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Life Is Strange, The Choosey, and How It’s All Made Better By Birds
Before we get into this, two things: one, Life is strange is free for PSPlus members, go download it. Next, the following article is going to go into a lot of spoiler territory. If you love the Americanized Visual Novel experience, you might wanna give this article a miss until you’ve played Life is Strange.
So, I’ve just finished Life is Strange. Life is Strange is one of many of what I’m told count as “Visual Novels”, but due to the fact they actually have gameplay elements I’m just going to call them Chooseys. They’re like visual novels, but usually consist of cutscenes strung together by third-person running around in an area to look like gameplay.
Contrary to popular belief this has nothing to do with Life Is Strange’s divisive ending, which drew a lot of uproar from the fandom when it first came out. When I played Episode 1 of Life Is Strange, it felt like a step in the direction of good game design- you could use Max’s rewind powers to undo any decisions you didn’t want to make, and settle on the ones you wanted. It allowed you to make informed decisions, rather than have all your consequences be the result of you not knowing that a dialogue option was going to come out sounding mean. So where is my problem then? it’s with the great big middle chunk of it, and the game’s decisions as a whole.
I’ve had many a conversation with Choosey enthusiasts who wax poetic about how it feels so good to be in control of the story of a game with your actions. In fact, even the games themselves like to ominously warn you about how your actions will shape the story of these games (Until Dawn spent many a graphic design hour incorporating butterfly motifs into everything for this very reason). The problem with these statements is that in most respects, they’re simply not true.
Yes, I know- in Until Dawn, you can end the game with all the kids alive, all dead or any permutation of alive and dead. Schrodinger’s Choosey. But the main point of the games, the story, don’t really change, do they? In Life is Strange, this feels doubly so as so many choices simply don’t matter as much as you’d wish and in some cases, are just dead ends. In one of the chapters, I let Nathan get a royal foot-booty because I realized in doing so, Chloe confiscates his gun. I thought maybe this would prevent some sort of violent confrontation at a later date, or save my punk queen by giving her a second gun in case anything happened to her first. For the kids at home, you should get a little button to vote on which outcome you think happened. If your answer was C) Nothing came of it, like 90% of the choices in this game, congratulations. You’ve caught on to the spirit of this rant.
Herein lies the problem with this format of game- it tells you you’re in control of the game much in the same way as a kid you “helped” your mom in the kitchen by playing with your Power Rangers on the counter. Much of the drama of Life Is Strange, the “how is this surprisingly neutral teenager going to interact with a polarized school of pretentious pricks” just simply isn’t there because too often the story forces you down so many routes because the alternative would have simply been, well, boring. I’m all for keeping it interesting, but I didn’t really have much of a choice on whether or not to go back and save Chloe when I was off living my dream in San Francisco. The tornado in episode 5 is hinted at being a consequence of your messing with reality but in truth, the game never actually feels like it. Imagine how it would be like if the game remembered every time you’d wound back time to save a side character and that made the tornado that much worse,and the ending wasn’t just a 50-50 arbitrary choice?
Perhaps me wanting the tornado at the end of Life is Strange to be like Sans’ judgement in Undertale is a little much. Maybe the game isn’t supposed to be about actual external consequences, and more about the relationships you have with the cadre of hipsters you’ve surrounded yourself with. Sure. I’ll play ball. Here’s a bunch of consequences that simply don’t matter/are never resolved:
Victoria– You’re presented with several opportunities to mess with this girl. She’s the kind of girl you describe as “Nice” and then promptly and simultaneously both get awarded with a sainthood for your patience, as well as eternal damnation for such an egregious lie. The only real payoff to how nice you are to her in return is either a) you’re nice to her and she gets killed, or b) she’s simply nowhere to be seen.
Warren– I do not like Warren. Much of his character exists solely to be ignored in favor of Chloe. Even if you play the rather creepy set of choices where you return Warren’s feelings, guess who’s at the lighthouse at the final choice of the game? I’ll give you a hint- it’s not Warren.
Nathan– this one’s kind of tragic. For the most part, Nathan is the closest thing you have to an antagonist in the game. He tries to kill Chloe at the start, and you play through the game assuming he’s the bad guy when it turns out he wasn’t. Regardless of your choices, he’s killed by the _actual_ bad guy at the end of the game.
Add to this a plethora of other pointless decisions like the ongoing attempts to save a blue jay, Alyssa or even any conversations you have with Samuel, the decisions in this game are extremely superficial in the face of the game’s story. Which brings us to part two of this essay, how it _should_ be.
Two words, dear reader: Hatoful Boyfriend. I know everyone likes to play this game ironically (or do you, you avian enthusiasts) and just refers to it as “the bird game”. But here’s the genius of it- you’ll never know the story from a single playthrough. You pick a character to bond with, and they’ll become your lens into the world of the game. It’s character, not setting that becomes the anchor for this game. As you bond with one bird the others become less and less prominent, and you get teased with hints at their backstories. This is a game where decisions matter. You need certain stats to romance certain characters, and if you go too long without advancing a route with either of them, guess what? You die, my dude.
Obviously, some tweaks would need to be made to this format for it to work on Chooseys. But the core premise is simple- reward players in actually meaningful ways for their choices, not just “thank you so much” dialogue in the last episode. You don’t need Hatoful’s robust cast of birds to do it, either- even just having a choice on who your sidekick was in Life is Strange would have made the game feel like it actually gave a damn.
All in all Chooseys are a problematic genre of game. There’s the problem that dialogue is so much more nuanced than “good option vs bad option vs funny option”. There’s the fact that for games that spend so much time watching cutscenes, they never quite get animation right. But what game designers need to remember is why people play these games- to tell stories to their friends. They sit around at lunch and talk about how in their playthrough, Victoria dragon kicked a baby while in their friend’s playthrough, Warren Warren spent 5 minutes trying to figure out when his cup yoghurt expires.
Don’t be a Warren, guys. Make better choices.