PAX EAST 2015: Life is Strange Episode 2 Preview – Blurring Lines
My initial reaction to Square Enix and Dontnod’s Life is Strange upon its reveal was one of interest, but slight skepticism. Didn’t the title seem, I don’t know… a bit heavy handed? Thanks to an oddly declarative name, I’d now approach it with the expectation that its events would prove exceptionally “strange” in some way, possibly at all times. Months later, the game’s first episode has already been released. Its second is nearing completion. And its fifth, according to the developers present during Square Enix’s PAX East demo, is well underway and partially written. Protagonists Max and Chloe have proven that their backstories and odd run-ins with time manipulation are interesting, but can the same be said of their dialogue and campy teen drama? That’s what I was most curious to find out.
Life is Strange director Michel Koch told us right off the bat that its inspiration hadn’t simply materialized; the team is driven by a wide array of influence, and the game’s varied easter eggs reflect that in spades. Be it a subtle yet squarely-placed Twin Peaks reference almost immediately when Episode 2 begins, or the simple fact that a background TV newscaster is actually a particular fellow Dontnod employee, Max and Chloe’s world blurs the lines between game and reality not unlike the way its characters blur “worldlines” by manipulating and rewinding time itself. Its nice when theme pervades game elements other than story, and that’s exactly what Dontnod has done — that is, at least for this demo.
Of course, it’s Max who possesses the real time-shifting savvy, and though my Episode 2 demo was relatively spoiler-free, I did get a glimpse of some new and previously-unseen sequences. Cleverly, some of these are determined entirely by decisions from Episode 1; whether or not your choices led to a particularly messy run-in between Chloe and her stepdad in the first game, for example, will determine the content of a conversation between Max and Chloe’s mother, who works at a local diner. Another show-goer in my demo session asked about issues with scoping overly-complex webs of decisions, to which Dontnod assured us all that despite variability, the overall trajectory of the plot will remain the same. There will be no Mass Effect syndrome here, and I think we can all agree that Life is Strange is better off for it.
Much of the focus from gamers and press has been on Life is Strange’s decisions. How complex are they? How many are there? If distilled into a flowchart, would it be larger than that of game XYZ? As such, our demoers seemed almost relieved when I brought up the topic of aesthetic. Far and away, the bleary, surreal, yet charming mood created by Episode 2 in this demo was the most impressive thing about it. The more time-rewinding behaved in unexpected ways, the more apparent this became.
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One particular scene had Max guessing at the contents of Chloe’s pockets; the player was required to first guess incorrectly, fail, then rewind with newfound knowledge to succeed. Even so, it’s perfectly possible to not rewind, and let the game progress with a very skeptical Chloe as a central part of it. Because of Dontnod’s awareness of the aforementioned “Mass Effect effect,” it’s difficult to say just how much variability such a thing can produce. What we do know is that obscure choices can alter your experience drastically, (substantially more so than with Episode 1) and for what Life is Strange seemingly aims to do, I think this balance sounds just right.
Dontnod says it has learned from Episode 1 and will continue to adjust to fan feedback, but there are a few lingering components I remain skeptical about. One is the slang-heavy vocabulary of our teenaged protagonists, particularly Chloe. You see, I want to believe Square Enix’s demoer when he says that each and every line of the script is calculated and “intentional,” but I just can’t rationalize Chloe’s sudden outburst of “amazeballs!” upon witnessing Max’s powers as anything more than a slightly myopic interpretation of how kids these days (or, as suggested, “a few years ago”) actually speak. Were this a tale about nerds, gamers, or internet trolls, perhaps I’d buy “amazeballs.” But the edgy, weed-smoking, supposed “cool kid” teen rebel is a bit of a tougher sell.
It’s all of little consequence, though — if Episode 1 left me intrigued but slightly wanting, my time with Episode 2 proves that Dontnod is serious about the series, they’re responding to fan feedback, and most importantly, things are already improving at a very encouraging clip. Max in particular is earning her stripes as a reserved but thoroughly layered character, confirming that sometimes it’s what you don’t say that makes you particularly unique or interesting. Of course, it could also be what you say inside your head that spectating gamers are privy to.
It remains to be seen if Life is Strange will try its hand at what many time-bending tales often do; writing characters who experience a blurred line between what’s real and what has long since un-happened. Regardless of whether Life is Strange goes full Steins;Gate on us or not, I’m now thoroughly convinced that its endearing surrealism, myriad secrets, and hint of brooding mystery are all thing I want to continue spending time with. And for an episodic game, that’s really all that matters.