It's amazing how refreshing a change in scenery can be. When the first episode of Life is Strange launched in January, it was notable especially because of its setting and characters: it's a game that takes place in a normal small town and stars two teen girls. In a medium saturated with military shooters and sci-fi action games, it was a breath of fresh air. And with its third episode launching today, Life is Strange is shaping up to be gaming's equivalent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or iZombie; a story that blends the real world and fantasy into something very special.
Life is Strange puts you in the role of Max, a young girl studying to be a photographer at a fancy high school. Her best friend Chloe is a prototypical teen rebel, complete with blue hair and a strict step-dad. Max is basically the opposite: calm, quiet, and warm-hearted, and much more of an observer than most video game leads. Across its first few episodes, Life is Strange touches on typical teenage drama. There are breakups and disputes with the cool kids, and things get pretty dark when guns show up and one student contemplates suicide. The gameplay itself is a lot like games like The Walking Dead; the core of the experience is making choices, often difficult ones, and seeing how things play out. There isn’t a whole lot of action. But there's a twist: Max has the ability to rewind time and essentially get a do-over when she makes a decision.
As refreshing as the setting and characters may be, the developers at French studio Dontnod actually started with the time travel mechanic and worked backwards from there, creating a world that suited the gameplay. It was an idea they had toyed with in the studio's previous game, the cyberpunk adventure Remember Me, and they wanted to expand on it. "We really wanted to explore the mechanics of choices and consequences within a relatable setting, with characters anchored in reality," directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet explain via email. "Max was literally created to seamlessly complement the rewind mechanism."
When you first play the game it feels almost like the time traveling will undermine the entire experience. After all, what's the point in making difficult moral choices if you can just go back and try again? But the mechanic doesn't let you see very far into the future, so even though the decisions in Life is Strange aren't as pressing as in The Walking Dead, they're just as challenging, and can be just as devastating: a mistake I made at the end of episode two still makes me wince whenever I think about it.
Those more difficult choices aren't the entire experience, but instead are used to punctuate key moments in the game. In fact, a lot of the time Life is Strange is incredibly chill. "There are also a lot of sequences where the player is free to explore and lose themselves in the world," explain Koch and Barbet. "They can enjoy a sunset, take time to play the guitar, lie down on their bed and experience Max's thoughts, sit on an old swing in a backyard, and have a small trip down memory lane with Max. We can experience this kind of slower scene in a lot of indie games, but not that much in mainstream gaming, and we are very proud of this."
One of the most surprising things about Life is Strange isn't necessarily the game itself, but the fact that it's backed by a major publisher, a group typically averse to weird new games that fall outside the norm. Dontnod partnered with Square Enix to publish the game — the same company behind blockbusters like Final Fantasy and Deus Ex — and according to the two directors, Square was one of the only companies that didn't want to change the game. Some potential publishers requested that Max be changed to a male character, for example, something that’s more in line with typical mainstream games, but goes against much of what Life is Strange is trying to be. "They were the only publisher who would allow us to make the exact game we wanted to make," the pair says of Square Enix.
It might seem strange for a bunch of adult French men to make a game about American teen girls, but the creators say that it's because they spent so much time with shows like Buffy and Twin Peaks when they were young. "We grew up with American pop culture," they explain. This disconnect may partly explain the occasionally silly and forced-sounding dialogue — at one point in episode two someone actually says "preach it sista!" and Chloe uses the word "hella" more than any real person should. As for the setting — Life is Strange takes place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest — that was inspired by a trip to Seattle. "We just fell in love with the almost mystical feeling of the woods and the Pacific Ocean in this part of the US," the directors explain, "and that's when we knew then that we wanted our story to take place in a small town in this region."
Life is Strange is one of a growing number of games to be released episodically, with short episodes coming out every month or two. We're halfway through the game's debut season, which will span five episodes, and Koch and Barbet say that the release schedule has allowed the studio to tweak the game based on what players think. "Even though the whole story was already written way before the release of episode one, and each episode already in the making, we were still able to adjust some elements based on player feedback," they explain. That includes things like making certain popular characters more prominent, and even creating new scenes to give them additional screen time and dialogue.
The new series is drastically different from Remember Me, and its creators say that's by design. While the vast majority of big name video game developers and publishers seem content to create experiences based on a tiny number of genres and settings, Koch and Barbet are looking for variety, to tell the kinds of stories you don't typically find in games. They don't know what the studio’s next game will be yet, but it likely won't be a cyberpunk action game or a time-traveling teen drama.
"It would be a shame to not try hard each time to be different and new."
Episode three of Life is Strange is available today on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.