Life is Strange Demonstrates the Strengths of Episodic Gaming
With last week’s release of “Episode 4: Dark Room,” Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange solidified its position as my favorite game of the year. There’s still one more episode to go, but after four solid outings I’m no longer quite as worried that the game will fall apart before the finish line. I’m just disappointed that I’ll have to wait two more months before I get to see the conclusion.
What’s odd is that I don’t think I’d appreciate the game as much without that wait. The episodic release structure has added to my enjoyment of Life is Strange because it leaves me with more time to talk about the game, and that’s proven to be just as much fun as the game itself.
It works because each episode needs to be able to stand on its own merits, so it makes sense for each episode to have its own distinguishing theme. “Dark Room” is the most purely thrilling installment yet, playing out like an episode of Twin Peaks as Max and Chloe reconstruct the disappearance of Rachel Amber. Prior episodes have taken the time to address more serious topics like teen suicide and bullying while shifting focus from a cast of dozens to a cast of two.
A game that attempted to cram all of those elements into a single, uninterrupted story might have felt overstuffed or inconsistent. Life is Strange, on the other hand, is able to smooth over those transitions. From the use of the rewind mechanic to the brilliant subversion of it in Episode 2, every decision builds on the expectations established in earlier episodes.
The periodic releases also make it easier to pick up on those kinds of nuances, which often go overlooked when a game gets released all at once. Most reviews try to put the whole game in context, looking at the big picture instead of the smaller details, which are often far richer and more rewarding (the subtle pacifism of the caretaker Samuel in “Dark Room” is a good example). With two months between episodes, we’re able to analyze and digest every decision that Dontnod has made along the way while building anticipation for the next installment.
It’s the same formula that works so well for a television show like Game of Thrones, which would not be the same phenomenon without weekly recaps and think pieces that generate hype (and scorn) between episodes. Sure, you can binge watch the show once the season is complete, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of each individual hour.
Of course, it helps that Life is Strange is consistently excellent, making it the rare game with enough narrative and mechanical complexity to justify that kind of close reading. The dialogue can be awkward, but it makes up for it with likable characters and a thrilling mystery that respectfully addresses difficult subject matter in a way that is engaging and emotionally resonant.
The point is that I want to pull apart every aspect of Life is Strange, and the release schedule actually gives me the opportunity to do that. It’s fun to look forward to a work in progress, and more developers could learn from that example when planning out future projects.