Life Is Strange made a strong first impression with its debut episode. Developer Dontnod Entertainment’s take on a teenage girl trying her best to navigate both a tumultuous social life and her suddenly apparent time-rewinding power may have been unevenly written and acted, but it still managed to capture a time and place extremely well. Now, with the game’s premise and primary cast of characters introduced, Life Is Strange’s second episode, Out of Time, is able to devote itself more fully to progressing its plot and thematic goals. This extra breathing room is used to full advantage in the second chapter of the game.
Rather than dive immediately back into Max’s preoccupation with her new power, Out of Time begins with a quieter type of storytelling. Max wakes up to another day at the prestigious north-western art school she attends and the player is given the mundane goal of guiding her through a morning routine of getting showered, dressed, and ready to head out for breakfast. During this time, the player can check e-mails and texts and chat with dorm-mates as new plot threads are organically introduced. Characters in the hallways gossip about a scandalous video being shared across campus that shows their deeply religious classmate acting wild at a party and Max has to decide whether or not to try to quell these same rumours—the player does her/his best to guide their protagonist through the difficult choices that govern her reputation as a teenager.
Since it’s the realistic, everyday drama of Max’s life that makes the greatest impression, it’s a good thing that Out of Time devotes so much of itself to this kind of material. As interesting as exploring the ramifications of her time-manipulation abilities are here, the richest moments are those centred on less fantastic issues. It seems much easier to care about the trials of the well drawn characters that make up Max’s group of friends or the adults who, as principals, school security guards, and teachers, exert so much control over her life. It helps, too, that Dontnod Entertainment is skilled at portraying the sights and sounds of everyday life.
The atmosphere of Max’s small, West coast town is exceptionally realized not just through the game’s excellent, water-coloured visual style, but because its soundtrack is used to great effect. Plaintive songs from Jose Gonzales, Local Natives, and Alt J make it easy for players to feel like Max is a real person as she rides the bus with her headphones on or listens to a song while reading her emails in the morning. She comes across as an actual teenager because the music she listens to is the same that the game’s audience might recognize, or even listen to while doing the same everyday tasks as Max. Like the first episode, though, the presentation has to do a lot of heavy lifting to make up for continuously awkward dialogue (my personal favourites here were a sailor unironically adding “by Neptune’s beard” to a conversation and the middle-aged woman who repeatedly uses the term “smoking out” in inappropriate ways). Still, also as before, the clumsy, often unintentionally funny writing isn’t bad enough to take away from what’s done right in this episode.
While this chapter’s deepening of the plot’s central mysteries is interesting, Out of Time’s most poignant sequence comes from a subversion of the game’s time-rewinding ability. At the climax of the episode, with a character’s life in danger, Max loses control over the power she’s come to rely upon and the player, like her, feels utterly helpless trying to diffuse the kind of crisis that would be far more manageable if that mechanic was still available. My own failure to talk Max and the other character into a happy outcome was heartbreaking. And as honestly sad as this scene is, the manner by which Dontnod combine mechanics and storytelling in its construction speaks to serious potential for future episodes. Clumsy dialogue aside, Life Is Strange is quickly showing itself to be one of the best dramatic videogame stories in some time.