Life is Strange: Soap Opera Normalcy

Craig Lupienski

Fair warning: I find it hard to discuss games without also discussing spoilers and, as such, this post contains what some people might feel are plot spoilers.

When I first started playing Pokemon Red Version when I was 16, I would abuse reloading my save file if I did not get favorable outcomes so much that I would immediately consider reloading a previous save file in real life if I had just said or done something stupid. Reloading save files, as a concept, was lodged in my head much in the same way a catchy song would be. I actually felt it was kind of a problem for a little while.

Max Caulfield, so named in what is likely a heavy handed homage, is inexplicably given the ability to rewind time –just a bit– in the first episode of Life is Strange. Much like the power I coveted at about her age, Max can discover different outcomes for immediate actions as if she were reloading a previous save file. A photography student at a prestigious school, Max is framed as shy, but “normal” in a school full of stereotypes and strong personalities. It’s a lot like a modern day John Hughes flick, which I’m actually ok with and was looking forward to, but the melodrama in Life is Strange would make any 80s teen movie blush.

Life is Strange seemingly wants to portray an average girl but a few of the events in first episode alone, which takes place over the course of a day, are so outlandish as to be unbelievable. Because the episode takes place over the course of just a day, even the more mundane encounters feel too densely packed, as if developer Dontnod is running down a checklist of cliches to nail in the span of maybe two hours of gameplay. It’s all capped off with a premonition of a Rhode Island sized tornado destroying the town and teaser for the next episode that includes Max’s best friend, Chloe, trapped on railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. The timeline of the tornado premonition suggests each episode takes place over a day. Just how many shitty situations can a “normal” teenage girl with the power to rewind time find herself in in just five days? Is she Jack Bauer?

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So, yes, life is strange when everyone and everything is openly hostile and antagonistic, but whose life does this actually reflect? Life is Strange is at its best when Max uses her power to rewind time and answer a question correctly in class, or when she has to hunt down a flash drive to return to a friend, or when she is riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Chloe as the sun streaks through the trees. And even during these mundane scenes, the game reinforces that even virtuous decisions may not have the best outcome in later episodes. There is no morality meter and no clear cut path. But these aspects are not woven very well with the surreal and supernatural elements. They almost feel like two different games.

And there are plenty of games about disasters and time travel and guns and friends in peril, but not very many about a teenage girl navigating the pitfalls of everyday life, even with a superpower. It may not be the most exciting subject, but a game about Max rewinding time in everyday situations, and the impact on her as a person, would be more interesting than the unrealistic amount of tension and conflict the game already presents in the first episode. Life is Strange lacks a lot of the subtlety of real life, and that’s not strange. That’s a video game.

Lost Constellation: Warm Storytelling

Craig Lupienski

Winter is the season to which I most strongly tie positive game memories. I grew up with a wood burning stove, snowy Decembers, and new games on Christmas. Plenty of time was spent indoors playing new treasures while the snow piled up outside. Lost Constellation offers no such respite from the frigid night. A lone house stands in the woods, but the little blue fox that lives there chastises me for letting in the cold. I borrow his wood burning stove, and then I’m on my way.

Lost Constellation is a compact game. There’s little game play to speak of, mostly just building snowmen and bringing the appropriate item to the right spot, but there’s just enough agency to compliment the dreamlike and ephemeral story. I don’t often enjoy games that strongly hinge on their stories, and even in games that don’t, I ignore the story anyway. It’s usually boring and badly written, and it gets in my way.

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I found myself completely engrossed in Lost Constellation though. None of the characters in the woods on the Longest Night speak like information kiosks. Their dialog is written for the character, and not you, the player. It’s a distinction that, while it shouldn’t, feels very out of place in games still and in an experience like Lost Constellation left me feeling a bit like I didn’t “get it,” but I think I prefer that than saving the world with wooden characters again.

Even the woods played into the linearity of storytelling, usually presenting the next relevant person or place as I walked to the right. If I had double-backed to the left, I would have been at the entrance to the woods again no matter what I had just passed. The little blue fox warned me the woods would confuse me. He was right. I was confused. I am used to linear storytelling clashing with the very nature of interactivity allowing me to rebel against that forward momentum, but Lost Constellation’s woods played with continuity to great effect. Interactivity only allowed for forward momentum. Anything else was forfeiting the story all together.

Little by little, I question my immobile negative outlook on storytelling in games. On occasion I find a story worth playing and I have to reassess how I feel. It’s hard to parse what it is I look for in an interactive story when I come by one I truly enjoy and appreciate so rarely. Maybe many roads lead there, but what Lost Constellation accomplishes with so little is exactly what I want to see more of. It’s a warm wood burning stove in an otherwise wintry wood.