XP: Life is Strange Episode 1 is the beginning of an emotional and moral roller coaster
Life is Strange is a game with a similar structure to TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead, where you make decisions which effect the story, albeit in limited ways. The plot revolves around an 18 year old girl named Max who recently transferred back to her hometown, Arcadia Bay, OR, to attend Blackwell Academy, a school which focuses on nurturing young artists. Max’s artistic medium is photography through the use of a film instant camera, and is very shy and reluctant to submit a photo into an “Everyday Heroes” contest sponsored by her photography teacher Mr. Jefferson. She witnesses her best friend Chloe get shot, and suddenly is thrown back in time shortly before her friend is killed and manages to prevent Chloe’s death. After being saved, Chloe reveals she has also been searching for her friend Rachel Amber who has suddenly disappeared. She asks Max to use her newfound power to help her find her friend and escape from a debt she owes to a drug dealer, Frank. However, Max has a vision of the future where a tornado wipes out Arcadia Bay by the end of the week, and wonders just how is it all connected.
What I experienced:
One thing I noted about the characters and overall aesthetic of the game is how “white” the game is. By that I mean the the majority of characters, are white, with the exception of side characters. The production itself also has a very white hipster feel. The music, dialogue, character’s clothing, everything just left me with that impression that the creators were coming from that perspective.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a Latino I still very much enjoyed the game. Everything was well put together, including the music, the story, and the visuals. But that strong impression definitely was felt throughout my experience playing the game.
The layout of the game was really intuitive and concise. There is a journal that acts as a kind of in-game menu for any information you collect. I like how the journal entries are updated after each segment you play through, which gives more information on how Max as a character thinks about what has just happened and the choices you made as the player. The entries do change depending on your choices, which I thought was pretty cool. You also send and receive text messages from characters which add some extra dialogue that is interesting to read, but can also be skipped if you just want to stay in the game. You don’t choose what to send like you do in the visual novel Steins;Gate, but like I said it still brings in extra character insight which I found enjoyable.
The game does a good job of building up the story over time, with hints of what’s to come being sprinkled throughout your (nosy) explorations of the environment and dialogue choices. Certain actions in one episode won’t have an effect until the next episode, and certain actions will be referenced throughout the rest of the game which really does give you the feeling of having the decisions matter. The major plot points don’t change of course, but you do have a chance to learn more about the characters with each decision tree.
Episode 1: Chrysalis
The first episode focused more on building up the characters and setting of the game. The title fits the overall theme as all the characters are about to set off on the events which will change them for the rest of their lives. It also fits with the theme of being young adults about to learn more about the world and being shaped by their experiences. Blackwell Academy houses high school senior students on campus, which could be considered a chrysalis of sorts since they will have to navigate a lot of their social and independent living as they are separated from their parent’s for the first time.
The change that Max goes through is significantly more impactful as she discovers she is able to rewind time. After witnessing her friends murder Max rewinds back in the lecture Mr. Jefferson was giving about capturing a moment in photography. Max then intervenes by pulling the fire alarm to distract the student, Nathan, from killing Chloe, who was ranting and raving about not wanting to be controlled by anyone (both the lecture and the student’s rant have a huge payoff at the end of the episode 5, which I thought was pretty cool).
Max at this point lacks a lot of self confidence, and has a rival who is a rich girl named Victoria. The rival is a portrayal of trying to grow up too quickly, as she openly flirts with the photography teacher and smokes cigarettes to appear more adult-like. While you can choose to trade insults and play the “mean girls” card, you can also choose to show compassion and discover Victoria is not as bad as she acts. You then get the sense that she feels threatened by Max’s skills as a photographer, which could lead to her bitchy attitude. Depending on your choices, you can either see her bitchy side and then her soft side or only her bitchy side (sadly there is no real escape from the bitchiness). A lot of the conflict revolves around confidence, because both Max and Victoria need to become more confident in themselves, but that comes later.
Max’s other friends include a devout Christian girl named Kate and a potential love interest named Warren who strongly flirts with her. Kate looks depressed in the short interaction you have with her in episode 1, which becomes much more relevant in the 2nd episode. Max asks for Warren to vent to him in this first interaction. The relationship with Warren in later episodes goes from slowly blooming romance to mixed signals, as some major plot points make it ambiguous about how she feels despite either making it clear she likes him or is rejecting him. I think the creators try to play it off as teenage impulsivity or her lack of confidence, but it just comes off as they needed him to drive the plot.
After first discovering the rewind ability you meet many of the students right outside the school steps, and the area is basically a tutorial on the game elements without being told it is a tutorial. It is very smooth experience, as you learn to talk to people, get some information before they shut the conversation down, and then rewind to use that bit of information to either build rapport or get answers before they shut down again. For instance, one of the characters doesn’t want to let anyone see his photo album unless they know some hardcore details of a certain photographer. You fail the first time you talk to him and he tells you what the answer should have been; you then rewind and give him the answer right off the bat and get to see the album. There is also lot of background information on the missing girl, Rachel Amber, and you get a sense of what her character is like. That area was a really good way to get you to care about each of the side characters as well as the missing girl.
The “reflective sitting” is also introduced in that area of the game. In addition to the journal entries, there are certain spots where Max will sit down and just reflect on the story so far. Since Max is pegged as an introvert (yet her innate ability to walk around and befriend everyone doesn’t quite match), she does a lot of introspection. Again, lots of character development over time as she weighs her previous actions.
The end of the episode is where most of the story elements start to build up. Right after saving Chloe you are given a choice to tell the principal about how a student, Nathan Prescott, pulled a gun on Chloe (and would have killed her without intervention) or keep it hidden for now due to the connections the wealthy Prescott family has not only with the Academy but also the entire town. The decision makes a small difference in the dialogue you get in the 2nd episode, but for the first episode it kind of sits there.
In the dorms you interact with a girl, Alyssa, who is always being teased with something being thrown at her. Brooke definitely makes it known she is interested in Warren which can lead to future conflict with Max, Dana is fraught after having recently undergone an abortion, and her roommate has to deal with a cheating boyfriend. I think the game did good at portraying these common struggles without making it overly dramatic or take away from the main story. In the later episodes you learn how each character copes (or doesn’t) with the struggles that make up life.
The biggest moment comes when you officially reunite with Chloe after escaping a confrontation with Nathan. He figures out Max intervened because she threw away the (instant camera) selfie which she had planned on submitting to the “Everyday Heroes” at the scene of the pre-crime and is not happy with having his manslaughter interrupted. The butterfly effect is ever present throughout the storyline. If Max was more confident in her ability as a photographer, then she would have submitted the photo and her identity would have remained anonymous. But in later episodes, we learn that not all negative actions have negative consequences, and not all good intentions lead to the best outcome.
Warren comes in for the rescue, as he fought (and lost to) the bully as a distraction. Setting an example for others to follow, it isn’t whether you win or lose, what matters is that you stand up and do the right thing and protect the ones you care about. A movie that had a similar outcome and was really funny because it played on tropes was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and it is soooo goood. If you enjoy movies ore than TV, that is definitely one that should be on your list of things to watch. Anyways…
After they escape, Chloe gives Max a little bit of shit for not keeping in touch in the 5 years she was gone, especially since she moved away right after her father had died in a car crash (that plays a bigger part of the plot in episode 3). Max is whisked away to Chloe’s home after the run-in with Nathan, leaving behind Warren to get his ass beat. At Chloe’s house you learn more about the relationship Max and Chloe used to have, and some of the awkwardness of Max having moved on but life has thrown them back together again. That part of their relationship did a good job of showing that nothing truly lasts forever, despite them being reunited.
Max had moved away, and then moved on, and that is something most kids/teenagers don’t really think about; the future. As adults we learn life is in flux, opportunities lead us in different directions and eventually you move on. For a teenager, there is only the now, and now is forever. Depending on your experience in the chrysalis that is adolescence, you will handle it in much different ways. Chloe is trying to return to a past that no longer exists, and she is angry for it. More on that later.
In conclusion, the episode was a really strong start to the story. Lots of characters to add their perspectives, and learn more about the world that is Blackwell Academy. The usual (and dare say cliché) teenage problems like pregnancy, bullying, relationships, are set up to draw you in for the next episodes to find the resolution; and it works! All those roller coaster of emotions that we adults are glad we left behind makes for good entertainment and storytelling. I will continue on with my thoughts for each episode in the next few posts. As for you readers, looking back at your own high school experience, what ind of teenage clique did you end up in? I ended up in the nerdy clique that looked down at all the party-people. Let me know yours in the comments!