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Fried Take - "Life Is Strange" (2015)

Earlier this year, I wrote a review of the first episode of Life Is Strange. I basically said that the game was started in a shaky place, and that there were some kinks in what personal fave developer Dontnod was trying to do, but that the whole thing had the potential to be so much more. I was confident, maybe a little too confident, based on my adoration for their stellar debut title, Remember Me.

Now, sitting in my quiet room, my hairs standing up on end, my eyes still stinging from profuse, ugly crying, I'm glad to say that I was right. After an unsure beginning, Life Is Strange has become so much more than a teen-friendly riff on a Telltale game. Now at its completion, it stands as a testament to everything that is right with video games.

That sounds like the sort of hyperbolic statement that would get slapped on a box. "Everything right with video games" is definitely something that's a bold claim, but to me, it fits with a bold title like Life Is Strange. In a market saturated with sameness, in which even a lot of the best games are still variations on the same basic things, in which we're supposed to be happy that we get ten-dozen open-world fetch quest carnivals per year, in which most games launch in a half-complete state with the only real forethought going into bleeding consumers dry... yes, Life Is Strange is a sign that things aren't so bad. We don't get an open-world, or DLC, or a hot new take on cover-based shooting. Instead, we get a simple love story between two young women.

Well, maybe "simple" isn't the best word to describe Life Is Strange's beautifully bizarre and uncharacteristically wonderful narrative. It's one of the more complex, intricate bits of writing that has come out of gaming since 2013's Bioshock Infinite, and even that game's story seems a bit predictable and pedestrian when held in comparison to what's been cooked up here. Much like that game, which I also bring up due to content and tonal similarities, we start in a very simple place. A teenage girl in an art school finds herself at odds with a local group of clique-y teenagers, and also is trying to patch up an old friendship with somebody she left behind five years ago. A wrench gets thrown into this when the girl, Max, discovers not only that she has developed the strange power to rewind time, but also uncovers an insidious, multi-faceted plot that runs deep into the underbelly of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

Oh, yeah, and a storm is going to destroy that town within a week. That's a thing.

Even boiling it down to its base elements, Life Is Strange is hard to describe succinctly, from a narrative standpoint. That is, precisely, what makes it such a unique, enthralling experience from start to finish. Throughout the five episodes, which make up about 2-3 hours of gameplay each, players are put through the emotional, psychological and ethical wringer. There is a veritable onslaught of hard choices and rough issues that come flying out of this game, and all of them fit naturally into the narrative, never feeling too forced or preachy. For a game to deal with cyber-bullying, sexual consent, questioning sexuality, privilege, toxic masculinity and the ethical dilemma of changing the natural flow of time, all without feeling like an after-school special, is no small feat. Everything here is handled with a special kind of abstract subtlety, despite occasional hammy moments, and that makes for an overall more compelling, more potent plot.

A lot of that, though, can be attributed to the strength of Max Caulfield herself as a character. It takes a particularly compelling lead to navigate the aforementioned social and ethical issues in a believable, intimate way, and Max is beyond compelling. In an industry where "sexy woman who shoots things" often passes as a "strong female lead" without a second thought, Max proves that there is strength in more than violence and sex appeal. She feels like a distinctly real human being, especially after the somewhat lovably awkward dialogue snafus of the first episode, and as the narrative progresses we gradually start feeling like we're slipping into her shoes, with her through every difficult step of her twisted coming-of-age story. By emphasizing the humanity and vulnerability of Max, and by demonstrating both her strengths and weaknesses in varying situations, Life Is Strange rises above "dark millennial riff on Back to the Future" and becomes a distinctly personal story of love, loss, redemption and everything in between.

It's also worth noting that Life Is Strange is the rare game that doesn't make same-sex attraction an optional choice; throughout the entire experience, Max and her childhood friend, Chloe, are very explicitly interested in each other. Regardless of whether or not the player pursues that (the chilling, gut-wrenching final decision being the real test there,) the fact remains that the two very clearly love and want each other. That isn't up for debate. That isn't a fun little "option." It's a fact. Which means, when taking into consideration that both also express interest in men, that the two leads are openly bisexual, even if that term never leaves their mouths.

Pretty hella awesome, to cop a phrase from Chloe.

What's also hella awesome is that the gameplay backs all this narrative meat up. Dontnod has cribbed mechanics from Telltale games, David Cage's movie/game/things, and even their own Remember Me, then mashed them all together into something that, somehow, works as a cohesive experience. Players are taken from set piece to set piece in a definitively linear fashion, and yet, it never feels restrictive. Maybe that is because those set pieces are more than just static locales, and more like microcosms that all fit together to form the world of the game. Every location is populated by a multitude of people and things that Max can look at, giving players valuable insight to her thoughts and opinions. Most of it is optional, of course, but it makes the game much more than a "walking simulator."

Also adding a bit of depth are occasional puzzles that feel like a throwback to point-and-click adventure games of old. Find the object, keep the object, get stuck, use the object in a weird way... that old hat. Only it doesn't necessarily feel like old hat here, because you don't have to do it all that often, and thanks to that, it feels more like a fun brainteaser instead of an exercise in frustration. Also preventing it from feeling archaic are the time-bending mechanics, in which players can alter the course of events, prompting extra dialogue, making more objects appear, so on, so forth. It's pretty basic stuff, but it all works in a smooth, intuitive way, and adds an extra layer of clever trickiness to the whole package.

Having played this over the course of 2015, it's impressive how much Dontnod has listened to player feedback on each episode. A particularly frustrating puzzle involving bottles in episode 2 gets lampooned in episode 5 with a bit of fourth-wall-busting humor. Fan favorite lines and moments get called back in cheeky ways throughout the game. And, most crucially, elements that don't work get phased out, and elements that were received well get expanded upon. Not only that, but new mechanics get added every single episode. From an episodic standpoint, that gave players something to look forward to. As a whole, it makes Life Is Strange a varied, multi-faceted experience across the board. In other words, the narrative variety and complexity is matched by that of the gameplay.

A great art direction and stellar score tie it all together. The visuals have been divisive for some, and granted, they certainly don't make the most of the hardware on any of the systems it appears on. That said, I don't really think that matters. The unique palettes of colors, the distinctive character designs, the graphic novel-esque depiction of scenery... these things stand out in Life Is Strange, and frankly, I feel like stuff that stands out matters more than raw graphical horsepower. I will remember visuals from Life Is Strange for years to come, while more technically impressive releases like The Witcher 3 and Far Cry 4 all blend together in my mind, a blur of technically impressive same-ness.

That statement counts for the whole of Life Is Strange. There are more nuanced games in terms of gameplay, more powerful ones in terms of visuals, more packed in terms of content. And yet, big-name, big-publisher, big-developer releases barely hold a candle to what has been accomplished here. This is a distinctly different game from others on the market. It's a weird mish-mash of varying elements that all add up to make a potent, memorable, powerful experience unlike anything else I've played on the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One so far. No game since the launch of this generation of consoles has taken me in so entirely, so completely like Life Is Strange has, and I suspect few will for the years to come.

Progressive, immersive and memorable, Life Is Strange is proof that being different and not cowtowing to what's hip and trendy is a risk worth taking. Not only is it 2015's best game, easily trumping admittedly excellent titles like Bloodborne and Splatoon in my book, but it's one of the best of the past decade, if not of all time.

And to me, that's pretty hella cool.


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