Life is Strange is an episodic story-centric game about a teenage girl who can rewind time.
Release Date: October 20, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Windows PC
**Heads up: this review contains spoilers for all episodes of Life is Strange.**
I’ve been playing Life is Strange since the first episode came out earlier this year. The fifth and final episode came out on October 20.
I had high hopes for the game during the first episodes. I wrote about it lovingly, and was reminded of my own high school experience. I too, grew up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and wanted nothing more than to pursue my creative interest (comics, where Max’s is photography). I didn’t particularly relate to Max as a character, but I related to her situation, and I liked the slow atmosphere and the music. I had some reservations–the dialogue was a little outdated, at best, and Max felt a lot more like 15 than 18. But I still enjoyed the story.
The last two episodes lost me.
First, the dialogue takes a turn for the incredibly dull. It frustrates me to say it, because I defended Life is Strange’s dialogue in the beginning. It wasn’t superb even then, but it seemed to get Max’s awkwardness across–she’s new in town, she’s shy. She’s unpopular. The conversation was stilted because conversation is stilted when you’re young and nervous. But as Max and Chloe grow closer once more, and as Max comes into her own (more than one person calls her out on her developing strength over the week) I needed Max’s conversations to emphasize that.
Instead, they went the other way. She speaks in wavery whispers, constantly on the verge of tears even when the scene doesn’t call for it. The dialogue itself becomes melodramatic, and at the same time just goes on, and on, and on. There’s no way to skip conversations, but boy did I try. I found myself spacing out more than a little when characters began narrating what had happened and how they felt about it. Show, don’t tell, remember?
My boredom, tragically, is not the real reason I was upset at the last two episodes of Life is Strange.
The big reveal–sort of–is that the troubled teenager Nathan is not the mastermind behind Rachel’s disappearance. He’s responsible for her kidnapping and–we find out later–death, but he was being influenced by Mr. Jefferson, Max’s photography teacher. Mr. Jefferson skeeved me out from the second he was on screen, so it was really no big surprise when he showed his true colors.
While there are no actual rape sequences in the game, there is absolutely violation. The young women are drugged, bound, held, and photographed by the two men in ways that claim absolute ownership over their bodies. Jefferson wants to capture the women’s ‘purity’ and ‘innocence.’ And if we weren’t sure if this violence was gendered yet, Jefferson also draws the distinction between Max’s “silly” selfies–our generation’s stealing back of ownership over our appearances–and “real art,” his objectifying photographs of woman who literally have no agency.
There’s something really interesting going on here narratively, in the juxtaposition between Max’s selfies and photography-empowered time travel with Jefferson’s own camerawork. Unfortunately, Jefferson is about two seconds away from twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally at any given moment after the reveal. He manages to be both horrifically creepy and horrendously over-dramatic at the same time. He’s a Scooby Doo villain in a role far too serious for that kind of characterization, and the story suffers for it.
I’m still ragging on the dialogue, I know. (It was really pretty bad.)
There are also some issues with the time travel mechanic. We’ve become inured to it by the end of the game; it doesn’t give you that dizzying sense of control anymore, especially when the game forces us to go back and forth so many times you barely remember what’s going on. Did episode 3 even happen in this timeline? Did anything Max accomplished matter? There’s a philosophical question in there, but it makes the gameplay sort of meaningless.
What made me feel ill was not the bland melodrama of it all, though. Episode 4 sees Max in the role of victim, drugged and photographed in the Dark Room. We spend a tedious and upsetting amount of time in this situation, especially since we return to the room via time travel multiple times. The camera slow-pans over her misty eyes; we linger on the suffering of this pretty teenage girl in a way that left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. In those scenes, I felt more like I was looking through Jefferson’s eyes than Max’s.
There are parts of Life is Strange that feel like a slasher film. The kind where gorgeous teenage girls are punished for having sex or being unlikable or…well, being girls. Not all of the game, certainly–but parts were enough.
I want to touch on the theme of forgiveness. There are a lot of characters in this game that at first seem one way, but end up being multi-faceted. You know, like people are. The characterization can be a little on the nose, but there’s nothing wrong with it in theory. What I have a problem with Max using a character’s positive personality quirks to dismiss their negative ones.
We see this theme reflected in almost all of Max’s relationships, including her love for Chloe. Chloe, as much as I like her as a character, is passive aggressive, codependent, and controlling. She’s a bully to Max. There are hints in the last episode that Max knows this, though we never see her confronting it.
But I’ll use Nathan to illustrate, because he’s the most egregious example.
Nathan has few redeeming qualities at first glance. We never get to know him all that well, but our first encounter with him is a drug deal gone wrong where he shoots Chloe, killing her. He’s a violent, stuck up bully who uses his family’s status to get away with truly horrendous stuff.
Later, we find out that Nathan’s father is domineering, and that he is on several medications for some kind of mental illness. His family refuses to get him the help he needs, and so he turns to Mr. Jefferson as a sort of father figure, and follows in Jefferson’s footsteps. Nathan was the one who drugged, photographed, and murdered Rachel (and buried her body in a junkyard), but Jefferson showed him the way, we’re led to believe.
The game wants us to forgive Nathan. Wants Max, anyway, to forgive him. He was just a hurting kid who needed help; this is true. This being true does not obfuscate the fact that Nathan drugged, violated, and murdered a young woman, then had a hand in harassing another to death. We see him murder a third woman in the first ten minutes of the game. He threatens Max with physical violence on multiple occasions, stopped only by her friend Warren, who accepts the blows in Max’s stead. He wields his privilege deliberately, using his father’s status and wealth to threaten those around him and escape retribution. I can feel empathy for Nathan, and agree that he was in pain and needed help, and none of that means I need to forgive him.
Forgiveness is a strength, we are taught, and holding on to anger is poison. Sometimes, though, anger is important. Young women are socially conditioned to not show that kind of emotion–that’s part of the reason Chloe, in all her hotheadedness, is a rebel and an outcast. And by anger I don’t mean lashing out or violence; I mean simply allowing yourself to feel those feelings, and working through those feelings, and acknowledging those feelings as real and valid.
Max’s implied forgiveness of Nathan is endlessly frustrating to me because I never got the sense that she had worked through anything. It seemed like a simple equation: Nathan was hurting, therefore Nathan deserves forgiveness. Chloe is hurting, therefore all the shitty things Chloe does to Max are forgivable. Frank is hurting, David is hurting…and so on.
(Basically everybody’s hurting except for Mr. Jefferson, who is ostensibly evil incarnate. Cue mustache twirling.)
In the End…
Life is Strange has a lot going for it. It’s so rare to find a video game starring teenage girls–queer teenage girls, at that–as protagonists. The game tried to tackle some really intense issues; depression and grief, date rape, abuse. It tries to get us to think about how our perspectives can change depending on a single sentence uttered. The soundtrack and setting are gorgeous, and I loved sorting through all the details in the scenery to find out more about what was happening. There’s a lot I like about Life is Strange, and there’s a lot more I want to like about it.
I wanted to believe that this game was for me, and I wanted to come out of it feeling empowered. Maybe that was my initial mistake. I don’t necessarily believe that every story needs to be empowering. But I came out of Life is Strange feeling angry, objectified, and bored to frustration, and I suspect that that wasn’t the creators’ intent.
Reviews From Around the Web
Polygon, Megan Farokhmanesh – 6.5/10
“Polarized” feels a lot like a dog chasing its tail. We’re used to Life is Strange taking back its most extreme consequences, because up until now that’s been the entire point of the game: to fix things. But this episode is so focused on that idea — fixing it — that we sort of lose everything in between here. And all those little details are what made me love the series to begin with.
GameSpot, Alexa Ray Corriea – 6/10
Life is Strange paints an excellent, vivid picture of a young woman’s struggle for acceptance and justice, but trips itself up by trying to make things gamey. The series is at its best when it’s just letting you explore; in the beginning you’re roaming the world around you, picking through pieces of other’s lives, and by the end you’re treading Max’s subconscious. The story of Max and Chloe is a beautiful tale, but it’s marred by bizarre logical leaps and leftover plot holes. Aggravating out-of-place fetch quests and stealth sequences crack the somber atmosphere and very hamfistedly remind you that you’re playing a game. It’s unfortunate, because I do love Life is Strange’s story. I just wish the ending wasn’t so mismanaged.
The MarySue, Jessica Lachenal – No Rating
Life Is Strange Episode 5 is the conclusion of a series that’s often proven divisive in its handling of very real, very serious issues. To many, the overall series felt a bit ham-fisted, with dialogue that had many awkward moments, the number of which is second only to the amount of heart wrenching exchanges between its main character, Max, and her best friend, Chloe.