Life is Strange is a game that should be up my alley. It’s an immersive story about a disaffected young woman named Max Caulfield who is at a private school for photography. I don’t know if that’s the official explanation, but that’s what I garnered. By the way, I spent the first ten minutes or so of the game thinking that Max was named after the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye until I remembered his name was Holden.
Anyway, it’s a critically-acclaimed indie game by Dontnod Entertainment. Well, the studio is indie, but it was published by Microsoft. And apparently Squeeeenix (Square Enix) was involved at some point. It was released in episodes, and I waited until it came out in one game to buy it because, sale, and I don’t like to buy things episodically. What if they fold before the final episode? I don’t want that to happen to me as I have a hard enough time with endings.
The game, as I said, is about Max Caulfield, and she’s in a small town in Oregon after having been away for several years. When we join our young heroine, she is in a photography class. The teacher is someone who was a big photographer in the past, and he’s the reason Max wanted to go to the school. He irritated me from the start, but I tried to suspend my irritation and give him the benefit of the doubt. He continued to irritate me because he reminded me of countless hipster white dudes with a modicum of talent who thought they were way better than they actually were.
Side note: I have very strong reactions to things, and I rarely change from my immediate impression. Especially if the immediate reaction is negative. I have liked things and gone off them, but if I hate something from the start, it’s very difficult to change my mind. If I’m not crazy about something, but there’s a spark there, then I might change my mind over time.
For example, during their 7-hour Dark Souls livestream, Rory from RKG mentioned Aoife Wilson and Johnny Chiodini from Eurogamer and that they were also doing a Dark Souls playthrough. DS III, I believe. He said they were lovely (and friends of RKG) and if you liked Dark Souls playthroughs, you should check them out. Someone said they came to RKG after hearing them mentioned by Johnny and Aoife. I just reached that episode, and it’s hilarious that they cite one of my favorite early-on moments from the current season of DS II. After the creation of Mama Finchy, Gav wants to see what she looks like, so Rory has her in her bra and bloomers from the back. Then he starts humming the beginning of Man! I Feel Like a Woman by Shania Twain, turns Mama Finchy to face the camera, and Gav and Rory shout, “Let’s go, girls!” I laughed out loud at that.
Anyway, I was looking for a new Dark Souls playthrough because I like to have them in the background as I work. I liked them because they were British (Aoife is Irish, and I’m not sure about Johnny) and because there was a woman on the team. Plus, she’s very down to earth, and she’s a lesbian/bisexual (not sure which, but definitely queer). I started with their Dark Souls playthrough, and it was clear to see that they had a rapport. I’d never watched either of them before*, and I liked the way they bounced off each other. Then, at some point, the air horns started, and so did the endless pop cultural reference and the off-key singing. I will say it was amusing to find out that many of the pop cultural references the lads at RKG dropped were common ones as Aoife and Johnny mentioned them as well, but that came later. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the playthrough in general, and I fell off it on the third or fourth episode.
I couldn’t find anything I liked better, though, and I kept thinking about how I liked their camaraderie. I went back to it, and I slowly warmed up to them. By the time Aoife was shouting, “NO” in the face of the last Shadow of Yharnam in Bloodborne as she madly swung at him until he died, I was all-in. I still didn’t love all the things that had driven me off the first time, but I had come to accept it. I did really enjoy some of their songs and ongoing in-jokes such as Sex Cop doing everything sexily. AND SHE SAID. Sexy, sexy Kate Beckinsale. The sound of eating when getting a ton of souls or picking up an item. The way Johnny and Aoife say things in unison, almost as if they are of one brain. One of my favorite ongoing jokes is when Johnny comments on what’s happening as if it’s the Wimbledon or something similar. It’s fucking hilarious.
By the way, I really came to be very fond of Johnny by the end of the DS III because he is so much like me. He’s hairy, grumpy, solidly-built, and sensitive. In addition, he has a terrible sense of direction, even worse than mine, and gravity is not his friend. He also has tattoos, way more than I do. He’s done a series of videos on mental health and video games called Low Batteries, and the comments on them are heart-wrenching. When he talked about crisps and how he couldn’t keep them in the house because he would eat them all, I groaned in recognition. Whenever I have chips in the house as I do now, I can easily eat half of the family-sized bag in one sitting. I have yet to eat a whole one, but I wouldn’t put it past me. The moment that sealed that he was my guy, though, was when he talked about how he hated heat. He said he had SAD in the spring, and I was like, “You see me!” I am the only person I know who feels this way, so it was gratifying to hear him say it. Also, the game he’s played most in Steam is Binding of Isaac (original and Rebirth), so, yeah. Mine is Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. He is me, basically.
I breezed through their Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and most of their Dark Souls III playthrough. The last is the most recent, and it was still going on until a few weeks ago. I was watching something like the 20th episode and saw the 22nd episode was titled: FAREWELL TO BUTTS. Butts is the name of the character, and I was nervous because they were not anywhere near the end if they were going to do the DLC as they did with the first two games. Because I don’t like surprises and I don’t like ending, I didn’t wait to the last episode to find out that the reason it was ending was because Johnny was leaving Eurogamer. That legit made me sad. I was looking forward to their Sekiro playthrough and their eventual Dark Souls II playthrough. I always come into things just as they are ending. Anything I like doesn’t have a very long shelf life, sadly.
My point in mentioning this is that I already liked Johnny and Aoife from the beginning. There was a spark there, and they had very engaging personalities. Once I bought into their at-times cheesy banter, I really liked their playthroughs. If there wasn’t that spark in the first place, I would have fell off them and never returned. I know myself and my pop culture preferences. I don’t change them easily or often.
Back to Life is Strange. I liked the graphics, and I liked Max well enough. I mean, she was relatable in that she felt as if she didn’t belong. I met Victoria, the classic Mean Girl and Kate, the picked-on sad-sack. Max is upset about her photography, and she decided to go to the bathroom to splash some water on her face. On the way, I make her interact with everything I can, including the kids around her. I finally find the bathroom, and I have the opportunity to take a great picture. As I do, a guy comes in the bathroom–no idea why he’s in the girl bathroom–and is freaking out. He’s jittery and angry, and it’s clear he’s on drugs. A punk girl comes in and tries to blackmail him, and he pulls a gun on her. As Max is watching, horrified, he shoots and kills the punk girl.
Then, something something, and it turns out that Max can turn back time. She can find a way. Sorry. I was channeling my inner Cher. I love her, and I have been obsessing with her in the past few weeks. Just Like Jesse James is an underrated gem, even if she doesn’t think so herself.
The main conceit of the game is that Max can rewind time after certain events happen. She can choose to do something differently in order to get a better result. Or rather, a different result since as far as I can see, there are no ‘good’ results. The first example of this is that after Max sees the boy kill the girl, she rewinds time and then pulls the fire alarm to startle the boy and allow the girl to run away. The principal asks why she’s loitering, and she has the choice of whether to tell the principal or not about the boy with the gun. I try both options, and I didn’t like either. I could have just not approached the principal, but I decided to choose one option just to move the story forward. I didn’t feel good about it, and I really didn’t like the two choices.
I guess that’s part of the point, that life often offers two bad choices, but I didn’t like it. In addition, all the characters felt very one-note. Yes, I’m just in the first episode, but it still felt as if each character was A Type. The angry boy–wait, let me find his name. Ok, his name is Nathan Prescott. What comes to mind when you see that name? If you guessed rich kid who deals drugs, you would be correct. If you further guessed that he was untouchable because his parents were Very Important People, you would be even more correct. If you hazarded another guess that he was angry and entitled, yep and yep. The principal is a man who is more concerned about the reputation of his school than the students. The Mean Girl is just so stereotypical, it makes me roll my eyes.
Warren Graham is the boy who likes Max even though she is oblivious to it. He’s so bland as to be forgettable, though to be fair to him, he doesn’t get much screen time. But there is absolutely nothing noteworthy about him. So much so, I can’t think of anything that defines him. Then, there’s the security guard who is a total asshole for no apparent reason. David. More machismo bullshit, but he does hint to some bigger mystery on the campus of the school. In one scene, he’s bullying Kate, who is the only character I actually give a shit about–including Max. That’s because I have White Knight tendencies, and I want to save her from whatever situation she’s in.
Then, there’s Chloe. She’s Max’s best friend from when Max used to live in the town. She shows up as Nathan is threatening Max with a gun (and beating up Warren), tells Max to jump into her truck, and roars away. Turns out Chloe was the punk girl from earlier, and she was trying to blackmail Nathan because Nathan drugged her and tried to rape her at a party. Chloe drives to her house, bitching about her stepfather the whole way. Turns out her stepfather is the security guard at the school–which I saw coming from miles away. He’s a prepper and a total piece of shit, and he’s a total stereotype.
At the end of the episode, I get to see my stats. Who made the choices I did, and how many opportunities to make a choice I missed. I was not into this game for the whole episode, but it was the stats that made me bounce hard off it. I have OCD issues, and the last thing I needed was to have all these numbers telling me how I failed. I know that’s not what they are there for, but that’s what they made me feel.
The rewind mechanic is a good idea, but it’s one that was detrimental to my brain. Every time I was confronted with the opportunity to use it, I would freeze up and make myself miserable by thinking of all the things that could go wrong with each choice. I hate making decisions in real life, and I’m often paralyzed when I have to do it. Doing it in a game was no different, and I went through the whole first episode feeling grim. The one knock on the game I’d heard before going in was that the teens’ way of talking felt forced sometimes, and I can say that’s true.
I stopped after the first episode, and I will not be going back to the game. I’ve come to realize that for me, if i want a good story with believable characters, I’m going to read a book. For whatever reason, visual mediums don’t have the same impact on me, and while it makes me sad, it’s not something I think I can change. I wish I could have liked Life is Strange; I really wanted to like it. I just…didn’t.
*Turns out I had, but I didn’t remember it at the time.