Friday, 30 January 2015

Time Is On Your Side:Life Is Strange: Episode One Reviewed

So many stories begin with a murder, look at Twin Peaks for example; based around the murder of a seemingly perfect high school girl in a sleepy isolated town. It's an effective point for getting a narrative engine whirring. Life Is Strange, a new game from French developers Dontnod, gets it's plot going by having you stop a murder but with a twist as you've already seen it happen.

Max Caulfield has just returned to the small town that see grew up in from Seattle for a photography course at a prestigious school, and reconnecting with people she'd long lost contact with. It's left her a stranger in a familiar place. On top of that she begins to have vivid dreams about a massive tornado looming over the town and with them, the realisation that she can rewind time.

Max's teenage life is already seeming far more complex than my own but Life Is Strange manages to stay grounded and personal. You get glimpses into a lot of character different ideas and agendas within the short chapter and it won't take long till you're picking out favourites and picking sides. The teenage slang comes thick and fast and mostly works though, and i'm in the later half of my twenties so maybe I'm losing my grip on how kids today talk, I don't know if people say things like "sad face" but for the most part it works.

I bring up Twin Peaks because there is more that a passing resemblance to the setting, the small pacific coastal town of Arcadia (and there is at least one obvious reference to David Lynch's show in the game). The game clearly owes a lot to the storytelling of Telltale Games too, you make dialogue choices and actions that split the plot and the game makes these reasonably clear that they will have some future repercussions. What is different is that once you've made your choice you can change your mind, though once the story moves on, usually set by leaving an area, there is no going back.

It also allows you to change some small things too. Here are some of the least spoilery examples: When you talk to some kid with a skateboard he calls you out on not knowing any of the tricks. Rewind time and you can drop words like 'nose slide' into conversation and impress him. Walking past a girl sat at a bench, you see her get struck by a football, rewind time and you can warn her. These moments may not have an impact on the central story but these tools can come into play in similar ways in the games more decisive moments.

The game uses some familiar metaphors, this isn't the first time a camera has been used to represent a sense of detachment to the world around you, but it still works. Likewise, the game name checks a dozen authors, films, photographers over the chapter but these are people figuring themselves out, finding people and media to latch onto to find who they are.  

Whilst you always have something to do the game doesn't rush you. You have time to explore the environment, talk or observe people around you, take pictures or poke around dorm rooms and houses. These environments are littered with little details about the people, rarely essential but filling out the characters and world. Teenagers are not easy to write. Their lives are filled with little struggles and there is a politics to how these play out. Life Is Strange may go a little too far out of it's way to remind you that this is a contemporary story, with sexting and mentions of Kickstarter, it is best at capturing the moments that never change for teenagers, the cliques, the bullies and the personal drama.

Whilst I can't relate to everything that Max goes through I remember what it's like thinking whether I should stand up to a bully or not, or just laying on a bed smoking weed and listening to music. Life Is Strange nails the small moments so it'll be interesting to see if it can keep them at the forefront as the plot grows and we get to realise the full results of out choices.

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