video games

Will Life Is Strange Be the First Great Video-Game Adaptation?

Photo: Dontnod Entertainment

Historically, video-game properties have found little success when adapted for other mediums. Movies based on games are notoriously bad (though international audiences don’t seem to care), and while forays into other, smaller arenas like comic books have had some success (with successful series based on many franchises like Tomb Raider and, improbably, Sonic the Hedgehog), the odds that an adaptation of, say, Grand Theft Auto will be as big as Grand Theft Auto the video game are relatively slim. This is in part because adaptation efforts have been generally focused on translating big-budget games into big-budget movies, and it’s often (but not always) the case that big-budget games don’t put a whole lot of emphasis on story — which, of course, is ostensibly the thing being adapted.

Rather, it’s smaller, typically indie games where you’ll find the most compelling storytelling — and that’s why it’s so intriguing that Life Is Strange, our pick for the best video game of 2015, is being developed as a live-action series. While there aren’t really any details beyond the fact that developer DONTNOD is working with Legendary Digital Studios to make it happen, this is, on the whole, a promising idea. Life is Strange is a game that’s less about action than it is about choices, and in that sense it provides much more material for a mini-series. It has actual, strong narrative underpinnings to adapt, with real characters that have arcs and emotions and aren’t just easily recognizable iconography.

The game follows Maxine, a budding photographer at a boarding school in the Pacific Northwest, who discovers she has the power to rewind time as she stumbles across a mystery involving a missing classmate. As Maxine, players reconnect with her childhood friend Chloe, who teams up with her to get answers and find out what their fellow classmates are hiding. Throughout, players make choices that change the game’s narrative as the plot unfolds, much like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. In spending time talking to the characters, you find out why Chloe and Maxine fell out of touch, or why Chloe is so invested in finding out the truth behind Maxine’s missing classmate. The game’s episodic structure also allows each teen character to have their own backstory divulged and explored, making the entire cast interesting.

Life Is Strange feels like an indie drama in that it’s a bittersweet story about friendship and growing up, with a great soundtrack and real affection for its characters. There are dark twists and heartbreaking reveals and stakes both large and small, and of course the supernatural element of time manipulation. In other words, it would make for good television — and its five-episode structure provides the initial architecture for a series arc, should DONTNOD and Legendary choose to go in that direction.

It’s interesting that it took so long for games to make the jump to TV in this fashion, especially considering the popularity of the episodic format in video games of late. Prolific game studio Telltale Games, famous for its excellent adaptation of The Walking Dead comics, trades almost exclusively in episode-oriented games. There are some exceptions, mostly children’s cartoons starring characters like Sonic the Hedgehog or the cast of Mortal Kombat in the West, or Japanese anime-adapting games like Street Fighter or Persona. But when it comes to live-action dramas the cupboard is just about bare, barring YouTube mini-series like Halo: Forward Unto Dawn or Mortal Kombat: Legacy. That’s surprising, especially in this era of Peak TV, since a television series gives a game’s characters time to breathe in a way movies simply can’t.

Of course, that’s no guarantee that a digital series will ever measure up to simply playing the game. Player agency in Life Is Strange is an essential part of the game. The choices you make as Maxine change the entire flow of the story — characters live or die, relationships change, secrets stay hidden or get found out. The time manipulation element of Life Is Strange’s world lends the digital series a way to re-create the variable-timeline experience in a locked-in live-action narrative, but even if they remove the Sliding Doors aspect of the game, its story is strong enough to still be affecting — if skillfully adapted. And when it comes to video games, a skillful adaptation is no certainty.

A Life Is Strange Digital Show Has Great Promise