Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Put simply, for every action take, there is an opposing force pushing the opposite way with equal strength. While that’s a law of physics, Newton may as well have been a philosopher with that one. I’m not sure that there’s a law of physics more appropriately applied to life.
The whole point of Life is Strange is actions and their equal and opposite reactions. You could make the argument that all games that are designed to change themselves to fit your decisions should act like that. If there’s one thing that Dontnod has gotten right through three episodes of Life is Strange, it’s that your decisions cause real and obvious reactions in Arcadia Bay. It certainly extends beyond just little changes in dialogue too.
Spoiler Alert: As with my reviews of other episodic games, this review of Life is Strange – Episode Three: Chaos Theory will contain spoilers for the previous two episodes. I will also disclaim that these spoilers only really pertain to my playthrough of Life is Strange and the decisions you make could result in a different experience. And I lead off with a spoiler for the ending of Episode Two right now.
Based on how Episode Two ended for you, this episode could start in some very different ways. At the end of the last episode, you’re either able to talk Kate off the ledge or watch her jump to her death. That’s followed by the Principal’s office scene that sees you potentially sink the lives of one of three characters. It gives the story a few different directions that it could potentially go which makes for instant replayability and unique experiences that are actually tailored to your game. It seems like a generic tagline on these episodic games but Life Is Strange actually makes decisions feel like they matter.
Unlike the previous two episodes, it didn’t feel like you had any major world or life change decisions to make in Chaos Theory. Instead, the episode was much more tightly focused on Max and Chloe and the cumulative impact that the last days and years have had on them.
This episode alternated between teen mystery movie and a tale of friendship. Both parts were done very well. The girls broke into Blackwell Academy at night to investigate what was happening at the school from Kate’s suicide/attempted suicide to Rachel Amber’s disappearance to the Prescott family’s influence over / ownership of the whole of Arcadia Bay.
On the one hand, the breaking and entering, the investigation and the close scrapes with danger and authority figures is a bit clichéd. On the other hand, it almost seems to fit with Life is Strange. Sure, the last episode dealt with some really heavy themes but it’s nice to take a different approach in this episode.
Max and Chloe, in my game universe, are both going through grief. Max over Kate’s death and Chloe over Rachel and her father. In a way, it feels like the girls’ investigation is less about finding the truth and more a way for the two of them to stay busy rather than face their grief head-on. There’s a feeling of “what can we do when we’re just high school students” to their actions but they feel like it’s important to try something.
I think that this shows a different approach to how one can explore a theme in a video game. Last episode, Dontnod was very upfront and heavy-handed with the fact that they were going to talk about rape culture, depression and suicide. This episode, they dealt with grief in a very subtle way. They didn’t go “look at Max/Chloe grieving over departed loved ones” but all the pieces are there.
It was the correct way for them to approach this because everyone deals with grief in their own way and at their own speed. It’s so easy to fall into the standard workplace way of thinking of give someone a week off and they’ll be back to normal (or we won’t pay for any more time off). In reality, people might be back in hours or days but some people take years to get “back to normal.” Max seems like she’s coping well enough with Kate’s death within hours but after years, Chloe is still coming to grips with her father’s death.
In taking this approach, Dontnod made an episode that was tightly focused on Max and Chloe rather than the world around them. Chaos Theory was about their feelings, their bond and their getting to grips with how years of separation have changed them. It makes for a different episode than the last two. Episode One was about establishing the world. Episode Two was about Max’s power. This episode was about Chloe. Yeah, she’s been in the other two episodes but this is the first time we really get to learn and grow her character.
I know I said off the top that decisions feel like they matter but the ending seems like it might override all the decisions made in the previous episodes. It’s both a really good and very annoying hook for future episodes. If your decisions are shoved to the side, did anything that you do in previous episodes actually matter?
One thing I noticed as I played through this episode was that Life is Strange is designed in a somewhat old school way. You don’t get much in the way of hints or handholding. You have to figure out how to solve puzzles and what next steps to take by yourself. Sometimes, I think that was for the best because it forces you to think and use trial-and-error. I’m so used to detailed steps to take and very clearly points you in the right direction from modern gaming that the design choices are not necessarily made with the modern casual gamer in mind.
Another thing I didn’t realize until today is how differently Life is Strange handles interactive objects compared to Telltale. The default in Telltale games is to have the circle on objects you can interact with. If you’re just in those games for story (and that’s the strong point of LiS, to be fair), that’s a good bit of game design. It’s handholding to an extent but it doesn’t take everything out of your hands. Life is Strange won’t let you know you can interact with an object until you’re within literal spitting distance and the camera is pointed in the right direction.
It’s interesting that a game using some modern design practices such as rewinding time (which really hasn’t been done in recent memory outside of the Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time trilogy) and episodic storytelling is using some very classic point-and-click adventure game design choices. It’s like Dontnod loaded up with programmers who knew the genre when it was massive in the 90s and writers who are in touch with the demands of the modern gamer and combined the two perfectly.
As always, there are nitpicks with the game. I know we’re three episodes in but I have to mention that some of the button prompts are Xbox controller prompts rather than keyboard prompts. It’s largely in the menus so it’s nothing of consequence but you would have thought that would have been an easy thing to fix when porting over to PC. I’m also going to give up on hoping that the lip syncing gets any better.
The camera was getting very annoying in this episode. While I actually like how the camera frames the scenes playing out around Max as it’s very smartly done from a textbook image composition standpoint, that camera can be hard to control at times. I found that because the action selection is click-and-drag, if I missed the initial click (which is easy when you don’t have a pointer on-screen), my second attempt would click-and-drag the object out of camera view. It’s not game breaking but it is annoying.
At one point, there’s a stealth section that requires you to hide behind some lockers while a security guard circles them looking for you. As you get to the end of the lockers, the camera locks in a cinematic way that shows where you see Max hiding behind the lockers and the security guard coming. It works as long as he’s at either end of the lockers. As he circles the lockers, you can’t see him on the other side unless you pivot the camera but the game will jerk the camera back to the cinematic view which gave me a headache. It also made that section unnecessarily difficult.
After Episode Two, I needed to take a little break from Life is Strange because of how hard that ending hit me. Okay, it might have been a different ending for you but I’m reviewing my experiences with the game. The ending of Episode Three also threw me for a loop but it was in a completely different way this time. The time, I’m glad that I’m playing through Life is Strange now rather than when the episodes were coming out. Having to wait two months for the next part after the conclusion of this episode would have been excruciating.
The question now becomes what happens from here. In their uncanny ability to play with the Butterfly Effect, Dontnod have effectively hit the reset button on Life is Strange as we cross the halfway point but do it in a way that fits with the universe, even if it feels slightly convoluted because it’s a bit of a video game trope. When a part of an episodic video game can make you feel excited for the next episode, I think that it’s done its job pretty damn well.
Life is Strange – Episode Three: Chaos Theory was reviewed on PC but is also available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Your impressions of the game may differ depending on platform played on, PC specs and if you wanted to be a part of a teen coming-of-age movie.
Cross-posted from et geekera. For more from et geekera, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Steam and RSS.