Life is Strange gives gamers ability to turn back time

Life is Strange gives gamers ability to turn back time

By Franklin Mejia, Staff Writer

The teenage condition is like the continuous drunkenness that you’ve convinced yourself is passable as sober. You can see and hear yourself making horrible mistakes. Your friends and family may even clearly tell you that you’re making mistakes. And yet you will continue to make them, knowing that even as you do, you’ll be apologizing to someone for something later.

“Teenager,” then, is the perfect setting for a game like Life is Strange. The beauty of the game is that it gives you an out for all those teenage mistakes. This manifests itself in protagonist Max Caulfield’s unexplainable ability to reverse time. Any decision you make—any choice of words, any way you handle a situation—can be reversed within a scene at the literal push of a button. And because that power is (very nearly) always with you, you will always be tempted to use it and convince yourself that the other option is the better one.

Like Telltale Games’ (another game publisher) wildly successful licensed adventure games—The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, etc.—Life is Strange is an adventure game told in five acts. It also mimics Telltale’s way of having in-game choices determine relationships with other characters and alter light in-world details. Unlike their works, though, in Life is Strange, acceptance isn’t born out of convenience. To go back and redo decisions in The Walking Dead or Mass Effect often requires investing time into dozens of hours of story again and again to see every routine. Most people would just take a long mull over a particularly tough decision here and there and move on.

Life is Strange turns hours into seconds at every major fork. It’s still impossible to predict the later fallout of each decision, but the game does give you an idea of where things might head down the line so you’re not making decisions blindly. Of course, that ambivalence is only as strong as the choices the games present you. And Life is Strange features some doozies.

At the start of Life is Strange’s first episode, Max has just returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay to attend a liberal arts academy. With no family and no experience in the town from the past five years, she’s the perfect clay to be molded by her estranged best friend Chloe. Over the course of five episodes, developer Dontnod Entertainment goes to exacting lengths to sell you on the pair’s rekindled friendship.

The setup works because the two were (probably quite literally) made to complement each other. Max is shy, Chloe is adventurous. Chloe is a dropout, Max is nearly a model student. More importantly, the two share an intense compassion for other people.

Throughout Life is Strange, Max and Chloe reach out and grip tightly to each other like two drowning swimmers paddling for the surface. The pair obviously love each other, as shown by the many times they guide each other, not just through life-and-death situations but day-to-day decisions. Chloe is just as likely to let Max sleep in her bed to avoid a dorm curfew as to pull a gun on a would-be attacker. Max can decide to take a shared photograph with her best friend and in the same moment protect her from an abusive stepfather.

Apart from their friendship, Life is Strange allows people to relate to the day-to-day moments of max. It’s those moments that form the crux of the story: problems that feel realistic in that opaque sort of way that reminds you of personal, real-life memories. Maybe not everyone can relate to interrogating their neighborhood drug dealer, but you can probably at least remember a similar figure from your teen years. It’s certainly more relatable than bending the space-time continuum, anyway.

Time travel usually gets a bad rep when it’s introduced into stories, as it often makes them unnecessarily complicated, however, when time travel does get involved in the plot, it’s often in the background. Max’s powers begin to manifest side effects as she and Chloe investigate sinister goings-on at the local academy. Chloe’s interim soulmate has gone missing, and the two set out to exploit Max’s abilities to find some answers.

By episode three, time travel becomes a bigger component, as Max uses her abilities to try to solve bigger and bigger real-life problems. As fictional time travelers so often do, however, she finds that altering the timeline is more complicated than she originally thought it would be.

The rest of the episodes experiment with very occasional time-bending puzzles: open up a path, walk to the other side, and rewind time so that the path was never actually open in the first place. Episode five unfortunately ditches this mechanic in favor of bizarrely off-brand stealth segments and vast swathes of noninteractive exposition.
Ripples making waves through the past is nothing new to time-hopping science fiction, but Life is Strange is one of the few games in recent memory that actually makes you go through the motions of choice, consequence, and “fixing” the timeline. The investment you have in the central duo heightens the heartbreaking actions you’re repeatedly forced to take—and take back—causing an even stronger reaction in your next round of decision-making.

In the early episodes, Life is Strange’s attempts at capturing teen reality are marred by classic “adults trying to sound like kids” syndrome. Mixed eras and regions of US slang exist simultaneously in 2013’s Pacific Northwest. Likely reacting to feedback, Dontnod was able to slowly phase the awkwardness out of the dialogue over time. It even becomes a sort of running, ironic gag by the later episodes, which feels like genuine 18-year-old self-awareness on its own.

The portrait of friendship between two young women, the toxic mystery surrounding Arcadia Bay, and Max collide in the final act, as you might expect. The game more or less plays itself at that point. You’re allowed to make good on a few of your earlier decisions, but the story of Max and Chloe has one of two very definitive endings based on your final choice.

It’s these kinds of choices that make emotional peaks and valleys fall like hammer blows. There’s just enough unique, human cruelty in the big reveals to keep them from seeming obvious. And then there’s the final decision itself, which is a kind of cruelty all on its own.

Life is Strange launched as what has now become a pretty recognizable sort of adventure game with an interesting twist. After a five-episode season, it became one of the most believable depictions of platonic love that games have seen in some time—which admittedly isn’t saying much considering how rare such depictions are in gaming altogether.

Even if its gimmick doesn’t always land and it takes some time to get going, Life is Strange is an authentic and melancholic take on a well-established genre. It makes some odd design choices, but its ability to make your choices feel important to its strong leading protagonists more than makes up for it. Buy it.