I’ve played, finished and enjoyed Life Is Strange, and after watching the credits roll, I’m convinced that Dontnod has something flawed but special on their hands.
Since I have an interest in fiction myself, I’ll be the first to say that the dialog in Life Is Strange can be problematic. It’s at its best when it focuses on the character of Maxine “Max” Caufield, the protagonist of the game. Either the developers or the writer played a lot of Ragnar Tornquist’s The Longest Journey because the amount of witty personality and conflicted self-doubt they give to Max is a dead ringer for the April Ryan. Max is smart, funny, insightful, and reveals much of her personality simply by commenting on things the player clicks on as they explore the environment. On the other hand, the developers, or the writing team, or the actor Ashly Burch, or the voice acting director, absolutely fail at convincing the audience of the authenticity of Max’s old friend Chloe Price. As the defacto rebel and foil to Max’s quiet, introspective nature, Chloe is supposed to be on the cutting edge of teen culture, but instead comes off as a 30 or 40-something impression of what “the cool kids” are supposed to be like today. Somewhat out of date slang is unconvincingly peppered throughout her speech to give her a contemporary vibe, and her emotional range vacillates between angry and grumpy.
But even as the writers—or whomever—fail to understand what an on the edge rebel can be like, they understand very well the uncertainty and alienation of a creative, intelligent but incredibly insecure teenage experience. Max is a likable, sympathetic character, but perhaps more important, she’s credible. There’s an authenticity to her doubts, and there’s a relatability to her character as she wanders through classes, campuses and dorm rooms revealing not just her world, but also herself as she examines items and objects around her. Dontnod has been careful about creating a teenager that feels like a teenager, but she’s happening in games, a medium that almost never entertains this kind of experience.
There are plenty of games that teenagers play, but rarely do teens come across a game that’s made for them. It was much the same in film until the 80s when John Hughes made a string of movies like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink that finally acknowledged to teen filmgoers that their lives and worlds were worth exploring and celebrating. It’s ironic to think that while the Japanese culture obsesses over the lives of teenagers in anime and games, it’s a topic that’s rarely addressed in the West. Life Is Strange is one of the few endeavours to really capture the western teenage experience and, rebel friend notwithstanding, it largely succeeds.
Having not been a teenager myself for many years, I found it interesting to wander through the halls of a virtual high school to see the way things have changed and haven’t. I’ll probably never have an excuse to attend a high school class again, but there’s something fascinating about the way Dontnod has taken universal teen experiences like peer pressure and clique-ishness, and distilled them into an interactive version. When I was that age, no one had smartphones. They didn’t even have cellular phones yet, but wandering the halls of Blackwell revealed a world where not only was it not considered “loserly” to use electronics, even the jocks know how to turn on a computer and use Facebook, something that would have been the antithesis of jock morality. To me personally, the idea that an athlete is not afraid to use technology but also doesn’t stuff people into lockers when they see other people using it says just as much about our changing social landscape as the fact that we no longer fear the Soviet Union as the Red Menace out to nuke as back into the stone age.
Perhaps most importantly though, Life Is Strange gives us the chance to peek into something that feels like an authentic life. It’s one thing to rifle to through the audio logs of physical and intellectual supermen in an undersea city. It’s a different thing entirely to read someone else’s Facebook page, or discover their home pregnancy test, or even just watch their attempts to start up a book club. Life Is Strange is a way for people interact with a world they know in a safe way. It gives the older generation a chance to see what life is like for the younger generation. It gives males a chance to see the world through the eyes of a female, and how the sexual and social politics differ. It might even give younger gamers a glimpse into what it’s like to live in an older world. Maybe that’s not what Dontnod intended when they created their time-manipulating, missing person mystery, but it’s a valuable addition to the world of gaming and one we all ultimately benefit from.