Best of 2015 - "Life Is Strange"

When Life Is Strange first started, I was instantly endeared, despite (or perhaps because of) its laughable dialogue, its improbable plot, and its deliberate, almost shoehorned homages to David Lynch, both visual and tonal. While a lot of people were put off by all of the things I just listed, they made Dontnod's sophomore effort different than anything else on the market. It felt fresh and new, and the first episode alone was better than almost anything else I played in 2014. Well, except for Bayonetta 2. That was hella rad.

Point is, Life Is Strange marked the beginning of a new trend in early 2015. A meditative, narrative-focused coming-of-age story about a teenage girl? With secret cults, time travel, and a race against the clock to prevent the destruction of a town? Sign me up. And while the finished product was still very much all those things, it eventually became so much more.

Which is strange, because on paper, it should be everything I hate about video modern video games. It takes gameplay influences from Quantic Dream, who is one of the worst developers in the industry. It apes Telltale's formula, which is worn and old hat by this point. It's episodic, which everyone and their brother wants to do now, but rarely does right.

And yet, the finished product is much more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, Life Is Strange is a game that shows Quantic Dream, Telltale, and its imitators how their formulas can be done so much better than they usually are.

Where Dontnod steers the game down the right path is taking its game in some of the most unexpected, strange and wonderful directions I've seen a game take. The narrative, which concerns a young girl who discovers that she has the ability to both rewind time and travel back in time through Polaroids, is a gleefully whacked-out yarn that kept my head spinning until the very end. It's a mixture of teen comedy and Lynchian thriller, a sort of heart-wrenching mortality play crashed into a tender coming-of-age romance. There's really nothing else like it out there. Games have often tried and usually failed to produce a competent thriller without resorting to straight-up horror, and yet Dontnod does both that and about a million other things here.

While there are games that, perhaps, I enjoyed a tad more than Life Is Strange this year, I can firmly say that it has the best narrative I experienced in 2015. Considering this is a year in which Undertale and Rise of the Tomb Raider came out, that's quite the feat.

A large part of that narrative heft is the young woman at the center of it: Maxine "Max" Caulfield, one of the most instantly likable and endearing characters in a game this year. She's not a cocky heroine, or a sexy femme fatale. She's just an ordinary teenage girl trying to find her place in the world, and on top of that, she's been thrown in the middle of a cataclysmic event and a murder mystery, not to mentioned having strange new powers foisted upon her. Unlike something like inFamous or Prototype, however, what makes Max feel like such an authentic, tangible character is never lost underneath these abilities. She just feels like person. Really, she reminds me of myself at her age, so much that it hurts: painfully awkward, weirdly ambiverted, and desperate to figure out where she fits in the world. There are a million games about teenage girls out there, but none of them actually feel like teenage girls in the way that Max does.

Most of them just have giant breasts and smile a lot.

And perhaps that's what makes Life Is Strange feels so special in a marketplace full of detachments from reality (which are all good and well): it feels so grounded. Yes, there are superpowers, and yes, there are weird mysteries, but it never feels detached from the real world. It almost feels plausible in the way that it skillfully dodges any sort of lengthy explanation, or long-winded exposition. Instead, it takes a crazy thing and sets it loose in a sandbox of people trying to figure themselves out, forced to piece together a mystery, however uncertain and shaky their conclusions may be. 

With less of a budget than a Quantic Dream game, and less artificial attempts to yank at the heartstrings like a post-Walking Dead Telltale joint, Life Is Strange managed to both feel like real life and come across as emotionally authentic. And that's why, in 2015, it rose above bigger, more heavily marketed games to being one of my absolutely favorites.

Read my original review here, and check back on January 1st to see where Life Is Strange falls in my Top 12 Games of 2015!


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