If you’ve seen The Room or Troll 2, or anything written by someone not fluent in the language they’re working in, you’ll be familiar with the phenomenon of “alien dialogue.” It’s unique to writers who understand what words mean, but don’t quite grasp how actual people string them together in conversation.* The result is at best dialogue that makes sense but sounds odd, and at worst, unintentional hilarity.
It’s a problem faced by Life Is Strange, a narrative adventure game whose first episode launched late last month. Developed by Dontnod, the Paris studio that made Remember Me, it’s a supernatural tale of friendship set in an all-American high school, so its characters don’t just have to speak like real people - they have to speak like real teens. And as the principal characters are female, they have to speak like real teen girls. For an all-male, all-French, all-adult writing team, that’s going to be a hard task, and it’s one Dontnod don’t quite accomplish.
Now, I’m an out-of-touch (and corrupt) Kiwi male journalist, so I don’t know how American teen girls talk nowadays, but I’m pretty sure nobody uses the word “hella” like it’s used in Life Is Strange. Ditto the language used by the game’s photography students, referring to how they’re “such photo nerds” taking “pics” with their “analog cameras” that are “framed by the sun.” Or that of the punk girl who says “I feel like stage diving. Let’s thrash this place!” before proceeding to put on light alternative music and shout “Rock out! Break it down.” These characters even have the gall to call each other out on outdated slang. Intellectually, the writers know what they want to accomplish - and I think their goals are worthwhile - but they seem incapable of presenting their characters in a natural way. I was worried that the male writers would fail to write compelling female leads, but it’s not even an issue of how women speak - it’s an issue of how Americans, youths, and to be honest, people speak.
But somehow, the awful dialogue can’t scupper the first episode of Life Is Strange for me. It’s a story about three women - regardless of the sex of the writers, that’s unusual in today’s gaming climate - and the first episode has enough tantalising material to pique my interest for the remainder.
The action takes place in and around the prestigious seaside Blackwell Academy, where 18-year-old Max Caulfield is a senior photography student unsure of her abilities or her place in the world. She’s goofily written, like everyone in this game, but she’s likeable and identifiable for anyone who’s ever had self-doubt issues. In between school-hallway dramas and photography work, Max runs into her estranged friend, the aforementioned purple-haired punk girl Chloe. Like seemingly everyone else at the school, Chloe has a connection to Rachel Amber, a fellow student who has disappeared seemingly into thin air. Everything’s played pretty low-key for now, but there are rumblings of intriguing storylines - the culty teen gang run by an unhinged popular kid; the school security guard (and Chloe’s father) obsessed with surveillance; and of course the disappearance of the mysterious Rachel, whom everyone seems to have seen differently.
Less low-key is the premonition that opens and closes this episode, of a gigantic oceanbound tornado threatening to wipe out the town. I say “premonition,” because Life Is Strange’s key narrative and gameplay hook is time travel. Max discovers early in the episode that she can rewind her timeline and change the choices she made - a revelation she takes remarkably in her stride. In gameplay terms, rewinding is used for puzzles, character manipulation and even (to my delight) nasty pranks. It’s wonderfully cheeky at times, as you see different outcomes play out and alter your choices accordingly. Best of all are the instances where no choice results in a “good” outcome - it’s a clever riff on “big decision” games, save-scumming and interactivity narratives in general.
But time isn’t just used as a gameplay mechanic. Life Is Strange is explicitly about time in a richer, more thematic sense. The town in which it’s set is old-fashioned, stalled in time and unable to change. Characters are referred to as coming from the wrong time. Even Max’s passion, photography, is all about freezing and capturing moments in time. The game is also about branches in timelines, of choices not taken - the choice not to stay in touch with your friends; the choice not to tell the truth; any of the many choices Max makes whose alternatives are there to be seen and abandoned.
By cobbling together cliches, Dontnod have somehow created an earnest supernatural teen drama with clunky-ass dialogue but a real sense of love behind it. I actually like the weird distance between the game and reality, likely also due to the writers’ disconnect from their subject material. The cliches are played with such heart that I can’t get mad. After hitting the episode’s Magnolia-esque ending, I’m genuinely excited to see where the story goes from here.
* The same is totally true for English-speakers writing dialogue in foreign languages, but as everyone knows, everything should just default to English anyway, because America does.