Thoughts on Life Is Strange

I’ve been itching to play Life Is Strange for the majority of 2015, and after much delaying, I finally broke down and purchased the game about a month ago (my normal impulse to wait until digital games go on sale wasn’t strong enough here, since Life Is Strange‘s episodic format ensured that it wouldn’t be until sometime in 2016 when I saw a price drop).  The reason I had wanted to play this particular game is because it’s been promoted as a refinement of the Telltale Games formula popularized by the Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us adventure games, but done by a different development studio.  What the developer, Dontnod, produced is something that I think is pretty special, and I’ve been thinking pretty hard about the game since I finished it.

Life Is Strange tells the story of Max Caulfield, a native of Arcadia Bay, Oregon who has returned to her home town after a five year absence to attend a prestigious high school for her senior year, and her best friend from childhood, Chloe Price.  Following a traumatic incident where Max witnesses Chloe’s violent death, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, and so she determines to prevent Chloe’s demise.  From there, things escalate dramatically as Max and Chloe find themselves embroiled in an investigation into the disappearance of one of Chloe’s closest friends, Rachel Amber.  Over the course of the story, themes of what it’s like to be a teenage girl, the nature of responsibility, and dealing with sexual assault and bullying are explored in depth.

Did I mention this game has a beautiful visual style? (Image credit: Life Is Strange Wiki)

Mechanically speaking, the game’s most significant hook is the application of Max’s time travel powers.  When in a given area, certain scripted events will sometimes happen in real time that Max can influence by rewinding time to allow her an opportunity to intervene in some crucial way; also (and this is the most significant aspect of the gameplay), Max is able to rewind conversations with characters so that she can see the outcome of multiple different conversation paths, even when confronted with significant story decisions.  It’s a big thing for a game to offer the player the opportunity to immediately redo a conversation and choose a different outcome, even if the story is structured in such a way that it’s not really possible to predict all of the ramifications of a given decision in the immediate aftermath (my experience with the Telltale games primed me to just accept whatever decisions I made without turning back most of the time, but there were a few instances where I saw the immediate outcome of my decision and was glad I could reconsider).

The brilliance of the rewind feature comes up in the way the story is structured to make Max’s decisions constantly spin out into consequences that she can’t possibly have any control over; other characters react in ways that aren’t entirely predictable, but being in the position to witness what others will do and then change one’s mind impresses on both Max and the player this sense of responsibility for everything that’s happening in Arcadia Bay.  Obviously, in the real world it’s much easier to accept that the actions of other people are outside your own control (even if we often act and think  as though we can control what others will do), but for Max that’s a real struggle because she does have the power to influence events.  It doesn’t help that the more Max makes use of her powers to try to help people, the more she gets caught up in the message from everyone around her that she’s some sort of superhero (this is meant jokingly by all the people who are unaware of Max’s powers, but the message still gets internalized in a way that’s pretty torturous for Max by the game’s end; it parallels nicely with persistent social messages to women about them always needing to take responsibility for others’ problems).

One other major aspect of the game that I want to touch on here is the emphasis on quiet moments.  It’s easy in discussing a game’s story to focus on the major plot points as the markers of whether it’s good, but one significant advantage that a game medium has over other modes of storytelling is that the player’s given some control over everything’s pacing.  Life Is Strange‘s story can probably be finished in about fifteen hours if the player doesn’t bother with exploratory activities like looking for photo opportunities and reading all the bits of flavor text sprinkled around the environments, and only rewinds time when the game requires it to advance, but such a speedy playthrough misses all the times when the player is allowed to just luxuriate in the atmosphere of the world.  Max’s life is full of drama and melodrama, but it’s also filled with peaceful moments that can stretch on as long as the player likes.  One detail that I particularly love is that the game regularly gives the player the opportunity to have Max just sit down and take in what’s happening around her; this is a story preoccupied with the importance of memory, and it constantly invites the player to make some memories about their experience with the game.  Whatever happens to Max and Chloe, we get to enjoy that time as much as we like.

A last note that I want to make is that I absolutely adore the soundtrack for this game.  Since the final episode released a couple weeks ago, the soundtrack’s been posted on Spotify and Youtube, and I’ve been listening to it a bunch in my free time.  It’s a very soothing collection of music, and having finished the game, I feel a pretty strong emotional connection with the songs and the moments they’re connected to in context of the story.  If you enjoy indie and folk style music, it’s worth checking out.

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