What Made the Original ‘Life Is Strange’ So Special?
Ready for the mosh pit, shaka brah.
When I was in high school, I wasn’t as into video games as I am now. I had a couple franchises I played here and there, like Dragon Age, but mostly I stuck to my niche and didn’t explore outside of it. However, a good friend of mine was really into games, and one year he got me curious enough to check out some trailers released at one of the award shows.
That’s where I first met Life is Strange, with this one teaser:
My interest was immediately piqued. At a time when GamerGate was still pretty fresh and conversations surrounding positive femme perspectives weren’t as prominent, I was stunned to see a game that appealed to my tastes even just a little bit. The music was actually good, the character designs were artistic and intriguing (not ridiculously boob’d and stupid), and the sense of mystery behind these characters was palpable. I had to know more.
What ended up happening was something transcendental. If Patti Smith’s Just Kids was one of the most formative books of my young life, then Life is Strange was such a video game for me. It was the first instance where I’d truly felt connected to a piece of media and cast of characters, and even now, as I replay the games, I find myself relaxing and letting my guard down.
But what was it about this original little game—one that saved its parent company, Dontnod, from financial ruin—that made it special? And why have the following titles, fantastic as they are, failed to replicate that Certain Something that made it so special? I have a few thoughts.
There’s a real beauty and nuance to the experiences girls and young women have, yet a lot of this is lost to us in favor of “Hollywood teen shit.” Why is this? Because sex sells, some older men are still convinced that teenage girls are hot, and we still live in an era that would rather belittle and make fun of women than just leave them the hell alone.
Girlhood is a special thing. It’s summers spent sitting in your BFF’s bedroom and just screwing around, talking bullshit, wearing raggy clothes. It’s eating pancakes and kicking your feet and drawing pictures. It’s painting nails and crushing over movie stars and staying up late eating Dibs. It’s a sacred part of growing up, untouched and unmolested by the outside world, that Life is Strange captures perfectly.
The game centers on the relationship between two teens, Chloe and Max, that at its core is the sort of unbreakable bond that can’t be perverted by outside forces. Even after all the hell that Chloe has lived through, she’s still able to let her guard down and be her silly self around Max because that’s the real dream of girlhood: finding solace and safety in a relationship with another girl. In a way, the writers of the game were bold to make this such a focal point, because according to Hollywood, in order to make this sort of story work, you’d need to add more sex to it, give Max more curves, make Chloe sluttier, make them rivals—all this gross shit that we see so often.
No. Fuck that. Life is Strange is what it is, with two girls who aren’t defined by gendered expectations, and people love it so much because of that. Max and Chloe were the first girls in fiction I ever felt such a strong connection with; I saw myself in them so intensely, I’d sometimes have to sit back and cry upon first playing the game. It was a relief to finally feel so seen. And I’m definitely only one of millions who felt the same way.
There was a real sense of “what the hell!!” as each episode concluded. You really had to be there to feel that sense of suspense. Maybe now, looking back, some of the secrets are obvious in hindsight, but everyone truly had their tin-foil hats on.
Off the top of my head, I can still remember some common theories and suspicions. Was Rachel Amber still alive? Was she working with the killer? Was she the killer, or was she the storm itself? Or, wait, maybe Max was Rachel, from another timeline? Which would make the killer … who? Samuel? David?
Real ones remember the Geek Remix days, with these theory videos in particular:
OK, yes, the dialogue could have been better (“Let’s talk bidness. WRONG, you’ve got hella cash!!”), but the writing and narrative structure of the game itself was fantastic. Most people couldn’t see the big twist coming—myself included! And I still kick myself for it, because I suspected the real killer earlier in the game, yet I went against my gut instinct and instead went after the red herring.
Now, where the writing ended up failing was in refusing to deliver some much-needed answers. We had so many questions about Max’s time travel powers, and none of them—absolutely none—went answered. We got some cool new additions to her powers, sure, but we never found out where they came from. Other questions went unanswered, too, like whether or not Rachel had powers, or what happened in other timelines.
And I think this soured some of the appeal for later entries, because the mystery would never be a solvable thing: it became an undefined gimmick that we’d just have to unquestionably put our faith in for the remainder of series. Daniel Diaz will just continue to grow up with kinetic powers, and Alex Chen will just continue to read minds. I guess.
Speaking of the other games…
I do want to stick my neck out for them, because some rabid fans get a little overly negative (as rabid fans from any franchise do), and I think their takes often lack critical thought. Life is Strange 2 is definitely a clunky take on incredibly frightening real-world issues, yet it has its own spirit and heart, and I think Sean Diaz in particular was a phenomenally written protagonist. And Life is Strange: True Colors will always automatically have a piece of my heart for having a PC who’s a curvy Asian guitarist (we out here), yet even aside from that, its more mature tone does much to set it apart from the other entries.
All the same, there has always been that “Original Life is Strange Curse” hanging over them, with several easter eggs from the original game placed throughout, yet nothing about their own titles crossing over in turn. In 2, you can visit an Arcadia Bay overlook, find a book by Jefferson, meet David Madsen, and even see photos of Max and Chloe, yet there’s nothing Diaz-related in True Colors (unless you count a DLC outfit). Indeed, in True Colors, one of the main characters is from Arcadia Bay, and was friends with Chloe and Rachel. It’s very obvious who the franchise darling is, almost to the point of excess.
And yet, I get it. Dontnod created something incomparable in Life is Strange, tonally and contextually. I think they tried to recreate it with the subsequent titles, but sometimes, the special sauce can only be made in very specific situations that are forever lost to time. Do I find it a little extra that the devs continue to milk the series for nostalgia? Oh, yeah. But when the sauce is that good, you can’t really blame them.
(images: Square Enix)
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