Some Thoughts On Life Is Strange

There’s almost always a certain expectation when you’re the second notable game brandishing a relatively new style of gameplay. When The Walking Dead Season 1 released back in 2012 it revitalized the adventure game genre and added the twist of all your choices having in-game consequences. It was a massive success critically and commercially and for a while no one attempted to take on that concept. Now in 2015 Dontnod decided to go for it and added a few wrinkles of their own.

The first thing I noticed when starting up Life Is Strange is that the production values were noticeably lower. The technical aspect of the graphics weren’t up the standards set by The Walking Dead and neither was the voice acting (especially some of Max’s inner thoughts). Even so it exudes something that the TWD could never have. An identity to call its own. The art swings somewhere between Pixar animated and an almost painted look, and the relaxed acoustic music set is fitting. Even the menus and prompts share this idea with their sketchbook design. It’s cool because it’s different, and more importantly, cohesive. Everyone and everything shares in this simple aesthetic.

I really found Max to be a very believable person in this world, and I think part of that stems from personal experience. She’s shy, a little introverted, and finds any kind of conflict to be very stressful. Her thoughts show that she constantly second guesses things or puts herself down. Max reminds me a lot of myself in high school. While I’ve gone on record before to say that I don’t always need relatable protagonists I really enjoyed it here. I felt for Max in a way that I haven’t for a lot of main characters in most games I play. Even those who maybe don’t relate to Max can probably still feel some empathy for her. I don’t think I can say the same for most everyone else though as they seem more like caricatures than actual human beings. When I saw the rich girl Victoria with the group of friends who constantly bullied Kate for her abstinence pledge I couldn’t help but feel like that was a little too obvious. Chloe also teetered on that edge early on when Max and her are hanging out. “Of course she’s a rebel girl because obviously that’s the only answer to an authoritative father or stepfather.” Granted she is rapidly gaining more depth than that as the story progresses but I still couldn’t shake that thought through the entire first episode.

Without any real explanation Max takes on the power to control time early on in the story. Being the crux of the game’s mechanics the first episode takes every chance it can to tell you (as Max) that you can rewind critical choices and choose another with your powers. At first I worried that this would take away any sense of agency from the game (since you can choose whatever, see how it plays out, and go back to try the other option as many times as you’d like), but they still felt pretty powerful once I locked them in. Only time and future episodes will tell if the choices actually matter and impact the story in any real capacity or if it will go the Telltale route of only slightly altering dialogue. As much as I’d hope for the former I’m not getting my hopes up on that.

It’s impossible to judge the quality of Life Is Strange on the first episode alone. Maybe the writing could get noticeably better or the story could completely fall apart in the latter half. No one really knows. At the very least I can say the first episode got me interested to see more. Honestly not more of the doomsday overarching plot but definitely more of the character arcs. I want to see Max, Chloe and everyone else grow and change over these next few months, and I hope that my biggest fear won’t come true. I hope the game doesn’t fall into mediocrity. I want something special out of Life Is Strange.

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Some Thoughts On Neverending Nightmares

Neverending Nightmares is a pretty good experience and a pretty poor game. It has a fantastic black and white sketch book art style with painted blood red accents. A haunting, yet simple, soundtrack accompanied by the loud footsteps and short breaths of the main character Thomas. And enemies. The biggest problem is that the game has enemies.

Nightmares lives and dies by its own atmosphere. If anything in the game does something to shatter your immersion then it becomes really hard to recover from that point on. So the enemies, by their very nature of being an obstacle to the player, can easily cause this problem. If they kill you, you die, and stop making progress.

Now to be fair to the game it does try to have an in universe way of explaining away the issue. When Thomas “dies” he wakes up in the last bed he passed by, and can continue on from there. In the game’s universe he is in fact living a never ending nightmare. This really is much better than a simple retry/quit menu screen popping up but it’s not perfect. Since the enemies can kill you in a single hit and don’t ever go away it’s very possible for the wall of immersion to come crumbling down as your frustration mounts. The more times you die and wake up in the same exact place and have to figure out the same monster puzzle the more of a “game” it becomes.

There’s a distinct turning point where you come to realize that you’re not playing as Thomas trying to escape his living hell; you’re the player trying to get past an enemy so you can advance the plot. At some point the enemies become less scary and more of a barrier that at best distracts you from soaking in the environment and at worst stops you from seeing anything new and engaging.

There are ways the game could have used challenge instead however. A simple non-combat puzzle to break up the monotony of walking around, maybe some creatures locked behind walls or simply unaware or uncaring of Thomas’ presence. It could still have it’s moments like when Thomas tears a vein out of his arm with a bloody shriek, and in fact it would benefit from moments like that being the only source of violence in the game. With the ability to die repeatedly in a bloody mess comes the desensitization to all the blood and gore.

Neverending Nightmares is at its best when you’re slowly walking through a series of small rooms and long hallways. There’s nothing to hear except the sound of your own feet and maybe a distant scream. It’s terror as its best. Everything is wrong and yet there’s actually nothing there capable of harming you. It’s just you and your imagination running wild through every haunted house, hospital, and forest.