While stuck in quarantine, I decided to regress a bit and play a few videogames to pass the time. In the past three months, I have completed all the games from Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange franchise, and will be highlighting them below.
People’s opinions of story-heavy, choice-based games vary wildly, particularly among the “gamer” gamers. Since this specific genre can be seen as playable movies, they receive criticism for not being “active” enough. Luckily for me, the cinematic and thematic qualities of videogames are what interest me most, so it follows that I find them fascinating.
This franchise in particular does not simply draw its own world and rules, but incorporates real-life social issues into its themes: depression, personal guilt, bullying, the bonds between people, taking responsibility for one’s actions, loss, and the acceptance of that loss. When I started playing them, I was far from ready for the emotional roller-coaster that was to befall me.
With that, let’s get to it.
Life is Strange (2015)
In this game you play as Max Caulfield, a quiet and reserved photography student who has moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. One day, she discovers that she has the ability to reverse time, and manages to save her childhood best friend, Chloe, from getting shot by a fellow student.
Throughout the game, Max and Chloe try and solve the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a student who has been missing for 6 months. Things get stranger and stranger as Max’s journey gets more dire and intense; for a game that at first appears as just another high-school drama saga, the circumstances that the player eventually finds themselves in are incredibly somber and soul-wrenching. It has us ask ourselves: How far would we go to save those we care about? If we could change the past, would we? If so, we better be ready for the consequences that come with that power.
A mixture of Twin Peaks, Final Destination, and The Butterfly Effect, Life is Strange is one of the best stories I’ve experienced in gaming, and perhaps even in all media.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017)
Serving as a prequel to Life is Strange, this game puts you in control of 16-year-old Chloe Price and allows you to relive those awkward, angsty teenage years. From dealing with her hard-ass stepfather, to navigating her intense and turbulent friendship with Rachel Amber (whose disappearance blanketed the first game with mystery and dread), to trying to come to terms with her father’s tragic death two years prior, the player gains insight into Chloe and her various struggles; in short, why she is the way she is. That said, this entry serves as a great character study into what arguably is one of the most well-crafted queer female protagonists in gaming.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (2018)
You play as Chris Eriksen, a nine-year-old whose alter ego is the superhero, Captain Spirit. Chris lives with his dad Charles who, after the death of Chris’ mother, has become an alcoholic.
It’s a very short venture, as it mainly serves as a type of prequel to Life is Strange 2, but in that hour that is spent playing, the player can feel the dreariness that accompanies the months and years that follow loss, along with the child-like naivety and innocence in trying to make sense of that loss.
Life is Strange 2 (2018)
Sean and Daniel, ages 16 and 9, are two Mexican brothers from Seattle whose father gets shot by police. During the incident, Sean discovers that Daniel has telekinesis (which results in the death of a cop), and decides that they need to book it out of the country. They set out to travel to Mexico, to return to their father’s homeland, Puerto Lobos. Along the way, they meet some really cool people (and trim weed in Humboldt), and ones that are not so cool (people that label them criminals simply by looking at their skin color).
It was definitely a change of pace, to have the player not be in control of the character with the supernatural ability. As Sean, you become a pseudo-father figure to Daniel, and are solely responsible for teaching him morals while advising him on when and how he should use his new-found telekinetic ability.
The game might not be as good as the others, but it does a very good job in placing the player in the shoes of a minority that has to endure racism and bigotry, therefore evoking a type of empathy that videogames rarely develop.
Tell Me Why (2020)
While this game isn’t technically considered part of the Life is Strange franchise, I chose to include it, as I think its themes and atmosphere largely encompass what the other entries strive to do.
You get to play as both Alyson and Tyler Ronan, two twins that reunite in their hometown in Delos Crossing, Alaska; they suffered a horrific childhood trauma that ended with their mom being killed and them being separated for 10 years. Now, as they prepare to sell their old house, they seek to find the truth about what really happened that night, and figure out how to come to terms with the past.
When the player isn’t consumed in the mystery at hand, they find themselves taken aback by the scenery, as this game is seriously so pretty. Aside from being simply gorgeous to look at, the game makes history as being the first to feature a main character who is transgender.
With the themes of memory and sibling bonds, the journey is a special one. The core trauma of the game is admittedly very dark, and at times feels a little too depressing. But, as we have probably all learned, life is not cheese and wine and roses, but a series of challenges and pitfalls where a happy ending is hard to find. Tell Me Why, along with all the other games in the franchise, embrace this truth with honesty that is bleak, but that still contains threads of hope.
Choice-based games were never really my cup of tea, but after giving these pieces a shot, I have since reconsidered their place on the videgame totem pole.
The pain of memories, the death of our parents and guardians, the exploration of sexuality, the bonds of friendship and of siblings, perseverance in the face of adversity – all of these are taken up by Dontnod, one of the few game developers out there that consistently release thoughtful, emotional, and pro-minority pieces.
While games and media can be great entertainment, they can also be great teachers, and conduits that allow for a cathartic and therapeutic experience that help us make sense of the world, our relationships, and ourselves.
People can take away a variety of values and ideals from these games, as they have the propensity to mean a bunch of different things to different people. But one common theme remains certain: no matter how we navigate our lives and which paths we choose to take, we must not forget that those choices and actions always have consequences.