Join us for a discussion of the first episode of Life is Strange, the latest from Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix. It’s the TellTale Games formula with a dash of Gone Home, a pinch of Twin Peaks and a hint Alan Wake; how can time travel shake things up?
This episode of Push to Smart contains spoilers for Life is Strange
JAYLEE: Hello and welcome back to the Push to Smart water cooler, this week we’re going to be looking at the latest from DONTNOD Entertainment. It’s an episodic adventure game in the same vein as the Telltale games and it is called Life is Strange. So, Stacey, what is Life is Strange about?
STACEY: Life is Strange is about a girl that has transferred to a special- it seems like an art school-
STACEY: Back in her hometown from living in Seattle, and as soon as she gets here its clear that something strange is going on ‘cause she’s discovered she has the ability to rewind time. There’s a kind of Laura Palmer-esque disappearance happening in the background, she’s reunited with her best friend who has this abusive stepfather.
STACEY: There’s corruption going on at school. Lots of mysteries.
JAYLEE: Intrigue abounds!
STACEY: Lots of intrigue, also time travel because video games.
JAYLEE: Yeah. So I actually didn’t know much about the game going into it, all I knew was that it was from the same people who did Remember Me, it was episodic, and it was female protagonist and I was sold. So when I started it I was kind of like… what did I get myself into?
JAYLEE: I’m going to say some things that are probably going to sound very harsh but…
JAYLEE: Bear with me. (Laughs) Because in the end there’s an upswing to this…
JAYLEE: But I ended up laughing a lot at it and not with it, I felt like.
JAYLEE: Just from the dialogue.
JAYLEE: Because the dialogue made me cringe a lot. There’s a lot of “hella,” and…
STACEY: “Sadface!” (Laughs)
JAYLEE: Yeah. Word combinations that I’ve ever once heard strung together.
STACEY: Yeah. There’s a feeling of it having an artificiality to it like what you see in Joss Whedon films where people talk in this very particular cadence that no one on earth has ever spoken in. There was also part of me that was like “I have been out of high school for a while. Are these popular phrases now?”
JAYLEE: That’s what I was thinking, too!
STACEY: Do people say sadface?
JAYLEE: No, it is the children that are wrong! (Laughs)
JAYLEE: I felt the same way too, I was like “Actually, I’m not a high school student anymore. I haven’t been for quite a while. Who am I to say that?”
STACEY: Yeah! We didn’t have smartphones in high school.
STACEY: I think it sets its tone fairly early that its kind of Twin Peaks-y and one that happened I could deal with the idiosyncratic dialogue, the fact that Victoria is the most unrealistic bully in the history of TV bullies, things like that. I dunno, it didn’t bother me.
JAYLEE: But the other time that I laughed out loud was when you’re talking to your teacher and he gives you that John Lennon quote.
STACEY: (Laughs) That one did make me laugh.
JAYLEE: And then you’re like “As John Lennon once said…” “You’re on fire today!”
JAYLEE: There were just some things where I was like, “Really?” But as I said, I did end up liking it so these are just a couple of nitpicks here and there. But it did add a really cool dimension because, with Telltale being so successful with their choice-based narrative adventure games, in this game, because you have time travel and the ability to rewind time you get to actually see the outcome of your choices before you make a final choice.
STACEY: It’s a very different dynamic.
STACEY: To a degree. Because it’s very much, like The Walking Dead especially, what really drives you forward is this feeling of “Oh my god, did I make the right choice? No. Oh my god I have to live with it.” Whereas this one you see the different outcomes and there’s still a sense of doubt. She’ll voice something like “Oh, well maybe I should rewind time and do this instead,” and if you do the other one it’s like “Well I’m glad I did this now but this could come back to bite me, maybe I should rewind time and go do this.”
JAYLEE: There are only two options, we can only rewind so much!
STACEY: Yes, there is this sense that this could come back but you no longer had the tension of the timed conversations and anything you did you could go back and kind of fix it.
STACEY: Which, some of the ways they implemented that seemed kind of interesting but I don’t know how much detail we want to go into now but for example with the pregnancy test.
STACEY: I’m looking at your choices right now and you did not touch Dana’s pregnancy test. Did you not get any dialogue about her pregnancy, then?
JAYLEE: I did touch Dana’s pregnancy test, but then I rewound.
STACEY: That’s what I did. I was wondering if that’s what that meant. Okay. Because that was another thing it felt kind of– that also made me wonder if that’s going to come back because it felt kind of morally…
STACEY: Right. That you could kind of enter this personal space where they didn’t really want you, rewind time, then use that knowledge to come in and kind of get on their good side.
STACEY: Even though in that case I think its ultimately to service this girl and to help her out, it still felt a little bit duplicitous maybe in the way you were approaching it.
STACEY: So I’m kind of interested to see if that comes back.
JAYLEE: Well, with Walking Dead a lot of times, well not a lot of times, but during those really dramatic moments you’ll have instant consequences and in this one its a lot more ominous.
JAYLEE: A lot of times I would do something and then she’d mention her scholarship being revoked, or it impacting her school life or something. And I was like, “Shit.”
JAYLEE: I like where it’s going.
STACEY: Right, I think we have to wait and see to see how all these things payoff because we don’t have those immediate payoffs and we don’t have–like towards the end of Walking Dead we knew when things were going to happen. So, like, if there was a chance for a character to die we were like “Okay, he’s going to die next episode” we don’t necessarily have that trajectory down, we don’t have that pattern down yet so it’ll be interesting to see if it does develop these patterns and we’re able to call things or if its able to kind of keep us guessing.
STACEY: Yeah, I really like where it’s going right now. It reminds me a lot of Twin Peaks, and I liked the fact too that it had a lot of nods to things like Twin Peaks, Stephen King novels, things like that just kind of in the background that really kind of clue you in as your playing like “Okay, this is what I should be looking out for. This is the trajectory of this game.” Things like that.
STACEY: The first part also reminded me a lot of Alan Wake.
JAYLEE: I haven’t played that game.
STACEY: It’s not very good.
STACEY: Umm, it’s okay. I mean I got it and Deadly Premonition at the same time and so it was no contest. (Laughs)
STACEY: But Alan Wake was a game with a lot of good ideas that didn’t quite deliver. One of the things that it really drives home it has this protagonist who’s a novelist and there are a lot of callouts to Stephen King directly and it’s very much trying to create this parallel.
STACEY: And I think this was a little more graceful in the way it did it as far as having the dorm room that’s the same room as The Shining with the REDRUM written on the door and this kind of offhanded joke about it rather than her just espousing how Stephen King is her mentor.
JAYLEE & STACEY: (Laughs)
STACEY: But a lot of people have been talking about how this is an authentic high school experience, did you feel that?
JAYLEE: I dunno. I’m not entirely sure what would make a high school experience authentic because high school is so different for everyone.
JAYLEE: Like, I think back to my high school experience and that would be such a boring video game. (Laughs)
STACEY: Yeah, mine too! (Laughs)
JAYLEE: But I guess, I mean like how you kind of know of people instead of know everyone.
STACEY: That’s a really good point because this game has a lot of characters.
JAYLEE Yeah, a lot of characters.
STACEY: And not all of them are going to be central to the murder but they all kind of populate this world and set the tone in a way that is really nice.
JAYLEE: It reminds me a lot of some Gone Home moments, and when you’re in Chloe’s garage it reminds me a lot of Heavy Rain. Like when you’re “Oh god, I have to make sure everything is back in place so nobody realizes I was here,” which I really liked.
JAYLEE: That was one of my favorite things about Heavy Rain was cleaning up after myself.
JAYLEE: I know that sounds silly but..
STACEY: But how many games do you do that in?
STACEY: In Zelda you just break pots and leave.
JAYLEE: (Laughs) Yeah.
JAYLEE: And now I’m looking at the minor choices.
STACEY: Which I didn’t even notice was in the game until you sent me the screenshot of your minor choices. (Laughs)
JAYLEE: There’s so much that I didn’t even know was a part of the game. It’s a much larger game than I originally thought it was. It’s weird knowing the different choices ahead of time before you make that final choice.
JAYLEE: Other than the choice with Victoria, I never made fun of her, because I was like “why would she?”
JAYLEE: Like reporting Nathan versus hiding the truth, it felt like there was no good choice.
STACEY: Right. Especially in high school, which again maybe this is because, as we discussed, I would be an incredibly boring game to play as a high schooler, I would have reported Nathan because I was a goodie two-shoes. So that was just natural for me, I was like “Oh yeah, I’m going to report him” and it was like “You should have hid the truth, there’s a bigger conspiracy. But it’s high school! (Laughs)
JAYLEE: I reported it too, and I was just like “If somebody had a gun in the frickin’ school… Obviously” (Laughs)
STACEY: We apparently do not make good game protagonists. (Laughs)
JAYLEE: But then there were choices like when step-douche was harassing Kate. Do you intervene, or do you take a photo?
STACEY: Oh yeah, that’s a hard one because I first took a photo and it sounded like she was filled with such regret I rewound but I feel like the photo would have been more useful later.
JAYLEE: Exactly. That’s what I think, too.
STACEY: But again, we have to go back to the idea that its high school. I’m coming to this as an adult where I’m like “of course you tell the principal, of course you take the photo evidence” which maybe I need to get more into the character of Max and think of what she would be thinking in this scenario because I’m not quite there yet like I was with Clementine.
JAYLEE: But Max seems kind of like a good… I dunno.
STACEY: They do a pretty good job of leaving her as a blank slate because she’s new.
STACEY: So it’s like nobody really knows her or has expectations for her except for Chloe and even then there’s been like a five year gap.
STACEY: That was one thing though, when you were commenting about knowing the outcomes… That was something that Alan Wake did. Because as you were exploring you were finding pieces of a novel he had written.
STACEY: So it acted as a way to kind of create suspense because you’d be running through the forest and you’d find a piece of paper that had written on it “I was running through the forest and then I hear the chainsaw…”
STACEY: And then you’d be like “oh, god” then you’re waiting for a guy with a chainsaw. And so I think that’s a really interesting way of creating suspense in a genre that, like we’ve said, does not have suspense and perhaps this is bridging that gap as well as kind of “okay we’re just going to show you all the cards, but is it the right one?”
JAYLEE: Yeah, but I think the part where we were the most split was maybe when you were back at Chloe’s house. Did you stay hidden or did you come out of hiding?
STACEY: I couldn’t find a place to hide. (Laughs)
JAYLEE: Oh, no! So was it timed?
STACEY: I guess so because I saw that choice at the end like “so I guess you can hide?” because first I tried the closet and it fell out on me then I went to the window and she was like “this is pointless” and then he burst in. So it must have been timed, and I never hid. So where did you end up hiding?
JAYLEE: If you rewind time you can move the lamp out of the way and then hide in the closet.
STACEY: Ah! I didn’t get it.
JAYLEE: It’s that rewind mechanic.
STACEY: That rewind power. I forgot it.
JAYLEE: So what was that like for you?
STACEY: He just bursts in and he accuses Chloe of listening to her loud punk music and smoking pot and Chloe goes “It’s not mine, it’s Max’s.”
JAYLEE: She blames you?
STACEY: Yeah. And then you have to either say “Yes it’s mine” or “No it’s Chloes.”
STACEY: I said “Yes it’s mine” and then he yells at you and leaves then Max has a comment that she’s really excited to help out Chloe against this guy but she’s worried how that will affect her scholarship, and maybe she shouldn’t lie anymore.
STACEY: So there’s a little bit of regret but she’s happy in this moment. Which, to me felt like a good decision for Max in that situation.
STACEY: Like, a kid would make that decision. “I’d stand by my friend.”
JAYLEE: Yeah, I kind of regret my decision to be honest. But first I came out of hiding to intervene and I was like “Yeah it was my pot, whatever,” and he was all like “Grrr” and he grumbled away and Chloe’s like “That was badass, you’re awesome” and I was like “Yeah, I am!”
JAYLEE: And then she was like “But my scholarship?” and I was like “Noooooo.”(Laughs) But then I rewound and I stayed hidden, and he ends up slapping Chloe.
JAYLEE: Yeah, it gets kind of intense, obviously.
JAYLEE: And then when you come out she’s like (sarcastically) “Thanks for backing me up.” and I was like “Oh, no, but at least my scholarship… Oh I’m a bad person for doing this.”
STACEY: Yeah. It seems like that for a lot of the choices. You had a similar choice a little bit earlier between that character and Kate where its either you take a photo of him, which I saw as incriminating evidence or you intervene and if you take a photo Kate just goes “Thanks for nothing” and leaves. Which I wanted to be like “I took a photo, we can take this to the police!”
JAYLEE: “Look at this polaroid!”
STACEY: Yeah. (Laughs)
JAYLEE: You know, the majority of why I stuck with staying hidden was because I was like “Oh, I’m a witness to him slapping her.”
STACEY: Oh, yeah.
JAYLEE: And now I can say blah blah blah. That’s tough.
STACEY: That also kind of affects the roleplay, too if you’re going to play this teenager I think there is… Like it’s easy for us as adults who are not in this situation who are playing it in a video game to be like “Yes, I’m going to be a witness, I’m going to take the incriminating photograph, I’m going to tell the principal and I’m going to comfort Victoria, because I’m the bigger person.” I mean, maybe for a teenager when you feel like you’re in that moment, yeah you’re going to stick up for your friend.
STACEY: They do track minor choices, too, they make that distinction between minor and major. And some of them are seemingly as minor as “water your plant.”
JAYLEE: Which I of course did because I’m not a monster.
STACEY: I did, too. I’m excited about those because they seem more like the character decisions that I loved in The Walking Dead in defining Clementine. Like, yes, Max is the person who waters her plant, she’s going to be the kind of person who erases the insults off of Kate’s dry erase board on her door, things like that. But we’ll see if they actually pay off in more dramatic ways as well.
STACEY: I’m excited, I think it has a lot of potential.
JAYLEE: I think it has a lot of potential too, even though my initial reaction was semi-cringe… Now I’m kind of semi-hopeful.
STACEY: (Laughs) Good, I guess?
JAYLEE: I mean, now I’m hopeful.
STACEY: I think they should put that on the box.
JAYLEE & STACEY: (Laughs)
JAYLEE: “From semi-cringe to semi-hopeful” – Push to Smart.
JAYLEE: So that does it for our first water cooler discussion on Life is Strange we’d love to hear your thoughts on episode 1 in the comments section and are also curious if you could add a time-rewinding mechanic to any video game, which would it be? Next week we’ll be discussing our progress thus far on Spec Ops, our Games Club entry for the month so don’t forget to subscribe to catch that and keep up to date on all our latest releases.
MAX: I think John Lennon once said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
MR. JEFFERSON: Max, you’re on fire today. All the right answers. Good.