Life is Strange: Episode Three – Chaos Theory
Life Is Strange’s second episode, Out of Time, ended on something of a cliffhanger. One of the game’s supporting characters put herself in a life-threatening situation, with the player’s interactions directly determining whether the outcome would prove fatal. The scene’s inclusion was a courageous and controversial decision by developer Dontnod and understandably, its consequences cast a long shadow over the episodic title’s third installment, Chaos Theory.
Life Is Strange is an adventure game spread over five three-hour episodes and featuring eighteen year old Max Caulfield, a promising female student at the elite Blackwell Academy in the town of Arcadia Bay somewhere in the US Pacific Northwest. In the game’s first episode, Max discovered that she had the power to rewind time, an ability that served her in good stead as she investigated shady goings on at Blackwell while also haunted by visions of Arcadia Bay’s imminent destruction.
While the first two episodes focused mainly on the interminable high school politics at Blackwell, Chaos Theory delves deeper into the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Amber, one of Max’s fellow students at the academy. This change in direction, as well as the dramatic conclusion to Episode 2, lend this third episode a more sombre and contemplative tone as Max and her best friend Chloe attempt to establish Rachel’s whereabouts.
More than half of the locations Max visits in Chaos Theory will be familiar from earlier installments – Blackwell’s dormitories and classrooms, Joyce’s diner and Chloe’s home. However, the third episode grants entry to previously inaccessible rooms and populates areas with new characters to interact with. Together with more streamlined puzzles and more logical usage of Max’s time rewind power in conversations, Chaos Theory is more enjoyable to play than either Chrysalis or Out Of Time despite the relative lack of new locations to explore.
Dialogue in the last two installments was hit and miss, thanks to the game’s clumsy attempts at replicating teenage parlance. This time around though, conversations feel more naturalistic and while the words and phrases Max and Chloe use may still sometimes sound inauthentic, the closeness and affection between the two characters feels genuine; even their clumsiest exchanges are imbued with a warm, knowing quality. It’s a big improvement and one indicative of a game increasingly confident of its own identity.
Life Is Strange: Episode 3’s biggest improvement, though, is a subtle one. For the first time, the series has mastered the rule of “show, not tell” for exposition. Whereas earlier episodes frontloaded conversations with ancillary information about key characters and locations, Chaos Theory allows us to discover another side to some of the game’s major antagonists by exploring their private spaces and material possessions.
We learn that Frank – a paranoid and potentially dangerous drug dealer who first appeared in Episode 2 – has a soft spot for animals and yearns for a lost love. Principal Wells, meanwhile, is beholden to wealthy and demanding donors to Blackwell Academy, shedding a new light on his hostile and politically-motivated behaviour towards Max in the previous two installments. Rounding out characters in this way and allowing us to piece together their motivations is a very welcome step in a series that could easily have simply fallen back on high school drama stereotypes.
Like the previous episode, Chaos Theory takes a dramatic twist at the close. Where Out of Time’s cliffhanger showed remarkable bravery on the part of Dontnod, the third episode’s conclusion is very cleverly written and entirely unpredictable. Once again, the latest episode of Life Is Strange asks as many new questions as it answers but the “be careful what you wish for” ending means that many of these questions will be directed at the player’s own choices.
The third installment of a five part series obviously isn’t an ideal point for a newcomer to plunge into an episodic game like Life Is Strange. For those that have been approaching the series with caution, however, Chaos Theory marks the tipping point where Life Is Strange moves from ‘promising’ to ‘recommended’. It’s a very strong entry and one that sets the scene for what will hopefully be a fantastic conclusion to the series.