I didn’t truly realise until a long time after first playing Life Is Strange, how much it means to me. Most players seem to instantly love it. My love was more a grower. The unaware, deep and growing sort of love that one day, bam, you realise that this is what you’ve wanted all your life. Things weren’t always like this, though.
I was massively sceptical of dontnod as a capable studio after seeing their game before this, Remember Me. Though I never played, much of the trailers and reviews published deterred me immensely. The on-the-nose references to memories and brains, the shonky design of navigation and combat, the opening’s exposition had you being narrated to, in a coffin, after waking up with amnesia, and fighting mentally deficient people in a sewer. It rubbed me the wrong, like the developers wanted to appear smart, but instead felt amateur. And with much of the game’s coverage predicated on it being dropped by publishers because it had a female lead seemed mainly like the game was looking for sympathy rather than being a well made game.
I was a bigger shit back then and unfairly judgemental to the game, especially for someone who’d never played it. I hate that I felt so hostile for little to no reason. I was also very naive on the magnitude of issues in the video game industry when it came to more diverse characters, but at the time this experience made me think Life Is Strange would be a failure. I was very wrong, thankfully.
I started playing the first episode without much expectation, especially as I initially had doubts about dontnod’s work and the general love from colleagues and critics alike prepared my cynical self to roll my eyes. I’ve been burned by Dark Souls and countless other widely loved games, why get my hopes up? When I did play Episode One, it felt mediocre at worst, lots of setting up and explanation of the place, the people, the power, I was neutral as it was pretty basic right then. At its best, I felt it could be much more. And there was more coming to prove it.
I played each episode a week apart, every Sunday. This was around the time the last episode was releasing. At 6 pm I would keep 3 hours to play an episode. Just me and the game, an ending to the weekend. It was perfect. I could really just lose myself in it, every week, I could think of the plot, the suspects, the characters, their choices, just lost in it all. It meant a lot to have something to work towards and know it would wrap up.
I came away thinking I just enjoyed it and life was continuing as usual. I think I hit a general depressed slump soon after playing because it’s a heavy game, it had interesting approach and themes, which intrigues the academic part of my brain. I didn’t realise this, altogether, meant something. Somehow, I got to the point where moments in the story being brought up, or the announcement of a sequel, would utterly ruin me with happiness and tears. I honestly find it hard to control my emotions about it. I don’t think I’ve ever got so emotional for thinking about a game.
I should’ve known something was up after writing two blog posts about it, after watching hours of YouTube videos of fans talking to the actors, of playing the Love is Strange fan game which is all just sweet, happy gayness. I fell for this game
But why was this different?
I hate YA fiction in general, which makes my love for this game that more strange. YA stands for Young Adult, which is a big genre in fiction novels. You may recognise them as your sci-fi/fantasy Hunger Games, Harry Potters and Department 13s which can be summed up as “teens do the most extraordinary things because they’re special”. Or you can get the more realistic, potentially mundane reflections on real life stories such as The Fault in Our Stars or Perks of Being A Wallflower. I have fundamental issues with the troupes and stories within most of these stories, though I don’t hate them all (exceptions inlcude Warm Bodies, Way Down Dark) I hate how predictable and melodramatic they can be compared to other genres.
Life Is Strange feels like it does something different with what it has. It is both fantastical and mundane, with time travelling being constant and yet the appreciation for life going on as normal. Its story is both about the extraordinary accomplishments of Max and yet they are utterly irrelevant by the end in the face of life having to go on. It mixes both the idealised outcome with the sombre outcome. It is, in essence, about duality, about the binary choices it gives, because it is about how both are fleeting, in a sense.
I also think the releasing of episodes was great and smart (and probably necessary) as it meant the developers could change things as time went on. There’s a clear improvement and growth in each episode that might also explain why by Episode Three I wanted to so badly play the next one.
If I had to analyse why Life Is Strange probably affected me more, it’s because it’s a game. The simple ability to interact, to make choice, to control the movements of a character and pick what they say or see, that sense of immersion occurs. Novels are designed in a certain way, at a certain pace, but the autonomy of video games allows the reader to really pick how to approach it. It’s a game about time, and it gives me as much as I want to take with my Max or Chloe.
This setting hasn’t really been explored in games much from this third-person perspective. Often you’ll have a Gone Home or Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture experience of a first-person, emotional story where the character you play as is an avatar for you as a player and the characters you experience are all intangible, elsewhere, a picture of what they’re like. Life Is Strange has the characters around you. They live, they have thoughts, they respond to what you say, they have character arcs over the episodes. Not exactly revolutionary, but the context is crucial. I don’t think the YA game genre has ever had an approach like this before, or at least not one as well-known, publicised or funded before. Maybe this is why it was so successful, a good game in a rarely explored medium. Maybe I don’t hate the YA genre, just the way I’ve been consuming it.
Something I didn’t think i’d see after playing would be connecting to the game on another layer through the voice actors in it. The Blackwell Podcast regularly interviews people who have worked on the game, and the most well-known ones are with the voice actors that worked on it. They usually talk about their feelings of the game and experiences they had with it. They also seem keenly aware of the gravity the game had, instinctively, or could relate to the script or characters a lot, something that’s a rarity to see in many video games.
The passion you see when they talk about the project, when they interact with fans and the community that’s developed, it’s all really great. Hearing the voice of Max Caulfield, Hannah Telle, speak of her times of stress and anxiety preparing for the acting, the experiences she’s had in life and having to cope with it is a vulnerable and touching interview. Telle being able to relate to Max and her developing of the character like finding Max’s voice after each episode, is inspiring (and very, very cute) as she tells it. But it’s not just her, it’s pretty much every interview I’ve ever heard from any of the cast, especially from those who played main characters. They are all aware of the subjects being brought up and they all bring a part of themselves to the experience, which is probably why despite difficult to hear dialogue, it comes across quite effectively.
They are quite incredible people. Not only because their work is good but, despite some real dodgy lip-syncing in the original series making it seem bad, they go above and beyond anything i’d expect from people just paid to play a part. YouTube and Twitch has been a gold mine to the most wholesome content for Life Is Strange fans. It melts my cynical heart seeing them. Watching Dayeanna Hutton and Hannah Telle, Kate and Max respectively, drink tea together because it’s something their characters planned but never got to do in-game is the sweetest thing. In that same stream, they jam out by playing guitar and singing one of the game’s songs. Also watching the actors from Before the Storm’s various social groups at Blackwell meet up in real life, bringing snacks, playing games and chatting on stream, just in general doing what you’d expect their character equivalents would do if all the shit wasn’t flying about in Arcadia Bay.
Most of the time, they stream from their homes, at their computer desk or in their lounge, inside their personal spaces because they feel safe doing so and it makes these moments more personal, connecting and affecting to a watcher.
You regularly see well-known voice actors that don’t have the time, ability or, yes, perhaps even the care, to interact with fans of things they’ve worked on unless it’s at a convention, which is a very isolated experience unless you can actually go to one. Alix Wilton Regan, a veteran voice actor in many video games, argued that you can use voice actors more for showing of your game, using them to market and connect with players. It’s something that instinctively I feel that the Life Is Strange casts are doing a bit of, unintentionally, but with good effect.
There is an unfortunate thorn to this topic though. It can’t be ignored that one of the more prominent stories behind the Before the Storm production was the voice actor strike of SAG-AFTRA that resulted in Ashly Burch, voice of Chloe in the original series, not returning to her role in the prequel. Whilst it was reported this could’ve stopped production of the game, it didn’t, and Rhianna DeVries replaced Burch. Though it’s hard to tell if others from the original game were also involved with the strike, most if not all the characters that return in the prequel do not have their returning voice actors. It may be that it affected more than sites have reported on. Of course, it’s not unheard of to have a whole new voice cast for the characters of a prequel, but this looming story is something that has to be considered. The only conclusions I can think of are that the actors are in a less protective union or, even worse, not in a union at all. It’s troubling to think they were hired without such protection, but the fact Burch was brought on for consultancy and accepted the role gives me some comfort that the production was decent enough to the actors (though I doubt we’ll really know).
I’m not sure if their acceptance of their roles despite the strike indicates these are mostly actors involved in their first major roles in the entertainment industry, which has meant that they’re still fighting to getting any jobs, let alone be discernible. And like any newbie in an industry, you’re looking to do as much as possible to get noticed, credit, or be somewhere. Even to your own detriment, at times.
I’m thankful, then, that the community has been accepting of the newcomers and shown love for the new characters. Before the Storm had a lot to prove and delivered. Without delving into the cesspool that can be fanbases, Life Is Strange fans are a much more wholesome bunch of people, who care so much about the character’s experiences, which in turn extends into the people who performed them. The game has no competitive edge, no need to one up another player, so it follows that people who aren’t looking to do that won’t be playing the game or talking in fan groups. And that’s purely a good thing. Hostility in the fanbase usually constitutes a shipping war, but even that’s a real rarity.
As a dev, it’s amazing to see this happen, as there’s still a clear divide between how a creator faces their fans compared to a performer. There are different assessments taking place, and clearly different reactions. It makes sense really, especially from a fan point of view. The shadowy developer vibe, where no one really knows what goes into making games, isn’t uncommon (and actually a big problem in my mind), so seeing the more public facing side of the business is great and encouraging to what I do.
There’s a funny memory I have about the series. A game I use to work on was published by Square Enix (like Life Is Strange is) and as time went on our game was successful enough that we had collaboration events and characters that crossed over into our world. This went from Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana characters to other works they’d published, like Deus Ex and Tomb Raider. It was all silly, stupid and lots of fun. And at one point I pitched for a Life Is Strange collaboration in the same vein. I wanted to see Max and Chloe in our little chibi-esque art style so badly and work to put that in our game. Unfortunately it never went past my pitch stage, it would’ve meant talking to dontnod studios about the possibility of using the characters but other things on the project came up and I moved on. It does remind me just how much I wanted to work on this game in some small, really-not-connected-at-all, capacity.
For me, the games released so far in the series have been amazing. And with a sequel on the way, it likely will continue to be amazing. It’s invigorating knowing there’s more of this sort of game out there, more so that it’s getting funded, and most of all that it’s loved. For every person that made this series happen in some small or large way, or some fan that’s made something happen thanks to this game, thank you so much. You made it possible, you’ve inspired me and loads of others. You keep reminding me why games are so beautiful. Keep being hella awesome.