When it was originally released, the film Donnie Darko didn’t do very well. Opening in cinemas just a few months after 9/11, it only managed to recoup $500,000 in general release. However, over the next few years it slowly gathered a cult-following, and when the Director’s Cut was released in 2004 it gathered widespread praise for its uniqueness. Set in 1988, it follows 28 days in the life of teenager Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he interacts with his friends and family while strange occurrences happen in his home town, including an aircraft engine dropping from nowhere onto his house and a man dressed as a giant rabbit who tells him the world is about to end. Life is Strange, the episodic adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment (of Remember Me fame) is cut very much from the same cloth as Donnie Darko, both in terms of storyline and emotional depth. Life is Strange is a delightful mix of emotive character drama and sci-fi adventure, and although it ends relatively weakly, the journey is so strong and enjoyable that the flawed finale can be easily overlooked.
Life is Strange revolves around the life of one Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a shy, introverted, geeky 18-year-old student on scholarship at the respected Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. On an ordinary day in school, she witnesses her old childhood friend, the rebellious, blue-haired Chloe Price get shot in the stomach by a disturbed student drug dealer, Nathan Prescott. However, Max discovers that she can travel backward in time, and by rewinding is able to save Chloe’s life by setting off the fire alarm while Nathan threatens Chloe with a gun. From here, Chloe and Max’s relationship is rekindled and the pair embarks on several adventures, including investigating the disappearance of another student and examining why Chloe’s ex-Marine step-father is so obsessed with surveillance. All the while, Max experiences hallucinations of a huge tornado engulfing the town at the end of the week. Almost all of the characters, from Max and Chloe themselves to Max’s friend Warren or Chloe’s step-father David Madsen are interesting, detailed characters. The voice acting across the board is superb and even after just Episode 1, you already feel emotionally invested to find out what happens next.
Gameplay takes many cues from the Telltale brand of episodic adventure games, being very dialogue heavy but broken up with sections where you can explore the environment and solve a few puzzles. Many of these involve making use of Max’s time-rewinding ability, either to force people to give you information they might not have done (by slowly tempting out new information with leading questions), or to make a different decision than the one you made first. At critical points a red-pulsing decision will arise, meaning it will have an important impact on the story. You can rewind and change your decision if you wish, but once you leave that environment the choice will be locked in. Unlike Telltale games there are thankfully no Quick-Time Events here, which makes sense considering every “failure” Max encounters can be rewound and avoided. However, there are definitely still many high stakes scenes, some of which will challenge your emotional resolve. In traditional adventure game style you can inspect numerous objects in the environments, to which Max will respond with a bit of appropriate internal monologue. There are lots of decisions to make, some of which impact the story in meaningful ways, others less so.
The conversations throughout the game are great; they sometimes have a tendency to overuse slang such as “hella” and “wowser”, but even so it somehow manages to feel remarkably genuine. It’s so amazing to have characters that seem sincere and feel naturalistic, and there are only a couple of slip ups here and there. The game also has an emotional roller-coaster of a story, the likes of which is rarely seen in videogames. It is very easy to immerse yourself in the world and in Max’s life, because she feels like such a well-rounded individual. Almost all of her interactions and friendships just feel right, thanks to the excellent voice acting talent of Hannah Telle. Ashly Burch is also wonderful as Chloe, equally funny, sullen, and angry when necessary.
Graphically the game looks good; it’s certainly not as gorgeous as Remember Me’s awe-inspiring vistas of Neo-Paris, but it has a nice semi-realistic style which works well. The locales themselves are varied, ranging from the town diner to the junkyard to Blackwell Academy itself, and are packed full of little details, including a lot of somewhat unrealistic graffiti adorning most surfaces at the academy. Characters are nicely animated and this aids in the believability, allowing them to convey different emotions well. The soundtrack is also pretty excellent, using a variety of licensed music and incidental guitar to paint an immediate picture of Arcadia Bay. People will recognize indie folk songs by Bright Eyes, Sparklehorse, and Foals amongst others.
It is somewhat disappointing that Life is Strange does not stick the landing when it comes to the final episode, which ends disappointingly weakly. You may interpret it differently, but I refused to accept the ending as it was presented, even though there is plenty of foreshadowing leading up to it. Nonetheless, this does almost nothing to detract from the simple delight of experiencing the main story arc and simply spending time amongst such a fine cast of characters. Life is Strange takes you into its world, and then refuses to let you go. Spending time with Max and Chloe as they explore Arcadia Bay and attempt to write injustice and solve mystery is a delight, and their world is full of believable, emotional moments which resonate long after you’ve stopped playing. It isn’t revolutionary, but Life is Strange is certainly one of the best adventures of the last decade.