More video games should be set in mundane places.
I've spent a lot of time saving the world from monsters and engaging in intergalactic warfare, but there are few games that let me experience the drama and excitement of everyday life. Life is Strange does just that. It stars a high school girl in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the key moments of the first episode deal with typical teenage dilemmas: drugs, relationships, figuring out who you are as a person. It's incredibly refreshing to play a game that's so fixated on everyday, modern life. And it's even more amazing considering it's also a game about time travel.
Playing Life is Strange is a lot like playing any game from The Walking Dead developer Telltale (though it’s actually developed by French studio Dontnod, the same team behind cyberpunk action game Remember Me). For one thing, it's episodic: the first two-hour-long episode is available tomorrow, with four more slated to launch with six-week gaps in between. The gameplay is also very similar. There's little action — instead, most of what you'll be doing is exploring the environment and talking to other characters. There's some light puzzle-solving, but decision-making is of the utmost importance: at several key moments you'll be forced to make a choice, which will change how the story unfolds. (Just like in The Walking Dead, when you finish an episode you can see how your choices compare to everyone else who played the game.)
The game stars Max Caulfield, a high school senior who returns to her small Oregon hometown after spending five years in Seattle. She's a budding photographer, a bit shy, and is struggling to fit in at her fancy new school. Meanwhile, a fellow student has gone missing, and the town is plastered in flyers to aid in the ongoing search. On top of all of this, Max learns early on that, for some reason, she can control time, which lets her rewind events and make different choices.
Despite the sci-fi set-up, the actual moment-to-moment experience of Life is Strange shies away from the fantastical. Max uses her power for the kinds of things you'd expect a teenager to do: get in good with her teacher, help a friend in trouble, get revenge on a bully. After a lifetime of games where the pivotal moments involved slaying zombies or robbing a bank, it's nice to deal with a key puzzle about sexting drama.
Initially it seems like the time travel mechanic takes away from the gravitas of making decisions. In The Walking Dead, for instance, you had to make quick choices and they stuck. When someone died because of you, there was no way to change that, and it gave the game an emotional weight that stayed with you long after you stopped playing. But if you could just rewind the game and make a different choice, like you can in Life is Strange, wouldn't that defeat the purpose? The thing is, Life is Strange only shows you the immediate aftermath of your decision, not the long-term consequences. So even if you think one choice turns out better than another, you could be wrong — I already regret at least one of the choices I made in the game. I had the option to snap a picture of an event or intervene, and while stopping the argument helped a friend, it also meant I had no evidence of what went down. It turns out I could've used that evidence.
A story that stars a teenage girl and is set in a quaint little town is pretty standard stuff when it comes to fiction, but for a game, the characters and setting make Life is Strange stand out. While it's getting better, games still lag pretty far behind books, movies, and TV when it comes to representing a variety of different people and experiences. You're usually saving the world, and you're usually doing it in some sort of fictional universe. But now that a certain branch of games are starting to closely resemble television, it only makes sense that this is changing. Some of my favorite TV shows, from Buffy to Veronica Mars, are set in high school, with young women as the lead characters; so why can't games do the same?
Life is Strange is far from perfect. The first episode starts out pretty slow, and the writing can feel a bit forced, like the developers are trying really hard to make the characters sound like authentic teenagers — I may not be a teen anymore, but I'm pretty sure no one says "hella" as much as these kids. It also suffers from some distracting technical problems, like the way the characters' mouths never sync up with their voices, and how their hair looks like it’s made of plastic when it gets wet.
But I can look past all of that because of how unique the set-up and characters are. I absolutely love small town murder mysteries, the kind of story where everyone has a secret and no one is who they seem to be at first blush. Life is Strange doesn’t have any murders (at least not yet), but it does have a missing person and plenty of shady characters. And being able to interact with a story like that — to rifle through a suspect's garage, or check out their Facebook page — is amazing. It adds a whole other layer to the experience.
It's impossible to tell how the entire season will play out after just one episode, but I'm definitely along for the ride — the debut sets up an incredibly intriguing mystery, and I really want to watch it unfold. But I'm just as excited for the less epic revelations; how Max's relationship with her estranged best friend Chloe will develop, why Chloe's step-dad is such a dick, and just what's up with the school's weird principal. I've saved the world enough. Now I’m excited for something new.
Life is Strange’s first episode is available tomorrow on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.