The last two times we talked about the worldbuilding in Telltales’ The Walking Dead Season One and SWERY’s D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die. This time, we’re looking at Dontnod’s Life Is Strange.
Now, you all know how I feel about Life Is Strange. If you’ve ever read my first article or seen my Twitter, you’d know I love Life Is Strange. It’s a very special game to me, and I think a big part of that has been the worldbuilding that takes place in the environment. Life Is Strange is a game that centers around a young adult woman, Max Caulfield, who recently comes back to her hometown after a five-year stay in Seattle to attend prestigious Blackwell Academy and become a better photographer thanks to one of her idols, Mark Jefferson.
Unlike Dontnod’s last game, Remember Me, Life Is Strange is very much grounded in comparison. Set in the sleepy (and fictional) Oregon town of Arcadia Bay, things are calm (relatively, at least—not to get into the story) compared to Remember Me’s bustling Neo Paris. And while I did love Neo Paris, there’s something about Arcadia Bay that I can’t help but enjoy. Even as someone who lives in a suburb themselves, Arcadia Bay feels so serene, quiet, and idyllic—a homey place that I wouldn’t mind spending my days writing, making games, and occasionally visiting the local diner for a Belgian waffle.
Also interesting to note: of the three games I looked at, Life Is Strange is the only game that has a fictional setting. The Walking Dead takes place in Georgia, primarily in and around Macon in Episode 1, while D4 takes place in Boston (though, granted, you don’t explore Boston, and Episode 1’s focus is on an airplane).
But, moving on from the setting itself, Life Is Strange goes about worldbuilding through the examinable objects in a way that’s very similar to how Telltale does in The Walking Dead. You walk around the world when going from point A to point B and can look at objects and get some text from them—usually an internal monologue (compared to the spoken words that Lee does)—to get a little flavor behind Max’s thought process, who she is as a person, and what the item is and what she thinks about it. Max is a young high school senior, and like any teen, thinks a lot about anything and everything.
Similar to The Walking Dead, a lot of the game focuses on Max, and by extension, her growth as a person throughout the game. The world is viewed through the lenses of Max Caulfield as a character and her thought processes; what she thinks of the item, her memories or experiences with the item she looks at, her thoughts on a person, or her thoughts when using an item. She’s a never-ending fountain of information, wit, jokes, and sass. Like any young adult on their own, really.
The majority of Arcadia Bay is seen through Max—many items are from other people, in and around the school, or are her classmates and people of the town. It’s similar to the way David Young examines items: they are all, more or less, basic items throughout the environment, but as opposed to the Lee Everett method of “It’s just a desk,” it’s more something like, “I remember when Chloe’s dad built this for her and we painted it this shade of blue because Chloe likes it.” While that’s paraphrased, that’s more or less a line from a single item later on in the first episode.
A lot of items are like this: from posters, to teddy bears, to cameras (especially cameras, gosh), Max has all sorts of thoughts that, even if they are saying what the item is, they go into detail on the item—either specifics that you may not be able to notice, or background on the item. Dontnod really put a lot of effort into making this world feel so alive and full of stuff—just like, well, the real world. It makes sense that something like The Walking Dead doesn’t have a lot to look at—items have been looted by survivors or destroyed by walkers, and people don’t care much about looking at objects in the world, as they’d rather survive instead. While Life Is Strange is a setting a lot of people are more familiar with, it’s just your “average” life in that you’re looking at objects in the world around you, or the people around you, and just thinking about them.
It feels like a relatively realistic—at least using that word in a loose sense—way of approaching worldbuilding. There’s no focus on constantly telling you what to do or where to go, or just saying what an object is when you look at it, because, well, most people, zombie apocalypse or not, don’t just think “Hey, that’s a box” when they see a box. They either would probably disregard it completely or think something of relative substance on that box.
Something else interesting I’ve found is that throughout the episodes, there are places in the world where you can just sit down, the camera will pan around, and Max will think about the situation at hand and/or the environment. It’s a small touch, but one I don’t think I’ve seen in many games—at least, not in this way, of being dedicated moments to sit, take a break from the tasks at hand, and just … think. It really brings out the idea of calm serenity that would be a big flavor and feeling in a sleepy town like Arcadia Bay.
What I find so great is that there’s so much around the world. Posters in classrooms and notices on bulletin boards, decorations in the halls of the girls’ dorms, their slates, the items in their rooms, and everything in the Price household, which is either full of old memories for Max, or her bewilderment at how much her best friend has changed over five years, even if you can’t necessarily interact with it, there’s just so much, though the meat, of course, is what you can interact with, no doubt about that.
As noted before, that’s where you get all the context and information on these characters, and the intersections between Max, the characters, the objects, with her thoughts and views all in the center in a way that’s always explained more than not. Dontnod put just as much effort—dare I say even more—into the worldbuilding than the rest of the game. And as someone who, obviously, loves worldbuilding, the effort they’ve put into each and every episode has been fantastic. There are two particular instances that really struck me, though—and they were with items that we’re actually not able to interact with in the environment, but they ended up being so incredibly egregious that I can’t not bring them up.
The first is an instance where you explore the Girl’s Dormitory when looking for the flash drive you have to give to Warren. There’s a sign up on one of the walls in the hallway that reads “NO BOYS ALLOWED,” which is crossed out with spray paint, and “BOYS” is replaced with “BALLS.” This is the first time I’ve noticed it and honestly, it was more than a little sickening to see something so transphobic, especially in what is sort of set up as a small liberal/progressive private school. Not even a case of “Well, there’s a chance shitty teens would write that,” it doesn’t need to be there, because it’s more harmful to trans women playing the game who see that than it does to actually add anything to the world.
The other big thing is something in the parking lot as you go to meet up with Warren. On one of the parking lots that’s labeled “RESERVED,” the “serv” part of the word is replaced with crude graffiti reading “TARD.” Again, like the graffiti in the girl’s dorms, it’s not needed. It doesn’t add anything besides just being offensive. It adds nothing to the world, besides acknowledging that, yes, there are piece of shit teens everywhere.
Compared to how thoughtful and meaningful the rest of the worldbuilding is in Life Is Strange, these feel like two weirdly egregious errors, especially with how carefully Dontnod has done their best to handle other tough issues like bullying.
I’ve played through Life Is Strange a lot since its release in January: 37 hours in total and about three playthroughs through Episode 3 with two of those going through Episode 4, now 39 hours after going through Episode 1 again for this article. But even with how much I love this game, I haven’t looked through every nook and cranny, I’m sure, and especially haven’t examined it closely like I’ve done with the other games for this type of look at episodic games.
So, to go into the meat of the research, similar to how I quantified with The Walking Dead, I split up the examinable objects and people (anything you can “examine” you do so by the “Look” command, which works on most anything in the world) as best I could into three categories:
First, I’ll say that there were a whopping 338 objects and people in the world that I looked at. There are a few notes to this, though. One, I didn’t investigate every item; I missed at least one in a sign post, and I might have missed more. Two, after Max first discovers her time powers, I examined everything and everyone I could again, due to the fact that they had changed dialogue. Some of the dialogue changed, but it went into eventually repeating dialogue at one point, though each object in the world had specific dialogue that was changed. Due to the circumstances, I changed this, which may be a reason for the inflated number. Alongside this, all of the Rachel Amber posters gave some different dialogue, again, to similar degrees in the case of when you go down the hall after you rewind time. So, again, this could lead to slightly inflated numbers, but more or less, everything had unique dialogue.
The amount of times that Max said something was a solution, hinted at a solution of some sort, or noted that something was the opportunity to take a photo was only 39 times, the lowest out of any of the categories. Max rarely said what a solution would be, and I did have to stretch a bit for this regarding objects or when she looked at people that seemed to hint more at what to do next, as opposed to outright hints like, “I need to move this desk to get to the door to the pharmacy.”
The amount of times that Max said something of note (aka, something that isn’t a hint or just talking about what an object was) was 127 times. A lot of these times were during the sequence of having to rescue Chloe in the bathroom. This actually surprised me because of how in-depth Max goes with her thoughts in Life Is Strange, I thought this would be the biggest category, but it wasn’t. This was one of the bigger surprises, as I thought it would be more flipped around compared to The Walking Dead.
And, with a whopping 172 times, this was the leading category for Max saying what an object or who a person was. It makes sense thinking about it, because Max starts out with a lot of thoughts when she looks at something by noting what the object is, or who the person is, and then going into detail about the item in particular. Something like saying, “That’s Dana, she’s such an archetypal cheerleader, but she’s always nice to me,” or “That camera is really nice, it must have cost twenty grand and it has these really nice lenses that’s best for these shots.” You really find out about what Max thinks about the people around her and what she knows about her passions like photography and movies. It makes the character you play as and the world she inhabits feel so much more real.
With how much you can examine, it really helps fill in Max’s personality from the get-go that might not be there if you were to just play a straight shot through the first episode, as well as really giving you a sense at what the world around you is like. This makes it seem as though you’re in the same situation as Max: coming back to Arcadia Bay, seeing people and things and places that haven’t changed after five years, and noticing everything that has, for better or worse.
And, finally, for as long as this was, there were a lot of great lines—way more than I could feasibly count or especially write down, but I decided to pick a few choice ones that I really enjoyed.
I’ve already said before how I find Max to be such an interesting, even relatable character, and I feel like what you gleam from her really helps breathe a lot of life and character into what could still be someone not all that defined yet by the end of Episode 1. There’s a lot—maybe even too much to feasibly explore in one look—and some of the stuff you can see in the world, as I noted, does more harm than good. But in all, I think Dontnod handles worldbuilding amazingly well, and have done a great job at bringing Arcadia Bay to life.
That’s the final part of this series, and I hope you all enjoyed reading my thoughts as a fledgling developer who loves worldbuilding as much as I enjoyed researching and writing.