Will Rosenthal ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Contributor
Life is Strange just finished up its episodic series with episode 5 this month, and left its players with a serious impression. For one, its themes and elements resemble that of the cult film Donnie Darko. Both feature a teenage hero, given a warning about the impending end of the world, which is preceded with personal struggles, time travel, and is resolved by the hero’s sacrifice. While the game does not directly borrow plot points or critical parts for its own narrative, Life is Strange is familiar to but ultimately out does Donnie Darko at its own, well, game.
Also, Spoilers! Seriously. But also, it is easier to watch a movie instead of playing 5 episodes of a game. That’s a 10–15 hour commitment.
- It Has a Likable Protagonist
Sure, Donnie might have appeared like a compelling lead 15 years ago, but angst just does not hold up. Max, on the other hand, is not a nihilistic cynic with a devil-may-care attitude. When the player meets her, she is in a very uncomfortable and unfamiliar setting which is unsettling to her. She has few friends and doesn’t fit in, but still wants that human connection. Unlike Donnie, who’s distain for everyone else was borderline comical.
- It Doesn’t Step Around its Influences
Not to beat around the bush, both Donnie and Max lend influence from “Catcher in the Rye” for their misplaced teen angst in an authorial educational system. But Life is Strange doesn’t try to hide this fact. From Max’s last name, Caulfield, to the parody poster in her dorm room, “The Winger in the Cow,” the game wears its influences on its sleeve. Donnie Darko, meanwhile, takes Holden, casts J-Haal, and cranks it to eleven.
- It Doesn’t Spend Half its Time Explaining the Time Travel
Donnie Darko really wanted to convince the audience that it knew about Theoretical Physics, enough to spend a majority of the film examining the topic. But did they succeed? Tunnels that come out of people’s chests that you can enter? Or was that fate they were talking about? But the plane went through the hole and killed Donnie! Then it was in Donnie’s…hole? By the time Donnie Darko has finished explaining that, they had to cut the other half of the movie out. Life is Strange doesn’t give a front door about explaining itself. How much time does it devote to that? About three lines, at the end of the final episode.
- It’s a Metaphor!
The reason Life is Strange doesn’t explain its mechanics is because it understands it should not be taken literally. Time travel through memories, changing outcomes, the storm; it’s all part of a large metaphor about the accepting choice regardless of the unknown outcome. Donnie wants to explain everything in order to convey that it’s smarter than it actually is.
- Everything is Explained Properly Without the Need for a Director’s Cut
As mentioned, the crux of the game hangs on those events outside of the supernatural. The serial killer, the Prescott’s rule over the town, and Kate Marsh all take precedence over tearing down the intricacies of ghost deer, photographic time jumps, alternate realities, and so on. When the film truly affects the player emotionally, it’s through the personal connections Max forms with her friends. Therefore, spending a majority of your time with your audience talking about the vignetting — Donnie Darko cough cough — is unnecessary.
- The Consequences Feel Larger than Just a Suburb
This is not just because Max talks about and visits other locations in Life is Strange. Donnie Darko, as a film, feels cramped, focusing on a few places in his town that leave the impression that not only this town, but the scope of his story will be small. The viewer knows the town is in danger and that’s okay, not to sound insensitive, but when it’s weighed against Life is Strange and the implication that the world could be torn apart by Max’s powers is much more engaging and terrifying.
- No Frank, but Still a Dead Friend and a Dear
Frank mainly exists to shock the viewer at the tail end of the film. He’s a random character that had no tie to Donnie’s conflict or resolution. Max also has a dead friend and a creepy spirit animal, but Life is Strange splits those two into Chloe “I can’t stop getting shot” Price and Ghost Deer, both of which follow Max both personally and emotionally. Put another way, the player cares when Chloe is shot, not when a stranger in a fur suit is.
- No Cellar Door, Yes Selfie
Still want a word spoken repeatedly by the cast that’s it’s borderline hilarious but don’t want any air or pretension about it? In the words of Victoria Chase, “Go fuck your selfie.”
- Two (actually satisfying) endings
Why is Donnie Darko’s ending so bad? Because nothing is left. Although Donnie made his sacrifice to save the town, the result is a town unaffected by any action over the course of the film. Everything just carries on. Even Donnie’s family nonchalantly accepts Donnie’s death. So what is there for the viewer, who just spent 90 minutes with the film — plus whatever the Director’s Cut was? Nothing. The player of Life is Strange can leave with two drastically different endings, both of which leave the player profoundly effected and questioning the implications of their actions. Mainly because Max’s journey is not finalized by either. There is still a sense that, regardless of choice, Max has altered the state of the world and where these characters will find themselves.