Life is Strange & Life is Strange 2: series development in terms of game design, graphics, and representation of social issues
Life is Strange (Dontnod Entertainment 2015) is a narrative adventure in the interactive cinema genre, released in 5 parts over 10 months from January to October of 2015. For the French studio, DONTNOD Life is Strange was a runaway success. It earned high marks from critics and players (Metacritic 2020, Life is Strange PC) — 83 and 8.6, respectively, was ported to 7 different platforms, received 2 wins in the corresponding story nominations at The British Academy Game Awards (BAFTA 2016) and Develop Industry Excellence Awards (MCV Staff 2015).
The main mechanic in this game is rewinding time — the main character, Max Caulfield, receives the gift of time management after a classmate of the main character shoots at her childhood friend. Max saves her girlfriend by rewinding time a few seconds back. In the future, the player uses time rewind for various situations — from helping a classmate to correcting an unpleasent answer in a dialogue. This mechanic disappears in the continuation of the series — Life is Strange 2, which received less vivid user ratings (Metacritic 2020, Life is Strange 2 PC) — only 4.7 out of 10 based on 141 ratings, against the background of a fairly average score from critics — 70 out of 100. It would seem that the negative reaction of the gaming community could occur due to the deprivation of the familiar mechanics — rewind time, which gave the gameplay a certain dynamiс and special setting. However, in my opinion, the root of this situation lies in a completely different area of social life, to which we will return later.
Let’s consider Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2 in terms of graphics — the most obvious element of the series, which has undergone notable improvements.
The quality of the models and their interaction with lighting has improved unconditionally. It’s worth noting that both games were developed with the Unreal Engine 4 (Epic Games 2014). In the screenshot on the left, referring to the first part of the series, you can see unevenly colored textures, angular topology, as well as unrealistic chiaroscuro. In the screenshot on the right, such obvious errors are not visible — the light falls evenly and gently scatters in accordance with the topology of the model, the textures are made with high quality, and the general elaboration is obviously stylized, but has no angularities. The color range has become more varied and richer, the light no longer whitens materials in the scene.
DONTNOD did an equally successful work on landscapes — again, we can note a completely new level of elaboration and detail, as well as work with aerial perspective and cinematic shot plans. What is much more surprising is the fact that such elaborate landscapes changed in Life is Strange 2 from episode to episode and did not lose the beauty and level of complexity. Life is Strange has consistently used the same locations in various scenes and episodes, yet the action takes place within the same small city, while Life is Strange 2 covers a journey from the very north of the United States all the way to the Mexican border, which implies a constant change of locations. Throughout the game, landscapes change between the dense forests of Washington state and burning Nevada, leading the heroes through many beautiful locations. Many of them only appear in cutscenes for a few seconds, but their intricacy can still be surprising.
It is also worth noting how thoughtfully the developers approached the construction of space and the so-called labyrinth of player actions in Life is Strange 2. When playing Life is Strange, the player often encounters invisible walls, to which the main character, Max, reacts by annoying phrase many players throughout the existence of invisible walls had encountered: “No, I don’t need to go there.” This was especially annoying in pseudo open spaces, such as a location with railway tracks. In Life is Strange 2, many of these tasks were solved not by annoying invisible walls, but by a special construction of locations, which visually and intuitively diverted players from falling into invisible walls. For example, a stream, thickets, cliffs, descents, steep climbs, drifts of snow, realistic fences, correctly marked trails. If at the same time the player found himself in a really open location, as, for example, in episode 4, when Sean walked through the frying Nevada desert: here the player’s excessive curiosity was limited to the logical slow gait of the main character, languishing in the heat. The player is supposed to get bored of just going the wrong way to get back on track, and to tell you the truth, it worked great for me.
The realism of the game world began to feel differently, designed to repeat the American culture and way of life. While working on Life is Strange 2, DONTNOD were inspired by the work of photographer Mike Brody and various road trip films. References like these helped the developers create a unique, authentic atmosphere that they could not achieve in the first part of the series. First Life is Strange was heavily inspired by the Twin Peaks TV series that aired in the early 90s. It has many small plot references, its own red room in the form of darkroom (i.e. developing rooms) and with special zeal conveyed the atmosphere of American diners. And although the references in the atmosphere were easy to catch, it was not quite possible to transfer it to the modern reality of the early 2010s — Max uses vocabulary that is unusual for the ear, many dialogues look unrealistic, as well as the reactions of the characters to various events.
The series has undergone no less good evolution on the part of game design tools. Both games offer the player different choices, moral and entertaining, as the story progresses, however, there is one major difference between them. Elections in Life is Strange in general did not affect the plot of the game in any way. Any decision of the player inevitably leads to the same event, and the finale of the game is formed solely on the basis of the last choice. Then what was the point of the rest of the choices?
At the same time, Life is Strange 2 has a special mechanic for raising a younger brother, which affects the final outcome of the game, regardless of the player’s last choice. Thus, almost all decisions made change the scale invisible to the player, which has weight not only at the end of the game, but also at various points throughout all episodes. The illusion of consciousness of the protagonist’s younger brother is created by his “independent” decision making that relies on this invisible scale. This makes solving regular in-game issues a much more meaningful action for the player. In my opinion, by solving the problem of choice, the developers did not lose the overall richness of the gameplay, despite the fact that Life is Strange 2 does not have a time rewind mechanic.
But what is really surprising is the work of the developers to represent the social problems of various marginalized groups. Life is Strange deals with many pressing social issues, such as: ecology, mental disorders, suicide, drug use and distribution, bullying, sexism, ephebophilia, disability, and also very seriously considers crimes such as kidnapping, murder, and violence. Despite the fact that there are no complaints about the depiction of the figure of the maniac and his victims, all other questions were touched quite carelessly, especially suicide and mental disorders.
Nothing like that can be said for Life is Strange 2. The developers have narrowed down the issues they address, but now it has become a neat and crisp portrayal of the oppression that many people face in today’s world. At The Game Awards 2020, Life is Strange 2 received a Games for Impact nomination, specifically designed for social gaming.
Homelessness, racism, sexuality, conversion therapy, depression, self-harm, grief, faith, roles in society & motherhood are some of the subjects LIS 2 dealt with. It has 6 canon LGBT characters & 3 of them are POC. Whether you like it or not it should have won Games For Impact.
— seandiazstan, Twitter 2019
Given that the main characters of LIS2 are Mexican Americans, the issue of racism appears most acutely throughout the game. The developers reveal this problem by providing the viewer with many scenes of racism towards the main characters. The very situation that led the Diaz brothers on their difficult path has its roots in racist worldview, hatred and fear. Later, in various episodes, Sean and Daniel are faced with manifestations of racism in their direction, which include not just words, views or prejudices, but also forced imprisonment, kidnapping, and violence.
The findings from GeekRemix’s Twitter in the screenshots above were corroborated and endorsed by Life is Strange co-director Michel Koch:
Thanks so much for this perfect description of some of the bigger picture we had in mind when designing the stories, supernatural powers, and choices in those two games! LiS2 is about systemic oppression, and how limited some people’s options are against the system.
— DONTNOD_Michel, Twitter 2019
It can be noted that Life is Strange was not careful about the issues of mental disorders, especially in the context of suicide and severe forms of depression. The heroine Kate Marsh attempts to commit suicide, but with a good set of circumstances, the player manages to dissuade her. Subsequently, many students of Arcadia Bay and Max herself say not the most thoughtful things about what happened, which are formed in a wrapper of good words. And Kate Marsh herself is so quickly moving away from what happened that the very next day after the incident she draws kind pictures instead of sad ones. It seems as if she escaped some kind of physical injury, and does not suffer from a prolonged depressive state that does not just go away.
Life is Strange 2 at the same time very carefully and realistically portrays people who have experienced depression and still experience psychological difficulties. The main figure who speaks openly about the problems with the internal state is Karen — the mother of the two main characters. The elder brother’s relationship with his mother is very sensitive and discreet in revealing many questions about dealing with depression.
Having analyzed the many different components of the two games, we can say with some degree of confidence that Life is Strange 2 is an excellent development of the series, taking the ideas of the first game and improving them at times. Graphics? Check. Game design? Check. Scenario? Check. Level design? Check. Representation of social problems? Check.
But why does LiS2 have a lower rating?
In my opinion, the answer to this question lies among the ways of representing LGBT people that the first LiS chose for itself. The fact is that the relationship of the main characters — Max and Chloe, in their totality, constitutes a fairly obvious and consistent message — they love each other and their relationship is related to LGBT representation. Max has the opportunity to kiss Chloe, but also has the chance to take a romantic interest in her friend Warren. Chloe shows a romantic interest in Rachel in the prequel to the first part — Life is Strange: Before the Storm — and also invites Max to kiss her. Unfortunately, the audience does not have a clear idea of the orientation of the heroines, since the game never speaks about it openly. And this is the main problem — two girls, “publicly” recognized as beautiful enough, can easily become the subject of fetishization, especially if romantic intentions were not revealed in the most obvious way. Even a kiss can be perceived by a certain percentage of viewers as a joke. This attracts an audience interested in unconscious or deliberate objectification of heroines, which can affect the lives of real lesbians and female bisexuals in a negative way.
This problem, again, is not observed in Life is Strange 2. In addition to the fact that there are at least 6 LGBT characters in it who openly talked about it. This is a married couple of gay men of the age with a pride-flag hung outside their house, a young man who survived conversion therapy, a pansexual guy, and also the main character — Sean Diaz, who is controlled by the player. He has a choice between two romantic lines, where Sean can have a relationship with a girl named Cassidy or a guy named Finn, while Sean is asked about his orientation openly and it all depends on the player’s interpretation, but the variation itself confirms that the main character of LiS2 is bisexual. Not the most successful hero for the audience that is used to fetishizing.
Thus, a certain part of the LiS audience could not accept LiS2 due to the main character not meeting their expectations. The absence of Max and Chloe in the game led to the fact that this part of the players simply ceased to be interested, since the objectification figures were gone. Most likely, these viewers are also not interested in the importance of representing minorities and portraying real social issues like racism or homophobia. Therefore, the fact of the general improvement of the series passed them by, which resulted in a low user rating for the game.