NYCC: Inside the Polaroid world of Life is Strange

One of the more interesting titles made available at Square Enix’s press event during New York Comic Con came from Dontnod Entertainment, who developed Remember Me in 2013. Life Is Strange seems like part coming-of-age tale, part mystery, and part supernatural tale. It is the story of Max, a teenager who returns to her home town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, and takes part in a mystery involving a missing teenaged girl. Oh, and she can rewind time. Developed by a team of 40, Dontnod creative director Jean Maxime-Moris considers Life Is Strange a blend of “AAA” and “indie” gaming.

This was perhaps the most involved of the presentations at Square Enix’s NYC event, complete with a low-lit lounge setting with beanbag chairs and a wall of Polaroids. Moris and art director Michel Koch were available to give a sense of what Life Is Strange is about. After a trailer, Koch began the demo with Moris narrating, which introduced Max as a reserved individual. The core mechanic reminded me a bit of titles like Heavy Rain or even Telltale games, in which the player explores rooms and interacts with objects and people that affect one another with several possible outcomes.

The game has a rather youthful aesthetic. The characters on-screen have a slightly stylized look about them, just avoiding the uncanny valley–though they did not exactly look ‘finalized’ either. There is no user interface but when Max interacts with an object or a person the choices are presented in an animated, goofy kids’ chalk font. Even the saving/loading icon, a hand-drawn butterfly. As strange as it might sound, that kind of design choice helps us understand this is truly a teenager’s world and we are experiencing it.

Life_is_Strange_Chloe_gunMax and her closest friend Chloe catch up after Max has been away for some time. We get a sense of Max’s teenage awkwardness and shy, quiet attitude versus Chloe’s rebelliousness (complete with dyed hair, piercing, and toking on a joint) in a conversation. The rest of the demo focuses on Max looking for a tool set to fix Chloe’s broken Polaroid camera. As Moris helped give context to the narrative, he actually held up hand-created Polaroids of characters referenced by Max and Chloe and tossed them as the story progressed.

It is during the search for tools that the game presents its main draw: rewinding time. The first sequence of events prevented Max from accomplishing her goal, but rewinding the moment and setting things right allowed her to find the tool set. Later, a confrontation brewed between Chloe and her stepfather. At first, Koch failed to find a hiding place for Max, and then took the confrontation between the three characters to a dark place. Upon a rewind of the entire event, Max successfully hid, chose a different means for intervention, and the outcome less hostile. Judging by Max’s painful reaction to longer rewinds, it seems like there may be a limit to just how much you can turn the clock back and perhaps plays a role in the story as well.

Life Is Strange presents a world as regular as ours, which is why it stood out among the shooters and RPGs present. Some of the voice performances were honestly a little clumsy, which might be corrected in the final version (and hopefully so in a game this narrative-driven). However, you don’t often get games about high school kids unless they’re summoning demons and trying to hook up, so I can’t help but wonder where Life Is Strange will take players.

Remember Me, the studio’s last project, was not a hit with the masses, but it put forth a conversation about how the industry presents (and markets) female playable protagonists. At the closing segment of the presentation, Moris touched on that subject. “We’re not out to change the world,” he said. “We’re not trying to be different for the sake of being different… but [gender equality] is an important conversation to have,” he continued, “socially, and politically.” The episodic game will launch in 2015 for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

About the Author

Gustavo Lazo Twitter: @derekstruble