Gamescom 2014: Life is Strange In-Depth First Look Preview - Turn Back Time
Written Friday, August 22, 2014 By Lee AbrahamsView author's profile
Sometimes a game surprises you so much, that it gets more interesting the more you think about it, and if there was one title at Gamescom that stuck in my mind long after I’d left Cologne, it was Life is Strange. A new episodic title by Parisian developer Dontnod, the team behind Remember Me, this is a game that was captivating on many levels: with a wonderful balance between art direction, story and one of the finest soundtracks I’d heard in a long while. Considering all of the AAA titles that were on show, it's telling that a game that wanted to tell a more personal tale struck more of a chord with almost everyone who saw it.
Michel Koch, the Game and Art Director, and Luc Baghadoust, the Senior Producer, were on hand to show us the game and take us through a small section of it. It was certainly going to be time well spent, as we soon discovered.
You play Max Caulfield, a female high school student, returning to your home town after five years away. Max is coming back to a place and people that seem familiar, yet she remains on the outside like a complete stranger, and more comfortable behind her camera rather than mingling with former friends. Still, she has time to run into her former best friend, Chloe, who has become something of an outcast and rebel herself in the intervening years, especially following the death of her father and the arrival of a rather more authoritarian replacement.
It’s a story that most players will easily connect with. We’ve all had friends move away never to be seen again, lost family, and felt like an outsider when everyone around us seems to know everyone else. Above all we’ve all felt like school was the most worrying, awesome and peculiar experience of our lives at some point, even if, looking back, it wasn’t that bad. It’s a wonderfully evocative setting and one that should be able to speak to people on a number of levels, which is what makes it unique. When you played The Walking Dead you felt empathy for the people because of the dire straits they were in, and inevitably bonded with certain characters over others even though there was no way you’d been through a similar situation. Here the whole setting feels so familiar and organic, that it could have easily taken place in your own town rather than Arcadia, Oregon.
Of course, not everyone is going to be interested in a pure coming of age story no matter how much personal nostalgia it may drag up. So the story mainly revolves around the disappearance of Chloe’s new best friend, Rachel Amber, who vanished from town six months before Max came back, and the pair's ongoing investigation to discover what happened to her. Max herself has also discovered a unique power of her very own prior to meeting up with Chloe, as she can partially control time after a mysterious event that Dontnod is staying tightlipped about, though they did hint that other supernatural happenings may occur. So, a time controlling murder mystery then? Count us in.
The segment that the team showed us was some way into the game. “Choices that you make will have consequences,” Koch explained, “And those consequences will drastically alter how the game plays out.” Max visits Chloe’s house to catch up for the first time. As soon as the game starts it obvious that it’s a labour of love. Chloe’s room is made up of countless tiny details; a huge flag on one wall, countless post-it notes scattered around, doodles and drawings on every surface and the general clutter that makes up 99% of any teenager's bedroom. Life is Strange is a beautiful game even at this early stage. Objects of interest can be examined and interacted with and are highlighted by handwritten notes, as if someone had scribbled the description on a photograph. “Ever object in the game has a distinct look and feel,” Koch points out, as we're shown in Chloe’s den, “We achieved that by going for an impressionistic style over a realistic style and every texture in the game is hand-painted.”
The voice work is top notch too, and it helps that the script sounds natural, so much so that you can sense the emotion and awkwardness of two old friends trying to reconnect. Almost as if you bumped into someone you hadn’t seen in years on the street. It sounds effortless and spot-on, with the natural humour filtering through with ease – so much so that it was hard not to chuckle at some of the glib comments. Over the top of it all runs the most wonderfully melodic score as well, with soft musical notes perfectly encompassing the scene.
After rummaging around in Chloe’s room we're asked to put on some music, but Max instead accidentally smashes a snowglobe and pisses off her friend. We could move on, and leave that lingering but of resentment, but instead the guys show off Max’s unique talent. She rewinds time so that the globe is whole again, Chloe is chilled and we know to leave well alone. It’s a mechanic that ensures you can mend mistakes on the fly, even at the end of a lengthy scene, if they don’t pan out to your liking. “At the end of a dialogue you can always rewind if you didn’t like the outcome and get new options and new information,” Koch points out though, naturally, that’s not to say that choosing the “good” option each time won’t lead to alternate issues down the line.
As the scene progresses, Chloe mourns the loss of Rachel and reveals how losing Max and her father so close together left her broken, and her dad’s replacement is apparently an asshole. A few harsh words are exchanged but the two come closer together in a bid to solve the question of exactly what happened. After that we finally see Max put on the radio, after a funny aside when she realises it’s not plugged in, and we get to experience another side of the great soundtrack. “The music is very distinct to the game, with an original score and a licensed soundtrack,” Koch points out as a soothing ballad kicks in. “We are mostly going for smaller indie tracks that fit the feel of the game.”
At this point Max can freely wander the house as she searches for tools to repair her broken camera. Most similar adventure titles often feel quite confined and linear, with very little to do that doesn’t advance the plot. Not so here. Max can wander around the house, looking at photos, delving into files and piecing together snippets of information about the time she was away. It feels a lot like Gone Home at this point, as you're given carte blanche to piece together the backstory or just continue with the task at hand. Some of the things you do, like ruffling through Chloe’s stepdad's files, may come back to haunt you too. So it pays to know that even minor interactions could well be game changing without you realising it.
Eventually we get back to looking for some small tools, but they're out of reach on top of a nearby washer/drier. Switching on the machine sets it rumbling into motion but the tools drop below a nearby bench and out of reach. Nuts. Max rewinds time to put them back where they were, then grabs a nearby piece of card and slides it under the bench. Now she can switch the machine on again and watch as the tools drop perfectly onto the card she set. Hey presto, we altered time to snag the loot. It’s a clever example of how regular interactions and puzzles can be solved in another way.
Back upstairs and we get to see Max fix her camera and enjoy a moment of levity with Chloe, as they dance along to the music and Max has the chance to grab a few sneaky snaps. Chloe notices her old photos and proceeds to bad mouth the other students as well as finding out that Max was present when Chloe was being threatened by someone else. She is suitably impressed when Max owns up to it, though you could easily protest your innocence. After that Chloe’s new dad comes home and demands entrance and we get to see a major conversation play out in two different ways.
First of all Max fails to hide in time, as she knocks over a lamp and blocks the wardrobe. Chloe’s stepdad barges in and berates her for having a guest, then rants at her for smoking dope. Chloe tries to palm it off on Max but she denies all knowledge; Captain Misery says she is worthless and Max should steer clear, with him and Chloe getting into a slanging match that ends when he slaps her in the face. At which point he leaves and Chloe bails after criticising Max for hanging her out to dry. So we basically pissed off everyone.
Let’s try a different approach. This time around, knowing the lamp will fall, Max shifts it to one side and ducks into the wardrobe. Chloe’s stepdad enters and slams Chloe for the drugs again, only this time Max steps out of the cupboard and takes the fall. This time it’s Max who is dragging Chloe down according to daddy dearest, but Chloe sticks up for her buddy and sends him off with a fly in his ear. The two buddies are back on track and ready to duck out together to move on with the case. It’s a single conversation that can lead to a dramatically different outcome depending on how you play it.
“We showed you two different outcomes, but this conversation could have played out in numerous other ways,” Koch explains. “The choices start small, but the outcomes get bigger and bigger, like a butterfly effect, as you move on with the game.” Considering we have only seen half an hour of a game still in development it's an impressive first showing. If Dontnod can continue to maintain that same sense of intrigue and natural dialogue then Life is Strange is something that could naturally worm its way into a lot of people's thoughts. The whole look and feel of the game feels so down to earth, and so reminiscent of that period in your own life, that it's hard not to be drawn into the story.
“The game is set between the real world and the hidden world, with a lot of references and ideas to various parts of culture.” Koch points out, plus he is eager to downplay having a second title with a female protagonist. “We are not doing this just for the sake of being different and we are not trying to 'fix' the industry,” he says with a smile, “When we think of our character we just want to have the best character and in this case, for this coming of age story, we thought Max and Chloe were the best characters. We might have another game later with a male lead, as we really don’t discriminate.”
As it stands Life is Strange is a beautiful little curio, that takes a number of ideas and elements, fusing them together with its own unique art style and a wonderful score. As an episodic game the team were at pains to say it would keep the releases on a tight schedule so players aren’t waiting months for their next fix (are you watching, Telltale?) and the title will be available on Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PS3/PS4. The only note of caution I can think of is that Remember Me stole the show when it was announced too, and then wasn’t quite up to muster. But from what we’ve seen so far, Life is Strange has wondrous potential.