“Life Is Strange” Transcends Games to Stand Alone as a Masterpiece in Storytelling

Image courtesy Square Enix via Games Press

Engaging storytelling in video games is not new. We’ve seen well-written stories and dialogue since games have been robust enough to have those things, from Alan Wake, Chrono Trigger, Portal and Mass Effect, just to name a few of the best. But what all the games I’ve played since the 1980s have relied on in their stories are primarily video gamey tropes popular in other traditionally nerd media — robots, aliens, monsters and the like. And while Life Is Strange is inherently a science fiction time travel tale, it explores mature themes in ways that no game before it has dared to do, all while telling a story that were it in a novel would be referred to as a ‘page turner.’ What developer Dontnod Entertainment and publisher Square Enix have delivered is an episodic experience worthy of a Netflix-style binge, a harmony of excellent narrative, beautiful art and delightful music.

Kids need not apply

Life Is Strange may be about teenagers at a prestigious art school, but don’t let that fool you — the topics explored at Blackwell Academy are not for young audiences (the game is rated M for mature).

Even adults will feel challenged and uncomfortable, and player choices have painstaking impact.

Even adults will feel challenged and uncomfortable, and player choices have painstaking impact. Unlike other games, where your actions are supposed to matter but ultimately end up having little effect, almost every conversation choice in Life Is Strange will play out in a memorable way by the end of the fifth and final episode. The choices are not black or white, good or evil, dark or light. In fact, many of Life Is Strange’s player decisions exist within reality-altering gray spaces. The story and decisions in Life Is Strange center around mature themes, with a sprinkling of mind-bending time manipulation. It’s possible my record of themes I encountered while playing the game is incomplete, yet it’s a long list. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel as though the game crams in all these areas of exploration just for the sake of being edgy, nor does the game feel too crowded. This accomplishment is achieved through the episodic structure of the game, along with how well the pacing of the narrative slowly peels back layers and exposes various facets of its characters through settings, scenes and tertiary elements, such as items found in students’ dorm rooms.

Here are just a few of the themes I encountered while playing Life Is Strange:

  • Sexuality (of several flavors, including fetishes)
  • Bullying
  • Homelessness
  • PTSD
  • Insecurity
  • Psychopathy
  • Murder
  • Death and abandonment
  • Divorce and broken homes
  • Privacy and surveillance
  • Reality vs. social media portrayals
  • Definitions of art
  • Affluenza and poverty
  • Guns and drugs in schools and rural communities
  • Reincarnation
  • The greater good vs. selfishness

Yeah, so it’s not a small list. And it’s demonstrative not only of what helps make Life Is Strange’s story an absolute masterpiece, but also of how video games have grown up (and diversified to become representative of more than just teenage boys). It’s an industry that’s been bigger than Hollywood and really quite mainstream for quite some time. But just in recent years with the popularization of indie game aesthetics have we seen studios start to take risks and explore mature, thought-compelling themes in games. Perhaps this is a reflection of what gaming has become: The average gamer is now 35 and has been playing video games for 13 years. Even as of a couple years ago, adult women became the majority among gamers. Issues other than shooting terrorists or Madden-ing footballs are likely important to these highly politically involved individuals.

Gaming is ubiquitous, diverse and grown up. And the result is a renaissance.

Gaming is ubiquitous, diverse and grown up. And the result is a renaissance. We’re being offered stories and experiences unlike anything we’ve had available before, and the medium is better for it.

Maybe it’s not always about gameplay

I’ve always loved stories in games. But I play games to be challenged. To make interesting decisions and test my hand-eye coordination skills. Gameplay has always been king. In fact, previous story-based games that fall in the genre of point-and-click adventure games haven’t really done it for me. Even in the critically acclaimed Telltale or Double Fine games, the narrative boils down to whether or not I’m going to die from a zombie bite or find the Majestic Whamdiddilythingamob of Kandy Kastle Mountain. Life Is Strange made me realize that video game experiences, if done right, can demand my attention without lots of gameplay. Life Is Strange actually gave me the feels. Yet, it’s not spectacularly good game. You don’t really do much of anything. That’s the case for many of the adventure games and ‘walking simulators’ out there lately — but Life Is Strange stands alone among them in compelling me to never put it down.

That’s attributable to the most interesting use of time travel since Back to the Future combined with how Life Is Strange so seamlessly weaved an exploration of the themes I mentioned above into a story full of mystery, suspense, friendship and weird science — all with characters that make you fall in love with them instantly. (Especially Chloe, I mean, just, whew….) And that’s why I profess that this game will come to be recognized as a pivotal signpost in gaming, a milestone to be remembered for all time. Like Casablanca or Blade Runner, Great Expectations or 1984, Life Is Strange should be canonized, revisited and held in high regard.

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