Life is Strange might be one of the most generic titles I’ve seen since Remember Me, but that seems to be Dontnod’s style: create a vague, open concept and then rope the player in once engaged. Also, strangely enough (sorry, couldn’t resist), Life is Strange is the perfect title for a game that’s about everything and nothing at the same time, about the fascinating nature of the magical and the ordinary, the beauty in simplicity, and how strange even the most normal of a life really is.
Our introduction to Max Caulfield in Episode 1 paints the tale of a mixed-up young woman lacking in confidence while learning to navigate a world in which she also has the ability to stop and rewind time. With only five days to go until she may see her prophetic vision of a freak tornado destroying her hometown of Arcadia Bay come to life, you’d think the story would obsess over Max’s powers, the supernatural events taking place around her.
Instead, Episode 2: Out of Time gravitates around Max’s friendship with Chloe, the jaded, rebellious best friend Max left behind when moving to Seattle with her parents. And really, that’s the way it should be: time-travel is an after-thought, a mechanic used to add dimension to a story that’s really about self-discovery, the power of choice, and consequences, More than any other adventure title I’ve played, Life is Strange wraps me up in its universe: the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, the drama of Blackwell Academy, and the seemingly-average lives that each character, major or minor, seems to lead.
Still, Arcadia Bay and its citizens en masse take a back seat to the rekindling of Chloe and Max’s friendship, a process which they explore as they try to learn how to master Max’s new powers. For those looking for more “gameplay,” Episode 2 does add a couple more puzzles to the mix, but their effectiveness is mixed. The best is certainly one of the earliest ones; Max tries to wow Chloe by telling her what’s in her pockets before she reveals the contents, then “telling the future” about events taking place in the diner they’re at. The puzzles themselves aren’t anything special, they’re just a matter of rewinding time while remembering key events in sequence. What makes them special is the way they weave in to the story; the constant rewinding used to solve the puzzle plays a central role in the development of a major plot point: there are limits to Max’s powers, and overusing her powers can result in serious consequences.
This doesn’t prevent Episode 2 from falling into the same “puzzles for the sake of puzzles” trap that many other adventure games end up in. Chloe’s desire to turn a her junkyard “secret hideout” into their personal shooting range pushes you into a tedious “find X objects” quest, one which feels tacked on and unnecessary since it slows the pace of the story and isn’t particularly enjoyable. That’s not to say there isn’t useful information in the junkyard; we learn more about the connection between Chloe and Rachel Amber, the missing girl Chloe was close to, but otherwise the junkyard feels injected, an abnormal scene created to introduce a new character that threatens Max and Chloe while they’re in the junkyard.
Still, what compels the action and story in Life is Strange is still the role of choice, and the decisions carry even more weight in Episode 2 than before. Kate, the religious (and persecuted) girl in the dorms, finds herself the star of a YouTube video where she’s being promiscuous at a party, subjecting her to the ridicule of much of the school. Max has to figure out if and how to support Kate as she goes through her struggles, and the resulting plot that weaves its way through the episode is an intense one, bringing up issues of bullying, sexuality, depression, and suicide. I graduated from high school in 2006, and though I didn’t think it was really that long ago, after playing through Out of Time I realized just how much things have changed in a few short years, the new pressures present for teens as they grow up, and the role of the Internet and technology amidst it all.
This is what makes Life is Strange so damned compelling and worth playing: its uncanny ability to make all the plots major plots, to not make the game about trying to stop a future tornado or rekindling a friendship or saving a friend in need, but about all of them simultaneously. This is the way real life works: we don’t get to focus on one plot line in our lives while everything else waits for us; we have to handle it all simultaneously, sometimes messing up along the way due to sheer forgetfulness or negligence, and those mistakes can come with drastic consequences. Life is Strange’s second episode Out of Time sets a fantastic stage for its third episode, and should it carry its momentum through to the series’ conclusion, Life is Strange has “classic” potential written all over it.