Life is weird. Life is so not fair. Life Is Strange is a story-driven adventure game that puts you in the shoes of shy and nosy teenager Max Caulfield. She has just returned to her home town to study photography at Blackwell Academy, a renowned institution in the field. The fictional Arcadia Bay, in Oregon, is a small coastal town punctuated by tall trees and ominous sunsets. Butterflies fly, Max starts the school year and meets a childhood friend and realizes she can turn back time.
On the surface, Life Is Strange seems like one of those indie films. It has a washed out, colorful look. It’s about teenagers. It has a sugary acoustic soundtrack. Some people mocked it for being “a bunch of French 30 year olds trying to sound like amercian teenagers”. It’s exactly what it is. Max spends the game making terrible puns, shouting “wowzer” out of excitement and desperately trying to look cool. This might seem like a failure, but it’s intentional and it helps the game immensely. Media often portrays teenagers as simply dumb and irresponsible adults, with little effort put into understanding their reality. By indulging in a trendy aesthetic, making up ridiculous lingo, not shying away from awkward moments and actively making players cringe, Dontnod makes their characters and world feel authentic.
Being a teenager is often an awkward, confusing experience. They still aren’t sure who they want to be or what they want to do with their lives, they don’t know a whole lot about the world, and they are prone to making mistakes. “Am I doing the right thing?”, “Should I follow my friend’s advice, or my family’s?”, “If I acted differently or ran away, could I become someone else entirely?”. These questions linger in the back of every teenager’s mind, and they happen to resonate incredibly well through the game’s core mechanic: The ability to rewind time.
The way of narrative-based games paved by the likes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead works under the premise that offering choice in the form of quick-time-events makes the player more involved, as they set aside ideal outcome calculations to follow their instincts. The result of sticking to that decision, however, is an increasing frustration at undesired or unpredictable outcomes, and the subsequent realitzation that the choices offered are actually rather limited or (glob forbid) that they don’t matter at all.
Life Is Strange actively tries to get around that frustration with the rewind system. When presented with a choice, the player can choose and see the immediate outcome of every one of their available actions. This also solves the problem of having differences between the dialog option shown on screen and what the main character actually says when you choose it, something which was pretty annoying in games like L.A. Noire, or more recently Fallout 4. Being able to rewind time brings back a feeling of ownership, if not of the over-arching story, of the moment to moment actions taking place. Don’t like how that sentence came out? Take it back immediately. Curious about what would happen if you just walked up to this guy and spilled his plate of beans? Do it, you can rewind later. If you thought this would make the game completely easy and stress-free, you would be wrong; it just means the tension has to be brought through narrative and not cheap timing-based mechanics.
That said, it quickly becomes apparent that you aren’t supposed to paintsakingly explore every possible outcome before making a choice. Maybe unsurprisingly, I found myself willingly making honest choices without a timer ticking down on the screen. Apart from making an appearance in a few rather mundane puzzles, the rewind system is handy but limited. What makes it excellent is how it is weaved into the narrative. Max is this teenager with teenager problems, and suddenly this big scary change happens in her life, and soon she begins to test both the power’s boundaries and her own. How far can she go forwards or backwards? What can’t she change? What shouldn’t she change? Why is she lucid dreaming about a tornado eating up the entirety of Arcadia Bay?
2013’s Remember Me was a game full of neat ideas and attention to detail chained to mediocrity by a slog of a fighting system with supposed mass appeal. With Life Is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment not only have improved upon an established formula for adventure games, they’ve also found a worthwhile, deeply humane narrative that nicely complements these improvements. Life Is Strange is a game about time travel, personal relationships and growing up. I think it’s pretty cool.