Life Is Strange Episode 3 'Chaos Theory'
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC.
In the middle of the night, mere hours after the harrowing conclusion of the last episode, Max sneaks out of her dorm. She and her best friend Chloe are on a quest to find the truth behind all the mysteries of Blackwell Academy, a path which leads them straight to the principal’s office. Unfortunately, the way is blocked by the principal himself sitting on the steps, stymieing your way forward.
Half an hour of increasingly anguished circling later, I worked out that I hadn’t been rewinding far enough to get him while his back was turned. From an extremely embarrassing start, we launch into the third Life is Strange episode, ‘Chaos Theory’. As before, the maelstrom of Arcadia Bay drama circles around a central theme. This time, we’re finally getting into ‘what happened to Rachel Amber’, the school darling and Chloe’s best friend during your five-year absence. All threads lead back to Rachel: like Laura Palmer (of Twin Peaks) before her, Rachel is connected to everybody, all the way from unhinged rich kid Nathan to creepy drug dealer Frank.
To Dontnod’s credit, this third instalment has managed to deepen the mystery once more without becoming entangled in its own narrative web. Step by step, characters are being moved forward to an ultimate end that promises to affect everyone in town – and not just because of the giant tornado in Max’s vision. What’s more impressive than that, though, is how the tale has managed to keep its feet on the ground. Even with the power of rewind at her fingertips, Max still worries about her entry into the Everyday Heroes photo contest, still has to fob off constant advances from her smitten friend Warren, still has to attend school and go to classes. A lot has changed in three days in Max and Chloe’s personal world, but in the real world, it’s still only been three days.
(A side note: I rejected Warren in my playthrough when he asked me out. Kinda busy with time travel and reconnecting with old friends, you know? Since then, he’s tried again at least four times, no matter how clearly Max says no, and how painfully this reminds me of my younger, stupider self speaks volumes about the quality of the writing.)
Getting too far into the story would mean delving deep into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the release schedule of six to eight weeks per episode has done wonders for addressing issues arising from earlier episodes. The clunky, obvious dialogue especially in the past two episodes has been smoothed out considerably. There’s a much more subtle feel to the writing now that can only come from player feedback, very aware of itself and careful not to fall into any of the many plot holes a time-travel story can create.
Of course, the beating heart of the piece remains Max and Chloe themselves. Whereas Max is growing and changing, rising to the challenges and responsibilities that her power gives her, Chloe is sinking deeper into her own personal mire. In daring to open up and trust Max again, we begin to see exactly how deep her hurt goes. By her own words, she has been betrayed by everyone she’s ever cared about: her father in dying, her mother in remarrying, Max in leaving, Rachel in disappearing. It’s the kind of pain that makes being expelled and dying your hair blue seem legitimate, even if the adult world around her might not think so, and possesses her with the kind of angry fervour which propels the duo forward on their quest. Without Chloe, Max would not be Max; without Max, Chloe would not be Chloe. I struggle to recall any two female game characters in games who got this much depth in stories ten times longer.
On the mechanical side, not a lot has changed. Despite plenty of costume changes for Max and some skilful poses for Chloe, the slightly off-kilter animation remains, especially during conversations. So too does the game possess little outside the core tale: you go through the story, take some optional photos, and that’s about it. The new twist on Max’s rewind power stands out as the greatest innovation, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise. Not when what happens, happens.
Like a well-composed photograph, the beauty of Life is Strange is in the details. Stressed-out characters show visible mental strain as the consequences pile up, ants congegrate in circles, birds swirl in the sky like the worst of omens. The sky need not tear itself open for Life is Strange to show that the stakes are getting higher. Having taken the time to establish a baseline for Max’s powers and how they can be used on a simpler, more human level, this episode’s escalation hits like a truck, leaving me burning to see what happens next. If it continues to impress like this, Life is Strange becoming a classic is only a matter of time.