How Life Is Strange Breaks from the Episodic Gaming Mold
Dontnod's Life Is Strange is a storytelling marvel, especially when it focuses on the mundane and makes it something more.
The Unbearable Darkness of Being
Among 2015’s best games, one of the most interesting cases is undoubtedly Life Is Strange. On the surface surface, Life Is Strange seems like another one of those indie-ish episodic titles that Telltale has made popular (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones), but with an anime-style, teenager angst-filled storyline. That premise alone is interesting enough to discuss, particularly with the comparison of how grim Telltale’s games often are, but here’s the thing—despite seeming like a standard episodic adventure game, Life Is Strange is more than that for one major reason: it tells a story that is ultimately positive, hopeful, and relatable.
To better dive into this subject, let’s first examine this concept of grimness. Without going into spoilers, in Telltale’s more recent episodic adventure games like The Walking Dead Season 2 and Game of Thrones, there’s no denying that they’re filled with death and composed of dark storylines and environments. This sense of darkness frames both games and helps make the stories compelling, but there are times when the grim ambience seems to almost overshadow the creative potential of both games, making them feel heavy-handed—even predictably so.
Both these franchises naturally evoke these grim, horrific emotions, thanks to the source material (death, death everywhere…), but Telltale’s games also increase the level of grimness exponentially when the player’s decisions can only lead to terrible outcomes. Is it better to kill off character A or B? It usually doesn’t matter, since both will die anyway. Characters die every episode, almost, and the player has little actual control over most of these deaths.
This sort of environment isn’t unlike the settings in many of the dystopian games that become our most popular AAA titles. A large percentage of today’s popular franchises, like Call of Duty and Fallout, tend to revolve around stories that take place in wasteland dystopias, post-apocalyptic war settings, and grim futures where hope tends to remain hidden and scattered across the universe. There’s nothing wrong with these stories, but often it begins to feel like we’re oversaturated in dark, desperate tales.
Situations feel so dire in some games that there’s rarely time to explore the world or get to know the characters. Even story-based games become almost stoically linear. Telltale’s TWD/GoT games are perfect examples of this. By design, the extreme linearity of these games, when paired with dire circumstances, create tension and inevitably grab the attention of players by way of shock factor, sort of like a TV cliffhanger. But shock factor isn’t always enough. Sometimes, there’s a sort of magic that happens when we’re faced with something more ordinary in a genre where we’ve come to expect Red Weddings and red, well, everything.
The Importance of Pacing
It comes down to pacing. Telltale’s games have made me a little numb to dire circumstances and death simply because there’s so much of both. It’s akin to watching too many horror flicks. When you’re overexposed to shock elements, they start to lose their value. As gamers, when we’re overexposed to horrific situations, we often learn to just kind of shrug at the story and run towards the next objective, getting through the game as quickly as possible. But games that are paced differently, utilize a breadth of storytelling options, and aren’t always so grim are often the ones that surprise the most.
For example, in The Last of Us, we get a few beautiful scenes of character development and backstory that truly let the light of the characters through. The one scene that comes to mind immediately is the giraffe scene, where both Ellie and Joel take a moment to experience just how wondrous it is to see giraffes wandering contently through an environment torn asunder. Beaut and nature survive the apocalypse when most humans cannot. Hope remains. Scenes like this take us out of the grim reality of the game for a moment, completely change the pacing, and give us a chance to breathe. They also emphasize how beautiful and artful the video game medium can be.
Similarly, Life Is Strange is full of hopeful moments like this. We witness how Max emotionally handles the confusing situation she’s in by playing through her story, but also during the quieter moments when she reflects on what’s going on during optional cutscenes. These scenes play voiceovers of her inner thoughts while the camera pans around her surroundings in a peaceful manner that seems separate from reality itself.
Max and Chloe, despite being estranged for years, take time to reflect and be nostalgic. We find out about their history by exploring the game environment and finding clues in mementos and souvenirs from younger, happier times. We watch Chloe encourage Max to be herself and be happy with who she is, even though she knows the young woman is struggling to figure out her odd powers. Even most of the game’s soundtrack speaks of happier, hopeful times. All of this lets us get to know Max and Chloe more deeply than through mere gameplay alone.
These moments can also be found during exploration sections. Telltale’s Game of Thrones gives players a few opportunities to explore the main characters’ surroundings, but not very many. Moments of exploration in adventure games are a nice break from the story and allow players to get to know characters and environments more intimately. They’re also a way of letting players dictate the pacing of the game. Life Is Strange’s pacing often seems extremely laid back because of these frequent exploration moments, and frankly, that sort of pacing feels very in-tune to the game’s younger target audience and also more life-like. The pacing is far more relatable.
Relatability & the Mundane
That relatability carries on in other areas of the game, too. We relate to Max’s confusion and frustration when things don’t go as planned and when she worries about what impact her time rewinding abilities will have. We see her struggle with her relationships with various characters, and relate to all those glorious and not-so-glorious teenage emotions she displays (okay, mostly not-so-glorious). It’s a little angsty, sure, but it’s also realistic. In contrast, while Telltale’s games are often compelling, it can be hard to relate to any particular character due to how little we see of them outside the dire circumstances they’re confronting.
There are also moments in Life Is Strange that focus on the more mundane side of teenage life. Frustrations about schooling, career choices, bullying, social circles, romantic relationships, home life, and even financial woes are all present in various forms. These mundane details contrast interestingly with the situation Max is experiencing, especially when the details aren’t always negative. Just as often as we see evidence of Max’s fears and worries, we see what gives her joy. We see how much she loves photography, how much her friendship with Chloe means to her, and how much hope she has for her future.
Through what seems mundane, we start to see the characters as human beings rather than just NPCs. Just like the giraffes in The Last of Us, there’s a certain kind of beauty to seeing Max gleefully add her name to the graffiti in Chloe’s junkyard hideaway. Sure, our heroine can control time. She has no idea what that means just yet and is pretty sure her whole town is going to be destroyed, but let’s take a minute to scribble down her name. Why not? It’s moments like these that make Life Is Strange simple but also profound. Why not have a little fun while trying to save your loved ones? Why not show us tiny details about the characters that let us know what makes them truly tick?
Another perfect (but spoiler-filled) example that isn’t quite so fun involves the scenes that play out during Chloe’s alternate timeline where she is paralyzed from the neck down. These scenes are the most devastating to witness, despite the fact that we know Max can probably whisk herself away to another reality at a moment’s notice. They seem real and aren’t played out like a typical half-created, fantasy-ish dream sequence. By exploring the house and talking to Chloe’s family, we see how Chloe’s home environment has changed with her disability. We see the sacrifices her family has made for her and how their relationships have changed. Every little detail, down to the routine care that Chloe now requires and the guilt Max feels yet has to hide, is fully formed.
These scenes are impactful because of how detailed and realistic they are. There’s no shock factor here. There’s just life moving on. We’re presented with the realities of a very grim alternate timeline. Compared to watching some of the bloodiest scenes in Game of Thrones, a scene like this contrasts quite beautifully due to how plausible the situation actually is. Emotions aren’t only felt within the action sequences of a game. Sometimes, the tiny, ordinary details, like experiencing a household falling under the weight of disability, can be just as emotionally effective.
Moments where action takes a backseat in order to show the beauty in the mundane are where Life Is Strange shines the most. When Max views the walls of award-winning photography depicting the theme of “ordinary heroes” next to her own award-winning entry, we witness not only the hope her character feels, but the hope that the whole human race feels after reflecting on such imagery. Exploration can be powerful. In this manner, we find extraordinary elements in the relatively ordinary moments.
Life Is Strange is one of those games that certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s certainly strange in many regards, but it’s also a brave game. Risks sometimes pay off, even if they’re quiet, ordinary ones in a world that seems much like our own. When it comes to Life Is Strange, these are risks worth experiencing.
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.