Game: Life Is Strange – a second thought

During the weekend the game “Life Is Strange” still keeps bothering me. I cannot understand how such a game received such high ratings: Metascore of 83, average user rating of 8.6, “overwhelmingly positive” on Steam based on nearly 100k reviews and won some Game Awards.

I feel the urge to write down my thoughts to get rid of them.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

To the game’s defense, there are three items the game does best in a really excellent manner:

1. If your target group are white (female) US teenagers, then Max is the most identifiable person. There are all ingredients in there combined. Max personal situations, her personal thoughts, and ambitions, her situation in “school” (actually an Academy), etc. If you want to create a game to attract this audience you couldn’t have designed your main character better than this. Yet, strictly speaking, Max is not a teenager, however, the main audience is.

2. The atmosphere is well caught: the graphics are nice with a soft impressionistic touch and the game’s music deeply underlines the game’s location and placement of a young teenage girl.

3. The developers obviously thought always what scenes or pictures would have the most emotional impact in a deep girl-girl friendship. This is found throughout the whole game, e.g. Chloe dancing on the bed with Max taking picture of her (celebrating friendship), and especially at the end given this dramatic choice to sacrifice your best friend and let her die for the greater good of saving Arcadia Bay. This is the situation in which the whole developers of Dontnod in association with Square Enix keep trampling with both feet on your lachrymal gland to squeeze every little bit out of it having you crying and suffering.

But here it ends. And if you manage to get an emotional distance things turn.

The game driving mechanics of Chaos Theory and time rewind abilities are not explained in any way. They just are. Max awakes in the classroom having this time rewind ability all of a sudden. Yes, she somehow asks her science teacher about it, but she does not give a clue or has a hint either. And this is the *only* attempt in the game, to explain anything about this weird stuff. Though you get a lot of symbolic references to Chaos Theory as it has hit popular beliefs, e.g. the butterfly and the storm.

Throughout the game, you walk back in time and change things. But all of your doing turns out to be bad. Again, without any explanation or causal relation. The best example of this is when you decide to save Chloe’s father William by hiding his car keys. As a result, William does not have a car crash and survives. But this leads to giving Chloe a car (I assume on her birthday) with which Chloe then has a terrible car accident leaving her paralyzed. Therefore we have to go back in time a second time and let William die in order not to get Chloe a car at her birthday and thus getting our old, grumpy Chloe back.

If this is how Chaos Theory works, then effectively anything goes. I do not see a real causal connection, why a living William has to result in Chloe been totally disabled. In both alternative timelines, Chloe has a car. She just had no accident in the one and a terrible in the other. Why not have William live and go back in time with the help of a photo, as Max learns to do in the game, and prevent Chloe having that accident right before. Like hiding her keys as she did with William. Or, at least, get in contact with her by any means and prevent her from driving? There are a lot of possibilities. Just be somehow creative.

Now, I don’t think that this is how Chaos Theory actually works. If you are interested and start to study it, you will get pretty soon in a great deal of science and very heavy math. “Anything goes” is clearly *not* the main theme of Chaos Theory.

When we strip this Chaos Theory and time rewind Mumbo-Jumbo aside, what’s left is a pretty predictable mediocre teenager-thriller. The very smart, good-looking teacher Mr. Jefferson is the single person which is not some kind of whacko. All others are to some extent, some more (e.g. the Academy’s gardener or Nathan), some less (e.g. the Science teacher, most pupils). Therefore, as a rule of plot, Mr. Jefferson is the gardener in “the gardener is always the murderer”.

Then there are a lot of logical faults in the game as well. And this is not just laying down on railway track to chill is just super-stupid, or that no one cares you jumping around like The Flash on the street using your time rewind abilities, or examing running laptops with opened up social media profiles right next to the owners’ person been a private insult and strictly No-Go. The story itself fails.

As an example: after you discovered the Dark Room, Max and Chloe went to the junkyard to discover Rachel Amber’s body and then went to the “End of the World” party at the Academy to face Nathan as their prime suspect.

For me, the folder of Rachel Amber which Max and Chloe discovered in the Dark Room had a very big yellow post-it attached, written “Take me”, double underline and three exclamation marks. Yet both decided to not take anything at all as proof or evidence. They just left. And then they decided to face Nathan, … for what? Do they really assume that Nathan will have a great insight, admit the murder and will be voluntarily escorted to the police? Max met Nathan in the restaurant prior and we do see that he is in a pretty bad shape. He is psychologically highly unstable. After we searched his room we met him also on the floor of the boy’s dormitory. From this we know at least two things: 1. he has a weapon and 2. he is not afraid to draw it and point at you. It has been a great effort to separate Nathan from his gun in this scene thanks to Warren giving Nathan a head bump. All this is known by Max and Chloe at the party. Talking some sense into Nathan is therefore not an option. Instead, he’s pretty dangerous. But then it seems that Chloe doesn’t want to talk to Nathan anyway. She has a gun and wants revenge for her dead friend Amber. This is understandable, though pretty stupid on its own. As for Max her only realistic option is now *not* to mingle with the party people in search of Nathan alone and letting her friend Chloe go for some sort rampage on her own. Instead, one will prevent Chloe doing something terribly stupid and leave the case to some professionals, e.g. the police.

Now switch over to Mr. Jefferson. Yes, he is the psychopath, but he is actually very smart and intelligent. He has a sick fixation of making great portraits with the most innocent look, but he is certainly not dumb. He knows that the two girls have disclosed his secret. We learn this from his dialogs with Max in the Dark Room, where frankly admits, that the whole place is under surveillance. If he watched them, he has to assume that the girls picked up some evidence. He maybe watched them closely and may even have seen them leaving empty-handed. But then Max always carries this bag of hers around and maybe he overlooked something and they took something.

He may also learn by listening to them that both are heading for the junkyard first to find Rachel’s body and then go to the party. He knows the route pretty well and thus can calculate how long it takes from the Dark Room to the Academy by car. If he even watched them arriving at the party he knows that the girls must have stopped *somewhere* on the way, doing *something* because it took them longer as expected compared to a straight ride. But maybe he does not know any of this. Then it is even worse for him because he must suspect the girls have told someone about the Dark Room or at least having them placed some evidence or writing somewhere of this Dark Room.

So time is ticking for him. Any minute the girls live raises the probability of him getting disclosed. Sure, he is wearing gloves in the Dark Room with Max, therefore if he has been so super cautious then there might be no fingerprints. But Mr. Jefferson is a maniac, proud of his “work”. Therefore there must be some links in his “work” connecting him as the master and creator. And even if he took care of this as well, nobody can help to drop some DNA traces around a workplace he regularly is at, e.g. a hair, some skin fragments. You can’t help since this is unconscious and unnoticed. As a conclusion, he must get rid of the Dark Room as soon as possible. Maybe he can manage to save some his work, maybe not. But this raises in him the want to kill this two stupid girls even more since they endangered his masterpiece, his opus Magnus.

The only logic options for him are: 1. kill the girls as soon as possible and 2. destroy the Dark Room and any links from it to his person. Unfortunately, he does not know what the girls have been up to in the meantime and therefore he must be fast, very fast indeed. They maybe told the police and some squad may be on the way to the Dark Room already. Time is running out.

After he killed the girls he must examine the girl’s belongings. When he does, he’ll find the smartphones. Now if they are locked he has no clue if the girls told or texted anyone. Are the phones locked? Well, most laptops in the game are not. Yet, one challenge for Max actually is to unlock Nathan’s phone. So we can safely assume the phones are locked. Has Mr. Jefferson then the ability to unlock these phones? He uses Nathan’s phone. Well, Nathan and Mr. Jefferson had a deep relationship concerning the Dark Room. So it is likely that Mr. Jefferson knows Nathan’s pin code to unlock the phone. The same cannot be said about the girl’s phones.

But even if the phones are not locked, there are many, many communication channels on a smartphone: phone, SMS, WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook Messenger, Facebook posts, etc. Mr. Jefferson has to check *all* of these to be sure that the girls didn’t tell anyone. And he doesn’t know if the girls just stopped somewhere and told someone on the way to the party.

What does the game plot: he creates a trap for the girls by using Nathan phone and kills Chloe. Then he takes Max to the Dark Room and creates a photo session, having enough leisure to talk and muse around. This is highly unlogical and totally irrational.

At the second installment of the party scene now Max has some more knowledge: 1. it is Mr. Jefferson and not Nathan. 2. Mr. Jefferson has already killed two people in front of Max: first Chloe and then David as he was sneaking into the Dark Room. Though, due to her rewind powers, she manages to save David. 3. Mr. Jefferson was caught by surprise by David. Now David is a war veteran, a soldier trained in combat. David had a gun in his hand and Mr. Jefferson had no weapon at all. Yet this did not impress Mr. Jefferson in any way. He fought David, overwhelmed him and actually killed him (at first). 4. Max knows, that Mr. Jefferson is aware of the girls had discovered the Dark Room and he is up to at least kill Chloe.

As a result, Max knows that the girls lives is in super high danger. The only realistic option is to seek out help and protection and tell anyone of your findings: the police or at least David urging him not to do something stupid on his own. But, again, this is not what happens…

Summary: the game plot is mediocre and the behavior of the main characters is highly unlogic and irrational up to be even moronic in some cases.

The message of the game then is that you have to accept your fate. Changing anything will get it just worse. Let your best friend die for the greater good. Or let others die so you can have your friend. This is the best you can do. Accept it and live with it.

Sorry, I think not.

And I can’t believe that this game has had such an impact. Am I the only one seeing this?


Game: Life Is Strange

Life Is StrangeFinished Life is Strange yesterday. Peeww… This is a hard one and I had my fair share of troubles. Yet not in the manner most of the reviewers had. This is my personal experience and opinion, quite contrary to most reviews. But: YMMV – your mileage may vary.

Warning: this text contains spoilers.

You play Max Caufield, a would-be art photographer, attending the Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay at the age of 18. You return to this location at the US west coast (I recall, it’s Oregon) after spending 4 years abroad. You experience strange daydreams involving a tornado hitting Blackwell and eventually are the witness to the murder of your once best friend Chloe by a classmate of yours. It is this when you discover that you have the ability to rewind time and change the course of actions. First, it is just a little tiny fragment of time. Later on, you discover how to go back by a large amount by focusing on old photos. What started off as a coming-of-age story turns into a thriller in which you are drawn into the secrets of Blackwell, discover the fate of the disappeared Rachel Amber and finally face the antagonist. The game keeps you reminding that it is about choices made and experiencing the consequences.

The game mechanics are Square Enix attempt to create a story-driven narrative cinematic episodic game like TellTales “The Walking Dead”. In a 3rd person manner, you walk around, talk to people and are confronted with several dialog options which do have moral implications not easily answered. There are some riddles too, yes. But like in the TellTales games they are no real challenge anywhere (e.g. fetch 5 empty bottles at the junkyard, bring Chloe a cup of water …). Sometimes the riddles take Max ability to rewind time into account: restart a dialog with a person, since you discovered some secrets during the same dialog before or walking to a spot, rewind time while staying on that place put and start walking again. At the end of each episode you a presented with a résumé about your choices, those of your friends on Steam and worldwide.

The Unreal Engine 3 is working under the hood to provide a nice looking scenery especially when it comes to lighting. I thought the game music fitting though not everybody’s cup of tea. The graphics also bear some impressionistic touch which some argue about. Besides having sometimes failed lib synchronizations – speaking with lips closed – I had no glitches or any bug at all.

All in all very well done on a high technical level.

But… It seems to me, that all the characters in the game are perfectly technical designed to attract a certain audience: white US teenagers, preferably female, at the age of 16 to 20. Max is talented in arts and some sort of outsider not directly entangled in social life at the Academy though she knows everyone as everyone knows her. She tries hard to find her own way and place in life, come along with each and everyone and generally speaking has a very good, golden heart. Oh, and a very handsome, charming teacher too. Writing this I realize how cliché this actually is. There are all stereotype characters of young female teens assembled: the plotting bitch (Victoria) and her girls, the sweet, nice nerd (Warren), your best friend, always giving you a headache reflecting your relationship over and over again (Chloe), …. and even the prime antagonist fits in nicely: the gardener is always the killer, the least suspected person. Sadly, being older, male and European and thus having a totally different cultural background I could not get emotionally attached to Max. Ok, well, I’m clearly not part of the target group for this game.

Then I could not get around some aspects and decisions done in the game by the characters. Some were even quite moronic to me: e.g. laying down to chill on active (!) railway tracks, leaving the Dark Room without any evidence of its existence to face the prime suspect already known to be a psychopath and not going to the police instead, etc. Or take the walk-rewind-walk powers of Max: to anyone watching her, this has to be seen as if Max is warping around the street. Disappearing in one place and reappearing some meters away in a blink of an eye. Yet, nobody seems bothered or cared.

The world is well done with a lot of details. Though your interaction ability is very limited and most of the time somehow boring too. To a great extent, you spend the game talking to people giving you little new information on average or walking around examining mainly unimportant items. I lost track how many posters I checked or to any of Max’s comments on photography equipment. The pace of storytelling is soooo slow. I do understand that some gamers felt bored and quit the game right in the first episode.

The developers always remind you that this game is about choices and their consequences. However, this is *not* meant for the game mechanics: yes, there are some different results (e.g. Kate jumping off the roof or not), but in the end, you are always presented with a binary decision no matter what you did in the game. This statement rather reflects the whole theme of the game, the whole story: rewind time and see the outcome.

In here is the main shortcoming of all: nothing is explained in the game. Zero. There are always some hints to Chaos Theory (one episode is actually named that). As for Chaos Theory, there is really a great deal of science behind it, a lot of math actually. But the game uses this buzz word for any justification and keeps very superficial about it. It is as if you constantly ask “Why?” and “How?” and the game responds always “Oh, Chaos Theory of course! The Butterfly Effect, you know!” without explaining anything at all. Note, Max ability rewind time is left uncommented also. Magic?

This leads to having Max feeling guilty for everything since in her strenuous but vain endeavors to make things right by rewinding time and change the course of actions other bad things happen. I failed to see any connections. E.g. there is no reason at all, why having William kept alive will cause Chloe to be bound to a wheelchair. Even more strange: Max could have picked up a photo of Chloe right before the accident and changed that. Done. All happy.

This has its climax in the last, fifth episode where it culminates into some real gibberish. It has given me the hardest time. I even thought to get myself a gun and shoot stupid Chloe myself as we have been on the way to the party a second time. Just in order to get it over with. Though I saved here in the end. The sneaking sequence did not bother me as most other players did. Yes, the camera placement in this scene has been quite awkward and the whole thing seems misplaced. But, well… The fifth chapter has the notion that the developers run out of ideas and tend to integrate some crazy experiments into the gameplay. Since quite soon in this episode, there is no real news: the murderer is revealed and the end is just a matter of time, lurking around the corner. So they coded in some crazy, interesting, yet unimportant stuff into this episode to make it worthwhile. E.g. experiencing the reverse time effect at the Academy was quite intriguing.

Yet, the last few moments are a great example for how well the game was designed from a psychological, technical point of view: right in the nightmare scenes you are confronted with Chloe insulting you deeply and making fun of you (A), then shortly afterwards you recall all your good moments with her by walking by many of these nice moments with her on path in a dark dream-like world (B) and finally she confronts you with the epic question either to kill her and save Arcadia or keep her alive and let Arcadia Bay suffer (C), causing a heavy moral dilemma.

I did the later and watched the outcome of the other on YouTube. It didn’t touch me. I got totally disconnected at the moment Max blaming herself for killing William in order to get her “old” Chloe back.

I value story, immersion, and attachment higher than technical perfection. So, sadly, for me: 3/10. I know this is in stark contrast to the main line of reviews. Again: YMMV.

3/10 3 out of 10