VICE vs Video games

‘Life Is Strange’, But It’s Best When You’re Sitting Down, Doing Nothing

With part five played, we can look back on Dontnod's intriguing adventure and conclude that its silences often spoke the loudest.

by Mike Diver
23 October 2015, 2:02pm

All screens from "Polarized", courtesy of Dontnod/Square Enix

Now that Parisian studio Dontnod's five-part adventure Life Is Strange has wrapped, its final episode "Polarized" having popped up for download on October 20th and been greedily consumed by an audience that's grown with every instalment, we can look back at the last 15 hours or so, the last nine months, and conclude: yes, that was a video game. Well done everybody, onto the next.

Only, Life Is Strange was more, is more, than your garden-variety video game. The way it played was nothing unique. You are college student Maxine, 18 and introverted, and where you point your controller's left stick, that's the way she will walk. Contextual prompts appear on screen as you rub Max against bushes and books, doors and dangers: press X to step out into the corridor, square to pull out your Polaroid camera and capture a squirrel bounding around the grounds of the fictional Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. We've seen this type of game several times before, and it's in no way reductive to make a comparison to what Californian developers Telltale has been doing with the Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead licenses.

(Warning: screens below might be considered spoilers for the events of "Polarized".)

The twist, Max's never-explained-by-dodgy-science ability to "time travel" – to rewind the events of the last few seconds, or use a photograph (that she's in, or that she took) to beam herself into the scene, into the past, to return to the moment framed – isn't new either. Dontnod used something very similar in their debut game, Remember Me, an underrated sci-fi brawler with brains that came out in 2013 (and that I highlighted here as an Xbox 360 game you should play today). And the fantastical is commonplace in video gaming – walk into any CEX and the covers on the shelves scream sci-fi action, monster slaying and sporting supremacy. It's more unusual to play through something that has a palpable rooting in everyday reality.

Which is where Life Is Strange, for all of its supernatural window dressing and butterfly effect mumbo jumbo, really shines: with its presentation of the stresses and strains that can rock kids leaving home for the first time, dealing with the transition into adulthood, making and breaking relationships and fucking themselves up on whatever peers declare the best way to get high right now. Max is at a school where there are bullies and jocks, cyberstalkers and surveillance nuts, friends who want to be so much more and fragile classmates who could do something deadly if just pushed far enough.

The game addresses the issues of suicide and broken homes, of environmental change and small-town cliques claiming exclusive status butting heads against other groups of people just trying to live. It views disability through a sympathetic, understanding lens, and asks you to take drastic action to help a friend in desperate need. There were three or four times during my time with the game where I froze, entirely unsure of my direction, the screen displaying just two choices, neither of which I really wanted to take. The biggest of all these wasn't at the end of episode five, which had been telegraphed several hours earlier, but 30 minutes into the preceding one. If you've played it, you know what I'm talking about. If not, I won't spoil anything (beyond what's already been mentioned above, which I hope is vague enough).

It's impossible to really talk about what happens in "Polarized" without spreading spoilers across the page like acne over a puberty-afflicted face. Hell, even these PR-provided screens from the game's finale are pretty borderline. But like every episode before it, "Polarized" has other moments where the player is invited to pause, to contemplate, to just steady themselves for a few seconds. These aren't make-or-break decisions that affect everything that happens afterwards – and Life Is Strange is very good at remembering if Max acted like a dickhead three hours ago, bringing your choices back later on to bite her in the arse – but opportunities to, literally, sit down.

Article continues after the video below

Life Is Strange is a superb sitting-down simulator. I don't think I've ever played a game that captures the pleasure of simply taking a load off in quite the same way. Even when everything's getting crazy in episode five, there's still time to pause, to let what's happening around Max fade into a just-discernable blur, there clearly enough but not so much that it's making every sweat gland work overtime. "Max, give yourself one moment to do nothing." In the calm before the eye of the storm, there's reflection, realisation: a denouement of sorts before the very final scenes. "Polarized" offer you the option of pressing X to sit down three times, and it's in these snatched seconds of doing nothing that so very much is actually said: about where Max's head is at, what the right course of action is likely to be, and how undoing everything that her time travelling has accomplished might be the secret to saving those she loves (like you hadn't already sussed that out).

For all the action, all the investigating of student disappearances and Blackwell shadiness and Vortex Club bitchiness and Arcadia Bay surrealism, perhaps the most important times in Life Is Strange are when you and Max, you as Max, just sit down. And I love that the game doesn't make you get up. It doesn't once force Max out of her seat. It just moves the camera around the scene as some of its excellently licensed music rises to fill the room. Take your time; or, hurry up. The choice is yours, and that's a choice that so few games provide.

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One I can think of is The Darkness, with Jackie and Jenny watching To Kill a Mockingbird in her apartment. That felt incredible, to be that character and just rest, to hold onto what was dear to them knowing that perhaps minutes later it'd all be taken away. Press A to get up, or don't, and stick around for the whole movie. It was beautiful, and Life Is Strange gets that, too. It gets that quiet time makes the inevitable turbulence all the more moving.

The lip synching is awful and the scripting erratic and the game's got its plot problems, but by both tackling some impressively heavyweight topics and letting the player ponder them at their own pace, Life Is Strange has finished its run as a flawed classic of contemporary gaming. A thinker, less a doer, more meditative than most but perhaps the commercially successful spark to ignite further addressing of physical and mental health issues in mainstream gaming. It didn't leave me in tears as I know it did others, but "Polarized" had me thinking long into the night about how interactive experiences can help players address their own life priorities, their own relationships, and just maybe appreciate them a little differently.

@MikeDiver

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