‘Life is Strange’: Franchise Highlight

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.

Ranked: The ‘Silent Hill’ Franchise

Back in 1999, Konami wanted to develop a game that answered back to 1996’s huge hit, Resident Evil.  They entrusted this to a small group of developers, a sort of rag-tag group that weren’t considered the top performers at the development company.  What resulted was the psychological counterpart to the survival horror that Resident Evil helped solidify.  With Resident Evil leaning more toward action-horror, I found my preference in Silent Hill, as it chose to focus on the more subtle, inward forms of horror and terror.

Being as the anniversary of the release of the first Silent Hill game is approaching, I thought it was high time to share some thoughts and rankings of the games in the series.  Not only does the collection adequately wear the cloak of “survival horror”, but, perhaps more importantly, the one of psychological horror.  Stemming from this genre, the game further delves into multiple subgenres, including body horror, family horror, and personal horror – when repressed memories and actions are illuminated, and our dark halves are turned inside out.

I cannot say that I dislike any games in the series, as each one has something to offer (or so I’ve found, anyway…);  the ones that rank lower do have their own respective flaws, certainly, but if one can look past wonky controls or a frustrating camera set-up, they will be thankful, as the pros vastly outweigh the cons.  The thematic material, the darkly tragic stories, and the opportunity for introspection that the series has to offer make this collection of media some of the most profound and emotional pieces of narrative that I have found in any medium.

Welcome to Silent Hill (and my rankings of the main games)

<<Keep in mind – these are not ranked from Worst to Best, but my Least Favorite to Favorite>>

 

#8 – Silent Hill: Origins (2007)

This was the last Silent Hill game that I played, and oddly enough it’s the last on the list.  While the music and atmosphere was great and unsettling, it really didn’t add anything of value in terms of lore, or even visuals – it was mostly more of what we had already seen.  I understand the allure of origin stories, however the attempt to tie ties with the first installment wasn’t as good as it could have been.  That said, the game had some decently frightening moments, and Travis the protagonist has arguably one of the most messed up backstories of the franchise.

 

#7 – Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009)

Shattered Memories serves as a loose remake (some call it a re-imagining) of the first game.  I was a bit skeptical of this one, as it was made for the Wii console (honestly, how good could a survival horror for the Wii actually be?).  Shattered Memories takes the series in a drastic different direction control-wise and concept-wise;  part of the game has you playing Harry Mason as he searches for his daughter, but it also has you engage in a therapy session with a psychologist.  From guilt to family to death, the game tracks your answers in the therapy session, as well as how you play as Harry, with the psychologist’s notes regarding your personality being shown after you complete the game as the credits roll.  This game and its thematic implications bothered and stuck with me for a long time after I played it, truly making fear personal.

 

#6 – Silent Hill: Downpour (2012)

A lot of “firsts” for the series came with this game.  I would say Downpour is the most expansive of them all, and relies the heaviest on exploration.  The first SH game that is slightly “open-world”, it really had a lot of neat things in it, with the addition of side quests offering more backstory regarding the dark secrets that reside in the homes of other Silent Hill citizens.  The biggest downside to Downpour was its monster design;  the series is known for its menacing and symbolic monsters, but in this game…the monsters (save for the main boss and the mannequins) were very blah.  Aside from that, this game was solid.  The plot was well-executed, the characters were well-written, and the puzzles were among the best.

 

#5 – Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008)

Homecoming is, by a large amount of Silent Hill fans, considered to be the worst game in the series.  Okay, so yes it is more action-based than any other, and yes, it does kind of feel like Saw 3 had a love child with Hostel, but I actually really enjoyed playing it.  While some of it takes place in the neighboring town of Shepherd’s Glen, it demonstrates the pervasiveness of the Order, the cult behind all the humanly evil shenanigans in the town (the plot is supremely twisted, and centers on ritualistic filicide).  Homecoming can be way over-the-top at times with its gore and script, but that’s what made it fun, almost campy;  plus, it contains the most intimidating boss battle I’ve ever battled – Scarlet, a tall, skinny, domineering doll monster that is made of flesh underneath.  Oh yea, and in her second phase she turns into a spider.

 

#4 – Silent Hill (1999)

The original game is so bizarre and off-putting, one really does feel like they are in an alternate reality while playing.  As Harry Mason, an average, run-of-the-mill dad, you have to search for your missing daughter after a car crash – in the town of Silent Hill.  The fog/ash is oppressive, the sound assaults you, and the dread that you encounter is so real.  There were times when I was playing that I was literally frozen with fear, unable to carry on.  And I’m talking like at 11 am on a sunny day – I’d be terrified and have to quit.  It is a living nightmare-scape where you have no choice but  to move onward (literally, by playing).  If you are interested in beginning your foray into survival horror and want to understand how this specific genre came to be, this game is an absolute must.

 

#3 – Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004)

Definitely the most abstract of the games, SH4 was largely experimental, a chance for Team Silent to try new things.  Consequently, this has led it to be the most polarizing entry in the series:  you will either really like it, or really, really hate it.  And I will say this: the game is not a fun one to play – it’s hard, frustrating, and sometimes straight up insufferable.  It violates many rules of gaming:  the mandatory repeating of levels, the extensive escort mission, and the “unsafe-ing” of the player’s Safe Room, to name a few big ones.  That said, it is because of these violations that it had such an impact;  the player never feels safe in this game, and never feels sure about what they heard, what they’re looking at, or even what exactly is going on.  All you know is something very bad is happening, your apartment that you thought was a safe haven is slowly becoming haunted, and you have the unkillable ghost of a serial killer chasing you.  For me, SH4 remains the scariest game in the series, and arguably contains the best story.

 

#2 – Silent Hill 2 (2001)

The eminence of SH2 almost goes without saying.  Considered as the de-facto “best” in the series, and one of the greatest games of all time, I too believe it to be the objective best entry.  The music, pacing, tone, storytelling – everything about this game is perfect.  James Sunderland lost his wife three years ago.  However, he recently received a letter — from his dead wife.  She says that she’s waiting for him in Silent Hill –  he travels there to find out the truth, a truth that might be a hard and bitter pill to swallow.  Before SH2, I had never experienced such an emotional reaction to a video game when the final twist came.  It is a shame that video games as a whole are a tad more difficult to recommend and consume than movies or music, but if I could somehow force everyone to play this one, I would.

 

#1 – Silent Hill 3 (2003)

Part of my placement of this one at the top is attributed to nostalgia.  Being the first Silent Hill I played, I was not quite ready for what was to follow in terms of the amount of affect that could be experienced from a video game.  It serves as a direct sequel to #1, and delves deep into the town’s lore – it incorporates themes of maternity and unwanted pregnancy, along with fanatical religion and ritualism.  The whole thing is red, gory, grimy, and disturbing.  The player encounters all this, as they play as Heather (Harry Mason’s adopted daughter), a smart and sarcastic 17-year-old who has no idea why any of this crazy shit is happening to her.  With the strongest protagonist, the most dynamic soundtrack, the most visceral visuals, and overall the best playing experience, Silent Hill 3 is not only my top SH pick, but my favorite video game period.

The Next Tarantino – “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Just when you thought your reservoir for gratuitous violence was almost empty, news of the new Quentin Tarantino film comes to light!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set to be released in August 2019, and so far the cast includes: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and, not surprisingly, Zoe Bell.  It will take place in 1969 Los Angeles, and follow a television star (DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Pitt) as they navigate through La-La Land.

DiCaprio’s character happens to live next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie has been rumored to have been cast for this role), and while it’s not for certain that that will be the center-point of the film…one can almost be certain that it will end in a cultist bloodbath, with QT himself playing Charles Manson. This is all speculation, of course, but what more can you expect from a Tarantino film?

Upcoming Lord of the Flies Remake

Ever since sophomore year in high school when we had to read this haunting novel, I had always wondered what it would have been like if, instead of a group of boys getting stranded on an island together, it was a group of girls.  Well, looks like we’re going to find out!

I welcome remakes and prequels and sequels with open arms, just as long as their existence isn’t a complete decimation of and insult to the original material (I’m looking at you, Descent 2).

Even though it’s going to be the complete opposite of the Amazon island utopia in Wonder Woman…this idea has me intrigued, and I will definitely be giving it a shot.

 

 

More details:
Scott McGehee & David Siegel Plan Female-Centric ‘Lord Of The Flies’ At Warner Bros