Life Is Strange
For the last couple of weeks, once the girls are all in bed, I’ve been playing a strange little computer game that I discovered via a demo on the Xbox. It’s moved me to tears a number of times, taken my breath away every time I’ve played.
Now this sounds odd if you’ve not played this particular game, or genre, and especially for someone from my parents’ generation who probably don’t understand how someone can become a millionaire by posting videos of themselves playing games. I confess that not being a heavy gamer myself, even I used to find this concept strange when my daughter would spend hours watching Minecraft videos. So I wanted to try to explain this, but got bogged down there following several trains of thought so that’s going to have to wait til I can tidy it up. I also wanted to explain why specific scenes moved me so much, some of the key moments that make it so powerful, but that would spoil it for people who might play the game, so that will have to wait.
Graphical Adventures – games as interactive stories
The game I’m referring to is Life is Strange. It’s a sub-genre of computer games called graphical adventures, where you follow a story through one or more characters and frequently solve small puzzles or make choices that affect the game outcome. Usually there’s heavy use of “cutscenes”, which are short non-interactive segments that you watch like a movie rather than play. It’s an area of gaming which has become more popular the last few years, and more sophisticated as computer power has increased, giving an ability to render scenery and create realistic characters. Add to that an expectation of good writing (movie scriptwriters and novelists are often key figures in developing the story) and these can be very artistic and very engaging stories.
In some ways this genre feeds an appetite for interesting drama which movies often don’t satisfy, and TV programmes spoil by allowing viewers to binge. As this writer put it: “We still talk about television, but it’s not like it used to be. We’ll gather around Bake Off episodes like hungry cavemen around a vanilla-scented pastry fire, and we’ll get excited about new seasons of The Walking Dead and Hannibal and Downton Abbey, but the internet and new technology have meant that we’re no longer tied to a schedule. But because episodic games – like Life is Strange – are a novel format to gamers, we consume each morsel as soon as it comes out and discuss it ravenously in the hours and days that follow.”
Life Is Strange was released in five episodes, starting in January this year and finishing just this week. Each episode ran to a couple of hours gameplay, depending on how long you took to solve puzzles and explore the world. I only came to the game late, thankfully just in time to catch up with the first 4 episodes before Tuesday’s finale. By that point there was a whole library of articles and fan videos discussing the plot, characters, story arc, visual clues and the soundtrack. Again, this might sound ridiculous but it’s a reflection of how much thought and detail have been put into the game. There are now hundred of t-shirts and other items available (575 from this retailer alone) created from scenes in the game or from fan art of characters and locations in the game. It’s the kind of response normally reserved for the great books or movies of a generation.
Twin Peaks, Groundhog Day and Mean Girls all in one.
The story starts simply enough: your character is Maxine Caulfield, a photography student returning to her home town on the Oregon coast to attend a prestigious arts academy. After a vision of a hurricane destroying the town, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time to a certain point and change the outcome of decisions and conversations. There’s a mystery which emerges in the first episode, which you aim to decipher by asking questions, getting to know the other characters and solving small puzzles. This becomes the game mechanic, but it also forms a key element of the story, to do with choice and consequence. The episodic release allows for pause, with a “previously on Life Is Strange” reminder at the start, and a cliffhanger at the end of each. (although all 5 episodes have noe been released so you could binge if you wanted)
As the story develops, it becomes darker, with some harrowing scenes that are sensetively written and presented by the voice actors. There are a number of moments where your heart is in your mouth, where you are genuinely shocked, and others where you can sit agonising over the choice to be made, mainly because you have built up such an understanding and empathy with all the characters. There are moments in the game when you can just stop and listen to conversations in the background, or take in the scenery and the soundtrack whilst internally monologuing
The soundtrack is a representation of Max’s teenage tastes, lots of emo indie bands which I’d barely heard of. Each song is perfectly chosen for the moments in the story, edited with some of the most beautifully framed cutscenes, or their in the background whilst you explore the scene. It was the use of music in the opening titles (above) that got me hooked, where Max walks down the school corridor listening to her headphones and commenting on her fellow students. The songs are also chosen well to underline the current emotional state, and often provide foreshadowing, which make for great listening afterwards. There’s a Spotify playlist, and a number of videos for the main songs which uses scenes from the game. Here’s a spolier free video from the song at the start of episode 2, where you’re exploring Max’s bedroom, and when you pick up the guitar, she plays along with the song. Took me right back to being 18 again.
In the end, the game is a High School coming-of-age drama with time-travel, but becomes more than that because of the writing and the game mechanic itself. The story could possibly have been told through a TV programme, film or book, but becomes more powerful and meaningful because of your unique choices and your friendships. I cannot spoil the finale here, but all I can say is that the decisions you make for Max contribute to a morality tale about choice, consequence and determinism. It’s that deeper meaning and the response from players that might make it one of the “first great works of digital literature“.
HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS
If this has intrigued you, but you are definitely *not* going to play, here’s a great, and very moving analysis of the meaning behind the story. I am serious. Super spoilers. Here’s a slightly longer one that covers the summarises the story a little more. These fans also nailed the morality of a time travelling teenager back in April, a video that was so spot on as it formed a whole segment of the final episode.
The videos will also give you an idea of the gameplay and the beautiful artwork that’s gone into the game.