I really like the idea of Dontnod’s episodic game choice drama-em-up Life Is Strange, but really it just ended up making me wish it would shut up and let me experience it instead.
Life Is Strange is a wonderful kind of idea: It’s five episodes long, gives us the much neglected teen girl player character in the guise of Maxine Caulfield, and as Kirk mentions, measuring up against Telltale Game’s janky, sometimes buggy game frameworks Life Is Strange is kind of robust and interestingly structured. It has a ‘time rewind’ mechanism that feels quite fluid to use and it’s filled with nice details, such as the delicately illustrated ‘diary’ that will fill up as Max progresses.
And yet that diary is somewhat of a symbol of my problems with Life Is Strange. It’s not that I am complaining it isn’t realistic that a teen has time to elaborately illustrate and pontificate on every single moment of life and every choice of the day like that. It doesn’t need to be ‘realistic’ - it’s a game. It’s just that everything else in the game is an elaborately overwritten chatfest that is nervous you will miss something, and this makes me entirely irritated with everything in it.
As I write this now I am listening to a playthrough of Life Is Strange in the background, and the striking thing about listening to the game in audio form only is that the actual visual elements of the game, the environments, the beautiful art of the game, is being made entirely redundant to the player by the huge amount of narrative coming from the protagonist’s voiceover.
In the very beginning of episode one, for example, the game opens on Max in some sort of dream sequence (but not a dream) by a lighthouse, and then she is suddenly in a classroom listening to a massively pretentious wanker proclaim in a self-satisfied manner many facts about photography. Max narrates to herself, for the player’s benefit:
“Whoa! That was SO surreal. Okay. I’m in class. Everything’s cool. I’m okay.”
- Max’s facial expression conveys the fact that she is surprised. “Whoa” is unnecessary.
- “That was SO surreal.” You were by a lighthouse and now you appear to be in a classroom. Obviously this is surreal. I am not sure Silent Hill games would go out of their way to point out they are a tad “surreal”.
- “I’m in class.” Yes, we know. We can see.
- “Everything’s cool. I’m okay.” This is fine, since it’s actually saying something about the character and that perhaps she is reassuring herself because she is unsettled. It might be obvious that she’s okay, though shaken, however, because Max’s facial expressions are actually telling us this. You know, she isn’t dead or injured, so we get it.
That’s a little nitpicky, but it’s a microcosm of my problems with the game. Life Is Strange continues on like this, overnarrating what is happening, when it is obvious what is happening from the efforts that the environmental designers and animators have gone to, for the rest of this episode. The writing could be stronger - a lot of what Max says sounds like my dad read Urban Dictionary - which doesn’t help, but really what’s irritating is the sheer amount of patronising information. Even the track they’ve overlaid on the first episode, Syd Matters’ “To All You American Girls” is a song I think my dad might choose to encapsulate a teen girl life he thinks I had, and it’s just a completely cloying and obvious choice - most of my teen years felt like a terrifying slog through a Slayer album to the sound of my own resounding silence.
Teens are curiously silent, aren’t they? Teens are pretty contemplative and sullen. They are starting to harbour silent resentment against the world because the world, it turns out, is a bit shit. But when I was a teen that silence opened up my whole world in a way. I became more observant. There was a silent, underlying urgency about being a teen that is missing from this game, because Max’s voiceover is so earnest and eager to tell you what is happening… I had no interest in what was actually happening in front of me. I don’t know if this fed the purpose of a game this sophisticated-looking. I felt like it was doing the visual artists a disservice.
At one point I was walking towards a lighthouse, following a deer down a path in a forest that was clearly made by the level designers for me to follow. The deer was the only thing moving in front of me: it was obviously made so that I could follow it. I started to follow it, naturally.
After I had been following it for a while, Max announced that she thought that the deer wanted me to follow it.
I WAS FOLLOWING IT, I wanted to yell at her. And suddenly I felt like a patronised teen again, trying to do something whilst an adult gave me instructions like I couldn’t possibly understand the world around me. And I wondered: who exactly is Life Is Strange made for? I suspect it is not made for me. And I wonder, really, if it is made for teens. Is it made for my dad?
Cara Ellison is on twitter @caraellison.