Thought Bubble: Why Life is Strange is Better than its Dialogue

After one chapter, I can already tell that Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange is going to be one of the defining games of my 2015. Suffice it to say that I really, really like the game, and after Chrysalis I’m looking forward to solving the mystery and exploring the rest of scenic Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

I’m not going to get too much into the why – that would take a while – but I do want to address one of the most common critiques, specifically the writing. As many others have pointed out, the writing in Life is Strange could best be summarized as an adult’s impression of what teenagers sound like based on American Pie movies that have been filtered through Google Translate. I’m a decade removed from high school but I honestly thought No Doubt were the only people still using ‘hella.’

From a naturalistic perspective, I’ll readily acknowledge that the dialogue isn’t great. The characters in Life is Strange don’t talk like real people, entering a verbal uncanny valley that’s just authentic enough to be uncomfortable. It creates the impression that it’s supposed to be accurate, even though it isn’t.

So why doesn’t that bother me?

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I think part of the problem stems from misplaced expectations. While Life is Strange may look and sound more like Juno than Call of Duty, it’s still a video game with time travel, a prophetic nightmare, and a giant magical tornado. Most video games – even the gritty military ones – are so obviously works of fantasy, where literal gods battle monsters on cosmic landscapes filled with zombies, that we forget that fantasy doesn’t have to push to such a preposterous extreme.

Life is Strange is a more grounded flight of fancy, a diversion closer to Twin Peaks than The Wire, but it’s still a diversion. That distinction is crucial. Life is Strange isn’t as good as Twin Peaks (few things are), but it still works in the broad strokes as a place where faint supernatural elements creep at the fringes of our reality. As in Twin Peaks, the uncanny valley can be mined for horror and suspense as long as the player recognizes where the characters stand in relation to the encroaching mysticism. The dialogue doesn’t need to be authentic as long as it’s believable.

More to the point, while many people have the mistaken assumption that more accurate dialogue leads to a better story – at least if it takes place in the ‘real’ world – that has never been true of fiction. Naturalism can increase a story’s impact, but it’s worthless if the characters don’t make any sense.

It’s typically more important to find the emotional truth than it is to document reality. What are the relationships between the characters? What kinds of power dynamics are in play? If a work of fiction understands how the social pieces fit into the mosaic and arranges them accordingly, it can get away with subpar writing because those other, more subconscious elements will resonate.

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The Boondock Saints is a good example of the way that works in practice. The Boston revenge flick is one of the more beloved action movies of its era despite the fact that it’s just not all that good. The dialogue is terrible, the plot requires some extreme leaps in logic, and none of the actors – not even Willem Dafoe – behave like human beings. Ron Jeremy doesn’t need to get naked to remind you his movie career was never about his acting talents.

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Yet the movie still works at a gut level because the internal logic carries the narrative. The characters all inhabit the same world, where good cops are more likely to abet revenge than to stop it. That may not be how investigative procedure works amongst the Boston mob or the BPD, but the movie earns its catharsis because the characters have all agreed to the set of rules that exists within the movie. The relationships make sense, and the movie can survive on that energy.

Life is Strange is in a different genre, but it has a similarly strong sense of self. The game constructs a self-contained ecosystem that exists at a uniform distance from reality and then communicates the rules of that place with remarkable clarity. Everything that gets done or said makes sense within that sphere. Maxine and company may not be able to speak directly to the player, but they can speak to each other in a shared language that incorporates consistent slang and cadence.

Would Life is Strange be better with more human dialogue? Perhaps. The greatest works of fiction often blend fantasy with accuracy. It’s just extraordinarily difficult to do so and it’s hardly a prerequisite for solid entertainment. I guess I never expected Life is Strange to be anything other than what it is, an imperfect game that takes place in a setting that isn’t quite supposed to be reality.

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Of course, there are still four more chapters to go, so these issues may or may not become more severe as Life is Strange moves on. I’ve avoided talking too much about the game itself because it’s too early for conclusions. But after Chrysalis, I can’t hold the dialogue against it. Sure, the writing can be awkward, but it’s coherent once you find its wavelength and that makes up for most of the deficiencies. Warts and all, I want to spend more time in this place with this cast of characters. They never have to be real as long as they remain compelling.

 

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