Life is Strange – Analysis

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Now that I’ve gotten my hatred for the end of Life is Strange out of my system, I can thankfully focus on the rest of what is otherwise an excellent game, and easily a contender for game of the year.

LiS is the second game made by Dontnod Entertainment, a French development company whose previous endeavor was the ambitious but underwhelming, Remember Me. Dontnod is probably the first of many companies to attempt to enter this odd genre of gaming, which Wikipedia calls “interactive drama graphic adventure.” To my knowledge, the genre was started by Quantic Dream’s Indigo Prophecy in 2005, but it has surely reached popular acclaim with the flood of Telltale games, starting with Season 1 of the Walking Dead in 2012. Thankfully, Dontnod’s addition to the genre is not only well-made, but also a welcome deviation from the trends set down by Quantic Dream and Telltale, with LiS’s production values being at a level roughly between the two companies’ games (Quantic’s being higher and Telltale’s being lower), its action being downplayed, and the game’s tone being completely different from any other games in the genre before it.

I don’t know how much there is to say about the game as a whole without devoting the whole post to a thematic plot-analysis and repeating a lot of what has been said elsewhere. I’ll suffice to say that the writing is excellent, the story extremely compelling, and I loved nearly all of it until the second half of the final chapter. Instead of recapping the importance of every character and plot event, I’m going to focus on a couple of the most interesting aspects of LiS and how they helped contribute to a rather remarkable game.

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A Strong Tone

Looking back on my twelve-hour playthrough of LiS, the thing which ultimately sticks with me is the tone. Given the setting and plot, I’m tempted to say it reminds me of a much lighter Donnie Darko, with a similarly introverted high school-aged protagonist coming to terms with time travel and super powers as he/she develops a strong bond with another individual who plays a crucial part in the story. But while Donnie Darko focuses on the angst and isolation created by the protagonist being misunderstood and uniquely different from everyone else in his world, LiS goes the opposite direction. Max immediately shares the knowledge of her powers with Chloe and they work together to solve Rachel’s murder and figure out what to do about the impending storm. The result is not necessarily a lighter-tone, but a more varied one, with moments of levity from Max and Chloe’s banter, punctuated by sadness from the time they missed together during their separation, or anxiety as they worry about the long-term implications of Max’s powers.

This isn’t to say that LiS’s tone is scattered; it’s certainly not. Rather, the tone is tightly controlled and enforced by every element of the game, including the art style, the dialogue, the music, and the event pacing. I’m not sure I can really give a name to what LiS’s tone is as a whole though, because it seems to be entirely the game’s own creation.

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What really works is how the game uses active gameplay and passive ambiance simultaneously to immerse the player in a constant atmospheric tone. The scene which immediately comes to mind is right at the beginning of Episode 1, when Max exits her classroom, puts in her headphones and just walks down her busy school hallway towards the bathroom. The music is a strong presence but doesn’t drown out Max’s introspective thoughts on every person and object the player chooses to examine. Though Max is the protagonist, and therefore the focus of the player, she seems like a small and insignificant part of the school’s larger ecosystem, which includes not just the student body, but also the teachers, the various activities promoted by the omnipresent fliers, and the town as a whole which clearly exists outside of the school’s boundaries. The scene acts a perfect introduction to Max’s world as a large, complicated place in which she is not sure of her role, but is inevitably affected by Max’s extraordinary abilities.

It’s easy to see how music and the quasi-hand drawn art style can set the tone, but the more effective and subtle tone-building comes from the gameplay. The single most common action the player engages in throughout LiS is not the emblematic time-rewinds nor dialogues with other characters, but rather is examining objects to hear Max’s internal thoughts on the subjects. This pervasive action establishes Max as an introspective and shy character who clearly has a lot of thoughts on the world, but rarely vocalizes them, even when directly prompted by others. More importantly, Max’s vocal tones and feelings reflect the passive tonal elements of the game (primarily the visuals and music) to operate as a superb reinforcement mechanism for conveying the intended overall game tone to the player.

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Juggling Plots

The writers of LiS deserve an enormous amount of credit for successfully doing something which so many other video games, especially story-centric ones, often fail to do: juggle a wide array of plots and characters over a relatively long game-span.

Make no mistake about it, LiS is about a lot of things. It’s about the social networks within an interrelated small town and exclusive private school. It’s about Max discovering her powers and their implications. It’s about the transformation of Max from a shy introvert, to a confident hero. It’s about Max navigating the difficult social scene of her new school. It’s about Max reconnecting with her old friend, Chloe. It’s about Chloe trying to figure out her life after the death of her father and being introduced to a new, harsh step-father. It’s about Warren’s crush on Max and Brooke’s crush on Warren. It’s about the mystery behind Rachel’s death and its connection to other strange occurrences in the school. It’s about the “Everyday Heroes Photo Contest.” It’s about dozens of little sub plot between the characters in Blackwell Academy and Arcadia Bay, like Joyce and David’s stressed marriage, Dana’s pregnancy, Juliet’s boyfriend troubles, Victoria’s insecurity, Kate’s depression, Taylor’s concern for her mother, Principal Well’s compromised ethics, and many others.

Balancing all of these big and small plots required masterful storytelling and pacing on behalf of the writers, and they pulled it off. It would be so easy for the game to feel confused, overwhelming, or stuffed with pointless filler, but none of the above plots or unmentioned ones ever felt unnecessary. They all either exist to expand upon key characters or give us a sense of the world they inhabit. Unfortunately, much of the background world building was likely done to prime the incredibly dumb final decision in the game, but even for their own sakes, all of the little stories and characters work really well.

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Mechanical Subversion

As pointed out in Campster’s Errant Signal on Episode 1 of LiS, the game subverts the traditional choice mechanics presented in Quantic Dream and Telltale games. Rather than force the player to make quick decisions which have enormous impacts on the characters and plot in the long run, LiS is purposefully designed to make most decisions unimportant in the short run since the player has the ability to rewind time and change Max’s choices. In doing so, the game allows players to be more methodical as they explore both the short run effects of choices and how characters react to them. It’s a pretty damn cool mechanic which does a lot to differentiate LiS from its competitors.

Elsewhere, LiS is notable for its (sometimes excessively) slow pacing. Much of the game consists of wandering around large environments, observing things, and making small talk with random characters. These segments are typically front-loaded in each chapter to slow things down after the exciting conclusions to the previous chapters. Once again, it’s a credit to the writing and world design that spending 15 minutes looking for bottles in a scrap yard can actually be interesting, if not necessarily fun.

Overall, the slow pacing just works. LiS’s cerebral story and time rewind mechanics give the game an increasingly surreal feel as it progresses, though the familiar character relationships help it feel grounded nonetheless. The use of lots of Max-centric, wandering-around scenes not only develop Max apart from the rest of the game’s world, but also provide just enough slack in the story to make the unexpected action scenes and big twists stand out. When stretched across the entire game, the balance between slow and exciting scenes provide a wonderful sense of pacing which becomes more excited later in the game and eventually crescendos in an exciting, albeit uneven final chapter.

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Ethics Without Consequences

Something which repeatedly struck me throughout LiS, especially since the game doesn’t really comment on it except a little bit near the end, is how ethically questionable many of Max’s actions are. I’m not talking about the big uses of her time rewind powers, which are usually unquestionably good, like saving Chloe and Kate’s lives, or very prominently questioned, like when Max chooses to maintain the game’s normal timeline instead of saving Chloe’s father’s life. Instead, I’m talking about the lots of little ways in which max uses her powers to further her big and small interests.

If you really think about it, Max spends much of the game doing things which without her powers would be considered rude, manipulative, intrusive, and/or outright illegal. She constantly uses her powers to find out tidbits of information about people, then rewinds time and uses said information for her own purposes, like befriending Taylor by talking to her about her sick mother, or getting information out of Frank by commenting on his affection for dogs. She also breaks into a lot of places like Blackwell classrooms, the school pool, the boy’s bathroom, the principal’s office (with explosives no less), and even other student’s dorms, often to investigate people’s behavior by digging through their personal effects. Even in the context of benevolently investigating a series of heinous crimes at Blackwell, a lot of this behavior is morally questionable. It would be hard to imagine a police detective doing most of the things Max does and keeping his job afterward.

I really love this element of LiS. The question at play is how morality is affected when consequences are removed from actions. Max can do pretty much anything she wants and immediately rewind time to negate the consequences of her actions on anyone else, though she does still retain whatever information she learned or items she grabbed prior to the time rewind. In other words, Max engages in a real life functional equivalent of “save scumming.”

Apparently Max adapts quite quickly to the uneasy moral implications of her powers, or at least chooses to ignore them. Her very first alteration to the timeline consists of answering a question in class to which she previously did not know the correct response. Next, after saving Chloe in the bathroom, she uses her powers to experimentally lie and tell the truth about what she saw to the principal, and then she uses her powers to manipulate a whole bunch of classmates so they like her more.

I’m not exaggerating. After saving Chloe and talking to the principal, Max walks outside to the front of Blackwell where she has the opportunity to talk to a bunch of fellow students. One such classmate is the stoner-skater Justin, whom Max is implied to have a crush on. Justin asks Max about some skater terminology, Max replies that she has no idea what he’s talking about, and Justin rudely dismisses her. Max then has the opportunity to rewind time, use the terminology she had just learned from Justin to impress him, and thereby become better friends with the poor, duped skater boy.

This conversation-rewind-reconversation process is really…strange. Of course it’s understandable that Max would want to make friends and Justin’s treatment of Max is a bit harsh… but still, Max’s behavior is blatantly dishonest. She presents herself as an individual with qualities that she knows Justin likes (knowledge of skating) when she really doesn’t possess those qualities. If somehow Justin discovered Max’s abilities and what she did with him, would he be ok with it? I doubt it.

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Max goes through this process over and over throughout the game. She can look at Dayna’s pregnancy test, get (understandably) scolded for being intrusive, rewind time, and then have a heartfelt conversation about Dayna’s troubles without offending her for being nosy. Max breaks into Victoria’s room, thoroughly examines her possessions, learns about her insecurities, and then similarly brings it up in conversation later to bond with Victoria. Again, Max is certainly well-intentioned, but this behavior is also pretty damn creepy out of context (and arguably even in context).

The game cleverly brings this point up in Chapter 5, during Max’s nightmare sequence where she meets a copy of herself and asks for help getting out of her predicament. The copy responds with:

“Oh, so you want help? Thought you could control everybody and everything, huh? Twist time around your fingers?… you only wanted to be popular. And once you got these amazing powers, your big plan was to trick people into thinking you give a rat’s ass… (you tried to make friends) by telling people what they want to hear? You were just looking for a shortcut, because you can’t make friends on your own.

I know the sequence is supposed to be a representation of Max’s worst fears, but other Max kind of has a point.

I’m personally still not sure what to make of the morality of Max’s petty power uses. Her capabilities may be so unusual that a whole new moral framework needs to be created for them, much like the Camerata’s actions in Transistor. At the very least, I think a lot of her attempts to make people like her more through dishonest conversation manipulation were immoral, but her power uses to investigate Rachel’s disappearance, even when they involved breaking and entering, were probably justified on the basis that she caused no long-term harm and was attempting to save future victims. On the other hand, there is a reason things like due process and search warrants exist, so I’m probably putting a lot of trust into Max.

I wish the game had pushed this question a little bit further. Imagine a situation in which Max is trying to get access to her photographs so she can alter the past in some drastic way, but one of her friends like Chloe, Warren, or Joyce are obstructing her for some reason. In a situation like that, it might be morally permissible, if not optimal, to take violent measure against these people, even if it means killing them, for the sake of reaching the photo. Having Max, say, murder Chloe so she can quickly rewind time and alter something more important than the existence of a Chloe in a soon-to-be-defunct timeline would have been a great way to make the player viscerally confront the morally questionable nature of Max’s powers.

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2 thoughts on “Life is Strange – Analysis

  1. Pingback: The Success of Graphic Adventures and the Necessity of Choice Illusion – Part 1 | Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

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