Friday, April 3, 2015

Life is Strange Episode 2 Review

When I saw the trailer for Life is Strange a long time ago, I had a feeling this would become a favorite game - despite knowing almost nothing about it. It said it was Gone Home meets The Walking Dead, which was already awesome, and there was a definite Twin Peaks feel to it as well, so combining my favorite things is a good start. Then I saw it was being published by Square Enix, and I am still a big Square fan. Finally, I do really enjoy the episodic games because they give me a unique playing experience. Each episode can be played in one sitting over a couple of hours - and then the wait ends up giving me time to process specific events and even to talk to other players about what happened. When you have games where choice affects outcome, too, this is great because you can see what you and a friend do differently and then talk about why.

The first episode was fantastic. I loved it from the opening, because the gameplay is straightforward, the graphics are beautiful, and the music is so fitting for the game. I was incredibly impressed by the storytelling, although I found some of the teen dialogue and slang odd (specifically the overuse of "hella"). In discussions, though, I have come to find out that people on the West Coast are still using that word a lot and so it's even better - because there are clear regionalisms being integrated into the game as well.

It's hard to write a review without spoilers and I am posting this a little late simply because there's no way to avoid spoiling it entirely. I will stay vague with the specifics, but it's still hard to be totally spoiler-free, especially in the second episode.

You start Episode 2: Out of Time in bed, waking up after the events of the first episode. This entire story occurs Monday through Friday - across five episodes. As you may know or remember from the first episode (or my review), you discover that you have powers to control time and also that the world may be ending on Friday. So now that it's Tuesday, you and Chloe, your childhood friend who is back in your life through a series of events, set out to learn more about your powers - as well as figure out why you're having apocalyptic visions. Oh, and also find out what happened to Rachel Amber, Chloe's friend who is missing.

But, after all, you're a teenage girl, so you still have to go to school and live your life. The episode begins with taking a shower and talking to people in your dorm. One thing about Life is Strange is that the game really does want you to immerse yourself in this world, to live Max's life alongside her, rather than move blindly from objective to objective. You discover this at the end of Episode 2 - when you are rewarded for paying attention or punished severely if you have been selfish and self-absorbed in the past two episodes. For me, it's not hard to become immersed, because several times during this episode, I thought, I really hope this game never ends. 

Although the story here seems to be more about a mix of the mundane and the discovery of something special, the real power comes from the way that life occurs around Max. The game stresses that your choices matter, that actions have consequences, but many gamers have become immune to these claims since Telltale hasn't followed through all that effectively with this aspect. Yes, the choices matter, but the end result tends to be the same, in their games. At the end of Episode 2 of Life is Strange, though, there is a significant event that may not technically affect game play, but at the very least will rip your heart out if you have any feelings at all.

How much do we pay attention to people around us? Do we make the choices that better us, strategically playing a game, or do we live by experiencing and participating? Max can play the game as a player - moving from point to point and doing what is expected, but if she doesn't take her time living her life, taking note of the minor details and moments, she could miss something important. Do you stop and read every note, every poster? Do you talk to every person you pass, trying to learn about them, or do you only ask the questions that advance the plot?

In the penultimate scene, which I admit I expected given the way the story was unfolding, you are granted the power to slow/freeze time - BUT in exchange, you temporarily lose your power to rewind. Sure, it's still a game, so of course, you can save a different file and get a different result, but the reality is that the scene tests you because you cannot rewind and make different choices. How immersed have you been?

In addition, the event personally broke my heart. I am definitely immersed in this game (my RPG playing habits and completionist personality naturally work well in a setting like this), but what I didn't expect was this kind of emotional impact. I was shaking as I stared at the choices for dialogue. I have been in real-life situations that are very similar - your words COUNT. They mean EVERYTHING - and you have no idea what the right ones are. Instead, you are left not to play by strategy, but as a person. You are asked to be Max, to put yourself in this scenario, and through this, Life is Strange has done something that has been debated in gaming for ages - they make it matter. This game and honestly this one scene silences those who claim games are not art. If it's not art to place a human being emotionally in a place that makes them question everything they value or believe, to make someone fear the wrong words, the wrong action, in a way that makes you then recognize the impact of what you do in real life, then I don't know what art is and I don't care to.

I had a hard time in the final scene choosing an option, because what I wanted to do would not have helped anyone - and that's another example of how true to life this game is. However, it was the scene that came before, that brought me back to my own adolescence, that made me think of all the students I used to teach, that made me wish everyone could understand that no action is so small it does not echo in the world, that makes this game a work of art and a gift to players of all types. This game is still running through my head and I can't shake it. THAT is how you make a game and write a story.

I have also bought another game, Remember Me, from Dontnod, since although it's not the same, I definitely need more like this. In a few hours, Life is Strange has become a game I will never forget.

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