Life is strange is not a perfect game. It has many flaws. I won’t go into them, I’ll just mention that the actual gameplay is sometimes a slog and the ending is maybe a bit of a bit of a disappointment. Chloe is sometimes grating, the plot doesn’t always make a lot of sense. None of that matters though. In my head, the way I will always remember it, Life is Strange is a perfect game.
Life is Strange does one thing really well, and that is character. It might actually be the only thing it does really well, but it does that one thing so well, by sheer force of will it elevates this game from simply great, to an honest-to-god experience. I hate it whenever someone says “you have to read/watch/listen to/play this thing.” But guys, you HAVE to play this thing.
You play as 18 years old Max, returning to her home town Arcadia Bay after having been gone for five years. It’s mostly scripted, your role as a player is to walk Max from scene to scene, and sometimes choose what she says when she talks to people. There’s also some puzzles that you probably won’t remember (except for the bottles. Grr, the bottles!) and there’s a time travelling dimension element, but that turns out to be surprisingly inconsequential.
So characters. Pretty much every character is a well rounded, psychologically believable person. Sometimes its immediately apparent, at other times it sneaks up on you. You think you know someone and then they surprise you. The person who had for the longest time been a boring stereotype turns out to have a whole new layer to them. Several layers. The strength of these characters is enough to even power through the occasional clunky dialogue. You just accept that this is a world where teenagers unironically say things like “hella awesome” and “go fuck your selfie”.
And then there’s Max. By god there’s Max. Because you play as Max, you develop a special relationship with her. You see everything through her eyes. When you look at stuff, you hear her thoughts on them. Mostly, stupid throwaway comments, but they’re funny, even when they’re corny. Playing Max feels like playing as a person. More than that though, because you make Max’s choices, you are part in the creation of her as a character. Or maybe it happens organically. My Max is insecure, awkward, a little clumsy, loyal to a fault and fiercely mistrustful of authority. Some of that is the developers choices, some of that is my own projection, but it is projection that the game allows me to do, encourages me to do. When Max is faced with a choice, I’m not deciding what I would do, I’m deciding what Max would do. Would she steal money from the disabled fund to save her friend? (No.) Would she kiss her friend on a dare? (No.) Would she date the boy with a crush on her? (No.) With every choice, I have a stronger sense of her character. It’s role-playing in the table-top sense of the word. And it works. It works so well.
And then there’s Chloe. I think Chloe tries a little too hard, her laughs, her attitude, it’s all a little forced. I wouldn’t be friends with Chloe. But I’m not Max. Max adores Chloe, but their relationship is a little rocky, Max didn’t keep in touch when she went away, and it’s strained it, but watching them reconnect, playing them reconnect, is a pure joy. It’s such a rare thing in a game, to see a friendship – especially female friendship – take center stage like that. To see it handled so confidently, that was something I hadn’t seen done. The moments that I cried – and there were a couple – were to do with their friendship being tested the hardest. Max is awkward and weird, Chloe is pose-y and forced, but together, what they have, is beautiful.
There’s some other things I want to say. In many ways, it’s such a confident game. How often does a game allow you to just sit down, watch your surroundings, maybe strum some guitarr, and just contemplate. Life. Old memories. Latest events. And the music. My god the music. If this game had nothing else going for it, just the music would elevate it to something worth playing. The music just fits. Maybe the songs aren’t always the most awesome (though, mostly they are) but they just complement the scenes so well, elevating both.
What Life is Strange shows, reminds us, is that if you get character right, get it goddamn right, then you can get a lot of other things wrong and still make the perfect game. Go play it right now, and then come back and we’ll talk about all the choices we made and all the people we met.