A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting at my computer listening to that week's episode of the podcast (Link). Brad started talking about his love/hate relationship with Life is Strange, and with Brad's more negative comments, Nick saying he wants to skip it, and the fifth episode, "Polarized", coming out today, I figured this would be a good opportunity to talk about why you should totally play Life is Strange.
It seems like the industry is becoming more open to releasing their games episodically. Between the multitude of Telltale games, Broken Age, and even weirder, Hitman, the ability for games to release constant updates has opened a new form of monetization for video games.
I am personally not a huge fan of episodic video games. When the first season of Walking Dead came out, I played the first episode, let it sit until all 5 episodes came out, then finished the season. It's sort of like the argument about how early access kills the buzz for your game: I played the first episode, got the cliffhanger, and didn't want to come back to it until it was all released. It gets even worse when there's not a solid timeline (I'm looking at you, Wolf Among Us with your 4 months between episodes 1 and 2), and there are multiple seasons. In fact, I still haven't played Walking Dead Season 2.
With Life is Strange, I would've fallen down into the same habit, if it hadn't been for one of my friends practically begging for me to catch up. Between him, and the fact that I was legitmately into the first two episodes that I had finished, I went ahead and caught up, and I realized that this (like many adventure games before it) feels like the ideal episodic game. Each episode has it's own individual plot, drive, and atmosphere, while also pushing forward the plot of the whole game. Despite the broken nature of the game's delivery mechanism, each piece feels closer to a episode of a television show that's going to fit together into the entire season's mystery and story.
With Walking Dead (season 1), I lost that desire to want to play each episode as soon as it comes out. The story and characters were interesting, but the presentation and the style of storytelling did not mesh as well with episodic nature of the game as I feel Life is Strange does.
I want to take a detour from story and characters, and talk about gameplay. Life is Strange is not the pinnacle of gameplay by any stretch of the imagination, but when compared to other adventure games, it pulls ahead in that department. In The Walking Dead, you were constantly having to make quick dialogue choices that could have effects on characters' decisions later in the game. In video game design, there's a concept of the "Core X". It is the one thing your game hangs on. Walking Dead's "Core X" was these decisions, and the consequences therein. Life is Strange takes the episodic adventure game formula, and twists it around with the introduction of the time reversing mechanic.
Instead of making split second decisions, you make a choice, rewind, see the immediate results of each decision. This allows a much more relaxed atmosphere to Life is Strange, which is actually pretty refreshing considering all the times you see "Joebob will remember that..." in the Telltale styled games.
Now, when I say "immediate results" I do mean immediate. With each major decision you make, you're given a (usually binary) choice, Max has an internal monologue saying "what would have happened if I made the other choice", and you get the option to rewind. However, as soon as you leave the area, that decision is final, and you get to see the results of your decision in later episodes, just like you would in any other similar game.
Story and Atmosphere (no spoilers)
Nowadays, it feels like games present themselves as every decision matters, but Life is Strange goes in another direction. At the end of each episode, you're shown the decisions you made, and how they differ from what other people's decisions were, but sometimes it's only when you get to this screen that you realize that you missed some decisions. The world is built by interacting with these characters, and understanding their lives and motivations, but by no means are you forced to do so.
The main character, Max, is a young girl in a new school. Although she spent most of her childhood in Arcadia Bay, she's just now returning after spending 5 years living in Seattle after her parents moved down there, so she can go to the prestigious Blackwell Academy, a private school for gifted seniors. Max's specialty is photography, and the love of taking photos has earned her at least a little bit of renown amongst her classmates.
I emphasized Max spending 5 years away from Arcadia Bay because it's one of the reasons I'm so accepting of the "low points" of the game. You're presented with a young teenager, who's essentially an outsider trying to become accepted in a new school. I'm sure we can all think of times when you wanted to be part of the "in crowd", and when Max is talking to the other kids, that desire to want to be them comes out, even if some of the kids are total jerks, like Victoria.
In Life is Strange, the high points are intense, even with the ability to rewind time, making decisions feel like they matter, and I find myself struggling over every single one. While you're trying to figure out the case of a missing girl, you're balancing your new found powers, a rekindled relationship with an old best friend, and the weird weather patterns that all seem to be culminating in an early vision of a giant tornado destroying the town.
The high points are high, and the low points are low, and that dichotomy is part of the charm of Life is Strange. One of the best parts of the game is when Max finds a place to sit down and enjoy being in the moment, all while processing the bat-shit crazy stuff that has been happening to her over the past few days. These points offer the player a chance to take a step back and similarly process recent revelations, and it builds a stronger connection between the player and these characters.
Life is Strange has some problems, don't get me wrong. Brad is right that going to the party was a huge pace killer, and sometimes it does feel like the mystery of the missing girl takes a backseat to the social aspect of being in high school. However, I don't think these problems subtract from the game so much that you should avoid it. In fact, I think it's what makes the game so great. People are tired of hearing "video games are art", but I think this might be the first example of a game that takes elements from television and video games and turns in into something truly special.