Life Is Strange Episode One 'Chrysalis' Review: A Beautiful And Incomplete Melancholy, Like Life Itself
The great joy of video games is that, with the exception of a few titles, we can always go back and try again. Replaying until you get things right is at the very heart of gaming. I believe the industry is so beloved precisely because we can hit the pause button, restart and try again until we get it right. If life played like a video game, what power that would be.
That belief rests at the core of Life is Strange, the new episodic interactive narrative title from developer Dontnod. The difference, though, is that there is no right or wrong way. Just like real life, the game hinges on small, seemingly insignificant moments whose greater importance is, as yet, unknown to us. Is Life Is Strange a good game? Again, the answer is, as yet, unknown. This first episode, named Chrysalis, certainly points it in the right direction.
After living in Seattle for the last four years, Max Caulfield returns to her hometown of Arcadia Falls in Oregon as the newest student in the elite Blackwell Academy to train in their famous photography program. A shy, introverted teenager, Max is all elbows and hesitation. Despite being in town for over month, she hasn't even contacted her childhood best friend Chloe to tell her she's back.
Hidden under the idyllic, John Hughes-esque exterior of Blackwell is the story of Rachel Amber, a girl who went missing several months back and who looks to factor into the story in a big way in later chapters. Think of it like My So Called Twin Peaks, an over the top teenage drama set against an ongoing mystery investigation, all of which runs on "diesel oil and Donnie Darko daydreams", to quote Frank Turner.
The rewind mechanic is not a new development in video games, it's been used for years now and you can even say that the very fact of having a Save file is itself a sort of rewind. A do over. However, most games - Braid, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, etc - utilize rewind as an action element. "I fell into a pit of spikes, let me reverse that, so I don't." You rewind, you fix your mistake, you continue.
Life Is Strange, however, features no action, or at least no "video game" violence (there are some dramatic scenes featuring guns and assaults). The rewind mechanic is not here to save you from a gruesome death, it is here to change how you live and interact with the world and the people around you. You don't just fix, you actively shape. You can stumble through a conversation, rewind and sound like the smartest person in the room because of information gleaned from your first go around. Action and regular gameplay, are not a huge part of Life is Strange's experience.
Instead, the game presents you with a great number of choices; a series of 'either/or' choices, presented as pseudo-quicktime actions or dialogue trees. Intervene with this encounter or stand back and view the immediate results of your choice. I use 'immediate' because while the game informs you that this or that choice will have consequences, you will not know what they are. In fact, your actions may ripple out in Butterfly Effect fashion not only in Chrysalis, but the remaining chapters as well.
Chrysalis is an uneven exercise in 'Yet'. Due to the short length (even taking your time, you'd be hard pressed to get four hours out of it), Chrysalis has not taken to flight...yet. The time travel mechanic is little more than a neat parlor trick waiting for the grand finish. A very flashy parlor trick, yes, but one that is not fully realized...yet. Like the aforementioned butterfly flapping its wings, it may result in a storm eventually. Just not yet.
Chrysalis does lay a tremendous amount of groundwork, both in terms of character, setting and mystery. Arcadia Falls is a beautifuly realized place, all magic hours and northwestern charm, filled with characters ripped straight from the mystery writer's pagebook: the weird janitor, the unhinged preppy kid, the distraught religious girl, the rebel loner and so on. Max is not what any of the women in my high school were like, but rather how I remember them to be: shy, unsure, searching. It's a hazy fever dream of teenage life, shone through rose colored glasses, or perhaps 'golden sun glasses' would be more accurate. Has one afternoon ever lasted so long?
It's easy to laugh at the dialogue, all melodrama and teenage angst, which is so clearly written by older people trying to imitate the lingo of today's youth it becomes parody. I'm sorry, Life Is Strange, but I'm sure even Taylor Swift thinks 'hella' is a ridiculous word and should not be used in sincere conversation. Certainly not as a singular adjective itself. Hella good hair = yes, hella cash = no. Eye-rolling aside, Life Is Strange perfectly captures the IMPORTANCE OF EVERYTHING I SAY, DO AND THINK that so dominates a teenager's life here in America. We all remember our own awkward times, moments when we didn't stand up - or did stand up - and later regret that.
We all used to think our decisions were a matter of life or death. In Life Is Strange, they may very well be.
Oddly enough, the way the game handles the consequences of your choices is my biggest criticism. It wants to be like life, in all its strangeness in so many ways, yet every time you make an "important" decision, the game will notify you that this action or choice will have consequences to it. Shouldn't everything have consequences? Doesn't everything already have consequences? I found myself beholden to that little sketched butterfly and heard a voice say 'choose wisely', which in my head translates to 'choose correctly'. How things would have been different had I not been told that this part matters in the game.
If only life worked the same way. Even a vague heads up 'Hey, eating that burrito at 4 am will have consequences.' would be a nice little learning tool to have, at least for a while.
Life Is Strange, like Life Itself (TM), may end up being a lot of things: good, bad, a disappointment, a triumph, flawed and ambitious; it's hard to tell. The voice work is above average, I've been listening to the indie-inspired soundtrack on repeat all day and even on my lowly PS3, the visuals evoke a sense of beautiful loss, of faded photographs long since ruined by Time, of highschool yearbooks filled with faces we no longer recognize. Life is truly strange, and sad and heartbreaking and, above all, wonderful.
The board has been set, I look forward to returning to Arcadia and seeing where the game takes me. And then I look forward to returning again and again, my finger on the rewind of this unique and refreshing indie-teen drama.
Life Is Strange: Episode 1 - Chrysalis was reviewed using the full retail copy of the game via digital download on the PS3.