James Stephanie Sterling
Life Is Strange: Chrysalis Review – Time Warped
It has potential… but people don’t TALK like this!
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Released: January 30, 2015
Copy provided by publisher
I’m not sure if there’s an audio version of the “uncanny valley” – the hypothesis that suggests lifelike-but-unnatural features can cause revulsion in an audience – but if such a term exists, it would most surely apply to the dialog of Life Is Strange. The characters presented in the first chapter of this episodic adventure game very nearly almost speak like human beings, but their tortured vernacular and misplaced implementation of cultural slang leaves one with an acute sense of alienation. The cast is predominantly made up of 18-year-old girls, which wouldn’t be remarkable if Life Is Strange‘s writers hadn’t been so desperate to convince us that these were hella realistic 18-year-old girls who hardcore talk like hella real kids and take sick selfies, like totally. Whereas most videogames resign themselves to ridiculous scripts and role with it, this one tries to make the speech as “normal” as possible – but with everything so overtly scripted and awkwardly performed, it just ain’t right.
Compared to the work of Telltale Games – arguably the one studio that’s thoroughly nailed this style of adventure game – the writing in Life Is Strange is a spectacular stumbling block. I was stuck perpetually cringing as one character said “sad face” out loud and another used “sheeple” as if that’s something normal people say on the regular. I practically burst into embarrassed laughter when the “bad girl” stereotype referred to herself as “insane in the brain” and told the protagonist to “rawk it” while they “thrashed” to some inoffensive soft pop rock. In a genre to which characterization and narrative are so crucial, this failure to engage on a relatable level is difficult to ignore, and it gets in the way of what is otherwise a propitious contribution to the world of adventure games.
Life Is Strange tells the story of Max, a photography student in Oregon who finds out she can turn back time to rewrite recent events. All told, she takes this revelation fairly well, given that it so suddenly manifests with a surprising lack of grandeur. It just starts happening, and subsequently Max finds herself in a conga line of situations in which her new power is invaluable – making one wonder how she ever survived 18 years without it. Though players can effectively rewind time at any moment during gameplay by holding a button, progression is strictly structured to where it has clearly defined uses, labeled without subtlety. Rather than have any major gameplay impact, the time travel aspect is more a narrative device than anything else. One’s ability to rewind conversations to select different dialog choices is essentially a standard dialog tree mechanic, dressed up in a different way. Similarly, the “puzzles” littered throughout the episode are fairly formulaic – knock a key item so it falls under a cabinet, rewind time, put a bit of cardboard under the cabinet, knock the item again, use the cardboard to pull the item free. Everything is straightforward, and the game is so blatant in its signposting that there’s nothing for the player to ever figure out. This is not an inherent problem, but I do urge you to not get too excited over Max’s power – it’s thus far a plot device, and not much more.
There is most certainly potential in the whole idea – while clearly little more than a gimmick, the ability to play through conversations to see how they pan out, rather than blindly select a response, provides an interesting little twist, and while Episode 1 doesn’t show many of the consequences of in-game choices, it seems that a lot of promisingly fascinating domino effects are being lined up for future installments. Awkard though the writing may be, the overall plot has me hooked enough to want to see what the next chapter can offer, as this episode’s closing moments hint at something catastrophic. I have a feeling that, once Life Is Strange stops dawdling and actually kicks things into high gear, we could have something truly memorable on our hands.
Dontnod did do a fine job with the presentation, at the very least. The way music has been woven into the background of events is expertly done, helping to punctuate scenes in ways that remind me of Bastion or Indigo Prophecy. In fact, I’d say so far that Quantic Dream’s conspiracy-fueled murder mystery is very close to this game in spirit – from the silly dialog to the sense of interaction one has in the world. Indeed, Max can look at, comment on, and fiddle with dozens upon dozens of people and objects in the environment, with a ton of recorded commentary that one may never even discover. You could probably dash through the game in less than two hours, but if you take your time, explore, and partake in a some optional time-bending, there’s at least three solid hours of world-building, and that’s not too shabby for five bucks. The bright visual design is appealing, though a couple of characters possess some creepy facial animations, and the control scheme uses the camera more than character placement to highlight interactive objects – which sounds like a small thing, but has a pleasant effect on the overal feel of gameplay.
Life Is Strange is, itself, quite a strange little item. Its dialog makes me wince, but I will confess to being more amused by the awfulness than upset by it, at least half the time. It’s embarrassing and hella lame for totes, but there’s something almost charming about it. Still, I don’t quite think that’s what Dontnod had intended, and its attempts to be taken seriously (or “cereal,” as Max says at one point, because of course she does) can be rather uncomfortable. Even so, I didn’t hate it, and I was able to sufficiently buy into what it’s offering enough to look forward to the next chapter. As the series’ opening gambit, it did its job. It didn’t do much more than that, but it was a decent enough opener.
Now let’s see if it can capitalize with part two, or I’ll be hella disappointed.