Life is Strange: Wavelengths Turns Its Limitations into Its Greatest Strength

"Yet I loved playing Wavelengths because the sense of isolation and claustrophobia is not a detractor, it’s the point."...

Life is Strange: Before the Storm very easily could have been a problem game. A prequel to a game all about making your own decisions and altering events? Crafting a prequel that to that experience, where decisions have to be locked and canon overrules choice, is oxymoronic. Brilliantly, Deck Nine made this potentially devastating flaw the game’s biggest strength by building a richly thematic narrative around powerlessness itself and making the lack of timey-wimey time travel escape the heartbreaking point. With Wavelengths, the DLC to Life is Strange: True Colours, Deck Nine do it again and turn the greatest limitation into the game’s greatest strength.

Wavelengths is another prequel yet this time the entire experience takes place inside one small building with only one character, Steph, appearing in the flesh. A single person alone in a booth, hosting a radio show, and occasionally doing chores in the adjoining record store. That’s certainly one way to keep costs down for a small developer. This could feel small and cheap and boring and not a worthy addition to the Life is Strange series. Yet I loved playing Wavelengths because the sense of isolation and claustrophobia is not a detractor, it’s the point. It is used as the thematic underpinning of Steph’s character journey. Once more, the potential weakness becomes the strength.

Steph is a character struggling with identity and isolation. She’s bunkered down in Haven Springs after a breakup and doesn’t know what direction to take her life. Steph’s alone with no one around her until the final moments of the DLC. The loneliness is palpable; the player feels it too. Steph speaks to callers on the phone and others via text and each of these connections, however fleeting, feel incredibly meaningful. I wanted to keep the callers on the line like an out-of-ideas late-night radio host (which is essentially what we are) and find love via the in-game dating app only to be depressed when the person turns out to be a bot or the conversation turns sour. This is not to say the rest of the DLC, pottering around the store and interacting with highlighted objects, is dull, the writing is as sharp as ever and Steph is an engaging player surrogate, but the sudden stimuli of a buzzing phone is as exciting for the player as it is for Steph.

Each of Steph’s connections fascinatingly spread outwards towards a variety of consequences, and I particularly loved how Gabe’s struggle of reaching out to Alex, the main game’s protagonist, mirrors Steph’s issues. Her advice causes Gabe to reach out, Alex to arrive in town, and Steph to eventually find love with Alex. Steph is a great protagonist full of human contradictions, spending time giving advice yet needing it desperately herself. She claims she can see the future – her radio persona gimmick – yet, because this is a prequel, the player actually can, offering just the right level of irony to conversations. Yet there is one part of this I take umbrage with. To decide whether her advice will be positive or negative, Steph rolls a d20, which is a fun idea for an actual DJ but not in this game. The player had no agency in the decision, it is transposed to the scripted roll of the die, and there’s no reason I can fathom for it.

But the rest of the DLC deals with player choice in a perfect way, balancing between the story directing you towards certain outcomes needed for plot and character development and your own personal interactions. The dating app is a good example. The player can’t actually write what Steph types in the conversations with prospective dates. The variables to the interactions are limited. And yet the player has total control of the tone of the conversations, choosing how happy or sad Steph is at this point of the game, or how open or withholding. Some breakups and falling outs are scripted but how they happen is up to the player – either amicably or brutally, quick or prolonged. Each connection should be important, and most of them are, although there are perhaps a few too many matches on the dating app because I got confused as to who I was talking to on a couple of occasions. Although that might just be because I swiped right on all of them. Which can make sense with Steph’s characterisation, longing for connection and escape, depending how you view her.

Split into four sections, a day in each of the four seasons, the game was able to hold my attention with just the day-to-day operations of the radio station and store for the first two. I enjoyed it but wondered what the actual point of the DLC was, and then the third part – Halloween – hit me. That was when what the game was doing clicked into place. The tone and setting are linked, with the Pride Month section exploring Steph’s relationships and then Halloween her past trauma. I guess the theme of connection plays into the game’s relationship with the others in the series, with Wavelengths being the connective tissue between the Arcadia Bay stories and the Haven Springs stories. Suddenly seeing the photo of Jefferson from Life is Strange almost gave me a heart attack and I at once understood Steph’s pain and need to find connection and grow.

I am a strong proponent of the ‘save Arcadia Bay’ ending of the original Life is Strange. With the relationship between Max and Chloe growing, to sacrifice Chloe is just the much more emotionally devastating and dramatic ending, which is what I want. But with Wavelengths I was hoping for a happy ending, without the bittersweet or downright miserable elements of the other games’ dénouements. I guess I’m going soft but I was so invested in the solitary Steph breaking from the confines of her emotional bubble to find connection. The DLC managed to do this by relating the player so intrinsically to Steph’s frame of mind, not only through writing and performance but the restrictions and limitations forced on the game being embraced until they became its greatest strength, the emotional confines treated literally.

What are your thoughts on Life is Strange: Wavelengths? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.


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