To be frank, my first impression of Life is Strange was one of shock and distaste. I am the first to get excited about episodic, choose your own adventure games, but I was not prepared for the dark and disturbed world of Arcadia Bay. And yet, impressive game design, complex characters, and strong story structure make this game impossible to ignore or dislike.
In the game you play as Chloe Price, a troubled teen who feels haunted by her father’s death and frustrated with her mother’s misogynist, militaristic new boyfriend. Once a high performing student, she has coped with her troubles at home by indulging in drugs and alcohol and constantly questioning authority at school, earning her a reputation as a disrespectful troublemaker. Personally, I did not initially feel similar or connected to Chloe in any way—we have utterly different personalities, priorities, and attitudes toward life. I was also a pretty straight-laced kid when I was Chloe’s age, so I could not help but feel some cognitive dissonance when I helped her sneak into adult concerts, ditch school (and get expelled for doing so), and run away from home. Most of all, there are key moments when Chloe needs something from someone, and the only way to obtain it is to “backtalk” that person into giving it to her. In these verbal battles, you must listen to what the other character says and twist it into a smart-aleck retort in order to intimidate them into submission. Again, not the approach I would have used in real life. However, in under half an hour my attitude toward this game had changed completely, and here are the reasons why.
First of all, I realized that Chloe is not simply a one-dimensional angsty adolescent who acts out for no reason. She is a real (or at least realistic) girl who has had to deal with more than her share of tragedy. This became apparent to me during one of Chloe’s dream sequences, when she has an imaginary conversation with her dead father. I have never had to deal with the tremendous loss and hardship that comes this losing a close parent, so who am I to judge this character as moody or delinquent? She is going through a tragedy that I could never even imagine, and it is not my place to judge. This of course does not mean that I now advocate drugs or stealing or vandalism, but I do believe that players need to get past these things in order to really make a fair judgement on the game itself. Once I was able to do so, I found that Chloe is really a good person—she is funny, loyal, and a great friend to Rachel Amber, the girl she ditches school with. And moreover, sometimes Chloe’s verbal skills can be quite useful, such as when Chloe and Rachel catch the latter’s dad kissing a strange woman and Chloe calls him out for cheating on his wife. Last but not least, the most compelling reason why I warmed up to this game was that it was precisely that: a game, nothing more. Life is Strange is not real, and as a result, the choices you make have no actual consequences. Once you embrace this idea, skipping a day of school is no longer the end of the world, and the game allows you to live a slice of life that you would never experience in reality. This strangely liberating experience achieves what all video games try to do: take you out of the real world and immerse you in a more interesting virtual one.
There are many other reasons why Life is Strange is strangely good: the visuals and animations are nothing short of stellar, and the plot is full of unexpected twists and drama. Furthermore, you do more than simply choosing what Chloe says: you also walk around and interact with the map to perform actions, searching for objects and using them to complete objectives. But most of all, I still think the main appeal of this game lies in the character development. As I said before, it quickly becomes impossible to write off Chloe Price as a dead-beat, good-for-nothing juvenile delinquent. You become involved in her story, and you start really empathizing with her and caring about what happens to her. The mere fact that Life is Strange convinced me, a rule follower who could not even forge a parent’s signature in middle school, to keep coming back is a testament to its quality as a game.