Life is Strange: Episode One - Chrysalis review: so-called life

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date Jan 30, 2015

Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game from Dontnod, whose previous game, Remember Me, was also its first.

In the style of most episodic games, Life is Strange relies on a choice-and-consequence narrative in which players take on the role of high school student Max Caulfield - a young woman with the power to rewind time. While the game focuses on Max's school life, it also sheds a light on her relationships and the mysterious disappearance of a local girl.

As Max, players navigate school life through a linear path, interacting with classmates, teachers and friends through choice-driven dialogue. But these decisions aren't set in stone; once a conversation is over, you can choose to "rewind" time. You can relive a scenario as often as you like with no consequence, though your powers only allow you to back up for a set amount of time.

To accommodate for the game's branching narrative, senior reporter Colin Campbell and reporter Megan Farokhmanesh are reviewing the game together as a series of discussions. Below is their take on Episode One: Chrysalis

life is strange ep 1 review screen 1

Megan Farokhmanesh

Let's talk about Life is Strange's most obvious hook: the do-over. We get this a lot in video games, but it's mostly used as a life-saving mechanic — rewinding to avoid spikey pits, fireballs or any number of cartoonish things. With Life is Strange, Dontnod created a world in which conversation is your greatest foe. I spent a great deal of time picking a path, rewinding, and tumbling down the other hole. But you know what? That didn't always make it easier. Sometimes, I found myself second and triple guessing my responses.

Colin Campbell

It's basically giving you unlimited lives to get to the right conclusion, while embedding some form of entertainment inside the various wrong conclusions. Rather than seeing your character blow up or fade away, you get to experience the consequences of being wrong, and there are often revelations to be found in going awry. My only problem here, is the somewhat linear feel of the discovery sequence. I can see the distant solution, but the game insists I jump through all its anticipated deviations, before arriving in the place where we both wish to arrive. I'm walking along a very rigid path, all the time.

Megan: I was frustrated that you can't affect some of your smaller conversations. There was a student I spoke with who, for both dialogue choices, was condescending. Rewinding with the knowledge she'd use to chastise me did me no good; Max wouldn't use that information to her advantage.

Still, I dig the time travel element because it feels strangely at home in the world of a young person. Max's ability is my teen dream — the power to take back your embarrassing words and fire back with something fresh and informed, or play out a particularly satisfying revenge scenario before opting for the more humane choice. I want to be the bad guy for a minute, but just a minute. A little taste, that's all.

Colin: The drama in Chrysalis is at its best in the interactions between Max and her nemesis Victoria. There's a cartoonish aspect to this that works really well. You get to enjoy hurting the person who hurts you, before rewinding and doing the "right" thing. But it doesn't work as well in more nuanced conversation pieces. The choices I had while talking to best-pal Chloe were sometimes barely distinguishable from one another.

I walked through the school hallways floored by the different body types, genders and ethnicities I found
life is strange ep 1 image split 1a

Megan: Some of those choices must be part of a longer play. It's still too early to tell how much of an impact those choices will have, but I'm on board with how time travel functions. Fast-forwarding through conversations you've already been in is brilliant. It's the one thing that always nags me in movies or games that use that idea. "Aren't you bored? You've had this conversation about 15 times now. Let's get to the point."

When you left Max's first class, were you shocked, too? I walked through the school hallways floored by the different body types, genders and ethnicities I found. I can't even remember the last time I saw several heavy-set characters, let alone one, that weren't being used as the butt of some joke.

life is strange ep 1 image split 1b

Colin: This is a nicely observed world in which archetypes are displayed at a distance. But they're not entirely explored, not yet, anyway. When I think of this game as a linear high school drama, I find it vaguely unsatisfying. The designers are full of admiration for the TV series format, and rightly so. But the dialog, most especially between Max and Chloe, feels plastic and inauthentic.

As a game, it also has its problems offering up limited interactivity. But pulled together, the whole thing seems to work. I like being in this world because it's fresh and brave, and the characters, despite their faults, are way more interesting than in almost every video game you've ever played. This is the dilemma about Life is Strange. In challenging the status quo, it both stretches and reveals the limitations of gaming as a format for personal drama.

Megan: You've discussed previously that you felt the female characters of the game were written by men. Do you still feel that way? I can't say I agree with the sentiment, but something else kept distracting me: the jargon used by these darn kids. I wouldn't say these are female characters that feel like they've been written by men. These are young characters that have been written by adults.

I'll admit it's been a few years since I was a teenager, but I was distracted by how cheesy some of the dialogue was. Overuse of the word "hella," or using "cereal" in place of serious, even if it's meant to be ironic - it feels like Dontnod headbopped its way into the party and is now spouting dated catchphrases and wearing an outfit that is *so* five years ago. Dontnod is being my dad right now.

the game is far too deeply in love with its central characters, which diminishes both Max and Chloe

Colin: I don't think the writers of this game spent nearly enough time testing the dialog. Even an old fart like me can see that "hella" is seriously out-moded. My wife watches all the teen TV shows. She was cringing.

If I had played this game or read this script without any context, I would have bet my last dollar that it had been written by an adult man. I know a lot of people disagreed with my earlier opinion piece, but as a man who writes fiction, and who talks to a lot of women about the problem of writing across genders, this felt like it fell into a lot of traps. The most serious is that the game is far too deeply in love with its central characters. This adoration diminishes both Max and Chloe.

The characters lack any kind of self-ironic detachment or amusement about their own status within their hierarchies. They play at being smart Juno-style teenagers, but without the self-knowledge that might make them believable. They are avatars.

Megan: Agreed. Teen lingo aside, I feel like a few of the more serious moments fell flat. There's a tense scene in the school bathroom early on in which you witness one character murder another. Then, thanks to Max's power, you rewind and prevent it. Even in this revised history, however, this violent character still spends some time waving around a gun. But does he express remorse, or panic, or any normal emotion that a human being might feel after such a close call? Nope. He quips, "Another shitty day!" and then ambles out. Cue the trombone, gents, let's make sure to get a close up of him kicking a can.

life is strange ep 1 screen 3

Colin: Yes, that character is straight out of the psychopath-teenage-brat biscuit box. My least favorite moment was when Max started exploring Chloe's room. She was digging under her friend's bed and just taking stuff to add to inventory. I understand that there are gaming conventions to observe, but this was clunky and broke a moment that ought to have been much more intimate.

Megan: Oh, absolutely. I was digging through people's bags while they stood by nonchalantly, rifling through their rooms like a piss-poor looter. While exploring Chloe's, I went through every drawer of her parents' house with no personal regard for privacy. But the game encourages it! It's a weird mechanic that, in this kind of story, breaks the illusion that you are - or were - just a normal teenage girl. I think there would be a lot to gain if characters would at least freak out while you rubbed your dirty little fingers all over their stuff, but I never even needed to rewind.

Colin: That said, there are some characters who I want to see develop. The biggest moment in the game is when Max is talking to an authority figure and has to decide whether or not to be honest. I know the consequences haven't been too heavy as yet, but it felt like a big moment, and that's what I want to see; a feeling of fear about my own actions. The time-travel thing, and the design of the game, mean that the game feels light on consequence. But I accept that it's still very early in the story. You and I made different choices at this crucial point.

Megan: That choice is one I thought about and rewound a lot. I still don't know if I made the right call. I'm interested to see, in the scheme of things, how much a single decision can derail your entire game.

It's unfortunate that everything about the first episode seems to be about setting you up for the bigger falls. Within Episode One, there was no real payoff. Its ending feels like a natural break, but also a fairly anticlimactic one.

I admire Life is Strange's courage

Wrap Up:

Colin: It's odd because I've done nothing but criticize this game. And yet, I admire its courage and I enjoyed playing it. I want to go back for more. It's aimed for an indie-movie meets teen-TV aesthetic, but even while it sometimes misses the mark, it's still a novel and fresh experience. And, at the end of this first episode, I enjoyed the world and I liked the characters enough to want to come back for more.

Megan: I feel the same. Despite its shortcomings, there's a powerful kind of nostalgia I draw from its characters and world. The time travel aspect is cool, no doubt, but I'm down with the little things. I've enjoyed spending time in the complicated life of a teenage girl, because it reminds me of what it was like to be one. It's the first game I've ever played where I felt that my life was represented on screen - even at its weakest points. Life is Strange uses the ordinary in a way that is extraordinary.

Colin: This is the thing about popular commercial art. It can make mistakes and it can fall short of the ideals of critics, but it can still be fun and admirable. By the end I felt like the inhabitants of Arcadia had stories to share that I wanted to hear.

Life is Strange: Episode One was reviewed using pre-release PS3 codes provided by Square-Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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