Life is Strange: Ambiguous young love among leading ladies
Life is Strange is DONTNOD's second game ever – it's also the studio's second game starring a woman, following 2013's Remember Me.
"That's not us trying to be different for the sake of being different," Creative Director Jean-Maxime Moris said during a demo at Gamescom. "It's not as if we're trying to 'fix the industry.'"
And Life is Strange is so much more than "a game with a girl in it."
Life is Strange is an episodic, narrative-driven point-and-click game heavy on drama, action and supernatural events. Max, the protagonist and a high school senior, has the ability to rewind time. She returns to her hometown in Oregon after a five-year absence to find her former best friend, Chloe, has drastically changed. Chloe's father died the same year Max left town, and she struggles with a profound sense of abandonment – her hair is bright blue, a tattoo cascades down one of her arms, she's angsty and she smokes pot. Chloe's room is plastered in magazine clippings and Sharpie messages, and an American flag hangs vertically over one window, littered with hand-written curse words.
This is where the demo kicks off. It's Max and Chloe's reunion, in Chloe's bedroom. Max hesitantly pokes around while Chloe lights up on her bed, disinterested and slightly cold toward her former BFF. Max finds missing person flyers stacked around the room and a box holding a picture of Chloe and the missing girl, Rachel Amber. Chloe snatches it back and Max gets the story – when Chloe's dad died and Max left, Rachel was there for Chloe and the two had dreams of moving to Los Angeles together. Chloe calls Rachel her angel. However, Rachel suddenly left town under suspicious circumstances, soon after meeting someone who "changed her life," Chloe says.
By this point in the game, Max already knows that she has the ability to control time. She's able to reverse time at will, meaning players can redo any action in the game. This could be useful for dangerous scenarios, but Moris and DONTNOD Artistic Director Michel Koch used it in the demo scenes to alter the narrative, going back to change what Max says so Chloe doesn't get pissed off, or just to pick up a box that gets knocked over. Players can alter every moment of the game, or use Max's power to run through every dialogue option in every scene, Moris said.
As Max moves around the world, certain objects are overlaid with white sketch lines and a description with an arrow nearby. Max can interact with these things, affecting the story or creating tiny puzzles for players to suss out.
When Max leaves Chloe's room in search of tools to fix her camera, the indie rock that Max turned on at Chloe's request follows her down the stairs, into the backyard, through the garage. It lends the entire process a cinematic feel, as if this were the film missing in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's early career. So far, Life is Strange presents an honest, realistic and empathetic view of teenage life in 2013.
The demo offers more insight into Max and Chloe's falling out, and Chloe's explosive relationship with her step-father, the security guard at the girls' school – but the memorable thing about Life is Strange is the impeccable tone it sets. In just half an hour, Life is Strange presents two fully realized, genuine young women navigating adolescence, betrayal, love and loss. Chloe's pot-smoking and profanity-laced room feel honest to her character, as does her reception of Max. Anyone who's drifted apart from a teenage best friend can relate to the guarded, chilly reunion between these two girls, as well as the spark of envy that Max can display when she learns about Rachel, the new best – and perhaps better – friend. Chloe hints at something more between her and Rachel, though she keeps it vague.
"There is ambiguity," Moris said when I asked whether there was a romantic relationship between any of the girls.
"But it is mostly still a friendship story before everything," Koch added. "It's a friendship story and a mystery."
Moris continued, "Yeah, there is ambiguity, but what's really driving the game is this friendship. At that age, especially – at any age – but at that age, you know, there can always be ambiguity there."
This approach to gaming reflects a trend of narrative-driven, emotional games from independent studios. In particular, Life is Strange mirrors Fullbright's Gone Home.
Life is Strange takes place in the Pacific Northwest, with a heavy emphasis on music, the relationships between young women and the romantic possibilities that underscore some of those deep friendships. The parallels between Life is Strange and Gone Home are entirely accidental, Moris told Joystiq after the demo.
"We started working on this game way before Gone Home got out, so when it got out, we were like, 'This is great, we love this game.' But it's actually a coincidence," Moris said.
Koch said he spoke with Gone Home developer Fullbright about the logistics of creating a realistic world, fair use regarding music licenses and other shared aspects.
"Those guys were great," Moris said.
DONTNOD is also taking pains to create a realistic world for these girls, which means research for most of the team.
"We have women in the dev team – not that many because it's still the video game industry and there are not that many women – but we have women working on the game," Koch said. "And our writer, which is an American writer we've worked with before, he's consulting with his nieces. He's showing scripts to them, to read it and see if it feels genuine and fresh."
Life is Strange will launch on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC in five episodes, each released a few weeks apart on a set schedule (hear that, Telltale players?). These episodes will tell a complete story, Moris said. Square Enix is funding and publishing Life is Strange, following DONTNOD's previous partnership with Capcom on Remember Me.