This is the first in a series of articles highlighting the great design from a selection of video games.
I can't believe a story-driven adventure game is now one of my all time favourites.
I wouldn't have even considered picking up this game if it weren't for the rave reviews on Steam and the refreshing aesthetic I saw in the trailer.
It's an all too forgotten aspect of video game UX, but the means of distribution and pricing play a great role in the decision-making process of purchasing a game. Some are free-to-play, others subscription based, and some have created even more unique pricing strategies. For me, nothing beats buying a game and knowing you own it (I understand Steam content isn't strictly owned). The £4 price point on Life Is Strange is a low enough barrier to entry that allows players to test the waters before committing to the long haul; there are five episodes in total after all. But who am I kidding, I bought the whole series instantly.
Within minutes of playing the game, I knew it would be one of the most cinematic games I have played in years, and it didn't contain a single vehicular explosion or a high speed chase. Numerous psychology studies cite how quickly first impressions are set by products and websites. Video games are no different.
Camera angles in the dialogic scenes are on-point and make the best use of the beautiful 'hand painted' environment. The Unreal Engine really shines in this game with regards to colour correction which I personally feel is one of the most overlooked features in games of today. Notice the orange fringing on the left side of the jacket above along with the lower exposure to prevent highlight blowouts.
There are a few scenes in which you see the standard cyan and orange theme prevalent in modern day action films but the majority of settings are atypical in their colour palette.
Even without vibrant graphics, a lot of personality is added through the game's characters.
Starting this adventure I found myself as the main protagonist, Max Caulfield, sitting in a classroom being taught about 18th century photography. It stirred feelings similar to my first day in school where I attempted to suss out my classmates and new daily life. Many personalities, such as that of my classmates, are absorbed passively by the player, either through character design, movement or dialogue. It's extremely unobtrusive nature allows users to focus on the gameplay and understand characters in a similar way to real life. A lot of adventure games, especially role-playing games, force players to read pages about characters until they bore you to tears. Thankfully, Life Is Strange does not. Most characters feel well grounded and human when compared to games such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It lends a greater sense of realism to the world.
If we take Max's friend, Chloe, for example, it's very obvious from her styling and clothing choice she's likely to be a rebellious character that pushes Max's more traditional ideals and brings an ambiguity to her decision making process. Chloe's bedroom is another great display of personality with writing on the walls, punk rock posters and ash trays.
We can also see this styling with Victoria Chase, school prep with her designer clothing and snarky remarks she makes within the first few minutes of the game.
At times, the writing can be a smidgen over emphasised but on the whole, sits harmoniously within the setting.
The little things
Finally, a game understands the concept of unobnoxious credits. All too commonly in film and video games alike, publishers and developers insist on thrusting their logo in our faces with garish sound effects every time you load the game. It has bothered me for the longest time and few games have taken the initiative to do something about it.
Life Is Strange sets an example by having no credits until 10 minutes into the game, and they're even placed in a manner that doesn't interfere with player immersion. The Unreal logo is sadly displayed on launch but I believe this is due to terms of licensing the Unreal Engine.
Typography in game is suited to the theme. Dudu Calligraphy is used throughout the game for all elements of UI. A hand drawn style with innocence and immaturity sits perfectly amongst the angsty teen story line and high school setting. More importantly, I find it very legible.
It's nice to be able to play a game where controls are completely intuitive and use nothing more than four keys for movement and mouse clicks. Modern games have a tendency to bombard players with gimmicks that attempt to be inventive, only for gamers and critics to regard them as necessary fluff. Life Is Strange focuses on the core essentials of the experience of discovering the storyline and nothing more. The UI is completely invisible for the most part until a player comes across an interactive object, whether it be a drawer, computer or collectible object. I couldn't be happier that developer, Dontnod, have chosen not to include an inventory as they are a completely hideous invention that need reworked in the majority of games that employ them. This game is simple and even more enjoyable for it making the game more accessible to more people.
It's easy to imagine that those who have not played the game would dismiss the sole interactivity of decision-making as boring, but with the introduction of reversing time, Dontnod have kept decision making interesting and unique in all episodes thus far. I'm intrigued as to whether they can keep it fresh in the final two episodes.
"If you can reverse time and make decision again, where is the challenge?" I hear you say. After each important decision made, a chilling sound alerts you that the decision has repercussions in the future. As the reversing time ability is only enabled over short durations and not throughout the timeline of the game, you have to consider which choice yields the desired outcome. With the fallout of decisions being gradually revealed as opposed to a single reveal at the end of the game, the player has the chance to feel regret over early decisions if the outcome could have been better, knowing we had the opportunity to change it. This reinforces the importance of the decision-making process while creating a sense of anxiety in players.
It's one of a small selection of games that has evoked emotions more complex than an adrenaline rush. At points I felt anxious, happy, and powerless; all in an episode no longer than 2 hours at the most. Most games barely accomplish one of these in 10 hours.
The pacing and transition between scenes is so seamless. Many game story lines are but a blur in my mind. With good writing and pacing, Life Is Strange allows me to remember tiny, little moments by the emotion they stirred, visuals they contained, or lines that were spoken.
I wouldn't like to call out specific moments for fear of spoiling plot points or set pieces, but I can assure you the game takes you from quiet, fulfilled smiles to fear and regret.
Facial animation in the game is perfect. I've had an easier time quickly grasping a character's emotion compared to games that use greater levels of realism in texturing and animation. I do wish the synchronisation of dialogue with lip movement was better, but it doesn't currently detract from the game.
This game incorporates its soundtrack in some of the most natural ways I've seen in a game. Rarely is music played without a visible controlled source. At the very beginning of the game, Max places earbuds in her ears and the hubbub of the high school fades out while the gentle indie music fades to accompany your exploration of Blackwell Academy's hallways.
At the same time, the game understands that moments of silence and ambient noises are just as important as those accompanied by a soundtrack. Due to the sparsity of music, every time a new song plays, it feels like unearthing a gem. The indie rock soundtrack suits the game so well, even if all isn't to my taste.
The French developers of this game state the setting became the Pacific North West after a trip to Seattle. If this was made by developers in the North West, I don't believe it would capture half the beauty of the surroundings it current does. It's an outsider's perspective that gives it this charm.
The recurring nightmare max has (above) gives great scale, depth and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness through its colour palette and focal points placing max dead centre on a cliff edge.
With the abundance of forests and Arcadia Bay's coastal location, it makes the best of sunrise and sunset locations in order to add a subdued or romantic mood to scenarios.
The next chapter
If the final two episodes keep up to the same amazing standard, this may well be my number one game of all time. If you haven't given the first episode a chance yet, I sincerely urge you to try it. The plot becomes ever more intriguing with every decision made.
Finally, thank you Dontnod for making an amazing game that is a very welcome addition to the history of video games.