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In the first episode of Life Is Strange, time twists, turns, and toys with mundane moments

This is the first episode recap for Dontnod’s episodic series, Life is Strange. It’s not a review, so beware of spoilers. It’s a good idea to play through the episode first, then come back here to take a deeper dive into what happened by reading and interacting in the comments below. We’ll deliver a full review of all the episodes together once the story is fully told.

Life isn’t just strange for Max, the young protagonist of Life is Strange, it’s also hella awkward. In part because the people around her use words like “hella” without a blink of irony, but also because she’s just returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay after moving away to Seattle for five years. Max really just wants to settle in at her new school, the prestigious Blackwell Academy, where she can follow her passion for analog photography and maybe admire her super-dreamy photography teacher while she’s at it.

Mucking up her plans is the expected clique of rich bitches that no school drama can be without. Ringleader Victoria never misses an opportunity to take a shot at Max, or indeed anyone who happens to happen by. Her acolytes follow her around in standard fetch formation, observing the traditional Mean Girl rites and rituals. As Episode 1: Chrysalis begins, Victoria jumps on the chance to show Max up in photography class by answering a question that Max couldn’t — though Max has more than film technique on her mind at that moment.

Just a moment before, she’d awakened from what seemed to be a nightmare about a terrible storm near the lighthouse, though she didn’t realize she’d nodded off. Feeling uncomfortable and out of place, Max heads straight to the bathroom after class to splash some water on her face and hopefully adjust the social armor necessary to brave the halls of Blackwell.

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A butterfly sails through the open window and Max seizes the opportunity to photograph it, accidentally hiding herself behind the stalls in the process. Thus concealed, she goes unnoticed when local rich boy Nathan storms into the bathroom, muttering to himself. A blue-haired girl follows hot on his heels, threatening to get him in trouble. Nathan isn’t having any of it, and pulls a gun on the girl, shooting her after a few more heated words.

And that’s where things get really interesting.

Max comes to the conclusion that she can, in fact, reverse time.

Max wakes up back in the classroom, in the middle of the lesson she just had. Her teacher is delivering the exact same talk, Victoria’s phone rings exactly when expected, everything is a rerun of that morning’s events. With a bit of experimentation — including a chance to get that question right and deny Victoria her chance for a verbal jab — Max comes to the conclusion that she can, in fact, reverse time and has somehow zapped herself back to a moment before the girl in the bathroom gets shot. To her credit, she doesn’t spent much time wondering why or how, and instead gets right to the important part: Saving that girl’s life.

Once she knows what’s coming, it’s a fairly easy matter to pull the fire alarm before Nathan has a chance to do anything truly stupid, but her intervention also sets up the first example of Life is Strange’s core gameplay. The Principal stops Max on her way out of school, suspicious about her activities. At this point, Max can choose to tell the truth about Nathan — whose wealthy family are school patrons — or lie and risk being in the Principal’s bad graces.

Games that provide choices typically make it pretty clear which is the “good” course and which is the “bad,” but Life is Strange is far more subtle than that. The game is very generous about letting you know the possible ramifications of each choice you make, informing you what will and won’t have consequences, and even letting you reverse time and give a different answer if you don’t like how things unfold. There is rarely a single clear “correct” way to go, though, which makes the choices feel more true to the vicissitudes of everyday life, and more worth careful consideration.

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Max’s buddy Warren wants his flash drive back, so she shuffles off to her dorm to collect it, but not before getting entangled in more of Victoria’s rampant bitchery. Figuring out how to get past her into your dormitory constitutes the only real puzzle of Life is Strange, which provides so few variables that it practically acts as a tutorial. A bit of time manipulation here, a bit of sabotage there, and Victoria ends up soaking wet and covered in paint. You have the option to either comfort her in her moment of humiliation, or snap a photo of her and post it on Facebook, as she had done to you mere moments before.

Okay, I may have been wrong when I said there were no obvious right choices in the game.

It turns out that Max’s friend Dana borrowed the flash drive and would be happy to give it back if she weren’t currently trapped in her room by a very pissed classmate who’s convinced that Dana’s been sexting with her boyfriend. The encounter is kind of a silly aside when you’ve just saved someone’s life, but it serves to remind you that you can talk to someone, back up time and then use what you’ve learned to earn their trust. Life is Strange tries to teach you how to use your time-bending powers elegantly, rather than simply bashing you over the head or posting a neon sign that says ‘USE POWERS NOW’. It makes the first hour feel a bit sluggish, but the overall effect is pleasing.

Sexting mystery solved (Victoria was being a bitch again, quelle surprise) and flash drive in hand, Max heads out to the parking lot to meet up with Warren, who may or may not totally be into her. They talk about classic genre movies for a bit and then Nathan shows up to threaten Max, demanding to know what she told the principal. Things are getting physical when the blue-haired girl comes screaming up in her truck, yelling at Max to get in.

With Warren playing interference (and earning a black eye in the process), Max makes her getaway and discovers that her rescuer is none other than Chloe, her best friend from five years ago. Max did a lousy job of keeping in touch after she moved away, and Chloe is more than a little cross about it. Happy to see Max, still hurt that Max abandoned her, Chloe is both vicious and warm as the duo awkwardly tries to reconnect.

Happy to see Max, still hurt that Max abandoned her, Chloe is both vicious and warm.

Chloe takes Max up to her room and explains that after Max left — an event she cannot describe without heart-twisting bitterness leeching into her voice — Chloe became fast friends with a girl named Rachel, who has since disappeared. She and Rachel had plans, big plans, and the idea that Rachel would simply leave without telling Chloe is absurd, leaving her convinced that something nefarious has happened.

The scene in the bedroom between Max and Chloe is immensely mundane, and beautifully illustrates the gulf that can form between people with the smallest provocation. Max and Chloe once shared everything and now might as well be from different planets. Would a few emails have changed that? Would a nightly text have prevented the chasm from yawning open between them? Impossible to say. Impossible not to wonder.

Max’s precious polaroid camera got broken in the altercation with Nathan, but Chloe says her step-dad has some tools in the basement that’ll do the job. Poking around, Max discovers that Chloe’s “step-douche” is none other than the school security officer who was bullying classmate Kate earlier that day. She also finds that he’s rigged his own home full of surveillance equipment and that he has creepy files on several of the students from Blackwell. He loudly returns home, and while his interaction with Chloe depends on the choices you make, it never ends well. His natural state seems to be one of fury, and so Chloe bolts out the window.

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Max finds her later at the lighthouse that featured so prominently in her earlier nightmare. While the two girls are looking out of Arcadia Bay, Max has another vision — a huge tornado bearing down on the town. A nearby newspaper indicates that the disaster is due to happen in four days’ time. Max quickly explains what’s been happening to Chloe, who naturally is incredulous at first, but swiftly chooses to believe Max’s story.

And so the stakes are set. The players are known. The secrets are dangerous. We await the curtain rise on Episode 2.

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