Hello there, and welcome to Gaming Respawn’s newest weekly feature, Respawn Reflection. Before we dive right into the subject on this feature’s debut, a quick explanation of what you can expect from this feature would be advantageous, I guess. During the coming weeks, a range of subjects will be covered from the world of gaming. Whether that will be a retrospective look into the past, discussing the present or contemplating the future. With that, the subject for this debut will be a look into the past. Not the distant past, however, rather a look at a game that was released only two years ago, the incredible Life Is Strange.
It wasn’t until this month that I had the esteemed pleasure of playing this title from French developers Dontnod Entertainment, and that is in part thanks to the wonderful guys who organise the free monthly PlayStation Plus games. Going into Life Is Strange, the only aspect of the game I knew about was that there was a time traveling element. Everything else, including the story, was a complete mystery. I knew Life Is Strange was met positively by both the critics and gaming community, so I was excited to start my playthrough, but I wasn’t expecting to be as utterly blown away by it as I was. Over the two days I started and completed Life Is Strange, it went from being relatively unknown to one of my favourite games of all time.
It is ingenious that the protagonist, Max (never call her Maxine!) Caulfield is a photography student in Life Is Strange. Not only is it central to the story and game mechanics, it is also symbolic in the art design of the game. Other video games, of course, look ‘better’ in terms of graphics, set pieces, etc., but Life Is Strange’s cinematography is breathtaking, the whole game is just one long photo album. Max herself is an aspiring photographer with an incredible eye for beautiful shots. We, as the players, also have the chance to capture many alluring ‘shots’ during the story. If there was a way to track button usage on the DualShock 4, I guarantee the share button would be high on that list. Whether or not this was an intentional part of the journey by the Dontnod Entertainment team, I don’t know, but I felt myself feeling closer to Max more than many other beloved video game characters due to this shared passion.
Another detail Life Is Strange gets absolutely right is the struggle of being a teenager. This is perfectly embodied in Max’s diary. Throughout the game, you will have the chance to add to the diary by taking certain photographs or having particular interactions. In her journal, Max summarises the story in flawless teenage angst style. Full of beautiful illustrations and her incredible photography, reading her journal is a hidden gem within Life Is Strange and reminds this humble writer of his teenage journals.
The one feature of Life Is Strange I knew about was time travel. I feel subconsciously this was a reason as to my avoidance of it. Time travel is an aspect of entertainment that I enjoy, but only if it is not explained (unless we are talking about Primer). So many films and games have tried to explain the theory behind time travel, and it 9 times out of 10 never makes sense either by the explanation itself or of the paradoxes created. Also, Life Is Strange thankfully doesn’t try to explain how Max gets her power or how she is able to travel through time, and why would they? The story focuses on a group of teenagers who would not have the first idea of what is happening. Max’s (potential) love interest, Warren, offers a half-hearted suggestion of Chaos Theory, but this is more of a say something instead of nothing reaction than a serious explanation.
Categorised in the Graphic Adventure genre, Life Is Strange’s main strength, as you can imagine, is the story. Much like Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit and the Telltale games, there isn’t much actual gameplay involved. There is some exploration, conversations with NPCs, puzzles and that’s about it. It is the story of Life Is Strange that makes this game incredible. As previously stated, you play as Max Caulfield, a somewhat shy and unconfident photography student who has returned to her seaside childhood home of Arcadia Bay to attend Blackwell Academy. Max’s main motivation to return home from Seattle was to be under the tutorship of Mark Jefferson, a famous photographer who has just become a teacher at the high school. During one class in early October, Max has a terrifying nightmare about a giant tornado destroying her hometown. After class, she goes to the bathroom to clear her head where a classmate of hers, Nathan Prescott, is involved in an altercation with an as of yet identified girl, and he accidentally shoots her. Max, distraught with what she has just witnessed, reaches out and rewinds time back to her lecture. With this new power, she manages to save the girl who turns out to be Max’s childhood best friend, Chloe Price. Together they try and solve the mysterious disappearance of a student from Blackwell Academy and some other issues that arise during their investigation. Max will use her powers numerous times to change the course of history, which will have a disastrous effect on her hometown and all those around her.
The story is incredibly written and well-paced throughout the five episodes. The characters within Life Is Strange are all extremely relatable and feel incredibly organic and natural. Everyone from the ex-soldier-turned head of school security, David, to the school diva, Victoria, generally feel like real people. This allows you to form attachments to the characters you like and loathe those you do not. The strongest characters are, of course, the main duo of Max and Chloe. Their reunited friendship is a constant highlight throughout that makes your final decision at the end even more agonising. I became more emotionally attached to Max and Chloe than I have been to any character in recent memory. I was elated by their highs and forlorn by their lows.
We are now entering spoiler territory, so if you haven’t played Life Is Strange yet, please skip this bit until you have.
Choices. Life is full of them. Some we encourage, some we neglect and some we wish with all our might we did not have to make. Life Is Strange features all of these choices. The time travel element, you may be thinking, would make these decisions easier as you can see how each choice would play out. You would be wrong to assume this. Due to the emotional attachment I formed with the numerous characters, it made it a lot harder for me to decide as I knew what would happen. Do I let Warren beat the living crap out of Nathan, or do I stop him? Do I choose to be nice to Victoria after I orchestrated paint being spilt on her expensive jumper, or do I choose to gloat? Do I tell or not tell Chloe that I went back in time to save her dad from dying in a car crash and how that choice resulted in Chloe becoming paralysed many years later? Do I choose to answer the phone with Kate on the other line who desperately needs my help since doing so would interrupt my first time hanging back out with Chloe after all these years? The latter is a choice I deeply regretted. Kate is the recipient of a lot of unwanted attention as a viral video of her making out with numerous partygoers has gone viral. You can see she is close to the breaking point, but I thought, you know, I’ll just talk to her later. I’m hanging with my bud again, she will be at school when I go back. How wrong I was.
Upon returning to school, I saw Kate leaving before the class has started. I started to regret my decision of not answering the phone. Then, I well and truly regretted my decision when I saw her on the roof of the dormitories. My heart sank. Kate was such a sweet, innocent church-going girl. My choice to not answer the phone has driven her to this? Thankfully, with the help of Max’s power, I was able to stop her from jumping to her death, for a time. Life Is Strange is a game where you really have to pay attention to every little detail. During my talk with Kate, trying to convince her not to take her own life, I had to try and remind her of what she would be leaving behind if she did. You find out all this information from talking with her previously and through her belongings in her room. I was doing a good job, reminding her of her younger sisters, mentioning that I had helped her previously and lying that my phone was on silent. Then, at the last hurdle, I failed. I chose a Bible quote to try and appeal to her religious beliefs. It was a quote she had highlighted in her Bible, but it appeared to be the wrong choice. Kate turned around and jumped to her death, right in front of my eyes. This poor girl, gone. This would be the first tear I would shed during Life Is Strange, but it would not be the last.
The ending. Apart from a misplaced stealth section, it was the perfect ending to this perfect tale. Max with Chloe at the end. The monstrous storm which had plagued Max’s mind since the start of Life Is Strange was about to destroy all of Arcadia Bay. Chloe came to the heart-breaking realisation that this storm was because Max had saved her life numerous times throughout their story. She tells Max that the only way to save the town, save her mother and step-father (calling David this was the start of the tears) and everyone else she loves is to let Chloe die in that bathroom at the beginning. There awaits your final choice. Do you save the town and sacrifice Chloe, or do you let the town be destroyed by this biblical storm and keep Chloe alive? It was a choice which plagued my mind. I desperately wanted to keep her alive, but how could I? How could I let a whole town of people perish? With a heavy heart, I chose to let her die. The death of Kate Marsh was truly upsetting, but this destroyed me. No video game has ever made me feel this way by making a choice. Days after finishing Life Is Strange, all I can think about his the death of a character I adore and the heartbreak of Max who had to relive her friend dying, again.
Life Is Strange is still available as one of June’s free PlayStation Plus games. Episode 1 is free, and the other 4 are discounted during the Steam Summer Sale, which runs until the 5th of July. If you haven’t played this wondrous title yet, you need to, and witness one of the greatest stories ever told.