Everyone has that one TV show that they realise is in some ways not very good, but which they can't help but love anyway. These guilty pleasures are successful generally not on the merit of their content, but on their ability to make you comfortable within their created world. For me, Life is Strange is the perfect example of guilty pleasure gaming.
The one part of Life is Strange that can be enjoyed guilt-free is the story. Spread across five episodes of season one, it following Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old who has moved back to her home town of Arcadia Bay in Portland to attend a prestigious arts high school. There, she is reunited with her best friend Chloe, who is hunting a friend, Rachel, who has gone missing. In the midst of this, Max gains the ability to alter time after receiving a vision of the town being destroyed by a massive tornado.
Encompassing time travel, investigation, and the dynamics of friendship, Max’s adventures weave a fascinating multi-layered narrative. Though the setup is a touch heavy-handed in the first episode, the search for Rachel becomes a fantastic impetus for the story in later episodes, acting as a platform from which to mix in all the game’s other narrative threads.
A large part of the story’s success is owed to Max's newly-discovered time travel power, and the unique narrative opportunities it offers. Without spoiling the specifics, the sections which deeply explore the limits and consequences of Max's time-travelling translate into the most emotionally palpable moments the game has to offer, and they lend a level of intellectual depth that would be otherwise missing.
Also aiding the story’s success is the choice system. Life is Strange's decision-making is arguably the most complex and best-executed of any adventure game. Combined with Max's rewind power, it allows you to sculpt the experience in some truly personal ways, with decisions drastically changing the narrative, and ripple effects reaching from the first episode to the last.
The end of the game, however, only offers two endings that are not affected by your previous choices. As disappointing as that is, both are incredibly emotional conclusions to the adventure, and the final decision itself is one that encapsulates the entire experience beautifully.
Holding the story back are the odd priorities of the characters, whose motivations often stand at odds with the circumstances. The best example of this is Max's incessant fixation with mundane high school drama, despite the fact that she has recently discovered she has the ability to rewind time. Max herself says it best in the finale: "Too bad you pissed away your power on high school drama."
Tone is a problem too, mostly thanks to the tacky dialogue characters constantly spout. It’s often cringe-worthy to say the least, and consistently detracts from the experience. But worse is the cast of profoundly over-the-top and often-unbelievable characters.
Max and Chloe end up being complex and well-articulated characters, but almost everyone outside of these two is a walking cliché, with their actions and dialogue verging on farcical. In particular, the villains of the game are ludicrous attempts at psychologically-complex characters, their execution too cheesy and over the top to hold any sincerity.
Even so, with each episode, the world of Life is Strange grows on you. Your investment in the world rises, and the tonal problems become less of a barrier to enjoyment and more just quirks of this lovably flawed universe. It becomes like that soap that you need to watch; the problems quickly become secondary to your desire to find out what happens next, or your desire just to spend time with the characters.
In fact, some of the best moments of the game are Max and Chloe just hanging out. These quiet moments allow you to connect to these characters in a way rarely explored in games.
So despite its issues, Life is Strange is absolutely an experience worth having. In the end, its flaws are merely speedbumps, small irritations in the fascinating and unique experience the game has to offer. A guilty pleasure indeed.