Early warning: this article contains story spoilers for episode four of Life Is Strange
The turmoil of teenage life can be a pretty sobering experience, young minds constantly scrambling to find their own sense of identity and self. With new, immediately alien feelings adding themselves into the mix, and basically ruining everything, teenage life is hard – and portraying that well is something that not a lot of video games have gotten right.
Dontnod just might have, though. The Parisian studio's second game, Life Is Strange, is an episodically released point-and-click-like adventure, currently on its fourth episode of five, which mixes the drama and hormonal nightmare of being a teenager with a healthy dose of science fiction. It's set in the fictional Blackwell Academy, in the equally fictional Arcadia Bay, in the really-there-in-real-life (seriously-just-look-on-a-map) Oregon. It has me thinking back to my school days, and I see a lot of myself in the game's resident nerd, Warren Graham.
Warren's a secondary figure in the game's narrative, with Max and Chloe filling in the central protagonist positions, but he features in every episode and always leaves an impression. His cringe-worthy texts to Max, who he clearly lusts after, betray a general neediness that is something a lot of teenage boys (myself included) trap themselves in. Warren's behaviour towards Max and his overall attitude to women is something that really piqued my interest: is there more to Warren than we're being told? I asked Michel Koch, co-director of Life Is Strange.
"When we started to create every character, not only Warren, we really wanted to use known archetypes that people see in teenage drama and in movies." Koch tells me that Dontnod wrote episode one with the intention of introducing the typical high school stereotypes, before building upon them with every episode.
"Warren started as the shy nerd who is in love with the main character. He has his issues and his feelings, and has to deal with things like the 'friend zone' and getting rejected. I think this appeals to a lot of players and gamers, as it's something we can relate to – we've all felt this way at some point. I see myself in Warren too, and a lot of people can also relate to his awkwardness. Like, his inviting of Max to see scary movies – that's maybe not a good thing to do, when you're trying to hit on a girl."
Especially given what Max is going through in Life Is Strange, not that anyone but those closest to her actually knows what that is. (Just Chloe, basically.) Warren's clearly into Max, but in true-to-life terrible nerd fashion, he struggles to express and deal with his feelings. I've seen comments amongst other Life Is Strange players saying that Warren is simply a "fuckboy that's trying to get into Max's pants", but I don't buy that. He's clearly besotted – check out his "Don't ignore this text" message in episode one, and some other pushiness – but I doubt that's the real deal, the whole Warren.
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"I think that he's a good guy," Koch says, "but, of course, a bit insecure with girls, so he tries to hide that underneath with some humour and bad jokes. He might seem a bit pushy, but he is in love with Max, and he cares about her. We didn't see [his actions] as a creepy way to hit on Max. But, yes there is this kind of awkwardness [to Warren]. He is really messing up sometimes because he isn't saying what he should say, but that's because he's shy and it's funny to see how he tries and sometimes doesn't get what he wants."
Warren's ham-fisted attempts at some sort of physical intimacy with Max did give me a bit of a chuckle. Koch tells me the inspiration behind the character. "I'm a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is why I like looking at archetypes, like, uh Xander. He has this kind of awkwardness in him and is always saying the wrong things, but he's a good guy!"
Spoilers definitely follow for episode four of Life Is Strange
There's a large character moment for Warren in episode four. He comes face to face with local bully (and so much more, but even more spoilers) Nathan Prescott, who'd given him a black eye just a few days earlier. Warren steps in when Nathan get violent towards Max, and we see Warren in a completely different light as he beats Blackwell's resident terror into a bloody mess in the boys' dorms. You, as Max, can step in and pull Warren back – but, equally, you can just let Nathan get what's been coming to him for a few episodes. Koch is eager to share the team's reasoning behind this scene.
"If you choose not to step in on the fight with Nathan, we start to see something a little different, a darker side of Warren. It's very violent and gets a bit out of control. It shows us that, even if we're good characters, we all have a side of us that can go out of control. Everyone has shades of grey, bits of darkness."
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As Life Is Strange has progressed, so its tone has darkened and its influences widened, now encompassing internet culture with Warren, still pumped from his show of aggression, labelling himself a "white knight" and how he's become an "alpha". "I think when you're insecure, it's normal to show ourselves to others as something else using people, characters and words," Koch explains. "I mean, we are looking at memes, 4chan, tumblr and all that, and we are using Warren a lot for this."
To me, it seems like Warren is Dontnod's connection with online societies, and along with that comes the issues and problems that a lifestyle with web culture entails. He's not a weirdo, nor a woman hater who is simply hanging around Max to get his end away. He's merely going through his own changes, which might not be so life-or-death in design as Max's, but are traumatic nonetheless as all of these new emotions are stirred up. Warren, aged just 16, is a character who isn't black or white, but one that's a little bit more than the usual shy nerd stereotype.
The fact that we can explore a supporting-role character in this much depth is a testament to how Dontnod has been writing Life Is Strange, to the studio's attention to detail in fleshing out their fantastical story with relatable real-life traits. And the series is only getting better with each episode, tackling some heavyweight themes and doing so with tact surprising for the games industry. The game's reception so far, and its commercial success, should be enough for its publishers, Square Enix, to give the green light on a second season.
"Well, that's up to them," is all Koch will give me. Assuming there's more story to tell come the climax of episode five, out later in 2015, they'd be crazy not to. Life Is Strange is building on the modern adventure format that Telltale helped to establish with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, but Dontnod is arguably doing it better than their Californian peers. This is a special game, and one that its fans are always going to want more of.
More information at the Life Is Strange website
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