — but you can see what happens in the moment, and sate your curiosity. I'm always tempted to behave like a total dick in adventure games, but I so rarely do because I'm wary of the consequences it might have later on. Here, I be cruel or callous to see what happens, then go back and do what seems to be the right thing if I can't live with myself.

For instance: when one of the school's classic mean girls gets unflatteringly spattered with white paint, I relished the opportunity to Instagram her humiliation. Then I rewound and extended the olive branch of kindness, like a nice, magnanimous person would. Then I went back and humiliated her again, because she completely deserved it.

You Should Play This Episodic Supernatural High School Game

There are a couple of puzzles, too, that rely on rewinding time to trigger the correct sequence of events - not many, but enough to show that there are interesting things to be done with the time-rewinding mechanic besides experimenting with choices.

In terms of the effects that your choices have on what's going on, Life is Strange falls somewhere between Telltale games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. There are four or five big moments in the course of the first episode that will strongly affect what happens later on, and then another twenty or so smaller choices that you can actually bypass entirely, if you neglect to explore. These choices are itemised for you at the end of the first episode, so you can see what you missed and compare the decisions you eventually make to other players'.

At this stage, there isn't so much a story as there is the beginning of one. The first episode spends a lot of time acquainting us with Max, her posh new school, and the oddly timeless small-town setting of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. We meet Chloe - Max's long-estranged best friend from childhood, your classic rebellious teenager with an arsehole of a stepdad - and the new friends she's beginning to make at school. We learn that another teenager, one of Chloe's best friends, has gone missing. This episode is all about setting the scene, and it does that admirably - from the high school's crowded hallways to the run-down backyard of Chloe's family home, with its faded drawings from her childhood, it's redolent of suburban adolescence.

You Should Play This Episodic Supernatural High School Game

Life is Strange is just a little bit scared of letting its characters and settings make their imprint on you without interfering.Now and then the script kind of interrupts what you might be thinking or feeling. While walking around Max's photography classroom, for instance, I was enjoying listening to her enthuse inwardly about the various artists and vintage camera equipment on display when the line "Man, I'm such a photography geek" kind of came out of nowhere. It was likeā€¦ yeah, thanks, game, I didn't need you to explain that for me. There are a few of these redundant lines that pull you out of the moment.

The script can also get a little enthusiastic with the teen-speak. At one point a character actually says the words "I'm going to post this all over the social medias,", whilst another delights in the prospect of someone's "arse-clown face all over teh Interwebs". I don't know who wrote this teen-speak, but it was definitely not actual modern teenagers. I'm far closer to 30 than I am to 18, but I definitely know that's now how they talk. The script is a lot better when it just leaves out attempts at being contemporary altogether. (A tip: if this does bother you, turning off the subtitles is a must.)

The majority of the time, Max and Chloe and the other people around them feel authentic and likeable. They're also dislikeable, when they're supposed to be — there's a security guard on campus who reminds me of horrible pornstached Mendez from Orange is the New Black. Max herself is reserved but smart, shy in a believable way, and I think most girls had a friend like Chloe when they were a teenager (or they were Chloe). The places - the girls' messy, teenager-y bedrooms plastered with photos and posters and graffiti, the school grounds in their autumnal light, the classrooms and corridors of Blackwell Academy - look and feel like real places, rather than stage settings.

As a result, Life is Strange is surprisingly immersive. You can really sink into it for a few hours. I felt no urge to rush through. There are some meditative moments of peace and contemplation: when you turn on the stereo in Max's dorm room, Jose Gonzales starts to play, and if you pick up her guitar Max sits down and tentatively plays along for however long you let her. This reminded me so intensely of my own university dorm room that I let her play until the song ended, enjoying the memory. Life is Strange is immensely successful at evoking that sense of nostalgia. The story is set in the present day, but to me it feels like it could be taking place in the Nineties, or the early '00s, when I was a teenager. I hope subsequent episodes retain episode one's groundedness. It would be a shame if it went all David Cage on us later on.

There's space in later episodes for Life is Strange to grow in confidence, and I hope it does. All the same, episode one is a promising start to a type of story that's rare in games, and not just because it stars two teenaged girls. For the price — and especially with a demo available — you should definitely try it.

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This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.


Comments

    Not till the season's complete

      This has become my position on a lot of games, too. I like knowing that there is going to be an end, and that it's worth my time, before I even start.

    Yeah, I'll probably get it, you've convinced me.

      I bought the first episode based on an 8 / 10 from Polygon (who's review read pretty much like this one), and I can tell you both parties are far too complimentary about the game. I should have expected Polygon would get all caught up in the overtly feminist, unnecessarily PC ideas and themes in this game after their 9/10 for Gone Home, but at least Gone Home did the minimal things it attempted well.

      Life is Strange, being a game almost entirely focused on dialogue and character, commits some pretty unforgivable mistakes. As mentioned, the dialogue is atrocious (Keza and Polygon understate how truly cringe-worthy it is), with highlights such as "are you for cereal?" , "hella" and "oh my lord" uttered by an 18 year old girl in a life threatening situation. Not to mention the soundtrack, which contains songs that teenagers were listening to when the writers were actually that age, which, is clearly at least a decade ago.

      Furthermore, in an effort to seem all inclusive and "socially conscious", the school is filled with pretty much every kind of cliche you can imagine. And representations of these cliches are completely 2 dimensional.

      "Girl who plays with electronics? Better give her a black fringe, partially dyed hair, and all black clothing."

      "Photographer student who's both pretentious and arrogant? Hit that dude up with a scarf and an undercut"

      "Football players? Dude. Sweet. Bro. Sweet. Bro, Sweet. Dude. Brb bro gotta cheat on my girlfriend with her "best" friend"

      There's tall kids, overweight kids, quiet kids, popular ones, etc. But ALL of these characters don't offer any surprises or quirks whatsoever. You can literally judge all of these books by their cover.

      Furthermore, the premise and ultimate conflict of the game seems ridiculous and overblown. It seemingly has no real connection to the minute to minute gameplay and this episode really doesn't get you invested in that overarching danger at all.

      Life Is Strange seems more focused on pleasing "social justice warriors" and aping at the best in class (The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain, etc.) than creating a real identity for itself or generating any sort of investment in the characters whatsoever.

      It's a shame because it's a cool idea, and a game based in a high school that deals with the daily life of a student could be really nice. It's not a case of this sort of game not being my thing, I wish there was far more stuff like this, where you don't have any sort of gun based conflict or have to kill something constantly. It's just that Life Is Strange isn't good enough at anything it tries to be.

        Still trying to work out why this guy got a downvote for putting out articulate and legitimate criticism.

          Me too, It's fine if you disagree, but don't just downvote without actually explaining yourself, especially when someone takes the time to do the same.

        Out of curiosity, what exactly are the "overtly feminist and unnecessarily PC ideas" you talk of? I haven't played this yet, so I'm not sure what to expect based on that quote.

        Last edited 01/02/15 1:06 pm

          Well maybe it's just, I don't know, my over-sensitivity in this current climate on the internet.

          But for me, I can't help but roll my eyes with the way that girls are depicted in current indie games and the like. Like Gone Home, there's lesbian or bi subtext in the major relationships of this game, which is fine, if it wasn't such a, again, cliche depiction of it. The girl who likes punk and has dyed hair and a tough girl attitude likes girls. Her room looks almost identical to the girl's room in Gone Home in fact. But in Gone Home there was real characterisation, the girls were three dimensional, their motives were clear and valid.

          There are girls who have straight relationships with boys, like, you know, the majority of high schoolers have, but they are depicted as hysterical and or taken advantage of by these straight relationships.

          This is not me having a problem with non-straight relationships in media and games, this is me having a problem with that one aspect of the person defining their entire identity to the point of almost parody.

          And as said above, the game seems to be more moving down a checklist of the kinds of people and body types and genders depicted as your fellow students, but it doesn't really see them more than a simple checklist, they have no depth.

          When you talk to the various cliches of high school archetypes in the game, you have to find an "in" with them by simply listing something about their most overt hobby. Want to hang with the skaters? List some skate moves. Want to play with the nerdy science girl from CSI / NCIS / etc.? You have to know the model number of her drone she's flying.

          It's like the game is saying, "look, we're representing everyone in our game, no more shaved head marine dudes!" but then represents those groups with all the insight and care of a shaved head marine dude.

          I know this is simply the first episode, but episodic games are not new, there are many examples now of ways to establish the setting and characters while making it clear that there's something more to the people and the story than what we first see. Life Is Strange did nothing to make me want to see what happens in episode 2.

          There might be something more to these characters, but right now, the game's depiction of these themes and people is just cringeworthy.

          Last edited 01/02/15 1:44 pm

            Thanks for the reply; you've raised some interesting points, and I'll have to try the game myself sometime. As a side-note for discussion, you mentioned that one aspect of a person was used to define their entire identity, but isn't that something that some people do to themselves already in order to fit in to pre-established groups within society?

              I do think that yes. But there's a problem when that reality is utilised in writing.

              I have had gay friends who came out and it didn't change a thing about them. We talked about the same things, enjoyed the same interests, it was a part of them, but not their whole life. One in particular was one of my closest friends and one of the smartest people I know, we spoke about science, the arts, music, culture, etc.

              On the flip side of that, I had another friend who changed almost every aspect of himself after he came out, to better adhere to that stereotype or group. When everything he spoke about what his sexual orientation, when that defined him completely, he became far less interesting as a person, and a friend.

              It's the same as people who enjoy "nerd" culture, who play video games for example, but then that love bleeds into everything from their music taste, to the clothes they wear (insufferable Threadless tees with video game references on them, or Assassin's Creed hoodies), and the movies they see.

              It's entirely your choice to let one aspect of who you are define every other aspect of who you are, but unfortunately, this makes you less interesting as a person to anyone aside from people exactly like you. And when you depict these sorts of people in narratives exclusively, you end up with a story and characters that nobody can connect with, nobody cares about.

              I understand that that is a personal, and high, standard to hold to video games and people, but I'm sick of saying "good enough" when it comes to video game characterisation. We can't go backwards after The Last Of Us, and we shouldn't.

              Last edited 01/02/15 5:14 pm

                Thanks for the thoughtfully worded reply, I appreciate it!

        "Life is Strange, being a game almost entirely focused on dialogue and character, commits some pretty unforgivable mistakes. "

        So, what are the "pretty unforgivable mistakes"? Is it that the characters are too one-dimensional? Too much dialogue? Not dialogue written well enough?

          Over acted, under-written, no real characterisation, all the characters are two dimensional. Basically read my comments and that explains the issues I have with it.

            I did, but the way you were writing it made it sound like you had a bigger issue with all the "social justice" fluff in it, is all.

              "Life is Strange, being a game almost entirely focused on dialogue and character, commits some pretty unforgivable mistakes. As mentioned, the dialogue is atrocious (Keza and Polygon understate how truly cringe-worthy it is), with highlights such as "are you for cereal?" , "hella" and "oh my lord" uttered by an 18 year old girl in a life threatening situation. Not to mention the soundtrack, which contains songs that teenagers were listening to when the writers were actually that age, which, is clearly at least a decade ago.

              Furthermore, in an effort to seem all inclusive and "socially conscious", the school is filled with pretty much every kind of cliche you can imagine. And representations of these cliches are completely 2 dimensional.

              "Girl who plays with electronics? Better give her a black fringe, partially dyed hair, and all black clothing."

              "Photographer student who's both pretentious and arrogant? Hit that dude up with a scarf and an undercut"

              "Football players? Dude. Sweet. Bro. Sweet. Bro, Sweet. Dude. Brb bro gotta cheat on my girlfriend with her "best" friend"

              There's tall kids, overweight kids, quiet kids, popular ones, etc. But ALL of these characters don't offer any surprises or quirks whatsoever. You can literally judge all of these books by their cover."

              --

              That entire block pretty much sums up the issues with dialogue and characterisation that I mentioned in the first sentence. Don't get me wrong, the social justice aspect of this game really seems like purposeful over-correction, but there are serious flaws with the game excluding all instances of that that just come down to bad writing and acting, and even gameplay.

              Last edited 04/02/15 2:46 pm

    I've had this preordered for a while. Excite.

    This sounds like a life simulator. Nothing I read actually describes what the game is about other than being a teenager trying to fit in. Yes it's what (I'm going to guess here) a lot of us went through during school, but is that something you want to revisit in game form?

    I'm not getting the appeal of this I guess

      I'm guessing it might have something to do with that other girl mentioned that went missing. It's episode 1, so it will just be glimpses of a story so far.

      Although it's only the start of the game the main character has the ability to rewind time. She uses this to save someone from getting murdered at the start, and then in her day to day conversations she uses it to change outcomes of events. There seems to be a giant storm that is going to wipe the town out in 5 days from the start of the game as well.

        That's pretty damn spoilerrific.

    I bought Episodes 1 - 5 on GreenmanGaming last night for $14.40. Really excited to get involved.

    I do like the idea of being able to pick a decision, see what happens, then go back. I often either ave before making decisions to see what each one does, or google particularly tough decisions.

    Having it as part of a core game mechanic is a great idea.

      The only problem is every time it's a "big" choice the character internal monologues trying to make you feel bad about it. Like... EVERY TIME.

        I already do anyway. Feels like cheeting a bit :c

    I added thus to my wishlist last night. Might grab it now.

    It is also a game published by Square-Enix in one of it's most non-corporate moves since the merge.

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