Reviews

Life Is Strange, Episode 1: Chrysalis

Eric Swain

Max wants to make friends, survive high school, and impress her famous photography teacher to jump start her art career, the kinds of human and relatable stories not often seen in video games.


Life is Strange, Episode 1: Chrysalis

Publisher: Square Enix
Players: 1
Price: $4.99
Platforms: PC
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Release date: 2015-01-30
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In 2012, Telltale introduced the world to its variation on the adventure game genre. They eased back on item and logic puzzles to instead put a greater emphasis on character and conversation. They also created a system in which certain choices would have an effect on the narrative in some capacity. To that end, they crafted a notification system that informs the player when such important choices happens as well as the idea of providing a post-episode tally that let the player know how one's own decisions stacked up against the collective whole of the entire player base.

We're finally seeing other studios other than Telltale play with this style of adventure game. Red Thread Games's Dreamfall Chapters is presenting their take on the formula and now Dontnod Entertainment, the makers of 2013's Remember Me, is doing so with their game, Life Is Strange.

The first episode, “Chrysalis” introduces us to Maxine Caulfield, a young woman who has recently moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend Blackwell Academy, an institution known for its notable photography curriculum. She is having trouble adjusting as she bumps up against the social realities of high school life. Then, one day at school, she goes into the bathroom and witnesses a murder. This shocking event awakens her ability to rewind time.

Here we have the major mechanical deviation from Telltale's formula. You can make an important decision, see the short term responses to it, and then you can rewind back to the point of making the decision to choose another option to see its short term consequences. However, you can only rewind back as far as the beginning of a scene, so once you leave the scene, your decision is locked in. It may seem like an entire universe based on save scumming, yet Max's dithering matches the behavior common to players when presented with the concept of finality. She can undo her actions, but that she can only do so in the short term only makes finalizing a decision all the more resonant. The moment isn't just gone, all chance at changing it is. Max doesn't help the player in any way, though. She chooses to focus on the negative repercussions of a decision. Her lack of self confidence and conviction comes through and makes the player second guess their own choice.

In that regard, Life Is Strange is refreshing. Unlike The Walking Dead Season Two, which also presented a story from the perspective of a young girl, additionally Life Is Strange presents a story about being a young woman. Max feels disconnected, partly as a result of moving and coming to live in a dorm on her own and partly as a result of her experience of a bundle of teenage anxieties. More than anything else, she wants to make connections to other people, whether those be to her outsider pals, the girls from her dorm, or to a former childhood best friend. A good third of the game asks the player to act out Max's desires to break out of her shell and just learn to be more friendly to others -- or to possibly ostracize herself even further.

Max wants to make friends, survive high school, and impress her famous photography teacher to jump start her art career. This is a story that I haven't seen in games much. Outside of Gone Home or the occasional Twine poem I can't really think of anything that tackles these kinds of social issues on their own terms. Additionally, there is the other major plot, which feels ripped right from an after school special. While in the bathroom needing some alone time to decompress, she is broken out of her reverie by a boy entering and raving to himself before being confronted by another girl and brandishing a gun.

Here we start to get at some of the heavier dramatic meat of the episode through events that also mirror thematically Max's smaller scale problems. The boy comes from a well off family that practically owns the town, and thus, the hierarchical class metaphor of school cliques is seen writ large in the fabric of actual society. It might be a little unfair to call these events something like the subject matter of an after school special given these broader connotations. The storyline surrounding the gun and drugs isn't preachy and is more emblematic of deeper structural problems with Arcadia Bay than it is about the behavior of one bad egg.

Also, there is a tertiary storyline that is hinted at twice in “Chrysalis". This hints occur near the beginning of the episode during the moment Max's powers are triggered and also at the end of the episode. A great, almost supernatural calamity is descending on Arcadia Bay. Seen from up atop the cliff next to the town's lighthouse, it is a natural disaster of awe-inspiring devastation. I'm left to ask: what is it doing here? The game could easily have worked well by tackling only the “fish out of water” storyline or “the prep with a gun in over his head” storyline. This third storyline only seems to be in here because, well, video games.

I don't know why video games feel the need to insert extraneous material of a world threatening nature to drive tension in nearly every plotline that they attempt. Life Is Strange is far more character based than any of Telltale's offerings and works fine with the grounded tale of a teenage girl finding herself. Sure, throw a little magical realism into the mix if necessary, but the time rewinding mechanic is already limited and wholly based on short narrative situations. It's possible that the developers wish to tie this greater tragedy in thematically, but I don't have a grasp on the studio's ability to either upend my expectations of what is important here or to simply have made a poor decision that derails an otherwise excellent experience.


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