Fried Take - "Life Is Strange: Episode One - Chrysalis" (2015)
At the end of the 1.5-2.5 hours it took to beat Life Is Strange's first episode, I was taken aback. During all that time, I had heard a character use the phrase "hella" multiple times, non-ironically. There was an educational lecture on the origins of the "selfie." The protagonist's best friend said she just needed to relax and "blaze" for a little while. The list goes on. Basically, for the average running time of a movie, my ears were inundated with some of the more bizarre, incongruous "teenage" lingo that I've ever heard. It just doesn't let up.
And you shouldn't either, because despite the fuck-awful dialogue at times, Life Is Strange is well on its way being one of my favorites of 2015.
Yes, from the first episode alone, I'm already entranced with this game. Now, don't get me wrong. It might not be for the right reasons. It might be an ironic sort of enjoyment, something that would definitely fit with the "quirky," "hip" teens that players get to spend time with. From the bizarre references to the borderline nonsensical plot to the absurd dialogue, Life Is Strange could be considered a very, very bad game by many standards. Some might decry it as awkward or weird, and that's okay, I get that. I really do. It has problems. But honestly? I'll take awkward over uninspired and bland any day of the week, no questions asked. Also, the awkwardness feels vaguely intentional, but more on that in a second.
Dontnod's commitment to delivering an entirely atypical experience shows immediately with the set-up. Players are put in the shoes of Max, a photography student who finds herself capable of traveling back in time for... no reason whatsoever. She discovers this power when she sees a girl get shot in the gut in the lady's room, then uses it to prevent that from happening... and promptly becomes very comfortable with being able to alter the rules of reality itself. All of this happens with no exposition or anything. Yep.
And this is only in the first ten to fifteen minutes, mind you. That's not even touching the weird stuff. Like the high-school drama about "sexting," or preventing a girl from getting hit with a football, or the creepy security guard who's stalking a student, or the missing girl, or an implied cult, or the ghost deer, or the tornadoes, or... well, you get the point. Life Is Strange is a bizarre (one might say... strange) mixture of a ton of things that, by any sane rational, shouldn't work well together. When something throws ironic Juno-esque comedy into a blender with the bizarre sensibilities of David Lynch (who's referenced in a few clever ways here,) it should feel like an incongruous mess of an experience.
But does it? Shockingly, no, and that's why this first episode has won me over so much. It's no coincidence that Lynch is referenced in this game in a few different ways, because it reeks of his influence at every turn. I mean that as a complement, though. There's oblique dialogue, truly disturbing undercurrents, strange shifts in tone, tricky cinematic angles, and a patently bizarre plot that only sort of makes sense... everything here feels directly influenced by the famed oddball. As a longtime fan of his work, and the subsequent works that it's inspired, Life Is Strange is a blessing to me. It's one of the only video games that doesn't only reference the director, but actually seems to understand what makes his stuff so great.
Which, in turn, is why I don't necessarily have a problem with the somewhat awkward, sometimes stilted dialogue. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I kind of like it. Lynch's best movies suffer from the same "problem." One might say all of the performances in Twin Peaks, for example, are "awkward" and "stilted," not to mention packed with bizarre lingo. But that's a sort of trademark, and it makes everything feel like a Bizarro-world version of real life. Same with Life Is Strange. The weird dialogue choices that aren't indicative of how real people talk help build atmosphere, and it's an odd, vaguely unsettling one that managed to pull me in and arrest me. Just because dialogue in something isn't how people talk doesn't make it automatically bad. Again, look at Lynch's stuff. It's the same "problem" there. Well, I like it there, and I daresay I like it here too. So sue me.
Narrative-wise, dialogue-wise, character-wise, I have no problems with Life Is Strange. On that front, it provides players with a world that feels kind of uncomfortable to inhabit, weird to interact with, and all-around unsettling to be a part of. I'm not entirely sure where the story is going, or what the characters are going to do next, but I do know one thing: I give a damn about it. Which is something I just can't say for most games made in the past year or so.
On the gameplay front, I don't have much to complain about. But, on the other side of that same coin, I don't have much to commend, either. Players walk around, push buttons to interact with things, and... well, that's it. It controls like a David Cage without the quick-time events, and I mean that in both a commending and disparaging way. On the one hand, it's kind of intuitive in a minimalist sort of way, where anyone could pick it up and understand it. On the other, you'll run into the same problems of meandering around a small room with no direction and clicking on everything until you can progress the story. Again, it's not bad, it's just not remarkable either. Also, the time travel "mechanics" aren't worth touching on in depth, at least not gameplay-wise. You hold a button, it takes you to the last decision, you change the decision (or don't.) Simple as that.
Ah, yes, the decisions. The bread and butter of any post-Telltale game. Luckily, Life Is Strange doesn't emulate Cage in the sense that your choices actually fucking matter here. At first, I was starting to feel like I was getting the same results for any choice I selected. But, as the episode wore on, I realized that my decisions started coming back to alter the story in more subtle, sinister ways than I had initially realized. That, coupled with the daunting amount of decisions that can be made (the list at the end of the episode is massive,) makes me feel like things I did here are truly important, and will shape the course of the narrative. Which, in my book, is always a plus.
Speaking of things being in books, the art direction here is ripped straight out a graphic novel, I feel. Very stark and simplistic, and complete with textures that look as if they were sketched with a colored pencil, and trees that are merely large, black lines with smaller black lines coming out of them. Now, just to get this out of the way, I think a large contributing factor to this is that Dontnod's budget was miniscule after the unfortunately less-than-stellar sales of Remember Me and the near dissolution of the developer that ensued. That said? This game looks very, very pretty, to me anyway, and while it may not have the graphical horsepower of a modern AAA title, it makes up for it with effective usage of lighting, color, and overall visual panache that most titles don't come close to pulling off.
All told, Life Is Strange's first episode plays fine, looks good, and tells a story that is easily more engrossing in two hours than any title that came out in 2014. It's not for everyone, definitely. If you're not into weird, unsettling works that lack pitch-perfect acting and try something off the beaten path, it's not for you. But for people like me, who crave something different, who wait years in between titles just to find something with this much fucking promise, it's exactly what you've been waiting for. I don't know where the story will go, but I'm completely stoked to find out.
One could even say I'm hella excited.