My Max is My Max: On Choosing to Adapt ‘Life is Strange’
Historically, video game adaptations don’t work. If 2016 was any indication, that’s probably not changing anytime soon. Don’t get sensitive with me about Warcraft - I haven’t seen it, so I won’t say anything. But if The Angry Birds Movie, Ratchet & Clank and Assassin’s Creed were any indication, studios still haven’t nailed why people love the games those studios are adapting --- even when, like in the case of the latter two, the path to adaptation seems fairly straightforward.
Imagine my trepidation when Legendary Entertainment announced plans to tackle Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic exploration into teen life and time travel as a live-action series. Movies based on games have given us way more misses than hits, but the few series (not counting cartoons or anime) we received ended up feeling pretty hollow.
As a story-heavy adventure game, Max Caulfield’s time in Arcadia Bay and Blackwell Academy should make easy sense when adapted, even with its chronological twist. You have your beginning, your middle, back a bit to before the middle, fast forward to an alternate middle, and then an ending. Time travel stories have been done, and they’ve been done well. But anyone who’s played Life is Strange knows the game throws you a curveball.
Well, it’s more like a curveball or a knuckleball, because Life is Strange plays with choice --- not unlike Telltale Games' yearly outings. Those choices gave the game claws to dig into my emotions. When the game’s Max was my Max, the stiff animation and the clumsy dialogue didn’t matter.
But simply being a choice-based game isn’t enough to evade adaptation. For that Mass Effect movie that may or may not exist (also by Legendary), it’s not hard for a screenwriter to decide what kind of person the canon Commander Shepard will be. It’s probably definitely Paragon.
Consider inFamous (It’s about time someone did for the first time since 2014). In an interview with Eurogamer, Sucker Punch’s Nate Fox said he originally wrote the evil ending of inFamous 2 to be the canonical one, ripe for continuation. But players didn’t see it that way. According to trophy data, 78 percent of players went good, so the Cole we got in Second Son was a dead Cole.
“Whether they knew it or not, they were voting - and this is the way that the franchise will change,” Fox said. “We view the series as being about choice and consequence, and it seemed relevant to make that a deciding factor."
There’s your first speed bump. Choices matter to people. If a film version of inFamous turned Cole into a power hungry villain, that would in effect be canon, but it wouldn’t be the Cole the majority of players spent hours crafting as they defibrillated old ladies hit by stray grenades. #NotMyCole.
Choices matter, we get that. Both Telltalle’s games and Life is Strange feel the need to tell you “Your Choices Matter” every time you load a new episode. But these adventure games understand not just that your choices matter, they get why. And for different reasons. By putting a timer on every decision, something like The Walking Dead puts an almost unfair permanency to your choices. You made your bed, now you have to lie in it.
Here’s where Life is Strange takes a left turn. Unlike Lee, or Bigby, or Fiona or Batman, Max can go back in time. The majority of your time in the game, this is used for puzzles. Bust a doorknob to get into someone’s room, then reverse time on the other side to lock it back up and have it seem as if you were never there. Speak to a character once, then have the same conversation again with new speech options after they tell you something you didn’t know.
And unlike Telltale’s stories, there’s no time limit to your choices. Why would there be? If you don’t like what you said or what you did, rewind and try another option. It’s not until you explicitly move on that your selection is etched in stone. There’s no limit to how many times you can try out a certain path, and there’s no limit to how long you can take to mull it over. You don’t risk running out of power, so take your time (and yes, I’m aware of the chapter when you totally run out of power, don’t be clever).
(Spoilers for Episode 4) Consider the encounter when Max and her longtime BFF Chloe confront Frank, the skeezy drug dealer who’s more or less Chris Farley’s character from the Matt Foley sketch. You need information, and Chloe brought a gun (you know, for learning!) she’s not afraid to use. Tackle this conversation with a once-and-done attitude, and you might end up with a dead Frank and a dead Frank’s dog. Things tend to get out of hand that way. But I wasn’t satisfied, so I went back and tried again; I had Frank shut the door with his dog in the RV. No dead dog, but he didn’t like like what I was saying and ended up with a bullet in him anyway. I tried again; again he got shot. I threw the gun away; he ended up stabbed. I started changing my tone with the gun in hand; he still got shot. Starting to sound monotonous? It was, but the game did all it could to tell me that this was going to be an important interaction. If I had a chance to make it go perfectly, I would spend 30 minutes on a two-minute stretch to take it.
You’re not just making your bed and lying in it, you’re making little sections of a bed one by one, over and over until they’re exactly what you want.
This perfectionism plays into a beautiful patience I just don’t think an adaptation has time for. Be it meticulously finalizing your choices, or pressing X to sit quietly for a while, a 10-hour game has the breathing room a 45-minute episode can’t provide. If the sense of choice in Life is Strange gave its story claws, its sense of patience only sharpened them. If you take away the choice and the patience, you’re left with solid but relatively conventional story about artsy teens who say “hella” too much.
My Max is my Max. There are many like her, and I tried them all out, but they weren’t for me. And my Max is what made Life is Strange special as a game in ways other media couldn’t.