Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gaming First Impressions: Life is Strange: Waif Hipster Bullshit

I quite enjoyed Telltale's The Walking Dead, both seasons 1 and 2. They were decent adventure games, but I wasn't really playing them for the gameplay. In fact, the gameplay was the worst part. I played them because I loved the decision-based story-driven narrative. Your choices affected things that happened later down the road--well, to an extent at least. It'd be difficult for every choice to make a huge impact on the narrative (if a key choice split the narrative into two notably different storylines, then just one key choice in each of the 5 episodes would result in 32 different endings), so some choices ultimately don't matter to the plot. The real appeal of the choices is that they give players agency over the story.

When Season 2 came out, a friend and I began playing at around the same time. We decided to chat through Steam as we played, reacting as the story unfolded, and then comparing the decisions we made afterwards. Sure, we made a lot of the same choices, but we also disagreed on what the best choice was at times. Being able to argue your choices was one of the most appealing parts of the game for me, because even if your choices don't matter, the act of making the choice in and of itself matters.

Life is Strange is a choice-driven adventure game like The Walking Dead, so the aforementioned friend recommended it to me when it came out and was kind enough to buy me the first episode so that we could share the experience again like we did with The Walking Dead. I played it and while the gameplay is similar to The Walking Dead, it's definitely a different experience. With one episode released and four more on the way, here are my thoughts.

The Plot

Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old student, moves back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon after an absence of five years to attend Blackwell High School for its photography program. While in class, she has a strange vision of a storm by a lighthouse. While trying to calm her nerves from the dream in the bathroom, a student enters, exchanges a tense and heated conversation with a blue-haired girl who follows him, and then pulls a gun and shoots her. At this point, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time and uses her power to stop the incident.

There are also some strange things in general going on at Blackwell. There's the Vortex Club, a group of cool kids with a vague purpose. There's the missing Rachel Amber and the missing person posters of her put up absolutely everywhere. There's the push for an installation of an intrusive surveillance system. And, of course, there's all sorts of general teenage drama added on top of all that.

A note that pretty much everything that follows this is a spoiler for the first episode, but not the rest of the game, so stop here or proceed as you will. I'll be talking about other stuff less specifically in the other sections, but I will still be talking about it.

Max discovers that the blue-haired girl whose life she saves and the person putting up all the posters of Rachel Amber are the same person: her former best friend Chloe, who she had cut off contact with after leaving five years ago. Chloe became close friends with Rachel after Max left, and Max agrees to help Chloe find her.

At the end, Max has another vision of an impending tornado threatening to destroy the town in roughly four days. She explains the vision, as well as her time traveling to Chloe.

The Good

There's a lot to like about Life is Strange. While the models and such have some issues, the art is really nice. The ending scene in particular is beautiful, with Max and Chloe looking out at the town from the lighthouse at sunset while snow begins falling. The game has a nice soundtrack that fits it well, and there are some solid storytelling and characters.

There's also a lot to like about the time reversal system. The ability to undo choices is a good one. Sometimes people make a certain choice expecting it to go a certain way, then find out that there was a disconnect between what the developers were trying to say and what they thought it meant. It also allows for plenty of delicious paranoia-based traps. There were four or five key choices in this first episode, and I think that with maybe a few exceptions, I would always make a choice, rewind time to make the other choice, decide I like my first choice better, and then later think "I should have made the other choice" after it was already too late to change it. It's a unique take on the genre and I really hope the game is able to capitalize on it in later episodes.

The thing that stands out to me most, though, is the themes. In addition to spirals (the tornado and the Vortex Club feature prominently, and the time-travel mechanic interface is shown as a spiral), there seems to be an important theme of security vs. freedom. The principal and Chloe's father both want to control information more through the installation of security systems, one girl early in the game is piloting a drone, and social media and technology in particular are given attention. While social media is obviously just a part of most teen's lives now, particular attention is paid to the dangers. One character asks to sketch Max and then explicitly forewarns her that he posts his sketches on Facebook. Another girl, however, takes a somewhat unflattering photo of Max without her permission and posts it to Facebook. Public and private technology-based discourse and information sharing are brought up in various ways, from sexting to digital piracy.

On the other side of the coin, there are a few free spirits rebelling against the system. Chloe is obviously a very counter-culture character, but one of the teachers at the school is petitioning against the security system. Graffiti, an anonymous form of discourse, is also prominently featured. And then there are the symbols of the birds and the butterflies. Winged animals are often used as examples for freedom, and while the butterfly pulls double duty (since the story deals with time travel it almost certainly alludes to the butterfly effect), near the end Max makes a comment after seeing some birds, envying how free they are. The security vs. freedom conflict is set up subtly enough that someone who isn't used to looking for things like that might overlook it, and it's nice to see that a choice-driven game is setting up a conflict between two opposing sides without being blatant about it.

The Bad

That's not to say that Life is Strange is great, though. I knew literally nothing about the game before going into it, apart from it being episodic and decision-based, and my first thought when it started up was "wow, that wet hair texture looks awful." There's some noticeable failures on the parts of the models like hair clipping into necks at certain angles, and the voice acting isn't always stellar. And while the problem goes away quickly enough, the controls aren't always intuitive. When the game told me to look at a photo in the very beginning, I spent at least a minute attempting to follow the instructions without realizing that I was supposed to click on the word telling me how to interact with the object instead of the object itself. Overall, there weren't too many flat-out problems I had with the game, but there were considerably more things that should have worked better than they did, which I'll get to in this next session.

The Rest
A lot of the game swings around from legitimately enjoyable to a bit cringe-worthy (I'm sorry, was I supposed to find those selfie puns funny?), to somewhere in between.

The story is a bunch of stories I feel like I've heard before. It's got the whole "stranger in a familiar land" thing going on, and a large portion of the plot feels like it is literally The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I'm just waiting for the scene where Warren asks Max on a date and she constantly rewinds time to try to get out of it so she doesn't have to face her feelings, or for when someone asks her "Max...have you been...time leaping?" And of course, it has tinges of absolutely every hipster-based story I've seen.

Then there's the characters. I have no clue how I'm supposed to feel about these characters. Sometimes they feel nuanced and fleshed-out, but sometimes they feel like they're just caricatures. What makes it worse is that some characters feel one way, some feel another way, and some feel like a bit of both. Chloe's father, the principal, and Nathan Prescott are obviously designed to be hated, making them feel two-dimensional. But when other characters are more nuanced, it makes it feel like one group or the other is just poorly written. Chloe is one of the more likable characters, but some of her actions are pretty inexcusable. Are we supposed to like those aspects of her character, or are we supposed to see her as more morally ambiguous? I don't know. It's either good writing or bad writing and it's hard to tell right now.

Most specifically I want to talk about Max because I have absolutely no idea what to make of her. Max almost seems to be designed to pander. It's like one or more developers said "these are things I love that I think that most of the target demographic will love." And they weren't wrong! I might not like photography, but I love a lot of books, anime, games, and TV shows Max mentions! It's probably because she likes things that I don't really care about that I'm able to see through her interests that I do love to the fact that she's very obviously designed to be lovable and/or identifiable. She has a lot of interests, and most people who would play Life is Strange are going to share at least one or two of them, but probably not all of them. I know that this is just how people work on a general level, but there's been so much effort put into making Max into a love letter to the things the developers enjoy and think that their audience will also enjoy that it feels a bit manipulative. Add in the fact that Max is our point-of-view character so we're seeing the entire game through this lens and it makes the whole game feel like--to borrow a phrase Victoria uses to describe Max's public image--waif hipster bullshit. Yeah, yeah, okay, we get it, Max is a socially awkward person who likes things we like. Can we talk about the story and not the merits of The X-Files?

That doesn't mean that it's bad, though. References are not inherently bad and in this case they didn't make me enjoy the game's merits any less. I'll still be playing through the other four episodes when they come out. It just makes it hard to form an objective opinion on the game's quality. Maybe all my griping really means is that I've reached the point of analytic viewing where I can't even turn it off even when I'm enjoying something. Oh well. We'll see in March when episode 2 comes out, I suppose.

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