Life is Strange is a refreshing glass of gut-punch

2015 08 08 00024

Something nobody tells you about high school is that the main reason you should make the most of it is not because “these are the best years of your life” (if they are your life sounds kind of awful), but because you’ll probably be stuck dreaming about the place for years afterwards. A decade or so of anxiety dreams will relentlessly whisk you back to your teenage years like a really shitty form of time travel.

Life Is Strange is a game about an 18-year-old American student named Max who has the power to reverse time and fix her teenage failures before they become the mainstays of her dreams for the rest of her life. She can dial the clock back a limited period (typically to the beginning of the game’s last scene transition) and have a do-over, letting her see the immediate consequences of her actions and then reconsider them. Sometimes it’s a power that can alter drastic mistakes and even save lives, and sometimes it just lets her see things the way a more experienced person would, realizing which decision is the typical ‘dumb teenager’ thing to do. Sometimes it seems like her power is a simulation of being an adult.

Though developed by Dontnod, the team behind Remember Me, Life Is Strange resembles Telltale’s recent games like The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us. It’s being released episodically (four of its five parts are available so far), and it plays like the kind of adventure game that simplifies the puzzles so they don’t become roadblocks in the flow of the story, while inserting Big Decisions that become the things you agonize over instead. When you see a student break the law do you tell a teacher? When your friend gets in trouble do you try to take the blame?

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You’re reminded of Max’s ability to rewind time after each choice by the way she questions whether she’s done the right thing no matter which you choose, which does make her seem a little wishy-washy. Playing so many games that present moral quandaries means I’ve learnt to enjoy being decisive and then sticking to my guns, even when bad things follow—in fact, especially when they do. There’s dramatic potential in the moments when you realize your problems are your own fault. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect makes her mind up and sticks with it, dammit, no take-backsies.

In other games your decisions in these moments help to create a solid character to fill the empty protagonist-shaped hole at the center of video games. Replacing that with second-guessing means Max doesn’t feel as well-defined, but then of course she’s not. She’s 18 years old. Life Is Strange works best when I remember Max isn’t a space captain, a grizzled detective, or a survivor of the zombie apocalypse, and let her experiment in ways that might seem foolish to an adult.

Max doesn’t feel as well-defined, but then of course she’s not. She’s 18 years old.

By comparison Max’s best friend Chloe is the kind of indelible character I quickly grew attached to. As is traditional in genre fiction the rebellious buddy is more interesting than the hero. Blue-haired punk brat Chloe (voiced by Ashly Burch of Tiny Tina and Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin’? fame) rarely equivocates, always sounds like she’s either on the edge of a breakthrough or a breakdown, and lives in the moment. She’s a force of nature and a perfect balance to the more cautious Max.

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In the first episode of Life Is Strange Max has just returned to her home town of Arcadia Bay after several years in Seattle and is reconnecting with her roots. In the way of kids everywhere she fell out of contact with her best friend, and there’s tension between them even as they slowly reaffirm their bond. Out of all the things you can use Max’s power to do, it turns out one of the most significant is having more time to spend with someone close to you. Sometimes Life Is Strange can feel on-the-nose or even emotionally manipulative—its tone veers between Donnie Darko, Twin Peaks, and a Steven Spielberg movie—but when it’s effective it is a tall frosty glass of gut-punch.

There’s one more episode to go and time-travel stories do have a tendency to fall apart in their finales, but even if it does I’ll consider it worth playing for the way it’s resonated with me so far. The message of Life Is Strange is that life is short, and you should treasure the time you have with the people you care about. It delivers that message so potently that when I finished the last two episodes I immediately wanted to get in touch with someone I love. That’s rare in any kind of art, let alone video games, and worth valuing.

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