Life is Strange isn’t a perfect game by any means. From a technical perspective, I can’t get over how far out of sync the mouths are from the spoken dialog. Episode 3: Chaos Theory doesn’t commit the sin as grievously as the bottle-hunting mission in Episode 2, but there are still points where I feel like I performed a task for the sake of making the game feel like a game instead of a movie, a trend that adventure games need to snap out of. Regardless, I can’t help but feel hooked to 18-year old Max Caulfield and the world of Arcadia Bay, even when the third episode feels a little off-base compared to Episode 1: Chrysalis.
But most of all, though, from a storyline perspective, Life is Strange feels…fractured now, sometimes lost in its subject matter. In particular, Chaos Theory focuses so heavily on Max and Chloe’s rekindled _________ship that everything else just feels like shallow plot vehicles.
Over the course of the first two episodes, the Dontnod team opened multiple plot doors: protagonist’s Max’s friendship with Chloe, Max’s budding career as a photographer, a frightening vision of a freak storm that destroys Arcadia Bay, mysterious missing girl Rachel Amber, the society of Blackwell Academy and the influence of the Prescott family, Max’s friendship/relationship with Warren…the list really goes on. Up to Episode 3, the game does a fantastic job of interweaving all those threads to create a multifaceted story that feels all too much like life itself. Even though you feel it from the beginning, Episode 3 all but confirms which thread is the central one, and Max seems to all but forget about anything not directly connected to her and Chloe. It’s a shame, considering how balanced the plot and storytelling remained up until that point.
That said, I still stand by my earlier recommendation: Play Life is Strange. And I also stand by their decision to focus the plot on Chloe.
Adventure games with choice are no new invention; they’re video versions of Choose Your Own Adventure books at their core. And hell, we’ve technically had the ability to experiment with branching storylines and multiple outcomes ever since the days we kept our fingers in one page of the book, flipping back and forth to see what happens if we either get in the speedboat or go into the dark cave (if you’ve never read a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you’ve never truly lived). What Life is Strange does is make the consequences feel real, not because they’re happening to you, but because they’re happening to someone you really care about. CYOA books tended to be all about you, whether you would end up the hero, rich and famous, or dead. But Life is Strange plays like the first season of The Walking Dead, making you care about the story by attaching you to your companion.
Episode Three is all about Chloe because she’s the one that pulls at the PLAYER’S heartstrings, she’s the one we end up caring about more than photography, Nathan Prescott, or even the threat of Arcadia Bay being torn to shreds by a freak tornado. (I think we also care about Chloe more than we care about poor Warren, who so badly seems to want Max but is nothing more than a couple of text messages worth of time in Chaos Theory.)
I have trouble reviewing Chaos Theory alone because I don’t feel quite right acting as if talking about a piece of the puzzle, a portion of the equation, makes much sense. Contrary to popular discussion, I don’t think there’s anything about Episode 3 that makes Life is Strange any more of a must-play than Chrysalis and Out of Time did; Chaos Theory just capitalizes on the energy and momentum built up in the prior episodes in a great way. They take a pretty large risk with their end-of-episode plot twist, and though I was as much in WTF mode as anyone else when I saw it, without going too deeply into spoiler territory, I worry that improper execution in Episode 4 will make me feel like I wasted my time with Episodes 1 and 2. Especially with all the almost-completely-forgotten story threads during Episode 3, there’s a big risk that they’ll try to put a neat little bow on it all in Episode 5, leaving a very unsatisfied feeling in the crowd. I don’t think that’ll happen, though.
Life is Strange did such a great job painting the world of Arcadia Bay in the first half of the story that I have to see what happens in the second, and Episode 3: Chaos Theory makes a good case for that. Each of Max’s critical decision points, areas where you’re forced to make a binary choice that affects the rest of the game, feel like critical moments with long-reaching consequences. Considering the gravity of the events at the end of Episode 2, I can’t help but feel like the events that close up the latter half of the game will be pretty intense. Almost every decision point I’ve encountered has given me reason to pause and think not just about Max, but also about myself, and it takes a well-crafted game to do that. Here’s to Max, Chloe, and everyone in Episode 4.