I think this one was a very beautiful game. The drama and its characters are extremely well executed and acted, and I think what surprised me most was seeing the specifics of the medium used remarkably well at times to convey things beyond what could be done with the traditional storytelling. In one scene Max is just lying in bed and it becomes clear as it exits a cutscene that it’s one of those times where you can press a button to actually get moving, but Max is reluctant to move and I actually found myself reluctant to move her… it’s not something that can be easily described, but I thought it was particularly special.
But the execution of the time travel and the game’s themes of choice, and loss of control, and feelings of regret over trying to play God (awfully like the movie Project Almanac if you’ve ever seen it) don’t always appropriately deliver. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right in a game, but it’s one of those works of fiction that will tend to frame things in a limited fashion to make an argument that only sort of works on its own incredibly specific terms. You see a few false dichotomies, lacking the agency to take actions or make arguments that should be there, because the absence of choice is a contrivance that creates more dilemmas. Sometimes choices you might not want to make are made for you, which is ludically unfortunate, although it might make for the best story in the end. And narratively speaking, the limits on your rewind power–being unable to use it during a cutscene, or after leaving a room–can feel sometimes arbitrary. These things were often forgivable but just as often worked against what I feel were the story’s best interests as a work of interactive fiction.
Sometimes it’s a classic Inadequate Telltale Argument situation, not even related to the time travel: like when you’re trying to talk the religious girl down from suicide and eventually you’re lead to three options that all involve appealing to her religion, despite that Max doesn’t even share the religious views at all. To me that seemed like three incredibly fucking condescending choices when I just wanted to make an earnest appeal to a suicidal girl to just slow down, because the rest of her life was worth a few minutes of reasoning if nothing else.
But I think what bothered me most was when our favorite girl Chloe was doing target practice and hit herself with the fucking ricochet: your only choice is to rewind time and tell her to pick a new target, causing them to keep at it right up until the drug dealer enters the scene–unavoidable–and the situation gets worse. I badly wanted to give Chloe a smack in the head and to tell her that it was time to stop playing with guns, that it’s not fun anymore after something like that; to say if the ricochet had hit me instead of her, it all would have been over, because there’s no rewinding that.
Like a lot of fun time-travel films that don’t quite get their logic right, Life Is Strange messes up. Putting aside the other method of time travel that gets introduced later on, Steins;Gate style–in which case I have so many questions and assumptions to challenge that I don’t even know where to start–Max is supposed to be retaining her position in space when she rewinds, which means that when she gets up from her seat at 9 AM, walks out of the room and stands by her locker at 9:02 AM, and then rewinds the clock back two minutes… to any outside observer, for all intents and purposes, she teleported from her seat to her locker. But nobody notices that, and the game is inconsistent with how this works in cutscenes. But… apart from wanting to yell at the game sometimes, I have to admit that the errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story in the end. And I liked Project Almanac more than Primer anyway.
I found the time travel most thrilling when it allowed me to put something I learned to use in conversation thirty seconds before learning it, such as making people like me by saying the things they hadn’t said yet. And before Max’s klutziness got played out a few episodes in and they stopped doing it, it was nice wish-fulfillment to get to undo the occasional error. But I didn’t find myself rewinding much as a result of equivocating on major choices: unless Max said something I hadn’t intended for her to say from a dialogue option (thankfully not such a big problem in this game, for obvious reasons), I basically knew what I wanted the first time around. If there were ever more games based around this premise–and I’d be thrilled to have them–I think the most obvious place to really get more out of the rewind would be in the joys of optimization; speedrunning by virtue of rewinding until everything is done. Entering a building at exactly noon and having teased every bit of info out of every NPC and having all the nearby objects in your pocket before 12:01 PM. Put a clock in the UI and make it matter.
The last episode did drag a bit with the extended nightmare scenarios–I felt like it had all been done before–though the first conversation with the teacher pulls a Hatoful Boyfriend trick with your dialogue options that I was pretty delighted to see again.
Ultimately, and especially with the big (and evidently divisive) choice at the end, for me it was an Orpheus and Eurydice love story. There’s beauty and poignance in petulantly fighting for one person at the cost of everything, even if you have to use your fingernails to dig straight to hell, and even if it’s ultimately greedy or fundamentally self-centered and misguided, like the original Orpheus probably was. But if you already know all your uncomfortable priorities… if you really have your trolley problem shit figured out–like, would Lee drown a baby to save Clementine or whatever?–you can always live with the hard choices you’ve made.
I think the Dontnod team managed to match Telltale at their best on this one. (And there are no QTEs, which was even better.) In all seriousness I was hit pretty hard by this game, and I would have very likely given it a 5 if it had done better in just one area between its occasional weak choice options, the pacing of its final act, and the low level of mechanical ambition. It’s still, I think, a must-play title.