NYCC 14: Turning Back the Clock With Life is Strange
In Arcadia Bay, Oregon, there are no memory addicts. There are no overpopulated areas of the city. There's no high-powered police force or billion dollar company running the world. In Arcadia Bay, there is just one teenage girl trying to come to grips with the harsh realities of existence in high school in 2013.
Our hands-off demo of Dontnod's Life is Strange begins with a brief trailer introducing us to Max Caufield, the protagonist who's just returned home to Arcadia Bay after moving away nearly a decade ago. While the locale itself hasn't changed much in the time Max has been gone, her former closest friend has been through the ringer, and is no longer the same Chloe today as she was when the two were younger. Though this strained relationship is at the core of what we saw during our brief time with Life is Strange, Arcadia Bay holds many more secrets which Dontnod is holding very close to its chest. There's a missing girl, Rachel, who was Chloe's friend in Max's absence. There's the strange behavior of Chloe's stepdad, who also happens to be the head of security at the high school which both Max and Chole attend. Oh, and then there's Max and her magical ability to rewind time.
Thus far in Dontnod's career, it would appear that temporal manipulation is the developer's go-to for a cool game mechanic. Though it was used interestingly in Remember Me, the actual process a bit of a let down with how little it impacted the game overall, and how little agency you had in manipulating time and memories. With Max, these abilities have been fine-tuned just a bit, and now you have total control over when and where to rewind your actions. Life is Strange is following in the Telltale mold of adventure games, but this new spin offers plenty of flexibility in how each and every player will come to the conclusions of the five episodes. Still, it should be noted, like in Telltale's games, the decisions you make are more about interpersonal relationships than they are about impacting the core story beats of Life is Strange's plot.
To show off just how Max's abilities would work, we're taken to a point early in the first episode where Max is visiting with Chloe at her home. Sometime earlier that day, Max's camera was damaged, and Chloe has intimated she may have the tools to fix it in her stepdad's garage. Max has free reign to go explore the house after speaking briefly with Chloe, and the amount of interactivity Dontnod's included here really sets it apart from many other adventure games currently available. Max can choose to go directly to the garage, or spend some time looking at the homestead, finding photos on the walls, paperwork on tables, or even venturing into the backyard to revisit a brighter moment in her relationship with Chloe. Eventually you'll have to go to the garage to progress the story, but the details you absorb can help paint a better picture of this friendship, family and town you've been absent from for the last ten years.
Once in the garage, Max discovers the tools she needs are on top of the washer/dryer combo unit, and she can't reach them. Turning the dryer on shakes them off, but the tools then fall behind a cabinet. We rewind the scene to discover that there was cardboard we could have slipped under the cabinet to start with, and do so. The tools fall on the makeshift mat, and we pull it back out to obtain our prize. These kinds of light puzzle-solving elements will be at play throughout Life is Strange, but there are no fail states in a traditional sense. Every issue can be resolved with a simple use of Max's previously latent abilities. Time manipulation can also be used in conversation to an even more in-depth degree, as Max will retain knowledge of the conversation she already had, and can potentially use that information on the second pass, or if the conversation didn't provide the optimal outcome.
To show how both aspects of that power come into play, Max is forced into an encounter with Chloe and her stepdad, who is none too pleased that Chloe has a visitor at the house. Max is given a chance to step in to defend Chloe from some (not-so) heinous accusations, and in the first attempt, lets Chloe's father take the situation too far, and he hits Chloe. He's immediately filled with regret and storms off, and Chloe is justifiably angered with Max for not coming to her defense. As is her wont, Max can replay the entire encounter again, this time coming to Chloe's defense, and not only sparing Chloe a tense encounter, but also saving her stepfather from going to far. Of course, that puts Max on bad terms with the school's head of security, but it seems a worthy price for getting back on her once-lost friend's good side.
We'd be remiss in only talking about Dontnod's personal touches on tried and true adventure game mechanics, and not discussing Life is Strange's gorgeous presentation. Eschewing the dark and techno-industrial Neo-Paris in favor of a painterly style that invokes feelings of life and wonder gives Life is Strange a very warm and welcoming personality. Not that there was anything wrong with the cold, mechanical future Dontnod created for Remember Me, but we've been there and done that countless times before. It's not often we get a game that takes place in an era and location that is not only immediately recognizable, but also full of nature and light. Arcadia Bay isn't a substitute Seattle or Portland; it's a calm Anywhere, U.S.A. kind of place, and one that's brought to life with brilliant style. Each aspect of the world, from the people to the places to the tables and posters between, has been hand-painted. No rendered textures here, just art, painstakingly brought to life with simple brushstrokes. Life is Strange is alive in ways we haven't seen before, and it's absolutely refreshing.
Based on the sheer number of potential outcomes in conversation and exploration, Dontnod expects some 90 percent of players will only get to see 10 percent of what Life is Strange has to offer. With a complex mystery hosting many variables, a lot of things could go wrong, particularly considering how much importance Dontnod is placing on relationships and the narrative. However, we're optimistic. There's so much to like about Life is Strange's potential, from the presentation to the mysteries we'll be trying to uncover, it's a shame we have to wait a few more months to start enjoying it.
Life is Strange's first episode is planned to arrive in early 2015 for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.