Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure
Release date: May 19, 2015
Every time a new episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange is released, I feel a rush of anxiety that this installment won’t be as good as the last, that the abstract magic the game creates will have been tarnished. Fortunately, that anxiety has been totally misplaced; the third episode completely lives up to the mastery of the first two, maintaining the tightly-constructed plot and twisting the gameplay to create ambiguity and raise the stakes yet again.
The story opens with a bright moon blooming over the Blackwell campus, and as the camera pans over the silent grounds and buildings it isn’t hard to imagine how we, as Max, are going to disrupt this rigid quietude. We find her exhausted at her desk, meditating upon the events of the day, but there’s no rest for the wicked or the curious; she arranges with Chloe to sneak into the principal’s office and investigate some of the school’s mysterious happenings. This deviation from the structure of the first two episodes, which each begin on a new day, is an early indicator of the structural monkeying around that’s to come. By this point we’ve broken away from the classroom setting entirely as Max refocuses her priorities on the town’s imminent destruction via a freak weather event and the development of her powers, which are starting to manifest themselves in new and unusual ways.
The focus of this chapter is on deepening the characters as well as the relationship between Max and Chloe, which had previously leaned heavily on the weight of their unseen shared past. The story needs to pull that dynamic into the present moment for examination, so the large chunks of the episode which involve snooping with Chloe are a good narrative device to bring these two characters together in a tense environment. We’re finally beginning to dig deeper into the person beneath the willful, difficult façade. Chloe’s increased intimacy with Max -- a late-night dip in the school pool and a platonically shared bed, to start -- reveals a longing that flickers in and out of focus. Even her electric-blue hair, normally hidden under a hat, is finally on full display in the glowing morning sun, revealing the brown roots beneath the dyed exterior.
One of the most interesting developments in this episode is the shifting public perception of Max by her classmates. Episode 2 ended on a major event that could result in either tragedy or heroism, and the results are mirrored in Max’s interactions with the world around her. Since I was able to prevent disaster, Max is frequently referred to as a “rock star” and a “hero,” which raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of heroism and Max’s culpability in her own good deeds. Given her time-rewinding powers and the ability to speculate on the bad outcomes of her decisions -- and, still more, to have the power to choose again -- what weight does that give the good she does? Though some results are irreversible, the fact remains that Max has an added layer of security and an unpoliced space to flex the definitions of her personal morality. She has room to play.
Ultimately this episode is about the exploration of identity in its many forms, from stylistic to sexual to moral. Even the game’s repeated focus on selfies, the photography style that feels so endemic to our current cultural moment as to potentially make this game feel dated five years down the line, makes sense here as a visual articulation of Max’s exploration of presentation and selfhood. Some players may find this slower, more meditative section of the game to be boring in comparison to what came before it; I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them, either. At moments I felt restless and irritated at being trapped in certain moments when I wanted to see what was happening elsewhere, but this is an excellent echo of such a liminal stage of life. The discomfort and pain of high school feels as if it will never end until all of a sudden it does, leaving you clinging to the good scraps of memory and wishing you could wrap yourself inside them just a little while longer.
“You know you're hurting when you don't give a shit about music,” Max remarks when you try to turn on her stereo at the beginning of the episode. Sadly she’s right -- the music and other atmospheric touches are sparser this time around. It makes sense given the plot direction; Max’s mounting anxiety is crowding out the peaceful methods of escape she regularly uses to cope with stress, but I’m still selfishly disappointed this episode wasn’t chock-full of great new songs to enjoy. But the music that’s there is delicious, especially the haunting end track, “Kids Will Be Skeletons.”
This episode has perhaps the most interesting puzzles of the lot that make maximal use of Max’s ability to rewind time and replay scenes with new information. A particularly fun one involved talking to three different characters in a diner, worming small bits of gossip out of each, and then using that info against the other people in the room to gather larger shards of truth. The puzzles are also working harder to reveal information about characters and the story instead of serving as time-wasting fetch quests. One, for example, challenges the player’s perceptions of what a character values enough to make his computer password, and another restarts a memory over and over until you fix it correctly, mirroring the obsessive retention and replaying of traumatic experiences in a person’s head. Not all puzzles reach this level of integration, certainly, but it’s nice to see the game working to become a more integrated and meaningful whole.
It’s impossible to discuss this episode fully without getting into its ending, so medium-sized, nonspecific spoilers follow. After a major dispute leaves Max frustrated at her lack of efficacy in solving the endemic problems around her, she discovers a new power when looking at a photograph and is transported years into the past. Smack-dab in the middle of a crucial memory, Max has to change what happened so long ago to fix the trauma that has shaped Chloe’s life. It’s a stressful, painful sequence that I was extremely relieved to complete, though the results were just as scary as what I’d left behind. Max returns to an utterly transformed present where she is dressed differently, has different friends, and discovers that her good deed in the past has wrought unforeseen consequences in the present. Everything is different and unrecognizable and totally foreign.
This ending left me feeling divided. After getting so invested in the choices I’ve made and the characters I’ve gotten to know, seeing that all erased caused me unexpected anxiety and dread. What if I can’t reverse what’s been changed and get my familiar life back? This also raises questions about whether any of the choices I’ve made before this moment will end up mattering in the long run. Whether this Butterfly Effect-style plot twist pays off will be entirely up to the gamemakers and the grace with which they execute its fallout. But at the same time, the game achieves exactly what it intends. The player shares the same feeling as Max: the horror at waking up in a strange world where everything you know to be true is gone.
+ Deeper exploration of character relationships
+ Improved puzzles with more connection to the story
+ Development of new powers that escalate the plot
- Less of the excellent music and other atmospheric details
- Ambiguous ending that could end up being either brilliant or terrible