MASTERPIECE: LIFE IS STRANGE

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Here’s the dilemma: how do you recommend something without saying anything about it? I could, as is my custom, pontificate, prevaricate and prattle on with long, obnoxious words in a vainglorious attempt to obfuscate the details whilst endeavouring to elucidate with mere vagaries. Or, on the other hand, I could try and keep this short. Neither really seems satisfying, so I think the usual approach will have to serve: blunder in headfirst and hope it all works out.

Let us, then, begin at the beginning. What is Life is Strange? It certainly isn’t a film and I would argue it’s not quite a game either. Games, at least by my definition, have an adversary, be it another player, time, luck or some such. Games are a test of skill and the joy of them comes from beating them. You don’t beat Life is Strange, you finish it, as you would a film or a book. Yes, you have some modicum of control and there are puzzles to solve, but puzzles aren’t games as such. Perhaps a little history will help.

In the 1990s, LucasArts had a division of its video game department making “adventure games”. The adventure game genre was all about puzzles that ranged from mad genius to impossible stupidity, depending on the quality of the game, and mostly followed the same rough pattern of play, a pattern that led to the nickname “point and click”. Mostly, though, they were popular for the same reason JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) were popular: they were the only games on the market with a strong narrative. There are two reasons the genre died in the late 90s. The first is that other genres with better gameplay and less irritating puzzles were able to deliver on the narrative front thanks to the rise of larger storage devices such as CDs, and later DVDs, and bigger industry budgets. Second is that adventure games fight like a dairy farmer. If you got that reference, you are my friend forever – let’s get drinks that eat through pewter and sail deep in the Caribbean.

maniacmansion
‘Maniac Mansion’ by LucasArts, released in 1987

Skip ahead a decade and enter the fray with Telltale Games. It’s all there in the name of their company – they exist to tell tales. In order to do so, they dug up the bones of the adventure game genre, performed unspeakable necromancy, started licensing settings and revived a genre, their breakthrough hit being their phenomenal The Walking Dead adaptation. But there’s a big difference between the modern Telltale title and an old-school adventure game: the puzzles – mind-bending, not necessarily in a good way, puzzles where you rubbed arbitrary objects on each other to produce hijinks. Telltale games are about choices, at least that’s what the formula developed into, which is why the formula is so good for adapting The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.

The thing is that the puzzles in Telltalestyle games are basically token gameplay and serve just to provide an occasional dip in tension and attempt to justify the title of “game”. Really these are the Western equivalent of visual novels. Visual novels are a popular type of non-game in Japan, where you have a wall of text, some mostly still images and occasional choices. They’re choose-your-own adventure books. Telltalestyle games are just like that in essence, they just make more of an effort pretending to be games.

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A Japanese visual novel

That finally brings us back to Life is Strange, a Telltalestyle game from Dontnod Entertainment. As I mentioned before, a key element of this style of game is choice. As a standard they are released in five-episode series and, at the end of each episode, you are presented with the choices that you made, often alongside the percentages of all players who took each option. Life is Strange is a game about time travel. I mean about time travel, not the how but the implications and the practice. This is the really good sort of time travel story. If you got that reference, you are a fan of mine, which scares me a little.

Throughout the game you can rewind the scene you’re in. This means you can redo conversations. The ramifications of this cannot be understated. It seems like a simple gimmick, but given some of the conversations you have, this is huge. It means if you say the wrong thing, you can redo it – you can try out treating a scenario in different ways and then make a conscious decision as to which way you ultimately write it into reality. You have to rubber stamp every choice as the best choice because you could literally take it back if it wasn’t.

Life is Strange sets itself as a teen drama set in an art school in an isolated coastal town in the middle of nowhere. It is so much more. Rarely does a story, let alone one pretending to be a video game, really affect me on an emotional level. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman did, but I read that when I was eleven. The Mass Effect series came close, but that was just because it sucked me in and engaged me. Life is Strange affected me. I gazed into it and it gazed back, occasionally pointing out some uncomfortable things about the way I think.

2836173-life_is_strange_ep2_junkyard

At last we run headfirst into that dilemma. I want you to play this game. You want to play this game, even if you don’t know that yet. However, I fear that if I give you any more details about Life is Strange, I’ll lessen the experience for you. Unlike the films in the Lunkhead Masterpiece series, I doubt the majority of you reading this will have experienced Life is Strange and going in knowing essentially nothing more than “this is great” is the best way to experience it.

So here’s the conclusion for you: play Life is Strange. You don’t even need to “do” video games to enjoy it – it’s a story not a game, not really. Maybe it won’t reach out and touch you like it did me, but at the very least it’ll suck you in, steal your time and make you think. If that’s not a full-fledged endorsement, I don’t think I’m capable of one.

WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD

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