It’s an odd thing, to be 17. That time in your life when everyone above 35 tells you you’re going through your best days, but at the same time all you feel is an intense desire for it to end so you can get on with you adult life. It’s one of those cruel tricks life plays on us all, and no amount of Nirvana music or Marvel films can numb the deep-rooted anxieties that plague us all at that age. So, that’s the setting we find ourselves in in August of 2015. I, a fresh-faced-but-for-the-acne 6th form student am living ‘the prime years of my youth’ and hating every second of it. I arrive home from another day of Exam Stress and Social Anxiety, and sit down at my desk to see a new game flooding my YouTube inbox: ‘Life is Strange’.
Hearing it’s a really great story-focused game, I quickly spent the money I had set aside for that week’s driving lesson to get my hands on a Steam code for the game. This was perhaps the best poorly-informed purchase I ever made.
From the moment you first launch the game and take in that serene, warming musical score, you know you didn’t just start any old video game. You’ve played story-focused games in the past, but this clearly isn’t Fallout, Heavy Rain, or even a Telltale title. This is something else entirely. This is something wonderfully unique.
If you haven’t ever played the game, take a moment to drink it in here. If you have, why not give it a click anyway? I’m sure the article makes a lot more sense with the drumming of a guitar and the blow of the wind wrapping their way into your ears.
So what exactly is it that makes ‘Life is Strange’ so special? Well, at it’s core, ‘Life is Strange’ isn’t a game. Not really, we’re not trying to score points. We aren’t levelling up our character, or exploring a vast land, and we certainly aren’t trying to ‘win’. No. ‘Life is Strange’ is the the best teen independent movie you’ll ever see, made interactive. You wouldn’t bat your eyes if you came across a character played by Paul Rudd, or a Montage scene was set to ‘Come as you are’. And, as with most stories, the very core of ‘Life is Strange’ is the cast of nuanced and human characters.
Enter, Maxine Caulfield. An 18-year-old student photographer, and our player character. In your late teens, most people have a little bit of Max in them, especially the more artistically inclined among us. Her charmingly quiet passion for her hobby, her innocent and curious demeanour, and even her awkward optimism form a character who is quintessentially teenage without ever falling into cliche. A perfect vessel for the story we’re about to be told.
Through the character of Max, I was immediately invested in the story. She’s no empty vessel, she has personality and a definitive character. And yet, her character doesn’t override the player’s. Instead, it focuses it. We aren’t dealing with a Geralt or an Ezio, not even a Commander Shepherd or a Lee Everett.
No, Max does something the vast majority of games protagonists fail at completely: she acts as a metaphorical focus. Her complete and individual personality- delivered through everything from heartfelt dialogue to idle thoughts, seeks only to bring the player into that 18-year-old frame of mind. And even though I was about that age myself, it still had a profound and enlightening effect on the way I thought about the game’s story. Where max was a photographer, I was a writer. Where max would whip out her Polaroid camera at every opportunity, so too would I sit at the back of History lessons powering my way through hundreds, even thousands of words of a new story. Even though our mediums weren’t shared, I still felt like Max and I were cut from the same cloth. I understood her, in a way I wished people understood me.
The same goes for every member of the supporting cast. Personally, I found a much of myself in Warren Graham- his energy, while stammering and unconfident, nonetheless reminded me of the person I wanted to be; dynamic, charmingly awkward, and lovable. We even shared a Birthday and a penchant for stupid T-Shirts.
But to many, the true heart of ‘Life is Strange’ is Chloe Price. I won’t go on, too many writers have gone on far too long about her already. Instead, let me just say that we’ve all had a Chloe- a friend who is fundamentally different from ourselves, yet undoubtedly a core part of our lives, our world, even our soul. If such a thing exists. With Chloe, the story becomes tied not only to the struggles of our lives, but the ways in which those few meaningful people in it keep us company along the way. My Chloe was a lovable, if dim-witted guy who liked video games and struggled with his chemistry exams. Hardly anything like the character of Chloe, but still the same thing in my life. We all have a Chloe, somewhere.
It’s difficult to put to words what these characters did to re-frame my view of the world, simply because it was so profound and fundamentally altering of my worldview. At a time where we all learn to shut out the world, and wallow within ourselves- our naive, anxious, critically flawed selves- the humanity of Max and her friends let me see, for the first time, what it is to be a teenager, free of the shrouding and confusing context of my own life. The true convoluted beauty of youth was there, laid bare before me. I saw, for the first time, how wonderfully peaceful life truly was, if you’d let it be. Even with the heavy topics some parts of the story cover, the game overall never loses the charm and innocence we associate with youth.
We teenagers think we’re no longer ‘innocent’ at 17; we know all about what happens when you and your preferred sex take off all your clothes in a darkened room, we know all the existence of war and death, we think that because we have ‘adult’ knowledge, we are adults. But we aren’t. We, like every human who ever touches our lives, are inherently unknowing. We make mistakes, we act irrationally. We’re human, after all.
The world of Life is Strange is, much like its characters, unique and distinct, yet still familiar without being cliche. Where Max and Chloe hung around in a Junkyard, my most profound memories take place on a swingset in the park behind my student flat. I’ve never been to a pool party, but I have been to places where I feel starkly assaulted by the presence of others, where I feel a distinct outsider. Every location has an air of relatability, even if it’s entirely alien in and of itself.
Critics of the game like to point at the strange, inauthentic dialogue. The overuse of the word ‘Hella’ by some of the characters drags on certain players. For many, it’s all too obvious that the game is what a group of French Adults assume being an American Teenager is like- and hell, I was only an English teenage, I’m no expert either. But to me, that’s a part of the charm. Teenagers don’t talk like they do in the game, no. But they- we- do talk in what really is a stupid manner.
We may not like to ‘smoke hella OG dank bud’, but we do all enjoy a nice zesty meme, and god forbid we remember what it was like to be between 12 at 20 in the year 2012, when every decision was justified with a ‘YOLO’ of varied levels of sarcasm. It all just goes to highlight how wonderfully crazy it is to be a teenager. The stupid, confusing, wonderful awkwardness of being a teenager.
At it’s core, what makes Life is Strange so fundamentally charming is just how earnest and honest the story is. We aren’t trying to be a hero. We aren’t on some grand quest. We’re just a human, trying their best at life. And while some of the situations we see in-game are extreme, ones 99% of us will never even remotely experience, at the centre of is all is an honest, human heart. It’s almost poetic, even musical.
That’s even more apt given the game’s soundtrack- a warm mixture of original tracks by Syd Matters and pre-existing tracks come together to form something that wouldn’t sound out of place in the spotify of any teenager. Featuring the likes of Foals and Alt-J, the music of ‘Life is Strange’ slots perfectly into the sometimes indie, sometimes rocky, ever-melancholy library of your average ‘Blink-182’ loving, ‘The Strokes’-worshipping 17-year-old.
‘Life is strange’ isn’t just a game, it’s proof that games are high art. And as a piece of art, it has affected my lookout on life more than any song, poem, film, or painting ever has, and probably ever will, because it taught me something. Fundamentally, the real world isn’t a logical place. There’s little room for simplicity, sense, or reason. Things will happen, and you will be confused and lost. There will be horrific battles with demons specific to every unique and unknowable journey that every Man, Woman, and Child will ever walk through this great mystery we call ‘Planet Earth’.
Ultimately though, we all have to embrace the fact that life is free in beautiful through all of that, past every broken friendship, battle with mental health, or, anxiety about the future. Your soul can and will be free, but only once you realise that, deep down, life is strange.
The second season of ‘Life is Strange’, entitled ‘Life is Strange: Before the Storm’ releases on August 31st, and will be available through Steam, PS4, and Xbox One.