Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Last Game Review for a While: Life is Strange

One more game review (because I only bought three games during Steam’s big 4th of July sale and I have now played all of them), and then I will go back to my regular posts complaining about the lack of viable consumer goods, my drama-prone cat, and my addiction of the week, which is, currently, reading lifestyle pieces about Pokemon Go. (I have little desire to actually play it, but I’m fascinated by the cultural phenomenon.)

Warning: Mild spoilers. So, I delved into “Life is Strange” and I have played through most of the chapters. It’s a frustratingly flawed, but compelling game. I’ll explain the plot shortly, but just to get it off of my chest, here are my gripes so far: It skews really young. That’s not the fault of the game; I am just far out of its target demographic. There are too many scenes in which I am forced to wander around the halls of its fictional high school while some querulous emo band plays in the background. High school was horrendous and I do not wish to dredge up those awful memories. I haven’t figured out how to skip those scenes, so I find myself trapped in a nightmare of re-living the days in which I literally would have preferred death to going to school, complete with a bad soundtrack to round out the anguished walk down crap-strewn memory lane.

Secondly, a big part of the storyline revolves around a female student, Kate, who is getting bullied and slut-shamed due to a “viral video” of her making out with a bunch of guys at an underground party. It appears that she had possibly been drugged before the party, but at this point, it’s not totally clear. “Life is Strange” has been lauded by critics for addressing serious issues not normally tackled by video games, and it does a phenomenal job of addressing disability in later chapters, but something about the bullied-girl storyline rankles me. Due in part to my ineptitude at picking the right dialogue choices, Kate eventually commits suicide by jumping off the roof of the dorms. After her death, the inevitable schmaltzy alter is erected, and there is token talk of how she was cruelly bullied and how unfair it was that no one was nicer to her, but the deeper issues surrounding slut-shaming are never tackled. It seems to accept that it’s par for the course that any female who gets “caught” expressing their sexuality is going to be harassed into oblivion, and that’s it’s just really unfortunate that it happened to nice Christian girl like Kate. There is something maudlin and off-putting about how that whole storyline plays out, and at no time do any of the characters address the underlying cultural hypocrisy and misogyny that lead to Kate’s tragedy.

Complaints aside, “Life is Strange” is an absorbing and innovative game. You play Maxine (Max), a sensitive aspiring photographer who gets a rare scholarship to a prestigious arts high school in the fictional Oregon town of Arcadia. On her first day of school, through a terrifying incident in the girl’s bathroom, Max discovers that she has the power to “rewind” time. The core of the game revolves around using this time-warp mechanism to change the outcome of your choices, manipulate time, and create your desired outcomes. There is a steep learning curve at the beginning, and many of the early puzzles are specifically designed to train you to use the rewind mechanic. It takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s best not to think too much about the logic of how it plays out most of the time, but overall, once you learn it, it’s a joy to use. Early in the game, Max reunites with her long-lost best friend Chloe, and at first, the two of them play with this new-found power like it’s a toy. But very quickly, things get dark in Arcadia, and young Max is faced with some serious existential dilemmas surrounding choice, power, and morality. Unlike most games that use the “choice” mechanic as little more than a pretense, in “Life is Strange”, your choices actually do affect the outcome of the story. So far, I’m quite disappointed in myself, but I can’t seem to help but make questionable decisions, like stealing money and selling out my classmates. Look, I’m a total goody-goody in real life and I have to blow off steam somehow, so just stop judging me. Jeez.

I still have a few chapters left to play, but overall, I’ve found the game incredibly absorbing, despite its flaws. And while I’m not thrilled with how it handles the Kate storyline, it delves into disability with an impressively in-depth and sensitive perspective. I learned some things I didn’t know, and it led me to think about disability in a new way. Also, while the character of Max is little bit of a Mary Sue, her wild-at-heart friend Chloe is a brilliantly-written character, as are Chloe’s mom and stepdad. Unfortunately, the voice acting is distractingly uneven at times, but Chloe is by far the most consistent. Despite its bumps and rough spots, I’m looking forward to playing it through to its conclusion. As stated I’ll be back with a “normal” blog post next week. In the meantime, here’s a fun launch trailer. 

--Kristen McHenry

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