Thursday, March 2, 2017

Game Talk #14: Life Is Strange

This is a special game, at least for me.

When I first found Life is Strange in early 2015, I was immediately intrigued by the concept. I mean, right away, it stood out of the crowd. I'm not even entirely sure now how I came across it, only that when I began to see screenshots and finally the trailer, I knew that it was something vastly different from what I was used to playing.

I was also kind of in a slump with video games.

Maybe that sounds stupid to some people, but video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I played Super Mario World with my cousins and Mortal Kombat with some friends way, way back in the day. I remember absolutely flipping my shit when I finally got a Nintendo 64 and some games. I logged close to 50 hours on my Perfect Dark Combat Simulator file. And once I got that N64, video games never really left my life.

But around the second half of 2014, I had just kind of begun falling out of playing games, and I didn't want to do so at all. It was not a conscious decision, it was just a thing that was happening and I seemed to have no control over it. I knew some of it was simply because I was having to devote more and more time to writing, but I wasn't even interested in new games coming out. Everything was beginning to seem bleak and pale.

But when I saw Life is Strange, I knew I had to try it. And I did. And it basically resurrected my interest in gaming again.

Now, with all that aside, let's actually talk about the game.

In Life is Strange, you play Max Caulfield, an eighteen year old high school student who has, after moving away five years ago, been accepted in a special academy back in her home town. One day, not long into her year there, Max abruptly learns that she has the ability to rewind time back in small increments and must use this ability to save lives, navigate awkward social situations and discover the truth behind a missing student, all while reconnecting with her former best friend Chloe, who is thrust abruptly back into her life.

Yes, this game is more about the story than the gameplay. Mechanically speaking, you walk around the environment and interact with items and people and rewind time. But, in my mind at least, I like to think that a game isn't as good as its controls are complex. Same for the story. Games are about...well, a lot of different things, but I guess mainly they're about experience. It doesn't really matter that Life is Strange isn't mechanically as complicated as a First Person Shooter or a Real Time Strategy. Does this make sense?

My main point is people need to stop whining just because there are popular games out there that aren't Call of Duty or insert other popular game here.

And then there was the other problem. I'm going to have to take a moment here and talk about something that's a bit of a problem.

This is Max. She is the protagonist of Life is Strange.

Apparently, when Dontnod Entertainment was trying to shop the game around to various developers, several of them said they would love to publish...provided they changed the protagonist's gender. So...there's a lot of things people throw out there when it comes to female video game protagonists. Like, holy God, there's just so many vicious, mouth-frothing, incoherent rants out there and honestly, it's too much to go into.

But here's a few things I do want to say on the subject.

The first is that the ratio of female to male video game protagonists is vastly, vastly out of proportion. It's getting better...I think. But not by much.

I always hear the cry that video game companies are pandering whenever they have a female lead. Whether or not they actually were, um...who fucking cares? That's what companies do: they pander to their audience. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Also, I notice no one bitches whenever First Person Shooters pander with male power fantasies.

Like I said, there's a ton more on the subject, but here's something that's always kind of bugged me and it'll be the last thing I have to say on the subject. For now. Sometimes, I hear this response in regards to the protagonist's gender: 'Well, I don't really care what the protagonist's gender is so long as it's a well-written protagonist.'

Now, here's the thing: On the surface, this makes sense. And in a perfect world where there didn't exist things like bias and sexism and misogyny, um...yeah, the protagonist's gender actually wouldn't matter. And in a world where racism didn't exist, the protagonist's race wouldn't matter either. Here's the crucial flaw in that argument: this isn't that perfect world, it's nowhere near it, and to pretend otherwise is to basically continue ignoring all of these problems.

The big issue with this mentality is that when it 'doesn't matter' what the gender of the protagonist is, gaming companies always default to male.

Honestly, we'd literally be better off if all game companies rolled dice to see what gender their protagonist would be.

Okay, anyway, about the game.

It came out in episodes and they were released between a month and a half and two months apart. So everyone who hasn't played it yet and is planning on it, consider yourselves lucky. You don't have to wait through the excruciatingly long weeks to know what the hell happens next. There's five episodes in all.

Probably the thing that really cemented the idea that this game was really, really good was that about halfway through playing the first episode, I had already felt things. Being back in a high school setting made me feel uncomfortable, because I hated high school, but that one was easy. After I ran into my best friend who I had unceremoniously cut off contact from five years ago and she began reasonably giving me grief for it, I felt like shit, I felt guilty. When we went back to her house, where I had spent years hanging out at as I grew up and explored all the old memories, I felt painfully nostalgic for things I had never personally experienced.

Another thing that jumped out at me was that the creators of the game seemed to be trying hard to give a fairly accurate representation of the world. By this I mean the people in it. There were a lot of different kinds of people and the majority of them weren't overtly attractive. Which is pretty damned rare in gaming.

As for what you do, for a game that is supposed to overly simple according to a lot of people, there's actually a lot to do. You can talk with people, take pictures, interact with the environment, try to figure out puzzles, make decisions about whether or not you want to be a jerk or take the high road, play detective. And this is one of those games where your decisions have consequences. Like, serious, severe consequences that, if you fuck up, you'll probably be compelled to start the whole thing over again because things can go so, so wrong in this game.

And this game gets dark. Like, man, I wasn't really prepared for how messed up it gets and how hard some the decisions you have to make are.

So how about some complaints? Well, there aren't many. One common complaint was the dialogue, which was an attempt on the creator's part to mimic teenagers of today. Yeah, sometimes it was cringe-worthy, but whatever, the game is way too good for this to be a serious problem. The other thing that really, really bugged me was the ending. There was one crucial thing that was never explained, all. And I was seriously disappointed by that. But I did not regret playing the game.

As an extra little bonus, I have to say that this game has inspired some really cool creations. Here's some that I found.
  • Koethe Koethe, a guy who makes Life is Strange inspired music, and he does a great job.
  • What If?, a webcomic fan sequel to Life is Strange. DON'T read if you haven't beat the game.
  • Love is Strange, a text based game that provides an alternate take on the game.

I'll wrap this up by saying that again, this isn't really a review, this is just me blathering on. This game is fantastic and you can get a fair sampling of it by buying the first episode for five bucks. I also think this game is important in the culture of gaming and the culture of creativity, honestly. Go check it out!

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