Year Made: 2015 (Episodes 3-5 to be released at later dates)
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Price: First Episode: $4.99; All 5 Episodes: $19.99
Content Areas: English. Social Studies
Suggested Age Level: Upper High School
Play Length: 3 hours
Number of Players: Single Player
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Warnings: This game contains violence, drug use, alcohol use, profanity, and sexual themes. It has been rated M by the ESRB
Have you ever made a decision but wondered what would have happened if you made a different choice? With the number of issues teenagers face, they also encounter a number of choices that could have major impacts on their futures. In Dontnod and Square Enix’s game, Life is Strange, heroine Max Caulfield faces similar problems and difficult decisions. The only difference is that Max Caulfield discovers she has the ability to reverse time and change past events. Not only does this allow her to alter smaller decisions, such as whether or not to sign a petition, but it even leads to her being able to save her childhood best friend from being shot. As Max struggles to fit in at her new school and cope with her new ability, the player too must decide which choice is the better one to make and where their priorities are.
As Life is Strange’s first installment of five, “Chrysalis” focuses on introducing characters, setting, and conflicts as well as letting players experience the myriad of choices they can make to affect the story and the hints of possible consequences to follow. Each of the characters, from leading lady Max to best friend Chloe to threatening rich kid Nathan, are developed, well rounded, and thought through. Following in the footsteps of its Square Enix family, Life is Strange features beautiful, detailed graphics and a storyline that already promises to draw players in and connect them with the characters themselves. The game provides a variety of choices that will impact the game later on and requires the player to think critically about the impact even the smallest decisions could have. No choice is easily made and often the consequences seem to play out in the most unexpected ways.
Above the review, I listed some of the more mature issues that arise in Life is Strange. The mature topics are necessary to the plot and to the realism of what teens experience, but they are also the largest con to using the game in an educational setting. It might be difficult for some students even at the junior or senior level to maturely handle some of these topics, and there may be times where a student could need to step away if they have a personal connection to some of the issues presented. At the same time, some of these are issues that they would find in more traditional works of literature or other places. It would really come down to how mature your students are and how your community feels about it. I highly recommend that you run the game past your department chair or principal and get their approval on it as well as let parents know about it. The only other issue with Life is Strange is that in the PC version, there were times where the controls would get stuck, because moving the mouse controls the camera and holding down the mouse button then moving the mouse is how players select actions. It was easily fixed, but would be enough to become annoying and pull me out of the story.
For all of its clear references to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (Max’s last name, living at a boarding school, the poster in Max’s room that is almost dead-on the cover of the book), it would be an excellent pairing with the novel or any modern novel with themes of alienation, powerlessness, or regret. Not only that, but it opens up an excellent discussion about where video games fit into the definitions of text and literature as more storytellers use video games as a medium for expression and connection. The time reversal mechanic, futility of choices, and discussion of player choice all make the game a catalyst for discussion in a psychology or philosophy class as well. Given the game's maturity, it could work best for an independent study for a student or small group.
The first episode of Life is Strange promises a story that students can connect with and have the chance to impact through the choices they make. With the second episode soon to be released, the story should only grow and continue to be the modern lovechild of Catcher in the Rye and Braid. Ideally, the game could work in the classroom if the language could be censored and the argument could be made that the other issues are what students could read in a book. With these issues though, the game could only be played with mature students who could handle these topics. For the students that could experience the game though, Life is Strange is one that could inspire hours of conversation about choice, powerlessness, and the teenage experience.
Episode 2 Extended Review
Educational Rating: 6/8
(Classroom Tech Friendly, Motivation, Concrete Learning, Additional Skills, Feedback, Difficulty, Accessibility, Extension)
Overall Rating: 7/8
(Immersion, Environment, Storyline, Replayability, Entertainment, Gameplay, Originality, User Control)