Life is Strange, a Telltale-style episodic title released in 2015 by french studio Dontnod is perhaps my favourite game of all time. Set to a backdrop of time travel and an oncoming mini-apocalypse, the game instead explores more worldly themes. From awkward romances to teen suicide, Dontnod succeeded in creating a believable and relatable framework in which to show off the game’s strongest asset: its characters.
The heart of the game’s story is found in the relationship between its lead characters, Max and Chloe. On first glance it’s easy to assume the developers fell into the trap of typical ‘coming of age’ story clichés: Max, the awkward teenager leans to open up with the help of Chloe, her rebellious and troubled best friend. Together they solve a murder mystery and talk about boys. This could easily have gone very, very wrong.
The game’s biggest saviour? A French developer pretending to be a teenage girl.
On release, the series was immediately criticised for its cringe-worthy dialogue. Spawning jokes at the game’s long-running love affair with the word ‘Hella’.
Whilst the developers may defend the term, it speaks to an underlying truth about the quality of the dialogue. Despite this, Life is Strange’s writing team slipped in shit and stuck the landing here.
The game’s awkward dialogue turns Max into a fucking dickhead. Yet, rather than being a death knell for the character, it instead adds extra dimensions to her character, and further immerses the player in her world. Max being a total prick makes her awkward shy-girl routine genuinely believable. Dontnod has managed what Zooey Deschanel has been struggling to do her entire career: I fully believe that Max has difficulty making friends. I believe that she’d face bullying at school. Max is the kind of girl who tags you in tedious Facebook memes. Max is the kind of girl who corners you at a party to show you her photography. Max is the kind of girl who begrudgingly grows on you, as you watch this flawed character struggle with basic fucking social etiquette. You root for Max in spite of yourself.
In short, Max being an awkward fucking wank is perhaps why she’s one of my favourite video game protagonists. I love her because she’s the fucking worst.
Now, before we continue I want to make it clear that I don’t wish to understate Dontnod’s skill in the design and portrayal of Max. Dontnod are clearly a talented studio, who put Telltale to shame at their own game. Whilst I have my reasons for doubting they intended her to be this awkward (We’ll visit that later), she was clearly designed to be insecure and uncomfortable in herself. It’s written so deep into her character that even her idle animations feature her awkwardly shuffling, apparently unsure of what to do with her hands.
Indeed, it’s exactly because of Dontnod’s efforts with Max’s character that allows the game’s greatest criticism to become its greatest asset. Life is Strange not only tells you that Max is awkward, but shows you that she’s awkward. We don’t just see that she suffers bullying, we see her flaws that leave her so vulnerable to bullying. That the studio managed to make such a lovable dickhead of a character is to be admired.
This is what Life is Strange’s critics have missed. Yes, much of the dialogue is awkward – but this flaw only serves to feed the game’s greatest strengths
The disconnect between a game co-founded by two adult French men and their attempts to create a natural dialogue between two teenage girls perfectly mirrors that of a shithead introverted teenager with limited social experience. Max knows as much about how typical teenage girls are supposed to speak as her creators. Her in-game journal (of course she keeps a fucking journal) reveals the backstory we all could have guessed. Max struggled to make friends throughout her time at school in Seattle. She’s lived a sheltered, introverted life and struggles to adapt to the socialite college life she’s thrust herself into. This is why she’s a photographer, silently observing rather than engaging with the world. This is why she immediately gravitates back to her childhood best friend. Who’s also something of a dickhead.
How’s that for a fucking segue, bitches?
As stated, the relationship between Max and Chloe is integral to Life is Strange – and so of course, the awkward dialogue influences this.
On paper, Max and Chloe’s relationship makes little sense. Having been separated for five years, Chloe has changed radically from how she was during childhood. As seen in flashbacks in later episodes, young Chloe is a totally different character, whilst young Max is just ‘Max with a shit haircut’. The departure of Max, and the death of her father changes Chloe into the weed smoking, antagonistic rebel we meet in the game. Upon Max’s return to Arcadia Bay, they have seemingly opposite personalities. Max sits under trees writing about how sad she is. Chloe takes drugs and steals her stepfather’s firearms. So why does their relationship work?
Yep. You got it. Chloe is also a fucking prick.
As Chloe is just as much the focus of the series as Max, she too has suffered from the awkward dialogue choices – and it’s here that we find a grounding for their relationship. While Chloe carries herself with more confidence, she reflects Max in her more cheerful moments. When her guard is down, she’s just as likely to let loose with some Max-worthy painful line. The bad dialogue backs up the themes of the game itself. While Chloe teaches Max to have more confidence, Max reminds Chloe of her more cheerful times as a prick child. Whilst they may have grown apart, at their core Max and Chloe’s relationship still has a hella strong foundation. A foundation of being a fanny, but a foundation regardless.
Although Chloe’s dialogue can sometimes still be painful, she rarely suffers the same sphincter-clenching embarrassment as Max. This is thanks, in part to Ashly Burch’s excellent voice acting work. A bad script can be saved by a good actor, and Burch’s confident performance goes to explain how Chloe can have so much in common with Max whilst still functioning socially. Despite the occasionally wooden dialogue, it’s believable that Chloe has been living a wild social life. Her confidence overshadows the fact that, at heart, she’s a bit of an awkward nerd.
It’s possible to argue here that I’m being unfair in assuming this is accidental. That the game’s critics have been misunderstanding the developer’s intentions all along. Maybe the dialogue is intentionally bad?
Well, I’m afraid fuckboy Warren throws that all into question.
Warren, seen here hiding behind the bushes and staring through Max’s bedroom window is the supposed male love interest for Max. Clearly obsessed, he spends much of the game hounding her in increasingly aggressive and uncomfortable ways.
Warren openly whines that being “sensitive” means that he won’t get to have sex with Max. He’s pushy and domineering in conversations with her. He blows up her phone like it’s Tinder and the clubs are closing.
Despite Warren clearly being a serial killer in the making, co-creator Michael Koch defended Warren, describing him as “awkward” and “unable to confess his feelings”. Koch explicitly states that the writing team didn’t see Warren as a creepy character. Here Koch and Warren confirm my suspicions: The dialogue, though successful in its way, wasn’t intentionally like this. Here we have a cut and dried example, admitted by the creator, of an awkward character. A character that started life as a love struck teen got lost in translation, and will likely be wearing Max’s skin as a suit in season 2. Instead of being a potential love interest (you can kiss him in the final episode, if you’re the kind of monster who romanced Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition), he’s instead a constant cause of frustration for fans, who wish that Max would tell him to fuck off already.
So what this ramble has been leading to is the secret plot twist conclusion.
Pricefield is the only way to play this game. Fuck anyone who says otherwise, you don’t need that shit in your life.