It's rare to be completely taken by surprise in this industry. The reveal of Life is Strange is one such moment. We had no idea what to expect when we heard Remember Me developer Dontod was working on a new project - but we definitely didn't expect this.
The game's a story-driven adventure, a mix of Heavy Rain and Telltale's The Walking Dead. A little bit of third-person exploring, a little bit of branching conversations. A type we've seen before, but very different, because there's a lot of heart behind this.
It's produced by French studio Dontnod on behalf of Square Enix. The last game of the studio was Remember Me that burnt the fingers of publisher Capcom. But that's the past and quite different to what the studio's trying to achieve here, though there is a single development strand that ties the two together. Remember Me's iconic element was exploring memory fragments, rewinding time over and over to try and spot key moments that could be manipulated to your advantage.
Events in Life is Strange can not be undone, yet no decision is necessarily permanent. We can rewind time back to the start of a scene to see how different individual decisions alter the story paths. However, the developers emphasise that such tinkering will still lead only to a few potential endings (though what that final number is they're not saying).
In Life is Strange, we play as Max Caulfield, who returns to the small town of Arcadia Bay in the State of Oregon five years after leaving. She is a passionate photographer and wants to meet her best friend from high school Chloe again. Despite very different personalities, the two had a great time together. But then a unexpected bereavement caused everything - including their friendship - to collapse.
Now Max is back and wants to reappraise the events of the past with Chloe. Conveniently - and still to be explained to us - Max can manipulate time. She can revise or erase whole storylines and relive some moments, rewinding through time like an impatient Youtube user. This also means that you have to prepare for plenty of repetition in gameplay and cutscenes.
The game is episodic (a release date is still to be nailed down, but the developer promises they'll only confirm the release of the first episode when they know they can release the rest on time). It's the why most modern adventure are, focusing more on story and less on puzzle work. A chic arrow system indicates to us where all the interactive objects are, icons designed to be simple, hand-drawn sketches. The developers tell us every object is hand-drawn in the game.
That design decision gives the game a warmth and combined with the indie-folk soundtrack generates the Pacific-Northwest vibe Dontnod are trying to embody, a sense of the sun and boredom one frequently encounters north of California. Life is Strange also comments about growing up, abusive stepfathers and pot-smoking teenagers. The scenes shown at Gamescom make us melancholy and hopeful at the same time.
Of course, the game has plenty of potential to become a critically-acclaimed classic, like the records of U.S. singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. His work and the video game have much in common. You can see and hear it immediately. Similarly calm, stylish, complex and yet simple.
Life is Strange is to be a triple-A indie, to quote Dontnod. Over 40 developers are working on the game, and they've dedicated a lot of time to the details, created some beautifully staged scenes. Chloe's room especially is a finely observed painting of American small town youth.
Unfortunately, facial animation and lip-synching are still visibly underdeveloped. The latter could be excused due to the indie status and lack of resources, but the animation needs to be improved; we expect to learn so much from these characters through their body language and facial expressions that getting this right feels an essential part of selling us on this experience.
Nevertheless Life is Strange manages to touch something deep inside us, an amazing feat considering we're exhausted and dulled by a long day at Gamescom. And that's good, because if a video game can instil such thoughts from a demo alone, it suggests the potential to tell a moving story from beginning to end. One that'll be all the more bittersweet at the end, because even after weighing up all the potential choices, we still mightn't hit upon the right one.