Note: This article contains minor spoilers from Episode 1 of Life is Strange.
“Bro, that’s totally a PlayStation 2-looking game on the IndieStation 4, how could it be ambitious, bro?”
If you fall into the horrifying demographic of gamers who automatically dismisses downloadable titles for no other reason than their budget, promptly reevaluate the way you look at video games. While due to Square Enix’s publishing rights, Life is Strange doesn’t fall under the “indie” umbrella that the uninformed like to toss every game priced under $60 into, it’s just as creative as some of the most unique independent titles out there. Smaller games going to be a massive part of the gaming industry for years to come because of the creative risks developers take with them. After speaking to members of Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix about Life is Strange‘s release strategy, business model and storytelling technique, I’m convinced that this quirky episodic game is going to change the industry in some fashion. Whether that impact is big, small, imminent or distant remains to be seen, but after spending some time with the team and playing some of the second episode, it’s clear that Life is Strange is important.
Square Enix Public Relations Manager Adam Phillips understands that the episodic release model is largely uncharted territory. For better and for worse, Telltale has essentially defined what we think of when we hear the term “episodic game.” Sure, the quality of Telltale’s recent titles cannot be denied, but the storytelling giant hasn’t necessarily released their episodes in a consumer friendly way. There’s no hype, no fanfare, and no communication when it comes to a Telltale release; games simply pop out of the ether, ready for gamers to take the plunge into the next couple of hours. The issue with this unpredictable release schedule is that the consumer thought process inevitably switches from, “I can’t wait for the next episode,” to, “When the hell is the next episode coming?” The other extreme, Resident Evil Revalations 2‘s weekly release schedule, gives off the impression that the publisher is simply looking to cash in on a finished title by releasing it in waves.
In our conversation, Adam and I agreed that a sweet spot of six to eight weeks gives players adequate time to go through the gamut of emotions that comes from playing a game piece by piece. By the end of a given playthrough, players eagerly anticipate what’s next before inevitably moving on, only to have their interest sparked immensely before the next episode. If Life is Strange is able to stick to this type of release schedule, it’ll not only be able to capitalize on hype, but it will avoid the money-grab conversation entirely and give players a chance to experience other titles in the meantime. Because episodic gaming is still relatively novel in the digital age, Square Enix and Dontnod are in a unique position. If Life is Strange is able to establish a balancing point between Telltale’s unpredictability and Capcom’s rapid releases, it could very well wind up being the gold standard for the episodic business plan.
Transparency and consumer friendliness have been at the forefront of Phillips’ mind throughout Square Enix’s first foray into episodic gaming. Instead of seeking to box players into a corner by forcing them to pay for the first episode in order to give this admittedly odd title a try, demos have been made available from the start. A complete track listing of Life is Strange‘s impeccable soundtrack is readily available online. Combine these two points with the goal of having an acceptable release schedule, and the picture starts to become clearer. Dontnod and Square Enix aren’t just trying to create a gripping narrative experience, they want to show the industry how things should be done.
Life is Strange‘s first episode set the stage for one of the most morally gray narratives in recent memory. Its true brilliance comes from its ability to stray away from the traditional “good” and “bad” choice options, instead forcing the player to choose either the rock or the hard place (or a waffle and an omelet, no joke). Phillips and the Dontnod team agreed that black and white morality functions well in certain settings, namely the Infamous series due to the lack of a grey area in traditional superhero fiction. Life is Strange, however, takes place in small town America, essentially the epicenter of moral ambiguity. Take Chloe’s family situation for example; in Episode 2, we meet Chloe’s deeply delusional mother at the diner she’s worked at for what seems like an eternity. Sure, she absolutely wants the best for her daughter, but she’s also deeply delusional about the state of her husband’s mental stability. There’s no perfect way to portray a family with a delusional mother, an obsessive, abusive stepfather, and a daughter whose rebellious nature is taking her on a dangerous path. At no point is it clear what’s right or what’s wrong, the player simply has to use their intuition and moral compass to steer his or her way through every conversation.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of my twenty minute conversation with Phillips and the Dontnod team came from a moderately ballsy question of mine. The funny thing about developer/publisher interactions with the press is that no question ever feels out of bounds; if your question is too far into secret territory, they simply won’t answer. The thing is, you never know when one of those interesting questions is actually going to get answered. Ever since I heard about Life is Strange‘s attempt to revolutionize choice in video games, I found myself wondering whether or not it would follow the typical flow-chart style ending system. We’ve seen this for years: choice combinations lead players down certain paths, essentially faking player control. It’s a problem we’ve seen with dozens of choice-based titles in the past. I figured, if Life is Strange is attempting to do things differently, I might as well find out how. My question was simple:
“How many endings does Life is Strange have?”
I had absolutely no interest in finding out an exact number; instead, I was hoping for an answer along the lines of the one I received. Dontnod is attempting to take each player’s choices into account in order to give him or her an ending that is satisfying for them. If this works out the way it was explained, it essentially means that players will have complete control over how their personal journey concludes rather than presenting them with a series of pre-defined options. My ending would be completely different from yours, yet both would feel completely correct. In short, there is no set number of endings at this time because players aren’t going to be pigeon-holed like that. Accomplishing this would potentially change the way that open-ended storytelling functions in games, leaving the lane-based choice “systems” of yesteryear to saddle up next to the dodo and eight-track players.
Of course, all of this ambition requires a successful story to actually elicit change. Without the end results meeting those initial hopes, Life is Strange will simply end up as yet another game that failed to live up to the promise. With that said, the promise of revolutionary choice mechanics and changing the way episodic gaming works is far more intriguing than the ability to render X amount of characters on screen or launching a multiplayer game with the most maps ever. If my conversation on that fateful Friday morning was any indication of what Life is Strange will accomplish, we could be looking at one of the most intriguing games of all time. Oh, and in case you were wondering, I’ll choose an omelet over a waffle any day.