“But I can’t help it. I’m analogue,not digital” - This is just one of the pseudo-hipster, cringe-worthy lines delivered by teen human sigh Max Caulfield in Square Enix’s newest Telltale-esque interactive movie-type-puzzley-game Life is Strange. In fact, the adventure’s first episode is awash with so much throwback hip-culture referencing and 90s-tinged My So-Called Life-esque melodrama that it’s absolutely fucking perfect for 2015.
Max has arrived back in her home town of Arcadia Bay in Oregon to attend photography classes at her local college having moved to Seattle five years earlier with her family. Surrounded by a standard set of teenage caricatures – bullies, jocks, geeks, preps and a popular rich kid clique known as the Vortex Club – Max’s story deals with issues of self-esteem, growing up, over-bearing love interests and art. Oh, plus the fact Max suddenly discovers she can turn back time after an altercation in the college bathroom.
Time travel is Life is Strange’s only big gameplay mechanic. Decisions you make within the game can alter the course of the story, but time-reversing is mostly useful for being a conversational know-it-all and has yet to serve any poignant purpose. Unless some of those mundane choices we’ve made will eventually send us down unseen avenues. Actions will definitely have consequences and we’re excited to find out if the fact we watered a plant in Max’s bedroom will change the story massively. The mechanic’s major problem is that it removes any weight from your decisions given that you can just scoot back and change your mind. Leaving an area confirms your decision as final, but you can play around with the rewind freely to see how it all immediately plays out. It’s not quite the ‘pull the trigger/don’t pull the trigger’ dilemmas posed in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series.
Despite discovering this amazing talent, Max spends the majority of her time using it to help friends avoid being hit by stray footballs, concentrating on her fledgling photography career, or to punish her popular, bitchy nemesis Victoria. Life is Strange isn’t shy about the time reversal element being a convenient tool to let you manipulate the story. Its puzzling requires little input and relies on trial and error rather than smarts. The mechanic allows you to retrace steps, but most of the fun comes from simply meddling about in Max’s world. It’s all packed with earnestly delivered dialogue that absolutely reeks of middle-aged men writing for teenage girls, punctuated by superfluous ‘fucks’ and the criminal overuse of the wildly outdated word ‘hella’.
So why, then, is Life is Strange so hella good?!
Well, frankly, it just possesses a kind of unique, dark charm that developer Dontnod’s previous game, the sci-fi action romp Remember Me, also successfully nurtured. It sits on a sort of metamodernist plateau somewhere between self-aware irony (there’s even a crowbarred joke about Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within being underrated) and burning, juvenile sincerity. Its boak-worthy late-teen culture references to Thomas Wolfe and Russ Meyer are so pretentious that they’re absolutely spot-on for the type of characters we’re dealing with. We give it two episodes before On The Road gets dragged out of a satchel. The main character is called Max Caulfield, for Christ’s sake. Complete with dream-like visions and small-town attitudes covering up big, big secrets, there’s even the growing sub-plot of the mystery surrounding the town’s missing girl, Rachel Amber who, by this point, might as well be called Laura fucking Palmer.
Life is Strange is at its most complex, layered and tender in its treatment of Max’s friendship with Chloe. As childhood friends whose lives have gone disparate paths as they travelled through adolescence, the rekindling of their friendship is admirably imbued with a sense of bitterness, abandonment and childlike confusion. There’s a real sense of melancholic nostalgia reminiscent of Gone Home, and the suffocating timelessness that stems from small-town life is strewn around in the form of interactive objects like childhood stains in the carpet of Chloe’s house. The hipster acoustic soundtrack and autumnal setting don’t do it any harm either. But it’s these rare, fleeting but powerful moments of depth that make its future feel promising. It’s no coincidence that Life is Strange’s first episode is called Chrysalis – it feels like a transition period between posing, sophomoric pretentiousness into something mature, self-aware and, hopefully, amazing.
Life is Strange – Episode One: Chrysalis is available now for PS4, PS3, XBO, Xbox 360 and PC.