Max Caufield can bend and twist space time courtesy of an unexplained superpower, but cannot undue the social circumstances which have fraught high school kids of the 2010s. Life Is Strange does everything well. But its content, its center, reflects that which Caufield endures.
Life Is Strange does not understand kids – it understands their decade. Few – if any – games have reflected a generation so generously. Kids of the ’80s were locked in fantasy or side scrolling action. Afterward, there were simulated wars. Some serious (WWII), some not (Pokemon).
Life Is Strange captures fragments of our reality within the surreal circumstances. In 20 years, Dontnod’s work will be the medium’s time capsule for failed political policies and how they impacted kids. Privacy breaches, the recession, mental health treatment; Life Is Strange pursues them all (in addition to the birth of social media and anti-bullying campaigns).
Caufield is enough to lead the narrative, herself a plucky Veronica Mars spin-off inset into the unreality of Twin Peaks. Don’t mistake the comparison. Life Is Strange glances those cult TV namesakes; it only needs their framing. What’s left is a story which will wander through empathetic centers during one week of simulated time. Thursday is the worst. Bad day, that one.
In pinging weirdness, Life Is Strange can certainly be cataloged alongside the flare up of contemporary teen sci-fi – Hunger Games and Twilight, minus their latter’s stiff, ambling form. Outside of forcible dialog (certain lines are unnaturally emphasized for player acknowledgment), Life Is Strange will prove infinitely more organic in relationships, in tone, in character, and in pace. “I’m analog, not digital,” states Caufield. And she’s right. Twilight never came from an analog place.
Certainly, Life Is Strange can be let down by physical performances. Even if the camera has an incredible eye for depth of field and angle, there’s a hefty loss from the stiffness and inaction of these digital players. Too often faces fall victim to inaction. Lip sync goes wonky. Or, body language peters out before an emotional high. That’s too digital.
As a game – at times – it can be awful too. “Pick up this number of bottles.” No. Those segments are, mercifully, anomalies.
Because nothing in terms of character or story feels incomplete, Dontnod’s intelligent adventure usurps the zombie-infused Walking Dead from Telltale. Life Is Strange doesn’t frequently activate its sci-fi nerves. Resetting time is perceived as a harmless videogame mechanism. By the fifth episode, that’s no longer true and the consequences are brutal.
Although Life Is Strange presents itself as “nice,” posturing Caufield as someone who will undue hurt and anguish, there is also a presentation of fate’s invincibility. People are hurt because the world needs them to be. They suffer so we understand. Time always takes a victim.
Every moral choice thus has bite and that layer of uncertainty allows an understanding of tragedies which happen around us all. Lesser, there’s an element of letting go, passing through the tumultuous teenage existence, growing up, and forcibly maturing, even if this means realizing some friends are no longer compatible with your newfound self. A whirling tornado in the backdrop throughout much of Life is Strange is a sterling metaphor.
On the flipside, Life Is Strange carries the unusually brilliant addition of online statistics, e.g., This many people made this choice; this many did this instead of that. Life Is Strange unanimously shows we’re good people – the bullied girl is almost universally pulled away from harm. A majority rewind death to “fix” things or find an alternate solution to avoid violence.
Then time takes them all anyway.