Life Is Strange Episode 1: Chrysalis, Just An Analogue Girl Living In a Digital World

The first thing we noticed about Life Is Strange was the protagonist, Max Caulfield, and the fact that her surname is shared with Catcher In The Rye's Holden Caulfield the poster child for teenage rebellion. Thing is, where J. D Salinger’s Caulfield has an edge of deep-rooted anarchism and edginess to his rebellious streak, our Max is just a bit of a wet blanket an ‘emo’ to use a passed parlance. She’s self-deprecating at every turn, morose, unlikeable.

This got under our skin at first this high-school photography student’s relentless malaise drained us. Combined with her sluggish movement speed and a janky camera, it felt like Life Is Strange was intentionally trying to make us feel like we’d woken up in our dorm room with all the enthusiasm a dull 17 year old would have. It took about 20 minutes for us to change our minds and realise that maybe, just maybe, DONTNOD was doing all this intentionally.

The intro to Life Is Strange is myopic you begin in a tempest, watching the town of Arcadia (where you grew up, and have just returned to) get sucked into a windy vortex as a blinking lighthouse crumbles into the ocean. Max, in her already tiresome way, can’t help but wonder why all this is happening to her. The top of the lighthouse falls on her head, and she wakes up. It wasa dream phew! and she’s in class. There’s a teacher that looks too much like Jack Whitehall for his own good being pretentious about photography, and your apparent nemesis Victoria shamelessly flirts with him. You’re in high school, all right…

Max begins her internal monologue a pretty tepid affair throughout the game, and a really lazy example of signposting at times. When you’re given control of an avatar like Max, and expected to pick your way through this new kind of point and click adventure, we understand it’s hard to vocalise standard game prompts ‘No, I need to go here’, ‘I should really do this first’ but the dichotomy between these verbal cues and how realistically the game tries to be clashes at times, and ends up making the whole thing feel a bit weaker. Max succeeds in feeling a bit embarrassing at times, though, which we suppose is the intention who of us can look back at their high-school self and not be embarrassed by how their thought processes worked?
When Max snaps out of her reveries, we get to wander around the white picket suburbia of Arcadia, and a familiar problem with episodic gaming returns the dodgy assets. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Telltale’s games after all, they started this new adventure genre but Life Is Strange’s characters bear a resemblance to the wooden manikins you’ll see in The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones. There are fewer glitches in Dontnod’s effort, though, which is nice, and at least the sublime lighting over the autumnal setting makes up for some lacklustre textures. The overall art direction is outstanding and clearly makes the most of the vertical slice composition you  have  to  bear  in  mind  when  developing episodic titles. Technically, it’s an impressive feat. (The lip-sync is awful, though, and is something else that impacts the game’s attempt at reality).

Max’s vortex nightmare gives her the power to manipulate time: anything she’s touching or holding can travel with her, leading to some interesting (but ultimately simple) puzzles involving forced trial and error. We imagine that Episode 1 is merely an introduction to how these powers can be used, though we’re hoping for some more cerebral applications of the whole thing as thestory progresses.

Being able to insta-rewind like this opens up something new in the decision-making sim adventure game: if you decide not to help someone, and see the negative reaction that follows, you can flip back to before whatever incident occurs and try again. You’ll still have to pick one, but it gives you a better opportunity to gauge your reactions something that’s still marked out to you by a notification in the top left of the screen. This is a handy power to have in day-to-day conversations, too: if you awkwardly bumble your way through a conversation and cock it up (oh, and you will), you can at least go back and give the person you’re talking to the answer they gave you in the conversation. There’s a very smug sense of satisfaction in doing that, too.

So Life Is Strange  has us hooked despite our initial resistance. It gets off to a slow start, and aside from the two core characters (Max and Chloe), everyone else in the game is pretty much  detestable. It’s like an exaggerated  cartoon of American life, filtered through the romantic lens of Dontnod’s French studio. This isn’t a bad thing exactly in fact, it aids in its unique-ness. It’s like anarchic cartoon Daria, remade by Telltale’s most hipster staff members. Yes, there is some awful dialogue, and yes, the actors all sound like they dropped out of A-level Drama classes, but the product overall is certainly more than the sum of its parts. 

If you’re after an episodic game that breaks away from the now-predictable template that Telltalle’s games operate on, you could do far worse than Life Is Strange. Enigmatic in parts, frustrating in others, Dontnod demonstrates it can fuse the domestic with the supernatural with a deft hand, and succeeds in creating a pastel world brimming with intrigue in about three hours.

Like most episodic games are doing nowadays, Life Is Strange presents you with a breakdown of the important decisions in the game after you’ve completed the first chapter and we were surprised with the outcome. Granted, we’d completed it when only developers and other journalists had a run through the first episode, but people seemed to be far more amoral than we were. It’s always interesting to come into the office and discuss branching games like this, but some of the discrepancies in Life Is Strange took us by surprise what we thought were little nuanced moments actually had fairly large repercussions, even within the opening episode.

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