My Game of the Year 2015: Life is Strange – How Dontnod beat Telltale at their own game…
WARNING: This article will contain some spoilers
I couldn’t write this article without first saying that Telltale Games have done a great job of carving out their own little niche in the market over the last few years. Whilst they didn’t create the interactive story genre, they certainly honed and popularised it. Starting as a rag-tag group of disgruntled ex-Lucasarts employees, the company started off developing straightforward point and click adventures. But it was through a partnership with Universal Pictures that the studio decided that the point and click genre could no longer adequately contain all of the drama and action that they wanted from their adventures.
It may not have been a particularly critical or commercial success, but Jurassic Park: The Game was Telltale taking its baby steps into gameplay and choices that had real consequences as to how your story would play out – as well as the use of quick time events to punctuate the more high-octane moments. The voice acting was poor, the story a little too predictable and the game itself plagued by technical issues – but you could see the potential of the medium. Telltale had turned a popcorn action epic into a personal tale, that was slightly different for every player.
Of course, it wasn’t long until The Walking Dead: The Game followed hot on its heels, and that Telltale had quickly refined their formula once more – albeit this time with much more successful results. The comic-book inspired title made players feel like their every action and decision would have an impact on their individual tale – whether that was true or not. It was a real water-cooler title, and everyone was talking about it the day after a new episode was released, just like the TV series based on the same property. The Walking Dead felt like it was breaking new ground and was a unique animal in gaming – which made it stand out all the more starkly against the homogenised shooters and action titles that dominate the market. A surprise success, the series of course spawned spin-offs, sequels and similar titles. Sadly, these have largely come with diminishing returns. The 400 Days spinoff was action-packed and felt like you could make some very unique choices in just one short episode, but sadly the impact of these choices never carried through into series 2 as promised.
Series 2 of The Walking Dead was all the more disappointing – largely because it was re-treading the same ground as series 1 in a lot of ways, but also because the decisions you made seemed to have little to no impact across the season. Significant choices were nullified by pre-scripted events and only a few key moments actually shaped the progress of your journey. Maybe Telltale shot themselves in the foot by deciding to return to the characters it fared so well with in season 1, rather than crafting an entirely new tale – but either way the second season was underwhelming.
Since then, Telltale have pushed out a variety of different titles, but none have received that same initial success that The Walking Dead enjoyed. The Wolf Among Us was terribly stylish and imaginative, but didn’t seem to capture the imagination of the wider gaming market, Tales from the Borderlands is a great change of pace in that it focuses on humour – but there is always the nagging feeling that your decisions mean nothing throughout the whole series. Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode are fine extensions of their respective franchises for fans, but do little to draw in anyone new. Predictably, as these releases started to become more formulaic, a new gap in the market opened up for those who enjoyed the interactive story genre, but wanted an alternative option to the tried and tested formula from Telltale.
Surprisingly however, the answer came from French studio Dontnod – whose only previous game Remember Me was an interesting, yet sadly-lacking action-adventure about brain manipulation and memory wiping, much in the same vein as Total Recall. After its commercial failure, many foresaw the early collapse of yet another indie developer. Thankfully for gaming fans everywhere this didn’t happen, and Dontnod began work on a new episodic adventure series – Life is Strange. To begin with it divided some, with it’s two female, slang-speaking teenage protagonists and American college setting not appealing immediately to your typical gamer stereotype. However, the development team managed to weave an exciting and emotional tale of strange occurrences in small-town America. Whilst Life is Strange very heavily features the idea of choice and consequence – like a typical Telltale release – there has been the key addition of a time manipulation mechanic. Playing as our hero Max, players can literally re-write the decisions that they make, as they go.
Rather than being confined to the idea of making snap decisions that you will likely soon regret, Dontnod allow you to rewind and re-play sections of the game as much as you like, until you are happy with the action you chose. Whereas some might believe that this diminishes the impact of your decisions – allowing you to have a do-over whenever you like – it is actually incredibly liberating and empowering. The path you choose still carries a lot of weight and requires sacrificing one thing to follow another, but having the rewind ability lets you weigh up the different options and see how situations play out, before you settle on one.
Proceedings do start off somewhat slowly as you guide Max through her somewhat mundane morning routine and attend classes, but that isn’t to say that this isn’t an enjoyable part of the experience. Sometimes dealing with simple daily interactions can be quite relaxing, and although it would hardly have been revolutionary in any way, the early portions of gameplay gave me the impression that playing in a regular high school or college setting – without any supernatural or time-travel elements – would be enjoyable in itself. The world and characters that Dontnod created are far from perfect, and perhaps a little too stereotypical at times; the mean girl, the jocks, the overweight loner – but they do an effective job of giving the impression that the Blackwell Academy is a relatable place, where there are characters that you can care about – whether that is through affection or hate.
And even in these mundane moments, some interesting gameplay ideas begin to take shape. Max is a talented photography student, and as such her camera plays a pivotal role. This initially just means taking pictures of interesting situations and earning yourself achievements – but later the photos themselves become important tools for manipulating time, and also measuring the impact of your actions on the world around you. The Butterfly effect is an important theory employed throughout Life is Strange, and players soon learn that almost all of your actions (no matter how small) can have a drastic impact on the future – or indeed the past.
As things progress, the stakes escalate and Max – along with estranged best friend Chloe – get involved in a mystery that seems to be behind a series of strange events in Arcadia Bay. What starts off as a simple investigation soon turns more sinister, and there are life or death choices to make in many situations. This doesn’t ever get stressful in the same way as a Telltale adventure however, as in most cases you know that you can re-play a scene if something goes awry, or if you believe that there could have been a better resolution to find. But there are still of course the thoughts and regrets that you chose the wrong path earlier in the game, when something crops up later. More than in other similar titles however, I felt the desire to re-play sections in order to see how the story developed later if some of the more major decisions were altered.
The final chapter of Life is Strange was a somewhat disappointing one for me personally. It contained some great moments, but became a little too abstract and was taken far away from the realism that made early episodes so believable and relatable. The results of your time meddling are presented most clearly throughout episode five, but by this time you are made to feel helpless – your earlier actions have already shaped the future and things have progressed too far already – leaving you with only a few – albeit really heavy – judgements to make. Perhaps it is the personal nature of a lot of the choices throughout the series, and the realistic situations – as well as its high school setting, which everyone can relate to their own teenage years – that makes the branching decisions in Life is Strange feel all the more meaningful, but the outcomes were certainly more affecting for myself than any Telltale offering.
I haven’t even begun to speak about the visuals, which land somewhere between realism and a water colour painting. Nor the soundtrack – that mixes a light musical score from French composer Syd Matters, with a selection of tracks from alternative modern artists specifically carefully chosen to heighten the emotion in the particular moment they are employed. True, there are several issues such as mis-timed lip-synching and writing that leans on teenage stereotypes a little too much at times, but as a whole package Life is Strange comes together to create the most memorable gaming moments I’ve experienced this year. I’m glad Dontnod have already written off a sequel though – this is a self-contained story that has a definite ending, and it is such an enjoyable experience that I wouldn’t want it watered down by a follow-up which may not be able to reach the same heights. Whether you have become jaded by the Telltale house style, or have never tried an interactive novel before, Life is Strange is as engaging and thought-provoking as any triple-A studio release – if not moreso.