Gayme Corner: Episodic Video Games and the Beauty of “Life is Strange”

Happy Ides of July! Welcome to the second edition of Gayme Corner, a biweekly column in which I’ll talk about games, all types of games, and the ways that we play them. Today we’re gonna talk about episodic video games, my favorite trend in development right now, and my favorite game so far, Life is Strange (which, aside from being great to play, is also real nice to look at).

life-is-strange-bay

On the surface, episodic video games describe any video game that’s being released in small parts, usually 6-8 weeks apart. Virtually any game could be divided up in five parts, with new regions, bosses and sub-bosses galore, but so far, most episodic video games have veered away from traditional games and play more like interactive fiction. Rather than having a framing story that gives context to the game mechanics, these games are pretty much all story. Episodes are offered individually or packaged together in a “season pass.” You don’t play to learn cooler moves and find better loot; you simply play to see what happens next. You consume it the way you consume a TV show.

Story-driven games have been around for a long time. There are twine games, hypertext novels, and the 90s movement of decision-focused exploration games marketed toward girls (the Nancy Drew series is aging well and still releasing new titles, Rockett’s New School not so much). Like those games, contemporary titles such as Telltale Games’ adaptations of Game of Thrones or The Wolf Among Us don’t have any skillsets to hone, levels to gain, stats to grind, or equipment to find. Instead, you explore your surroundings and have conversations and make choices. You make a lot of choices, usually to do with the tone and direction of your conversations. The occasional puzzles and action-based confrontations become a little harder as the game progresses, but are rarely so difficult that you’ll get stuck in a zone. There’s nothing but the story, and, maybe more importantly, the main character that you’re shaping.

Episodic games have been described as choose-your-own-adventure-y, but it’s more than that. Think of your favorite shows or books, and your favorite characters in them. I guarantee there’s at least one instance where they did something you thought was inconsistent. The Olivia Pope I know would never do that. These writers have no handle on H. G. Wells. Your sense of them comes not only from what they do, but how they interact with other people, the way they speak and react to the small things that knit the larger plot together. A story-and-choice-driven game puts you in charge of that. You decide what’s consistent with your character, whether you’re trying to rescue the reputation of gruff Sheriff Bigby Wolf or just going for maximum gruffness and maximum chaos. It puts an emphasis on decision-making, which results in you caring more about, say, communication choices, and less about skill-learning and stats. Not that games emphasize value reflexes and motor skill or stats-building aren’t fantastic! But right now, the most refreshing game I’ve been playing has been the episodic, queer-ish, magical realist mystery, Life is Strange.

life-is-strange-railroad

Life is Strange is a combination of a lot of cultural touchstones. It’s a little Twin Peaks, a little Veronica Mars, a little 90s story-games, and a little Butterfly Effect. You play as Max, an eighteen-year-old photographer from Seattle who’s returning to her hometown to finish high school at Blackwell Academy, an art school. You’re trying to figure out what happened to Rachel Amber (a fellow student who’s gone missing), you’re trying to reconnect with Chloe Price (your childhood best friend), and you just discovered that you can rewind time.

Mechanically speaking, Life is Strange takes some cues from mainstream video games. You have plenty of puzzles to solve that rely on your rewind power. You have NPCs all over campus who aren’t necessary to advancing the game, but they’ll give you helpful information. You have fields and buildings to explore and small optional side quests. The rewind-time gimmick works like reloading the game from the beginning of a scene. You have a “limited” amount of time to solve a puzzle, but an unlimited number of chances to get it right — except for the big instances when you don’t, and then you’ll have to rely on your past choices and instincts to get the result you want.

The option to rewind time becomes interesting the more you get to know Max and the dark underbelly of drugs, partying, and date rape at Blackwell. There are people and plot seeds that are clearly Bad, and still, the choices are hard. It’s a mystery game, so you snoop, but then you get caught by your classmate — do you rewind? From context, you can tell that Max comes off shy and aloof to others, and from her journal, she’s awkwardly precocious and insecure around the cool rich kids crowd. Do you let Max get yelled at when she (and you!) are trying to solve a bigger mystery? Snooping is pretty invasive, and privacy and surveillance are big issues at the school. Or do you backtrack and keep your spying a secret? The same goes for altruistic choices. Do you tell another classmate that she’s about to get hit with a wayward football? Messing with time can have massive consequences (the game literally foreshadows them from the very beginning), but also, isn’t it worth being helpful and maybe making a new friend for Max? When you see the security officer harassing a student over a viral video, do you stand up for her and make trouble for yourself, or do you hang back and take a photo as evidence? There’s not much of a right or wrong way to play that out, which is, I think, fitting for the complexity of the choices. Naturally, both choices have downsides later.

Birds are literally falling from the sky, because time travel does not mess around

Birds are literally falling from the sky, because time travel does not mess around

There’s also Chloe. Y’all, Chloe. Chloe’s a spot-on angry rebellious punk, a little annoying and a lot teenager, and she and Max are the galliest of pals, in that slightly unhealthy, super-supportive and co-dependent way that people sometimes are. She and Rachel Amber were also the galliest of pals, before Rachel’s disappearance, and Chloe’s determined to bring Max along in her investigation. She reminds me of the best and worst parts of being a teenager. Though there aren’t any conclusive love interests for Max, the game seems to favor Chloe. Of your many choices in the game, most have to do with defining the kind of relationship you have with Chloe. Do you go along with her wilder schemes willingly, or do you actively take someone else’s side? Do you take the fall for her the way she expects you to? Do you feel jealous of Rachel Amber? Do you flirt back every time she flirts with you? On the flip side, Life is Strange also features Warren, a male classmate who is definitely into Max. Do you flirt with him? Do you agree to go to a movie? Either way, regardless of your Max’s intentions, most of your interactions with Warren happen over text, while almost all of your interactions with Chloe occur onscreen and in person. I don’t want to make any bold statements, but I suspect that even if you play Max as interested in Warren, he’ll become a victim of the fallout from Max’s time-traveling. Plus, this happens:

WHAT DO I DO???

WHAT DO I DO???

Not that Chloe’s an ideal girlfriend! She is, for sure, a peer pressurer and a demanding friend. Maybe my favorite thing about this is that even if Max goes along happily with Chloe and obviously cares about her, her journal reveals that she knows Chloe goes too far sometimes (for the record, she journals about Chloe a lot). “I’m not a fan of Chloe’s petulant side. She tried to make me feel like an ass, but screw that…Chloe has to know I can have two friends at once,” she writes, after Chloe gives her shit for answering a call while they hang out. Consent and boundaries come up over and over in the game, and it’s nice to see Max actively acknowledging when Chloe crosses a line.

Throughout every chapter, the implications of time-travel loom in the very near future, but it’s a forgone conclusion that Max will keep going full-tilt at it. It’s a forgone conclusion that you’ll probably figure out what happened to Rachel Amber, every last sordid detail. What you have to decide is how Max will get there. What kind of friendships will she make? What kind of person will she be to the snobs and misfits and nerds at Blackwell? How does she take a stand against adults who abuse their power or kids who have too much influence? What kind of friend will she be to Chloe, and what kind of friend does she want Chloe to be to her?

life-is-strange-chloe

Life is Strange tries to tackle a lot of big topics in just five episodes. It’s not going to resolve all of them perfectly — Max certainly isn’t a perfectly moral narrator. It’s not a perfect game — dialog and animation don’t always sync up, and the town population is overwhelmingly white. But it does more in three chapters of play than a lot of full-featured mainstream games I’ve seen. It absolutely nails some of the complexities of being a teenager, and it’s a lovely way to explore the nuances of connecting with other people and the relationships we can have with them.

Life is Strange is currently available on Steam for Windows, XBox, and Playstation. Three out of five episodes have been released, with the fourth predicted to come out in the next week or so.


What’s your favorite story-driven game? Got a particular moment you really like? Also, let me know what you’d like to see featured in future Gayme Corner posts! We’re all ears, all the time.

Robin doesn't lean in, she spreads out. Her skills include talking up the movie Spice World to strangers. In any situation, she would prefer to get campy. She's a hedonist, lady dandy, and lazy academic. She has a twitter and a tumblr.

Robin has written 43 articles for us.

37 Comments

  1. I feel like I’ve encountered many Chloes, at least appearence-wise. This is a good thing haha. The game sounds very interesting…though I sadly don’t have a lot of time for games in general. I appreciate the post!

  2. This looks great, can’t wait to play! I was getting a bit tired of episodic games after how similar some of TellTale’s games are getting, but I’m excited by how personal Life is Strange sounds

    I definitely agree that choice can keep the player-character more consistent with the player’s conception of that character. Great characterization like Lee and Clem (Walking Dead) show how the characters don’t need to become an every-woman character

  3. I love this game!! Like you say, Robin, it’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than so many other things. And the feels, so many feels. And also the soundtrack – Jose Gonzalez, Mogwai, the instrumental stuff. I can’t wait for the next episode to come out (and to actually have the chance to play the third episode rather than just watching my girlfriend play it!).

    • Wait just noticed it may only be for Steam on Windows. My media machine is a Linux box, while my windows machine is a Surface 3, and I don’t own a gaming console. Can Steam Windows games work on Steam for Linux?

      • If you don’t already have it, Wine lets you run Windows applications on Linux machines! Steam users have had mixed results with it, mostly to do with sound. I may be biased — I am that person who spent hours partitioning & screwing up & formatting my harddrive so I could play Windows Steam games — but I think it’s worth the small hassle!

  4. Life Is Strange is so beautiful and so good at capturing a melancholy feeling. Sadness over happy memories from the past that you can’t get back. Missed opportunities, friendships you let slip away. It leaves me aching after every chapter, darn it. 🙂 But it’s also so good at capturing beautiful moments in time and the feeling of being a teen. Really great game!

  5. I picked it up for a few euros on the last steam sale – can’t get enough of it =)

    The first game that this french studio released is also pretty cool, though a lot different. Its called “Remember Me” and features a kickass female protagonist and a beautiful futuristic version of Paris.

    Love the Gayme Corner here on Autostraddle <3

  6. Speaking of Nancy Drew (which I have been playing since I was 11!), I was totally psyched when I started playing their most recent game and was introduced to their first gay character! It was especially funny because before she mentioned her “life partner, Alicia,” I had already decided she was a lesbian purely for my own entertainment. I can only imagine how my preteen self would’ve reacted. I’m so excited that the young queer girls playing the game will have that awesome representation.

    • I haven’t played the newest one yet and I’m so excited now! I love the Nancy Drew computer games. I’ve been playing them for a really long time and I like that I can still find them rewarding to play at 21.

    • Yes! I’ve also been playing ND since childhood and I was so excited when the character said that that I woke my girlfriend up to tell her haha. She wasn’t even mad. Also, I decided that Soren (the Culture Center guy) was also gay and that was another reason that he was an outsider.

  7. Oh my gods…ROCKETT!!? I freaking LOVED those games. And obviously when the comic-creator game came out, I made oodles of lady-loving-ladies. With the help of designing non-coloured doubles of all those characters, I was able to make some pretty steamy things happen at that high school (non-coloured cloud and heart cliparts hid the nonexistent naughty bits and conveyed sexy times). Whoa whoa. The awesomeness of Windows 98 CD-rom games. XD

    • can you point to a site on how to do this? i’ve really been wanting to play this game but am bummed about not being able to on my mac. do you have to buy windows for this as well?

  8. This sounds like a really fun style of gaming. I don’t mind the shoot ’em up once in awhile, but I would rather have a good story and an adventure.

    In that vain, I’ve been looking into L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain. They seem to be more solve a puzzle and follow a story which sounds good to me. Has anyone played either of these?

    Thank you for the gaming info, Robin. 🙂

  9. Interactive fiction games! I kind of love Telltale’s Walking Dead games. Like a lot. How often do you get to play video games with black characters being fleshed out people? How often are the main characters black? (Not including fighting games or customizable character games) How often does it happen in sci fi/horror/fantasy? It just doesn’t happen. Except that Telltale does make it happen and they do it well. They’ll forever hold a special place in my heart for The Walking Dead series and characterization of Lee and Clementine.

    • Definitely! Interactive fiction games using tools like Twine have been a great way for people who aren’t usually represented in mainstream games to tell their own stories, and I’m glad that aspect of the genre has been slowly making its way up the chain to bigger developers

    • Yes !! I don’t think I’ve ever identified with a character the way I identified with Lee. Which made it kind of weird for me to play as Clementine, and it took me some episodes to stop playing her like a parent.

      I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed by a video game characterization as I was by TWD two leads. I also have never cried playing a video game like I did for this one …

  10. I’ve seen some posts about Life Is Strange on Tumblr, but this just about convinced me to get it. I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Origins at the recommendation of my friend and my favourite part is making decisions, deciding what questions to ask, discovering the lore and interacting with other characters, far more than the combat and stats, so a game entirely based on that sounds right up my alley.

  11. I love this game. I do stress out a bit over having to make decisions (“What if I make the ‘wrong’ choice?”), and second-guess every decision because I’m worried that it might cause some devastating effect down the line, but I’ve learned to relax a bit. I have some theories about the environmental phenomena occurring in the town, so I’m looking forward to the rest of the episodes to see if they’re correct or just completely outlandish.

  12. YOOOO I LOVE THIS GAME

    I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s just my speed. I love having existential crises and over-analyzing all possible outcomes when I have to decide on a mundane in-game conversation starter. And Chlooooeeeeee! I played it with my girlfriend and her husband when I flew up to visit her a few months back. We pretty much just screamed KISS KISS KISS for twenty solid minutes whenever Chloe and Max appeared onscreen together.

    The scene where Chloe drives Max around in her old pick-up? “THAT IS NOT HETEROSEXUAL EYE CONTACT. THAT IS THE DEFINITION OF HOMOEROTIC EYE-FIZNUCKING”

    “WHY IS SHE SEXY DANCING ON THE BED. SHE’S SEXY-DANCING FOR YOU, MAX. ENJOY.”

    “NOW YOU’RE IN THE CLOSET, MAX. SEE, MAX. THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR YOUR LIFE, MAX.”

  13. My favorite games rn of the genre are Telltale games, especially their GoT one. I get to play as Sansa Lite and eavesdrop on conversations to gain crucial info I can later use against someone…What’s not to love.

    What I also love about these games is how people play them. I tend to take an honest to a fault/save everyone kind of route. Whereas my friend takes the opportunity to be a lording asshole and bark orders, because they’re incredibly shy irl.

  14. i feel like the odd girl out, because i played the first episode of Life is Strange, and was left … underwhelmed ? i like the idea, but i really didn’t connect to the main character. or the story. the whole mean girls vibe really doesn’t do it for me, i guess it might be because i was only with boys in high school, i don’t know.
    oh well, i might give it another shot. but to be honest, i enjoyed telltales’ games a lot more

    • The first episode was really underwhelming for me too. I felt it overdid it on the high school drama aspect. But the story picks up about five minutes into episode two – it completely drops the catfighting and dives into the “dark underbelly of drugs, partying, and date rape at Blackwell”. So while I do wish they’d paced them better, episode two onward is pretty good.

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