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It's time to pay attention to Life is Strange

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So, the start of a new year means clearing the decks and figuring out which games to start getting interested in for the next 12 months.

One that I'm keeping a close eye on is Dontnod's Life is Strange, an episodic choice-and-consequences drama due for release at the end of this month. Based on the search for a missing teenage girl and set in the Pacific Northwest it's been compared to Gone Home. While there are many useful comparisons, the big difference is that this game features human characters in-situ interacting with one another.

It looks more like a cross between a Telltale adventure, Pretty Little Liars and a touchy-feely coming-of-age indie movie, with time travel. So far, I'm in.

Dontnod's only previous game was Remember Me (2013), which reviews generally praised for its story and setting, with some reservations about its platforming-melee-puzzle mechanics.

Life is Strange

Certainly, story, character and setting are a big play in Life is Strange, which is inspired by the sort of movies you might go see at an art-house on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

"We are big fans of independent movies like at Sundance or Tribeca," said creative director Jean-Maxime Moris, in a developer diary video released today. "We didn't go to them as direct inspiration but they are definitely in the background and I think that shows a lot in the game."

Indeed, the preview footage released so far reveals a lot of interplay between central character Maxine Caulfield, who returns (after a five-year absence) to a small town in Oregon, to find her rebellious friend Chloe Price much troubled about the disappearance of a girlfriend. Scenes play out in sun-dappled bedrooms, parks and high school locales with lots of dialog and dreamy lingering shots.

Teenagers fight with one another and with hostile adults as the young women seek out the truth. There is a sense of conflict between the present of digital devices and social media, and a yearning for a simpler past. Caulfield is a sensitive and shy sort, reasserting herself in an environment that is both familiar and alien. Price is angry and touchy.

"It's about identity," added Moris. "It's about how we become who we are but it's from a totally different angle. It's the analog angle, it's the pictures that you lay on the floor."

Life is Strange

The time-travel mechanic allows players to replay choice sequences in between checkpoints. "Our game is about time, especially with the rewind [mechanic]," said game co-director Michel Koch. "There is always this fight between the present and the past."

The teenage angle also plays out in the sort of social commentary most usually associated with indie games, even though this is being published by Square Enix. "Mostly indie games talk about social issues and everyday life problems and this is something very important," said co-director Raoul Barbet. "We want to see everyday life in a small town, the problems of unemployment, alcoholism, social bullying, violence. We want to talk about them."

Addressing these issues isn't the only area where Square Enix is showing some spine. According to Moris, it was the only publisher prepared to take the game with a female lead.

"Square is the only publisher that didn't want to change a single thing about the game," he explained. "We had other publishers telling us, 'make it a male lead character.' Square didn't even question that once."

Life is Strange

The adventure-puzzle game certainly has a more artsy, sensitive vibe than most titles coming out of the big publishing houses. "We've always had this ambition of doing things differently," said Moris. "We want to do things that we love and those things just happen to be different from, let's say, mainstream gaming."

Life is Strange's first episode (of five) will be released on Jan. 30 for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Windows PC.