Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment

Many years ago, back when computer games were still a niche market and adventure games were a serious concern in that niche, Sierra Entertainment was the 800 pound gorilla of the genre.  They were famous for interesting design choices, risk-taking, good graphics and sound, and outright brutal sadism.

No, really.  Sierra games were famous at the time and infamous today for featuring convoluted logic puzzles, to the point where it was questionable whether they were a game company or a hint book company.  They were also famous for killing you in creative ways, sometimes without giving you any indication of what you could do differently or why you had died.  Believe me, I know.  I spent quite a bit of my lower teens banging my head against various Sierra challenges, so this is the voice of experience talking here.  When I say “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore” this is not an overstatement, firstly because adventure games are pretty thin on the ground generally at the moment, and secondly because it’s against every modern adventure game design aesthetic to make a game like that now.  They really don’t make them like that anymore, and frankly that’s probably a good thing.
The LucasArts philosophy won over – you can’t die, and you can’t screw up for good.  From a design perspective, it’s almost certainly better, but as the years have gone by, designers have noticed that you can’t really do certain sorts of puzzles in this framework.  Hence the rise of “Telltale” style adventure games, which purport to allow you to make choices and live or die by the results of those.

Life is Strange is a bit of an odd beast, from French developer Dontnod Entertainment.  It advertises itself as a choice-based adventure game, making some welcome tweaks to the Telltale style of choice based gaming, and also says that the choices you make throughout will affect how the game proceeds.  Unfortunately that’s only sort of true, but even so, this is a very interesting effort even if it ultimately falls a little short.

Your protagonist here, Max Caulfield, has recently moved back up to the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Arcadia Bay in order to complete her high school education at Blackwell Academy, which is a private school devoted to education in the visual and other arts.  Max is a talented young photographer, and getting into Blackwell is a culmination of her hopes to make this her profession.  At least that’s what we’re told about Blackwell – okay, our introduction to it is in fact a hipster teacher giving an insufferable lecture about Diane Arbus, which fits.  But most of the other students are out of a movie set in just about any high school – such as a clique of rich snobs who torment nerds and geeks.  Not that nerds and geeks can’t manage to have plenty of social dysfunction, but I don’t know why there are any football jocks at this school at all, and probably half or more of the male students ought to be gay or at least open to question.  I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of these characterizations as the first episode of the game unfolded.

That said, you’re in this class when all of a sudden you have a vision about a tornado flattening the whole town, and afterwards while calming down in the bathroom there’s a spoiled, crazy boy who enters the restroom, talking to himself and brandishing a gun.  Max sensibly hides in the back as another girl enters the restroom, confronts the boy, and is shot.  Something breaks inside Max, and suddenly she’s back at the lecture from a few minutes before, with the ability to turn back time at will.

Just in case you’re wondering, the cause of this ability is never explained.  Whether it’s scientific, magical, extraterrestrial, divine, or something else entirely is forever a mystery.  This is probably a good thing from a storytelling perspective, but it’s a great mechanic for this game.  Max basically has three discrete powers related to time travel:

1)      The first manifestation and also the least useful one, she has visions of the future;
2)      The most common use of her time travel power, she can rewind time back a few minutes from her perspective (which conveniently happens to be scene transitions, usually).  She and any objects she’s carrying stay in place, but other objects and people revert to their initial conditions, including their memory of conversations.  This is also functionally a form of teleportation; she can also, for instance, kick down a locked door, go through it, rewind time to repair the door to its original condition, and then simply unlock the door from the other side.
3)      Her most powerful ability is also the most capricious one – she can focus on a photograph that she was in or present for and return her current consciousness to her past body at the time it was taken.  She can’t leave the immediate vicinity of the picture or stay for more than a few minutes there, but she can make changes to what she originally did at the time. 

Ability #3 there is pretty terrifying, really – there’s some sort of ongoing timeline, and her present consciousness will return to her body at approximately the same time she left.  But in the interim there may have been any number of changes, which Max wasn’t actually present for and can’t control.  The implication is that she’s actually overwriting the consciousness of alternate universe Maxes – if she’s not, it’s something equally freaky – and in any case she doesn’t actually know what she’s been doing for years, at least in some cases.  Ability #2 is also filled with potential for abuse.
You could set a pretty powerful SF story with these premises, and they basically avoid doing that and set up a high school drama instead.  With a little bit of Twin Peaks.  Somewhat to my surprise, it mostly works.

Anyhow, it turns out that the girl in the bathroom is coincidentally an old friend of yours, Chloe Price, whom you didn’t recognize at first since she’s now got blue hair, a sleeve tattoo, and an attitude problem.  She’s also the chew toy of nature and nature’s God or whatever passes for those around here, since without Max’s intervention she will repeatedly die; of shootings (on three separate occasions), illness, even getting run over by a train.  At first I didn’t really like Chloe, her teenage histrionics rubbing old misanthropic me the wrong way, but I eventually came around on her.  At least I ended up being impressed by how multifaceted she ended up being, although I don’t think I’d really be that interested in actually hanging out with her.  I’m sure that feeling would be mutual.
You have to investigate a little bit and spend time snuffling around the fringes, but there’s a lot of material on most of the side characters in the game.  Most of them have more than one or two things going and they’ve got hidden complexity.  The school’s alpha bitch is a closet anime geek and has complexes big enough to hang a hat on, one of the other social butterfly types is having a personal crisis and will react really well to kindness.  There’s a guy who is pathetically in love with Max and doing that teenage boy hanging around dance where he’s just waiting for Max to make the first move so he doesn’t have to risk rejection.  (You can throw him a bone if you want, which I didn’t, because fuck those teenage memories, thank you very much.)  Or you can just sort of bulldoze right through and not deal with any of this.  I appreciated the care that went into it.  Oh, and one of the characters is an insane serial killer.  Just throwing that out there.  The game does that too, you’re going through the typical high school melodrama stuff and then all of a sudden Max is duct taped to a chair in a freaky rape bunker out in the middle of the woods.  And then there’s all the messed up supernatural happenings – birds dying, whales beaching themselves, unexplained snowstorms and eclipses.  Is it all connected somehow?  Are you responsible for it all?

The Telltale-style games that I’ve played have mostly provided the illusion of choice without you really having much say in how the game unfolds.  Sure, you can save Alice or save Bob, but then it turns out that whoever you saved dies in the next scene or episode anyway, so your choice didn’t amount to all that much in the end.  In some sense this is understandable; the game developers have only so much time and money, so they can’t render the environments as if you were to decide to have Max haul off to an underground cockfight or something.  However, the time travel mechanic allows you to adjust the small things to your liking; if you piss off someone in conversation you can rewind and try again, you can not break the snow globe, things like that.  What you can’t do is seriously change the path of events.  The crazed rich kid confronts you in the parking lot.  You end up in a confrontation with Chloe’s stepfather and a drug dealer in a junkyard.  You can save the life of another of your classmates and get rewarded with a bonus scene a few episodes later, but you can get the same information whether you talk to her or not.  Essentially, you can change how people are disposed to you, but the same basic events unfold no matter what you do.

There aren’t, strictly speaking, a whole lot of puzzles here, but the time travel mechanic allows some really interesting takes on adventure game tropes, particularly dialogue trees.  In traditional adventure games you have the same conversations over and over.  In Telltale-style games you can have dialogue choices impact the story, but the results aren’t always obvious and you have to play the scenario again if you want to do it differently.  Here you can experiment to see how people will react to various conversational gambits and if you don’t like it you can just rewind time and try again.  You can also learn things in conversation that will open different dialogue trees – in one example early in the game you can try to impress some skater dudes, but the first time through they will rightly dismiss you as a poser.  If you want, you can then have the conversation again, using your new command of the slang, and inspire one of them to attempt to do a difficult trick to impress Max.  (He fails and suffers an amusing injury, which you can choose to fix or not.)  On the whole, though, the puzzles aren’t that inspired overall.  This is more of a story and dialogue game as opposed to a real puzzle-solver, although there are some unique physics things you can do related to your time travel / teleportation skills.  The non physics puzzles are typically item collection.  (That said there are some fun time travel scenarios, like when you have to impress Chloe by telling her what is going to happen in the diner where her mom works.)

Time travel is a pretty well-worn genre by this point, so there are really only just so many ways you can take the story.  In fact, there are really only two that I can think of.  You can have a situation where no matter what you do, it’s always been that way already (the stable time loop).  Or instead you can have a situation where you can change the past and alter the future that way.  So there are a couple of obvious culminations for how this story will end, and unfortunately Dontnod goes with one of the more obvious ones.  I say it’s unfortunate because everything at the end comes down to a binary choice which leads to one of two endings, regardless of any of the rest of the stuff you have done up to that point.  I was thinking that I’d have to play through the game again in order to get some different endings, but really it comes down to just two and you can choose either regardless of what you’ve done up to that point.

It’s too bad that the ending is so lackluster, because you really do have quite a lot of ability to choose your own path right up until that (admittedly pretty effective) horror show section in the fifth episode.  You can be friendly and try to solve problems, or be a dick to people.  So, in a sense, the story ends up being about how the week has changed Max, not how Max changed the week, and a lot of that is up to the player.  There’s a lot of things to like here, and a lot that doesn’t work, and maybe like actual teenage years it’s hard to tell which is which.  Fans of unconventional adventure games may want to check it out.