WARNING: SPOILERS FOR LIFE IS STRANGE FOLLOW!
When the developer of the underrated Remember Me first announced it was making an episodic series it naturally seemed like the obvious after effect of the success of Telltale’s own episodic formula with The Walking Dead. Interest was piqued and some eyebrows raised when that series was revealed to be about an indie film-inspired time-traveller who happens to be a teenage girl. How would that ever compete with the high-impact emotional rollercoasters The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us that Telltale had been putting out in the past eighteen months? Turns out that the game we got was Life is Strange, and it hasn’t just managed to compete, it’s made Telltale’s episodic formula pale by comparison and sets a new standard. Here I’ll explain what makes Life is Strange work and how it can be used as a template for Telltale’s future.
Morality and Emotional Impact
Granted, there are some harrowing moral choices to make in The Walking Dead, and indeed in The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones as well, but they exist in extreme circumstances. It is interesting how the most heartbreaking scenes in any of those are far harsher than anything that’s happened in Life is Strange to date, but within the context of a fairly ordinary teenager dealing with the crap life throws at teens, Max’s lesser moral quandaries are far more damaging in their consequences and subsequent impact. By being grounded in real life issues, it ramps up the feeling of empathy and kinship when something happens that relates heavily to your own past.
Take the lead up to the suicide in episode two. The hints of that character’s troubles begin in typical teen problem fashion where silly things get blown out of proportion and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s just that. So early on you could quite easily dismiss that character as being a little hysterical and tailor your interactions with them accordingly. By the time episode two rolled out you started to be given opportunity after opportunity to fight the character’s corner and save them from themselves as it is revealed quite how hurtful the bullying of them has become, but with the distraction of an old friend and the whole ability to rewind time thing going on it becomes easy to get swept up in the excitement of playing with that power, because that’s how Max is feeling. When you end up on that rooftop, trying your best to save that person and are unable to rewind because you’d been abusing it earlier you almost instantly wonder ‘’did I do enough to help?’’ and the slightly more subtle slow-build to this moment unfurls into a nightmare scenario for Max, and genuine regret on your part.
Anyone who’s had to deal with suicide is going to find it at the very least, uncomfortable and at worst, distressing. It’s to Dontnod’s credit that it doesn’t feel tacky or heavy-handed whichever way the outcome goes for you. It does make you stop and think though, and it is rare in this medium to have that happen about something traumatic. It isn’t the only time such a reaction is provoked about a devastating occurrence in Life is Strange, but it’s the first significant one and as a result, it sets a lofty precedent for the series.
Another interesting example of how well the subject of morality is handled appears in episode four, where you can choose to warn a character you may well detest by this stage about an impending threat to their life. In the spirit of vengeance for their previous cruelty it’s not at all unlikely that you’d want to leave them at the mercy of their potential fate instead, but Max is fundamentally a good person, and that rubs off on your decision-making to a point so begins another moral quandary that in Telltale’s games would honestly be a no-brainer. Simply put, Life is Strange puts the smaller details into the morality and delivers far greater emotional investment. Making even the most trivial of conversations count. It doesn’t hit the target every time, but does so enough times to be lauded. It’s in the interactions with the characters of Max’s world that the seeds are so deeply sowed.
World Building and Interaction
As Telltale went from Monkey Island to The Walking Dead and beyond, the level of interaction diminished. The puzzle side of its episodic content has become nonexistent at this point and there are less and less items in the world to pick up and interact with. This is very apparent in the current Game of Thrones where—despite a decent story and some interesting characters—it almost feels like a novelty ride at Universal Resort at times, complete with the nagging voice in your head as compere shouting ‘’Look at the scenery from the TV show, but no touching!’’ Life is Strange, on the other hand, lets you talk to many characters whether they’re essential to the plot or not. It also allows you to observe and listen to conversations outside your own and so many of these characters have interesting things to say in terms of story development and world-building. From history lessons about Arcadia Bay to gossip about the snobby elite, there’s plenty of backstory to flesh out the students and townsfolk you meet along the way. Sure, some are walking stereotypes and feel a bit underdeveloped, but noticeably that occurs with the people who you’d naturally think have nothing interesting to say, such as the jock population, and even then, one or two can surprise you with a little humility.
Being mainly set around campus life and reflecting predominantly on the lives of students of the arts helps build not just the game world’s personality, but Max’s as well. You are given plenty of visual and audio beats that define both college life and the study of artforms such as the photography culture Max is involved in. Being able to browse posters, read emails, take photos, listen to music and find many other points of interest in each episode adds extra weight to Arcadia Bay’s and Max’s story, keeping you far more heavily invested and maintaining a richly-detailed world.
The teen slang language was something that was criticised in some quarters for being ‘’out of touch’’ which is certainly a fair assessment in some small cases, yet it has a significant basis in the culture of modern teens (there are indeed young adults out there who say ‘’hella’’) and because it is used as the basic vocabulary for all the teens in Arcadia Bay—albeit with slight variations for differing social groups—it captures that generation gap superbly when you talk to anyone older in the game. It truly is like they practically speak another language to the youth of the troubled town. This divide is something that feeds into Max’s mistrust of several authority figures who frustratingly cannot see what they’re doing wrong. It puts you into that teenage mindset of defiance, where the adults have to be wrong because they’re not seeing the whole picture and won’t listen to you simply because you are a kid in their eyes. Being over thirty myself I can see it from both sides. You remember how cringe-worthy some of your ideological rants were and thus you treat a new generation of youth with the same disdain when they spout some red hot vitriol. Then you remember that you still do that as an adult, just usually with less angst.
What Life is Strange does well could easily be taken on board by Telltale, if it even wants to go that route now. In fact, games in general could take a leaf out of Life is Strange’s book when it comes to imparting solid, relatable morality via sound world-building. Perhaps because Dontnod created their own world it felt compelled to make it more detailed, whereas for a company in Telltale’s position, the background work is already done, but should that be an excuse to make increasingly less interactive experiences? I think not, and if they fail to alter the path they’re on soon they won’t have a rewind of their own to rectify the problem.