If I could turn back time, if I could find a way…
(Warning – some minor spoilers can be found ahead)
The ability to wind back time and alter your past is a compelling one – hella compelling, even. What would you have done differently, given the chance – what could have been, if you had chosen a different path? Would you have been friends with your parents if you had all gone to the same school? Cinema and literature have exploited this desire over and over again, so why not explore it through video games. And that is the central conceit of Life is Strange, albeit delivered in an episodic format and wrapped in the evergreen setting of a high-school drama.
“When a door closes, a window opens… Or, something like that.” – Max Caulfield
Dontnod Entertainment didn’t have an extensive back catalogue of hit titles backing them up when they pitched a risky new interactive story series – having only one published game under their belt at the start of 2015. But that didn’t stop the team from being experimental and trying out new game design choices. For example, the time-altering mechanic that became central to Life is Strange could be traced directly back to a key part of its predecessor – Remember Me. A commercial failure at launch, the stylish – yet ironically forgettable – sci-fi action adventure may have suffered from unoriginal combat, but was redeemed by its inventive Memory Remixes. In these sequences, the player delved into the minds of several targets, moving back and forth within a set memory, to find glitches that would allow you to re-shape what they thought had happened – thereby changing their outlook.
Whilst this was a small part of a much larger game, it showed promise in a key idea – something that had potential to be developed and expanded into a full title. Whilst Life is Strange didn’t pick up exactly where Memory Remixes left off, the jump to rewinding time was only a short one. You don’t dive directly into anyone’s mind, but instead discover the ability to literally rewind a period of time, erasing and re-writing what happens from that point onward. Players take on the role of Max Caulfield, returning to her childhood home of Arcadia Bay on a photography scholarship, but full of regrets from when her family left the town as a child, leaving her best friend Chloe Price behind – and even worse – shortly after a tragic car accident took the life of her father. This feeling of regret and missed opportunities runs as a constant theme through almost every thread of the story – with the difficult re-connected relationship between Max and Chloe being the focal point.
“Dude, you fuck shit up, you rewind, you fix it. Drop the mic. Boom.” – Chloe Price
Perhaps what helps Life is Strange connect with its audience so well is its blending of the supernatural time-manipulation idea with the mundane and the familiar. A lively scene is set, complete with a colourful cast of characters – many of whom will play important roles in the story before it reaches its conclusion. Even before time travel comes to the fore, the game draws you in. Max is a developing, but talented photography student, and as such her camera plays a pivotal role. Looking for interesting shots and subjects becomes a key part of gameplay, before later developing (pun firmly intended) into a far more important part of the time-manipulation process. But even a simple photograph won’t be the same for each player, nor every play-through. Your choices and the impact of your actions will shape what happens in the world around you – captured uniquely by your own set of photos. No matter how small, your decisions all have the potential to have a drastic impact on the future – or indeed the past.
This “Butterfly Effect” is one of the most important ideas put forward by Dontnod. The more that Max uses her newfound time-altering skills, the more that everything else going on around our key duo seems to spin out of control. A series of disappearances and strange events in Arcadia Bay builds into a full-on mystery to be investigated, with truly sinister and disturbing secrets to reveal and some very real life and death choices to be made. There aren’t, however, many game over scenarios in Life is Strange. By nature, the very fact that the core gameplay involves rewinding mistakes to try doing something differently, means that you can almost always find your way out of a potential dead-end, giving you the opportunity to not only rescue a terrible situation, but also to simply experiment to try several different outcomes before deciding which you wish to proceed with. But player beware, this isn’t always clear-cut and sometimes a seemingly-innocuous action in episode one could have more serious consequences later in the game – something which only increases the desire to re-play the story to see how differently things could evolve.
“Remember my number one rule. Always… take… the shot.” – Mr. Jefferson
You might, however, not feel the need to explore different choices once you have reached the end of the story. Life is Strange certainly gained a devoted following of fans who take “their story” very seriously. The story you wove first-time around very much becomes your own, and the idea of going back to see what happens if you did something differently can almost feel like a betrayal of what you built as you accompanied Max and Chloe on their journey. There may be a few really tough decisions to make (especially as the season reaches its climax), but once those have been made, they feel pretty definitive. I, for one, know that my ending choice was the less-popular of the two between fans of the series, but has always felt like the “right” ending based on my play-through and my relationship with the characters. And it is the relationship with Max and Chloe that Dontnod managed to get so right.
Despite being high-school-aged girls, most who played Life is Strange will have been able to relate to their feelings of helplessness, confusion and more – even if your life was nothing like theirs. There are relatable themes such as bullying, self-harm, broken homes and more that resonate with everyone, regardless of their life experience. The bond of friendship between the protagonists, despite everything that has come between them is emotionally powerful, and the unfolding events only act to drive that home even more. It’s no coincidence that both the prequel/spin-off: Life is Strange – Before the Storm, and full-on sequel Life is Strange 2 both focused on a pair of key protagonists and the relationship between them both. It was the most dominant and compelling part of the first season. The other two attempts may have seen somewhat diminishing returns, but the blueprint laid down by the first is clear to see.
“If that tornado came right now, I would just sit here and watch for a while.” – Max Caulfield
Then there is the pitch-perfect soundtrack that heightens your emotional connection to scenes whilst combining a series of tracks from alternative artists and a powerful original melodic score, and the quasi-realistic watercolour visuals which give sections of the game a dream-like quality. Without droning on for too long, Life is Strange was a breath of fresh air when it launched almost five years ago, and no-one else has really come close to replicating its style since. However your story ended, Life is Strange managed to connect with its audience at an emotional level, as well as providing an imaginative and flexible approach to storytelling. The most successful stories are those where the audience feels invested in the outcome, and by letting players write and re-write key moments themselves, Dontnod gave a lot of their narrative power back to the player.