Being the first episode of a full season, I am reviewing this without giving away too many details. Future entries will contain spoilers, as it will discuss the events of the episodes, assuming that readers will have completed previous episodes in the story.
As much as I love Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead and the growing number of episodic, story-driven games, they all suffer from one particularly serious issue: they feel too modular. While we’ve managed to escape the specter of good-and-evil morality choices, the result of said choices still feels slight. Regardless of our decisions, we still travel the same paths, robbing even the gravest action of its heft. Your hero might be missing an arm, but he still finds a way across that rooftop; the character that doesn’t make it is merely replaced by someone else in the roster, along with a few lines of dialogue acknowledging the absence. Cogs break and get replaced, but nothing ever feels like it throws a wrench into the works or forces you into an entirely different approach.
The very first episode of Life is Strange contains several forced choices that follow this pattern. Maxine Caulfield, a bright young photography student who can rewind time, is approached by the principal with a question and two button prompts; should she tell the truth about a dangerous, untouchable student, or should she pretend that nothing is wrong? Both options anger him and prompt worried messages from your parents. And aside from a few brief lines later on, it feels like both branches lead to the same conclusions.
It takes a bit of prodding, but this supernatural, third-person drama is much deeper than the capital-c Choices that pepper its runtime. Reach for a file on top of a cabinet, and it might plummet into the puddle of grease on the floor, leaving an undeniable trace of your snooping. Poke around, and you’ll probably see something you shouldn’t, which might just impact your relationship with certain characters for the rest of the game. Even small moments of inaction trigger reminders that your actions will have consequences, despite the lack of a visible choice or blinking button prompt.
By weaving in branching paths that aren’t clearly marked as such, Dontnod Entertainment have added a layer of believability to Maxine’s adventure. Our lives are chock full of seemingly innocuous decisions that come to haunt us later, and while Maxine can briefly rewind the moment to rethink her course of action, once she leaves the scene, it’s locked in. Her neat trick certainly saves lives, but it doesn’t make her immune from consequence or responsibility.
Though the writing occasionally feels like adults imitating teen-speak and the lip sync is absolutely atrocious (characters’ virtual mouths never match the shape of the words coming out, to an off-putting degree), Life is Strange won me over with its absolute sincerity. I loved the quiet moments with Maxine’s rebellious friend, loathed the power-tripping security officer who was just as overprotective at home, and just wanted to comfort the classmate whose once-cheerful demeanor was darkened by an unspoken disaster. While it’ll certainly be exciting to get into more time-bending shenanigans and moments of life-threatening danger, I’m dying to spend more time with Maxine and her friends. I can’t think of a higher compliment for a story-heavy game, and if it stays on-track, there will be many more compliments coming its way.
That’s a pretty big if, though. We’re still at the start of the season, and by the final episode, Life is Strange might sucuumb to the same slight changes in tone that made The Walking Dead’s finale feel hollow. There are choices here that we have yet to see pay off or backfire: by the second or third episode, we’ll have a better idea of how it follows through on decisions both big and small. My fingers are firmly crossed in the hopes that this promising beginning will follow through to a most satisfying end.