Life Is Strange is a game by DONTNOD Entertainment, an indie game development studio from Paris. The player takes on the role of Max Caulfield, an aspiring photographer and senior student at the Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay. She has the power to rewind time, and this forms the basis of gameplay interactions throughout Life Is Strange. The use of her powers results in far-reaching consequences that reveal themselves through the course of this 5-episode game.
The narrative is stellar and heart-wrenching at times, and is overall an unforgettable game experience that I cannot recommend enough to fans of narrative-driven adventure games.
Spoilers reside in the design commentary beyond, so I would recommend that one finishes the game before reading here. Or perhaps one doesn’t care…
Life Is Strange is essentially a game that turned save scumming into a core mechanic. In game, Max is able to conduct conversations Telltale Games style. That done, it is possible for Max to rewind time and use the information gleaned from the conversation to unlock other dialog options. The first encounter the player has with rewind is when Max’s long lost best friend Chloe returns, only to have a tussle with the town’s rich kid Nathan and is shot in the process. Distraught, Max rewinds time, manages to save Chloe and the game begins in earnest.
The implication of time rewinds significantly impacts the pace of the game. In Telltale Games’ offerings, decisions are time-sensitive and force the player to make snap decisions which can have important consequences later on. Life Is Strange takes a different tack, with Rewind essentially allowing the player to explore the outcomes of all dialog options and even occasionally using the new information to change the outcome of conversations.
This choice of pacing is a welcome change from the current crop of games. To put things in perspective, the game even has an interaction called “Sit”, which is literally what it says on the box: Max will sit at that point, with an internal narrative of her ruminating or reminiscing while the camera pans languidly from various angles. The sitting state does not end by itself, allowing the player to sit as long as they want. Clearly, this is a title that invites the player to really stop and smell the roses.
Backed up by a stunningly fitting soundtrack featuring the band Syd Matters (fronted by Jonathan Morali) that the player first encounters when Max puts on her earbuds in the prologue of the game, Life Is Strange truly immerses the player in the day to day experience of Arcadia Bay.
The matter of choice and rewinds culminates in one of the most memorable moments in my video gaming experience: The suicide attempt of Kate Marsh. Throughout the earlier episodes, the player witnesses Kate Marsh being bullied, and there are multiple opportunities for the player to take action to soothe her…or do nothing to help.
The player learns that Kate is deeply religious and the school’s resident mean girl squad is hard at work to smear her pure image. They manage to disseminate a lewd video of Kate that went viral. Understandably distraught at this outcome, the player gets to read messages from her family indicating where they stand on the matter. The culminating moment of this series of unfortunate events comes in Episode 2, whereby Kate attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the school building.
The Kate Marsh suicide moment is special because this is the first time the player is denied use of Max’s rewind power. Based on what the player has done, and the dialog choices that are picked, Kate may commit suicide or survive the attempt.
Unlike most games, however, Kate managing to kill herself is not a losing state: The game goes on and the player will have to live with that outcome. This lends greater weight to the encounter, because the player has been accustomed to being able to reverse all manner of terrible things by now, including but not limited to Chloe’s otherwise untimely demise.
The impact of this game moment is apparent if one searches for “Save Kate Marsh” online: The sheer number of results should make the implications quite apparent. As a game developer, what impresses me more is how a whole range of content was created to back up the possible timelines when Kate’s dead and when she lives. This takes up considerable development resources, and would have been avoided by most other developers. Fortunately for this title, the developers did not shrink from this approach, and I believe it paid off handsomely.
However, like any game, Life Is Strange has its flaws. To me, the biggest dilemma is in handling the photo-based time-travel aspect of gameplay. In game, it is eventually possible for Max to go back into the slice of time captured in a photograph (photography and photographic metaphors feature strongly in game) and can potentially alter that particular point in time, resulting in a whole alternate timeline.
In the earlier episodes, Max can only rewind time to a few moments before an event occurs, adding particular weight to the use of the Rewind power because at some point it becomes impossible to rewind particular outcomes. Sadly, the photo time travel makes one question the importance of all the decisions prior to this: If one can travel even further back in time, ultimately everything that was done can be undone, and then the weight of making decisions is diminished.
I can understand this to be a powerful narrative tool in that it allows the player to see various alternate timelines, and to better understand the consequences of meddling with time. For example, there is a moment where Max goes back in time to save Chloe’s dad William (who was supposed to die in a car accident) because Chloe’s current stepfather is harsh and abusive. As a result of Max’s actions, Chloe met with a car accident instead, and became quadriplegic. She also has breathing issues, so it’s really only a matter before she dies. After spending time with Chloe, the player is left with the choice of euthanizing her or leaving her to die alone.
While euthanasia (especially of a dear friend) is a heavy topic at the best of times, the foregone conclusion (Chloe’s inevitable death) and the fact that Max goes back immediately after to reverse her meddling lessens the impact of either outcome. In fact, knowing that these alternate timelines are essentially throwaway experiences makes me want to dismiss them as a player because they have no real consequences on the game I am playing. (For an illustration of why this is so, check out the diagram further down in the article.)
Personally, this is an approach to the game’s narrative that I would have avoided altogether because it is unsustainable: It is developmentally impossible to provide enough content to fully populate all the possible alternate timelines.
Of course, DONTNOD Entertainment manages to provide some emotional moments in those sequences, which I suppose was something carefully considered and settled on, and in narrative terms does not detract from the game’s premise. It does provide for a rather confusing experience in Episode 5, however, where photo rewind is way overused and, while it concerns Max’s survival, does not result in truly meaningful choices that affect the rest of the game. There remains a limited number of possible outcomes.
In Episode 5, it turns out that Max’s photography teacher, Mark Jefferson, is actually a serial killer obsessed with capturing the loss of innocence. Shortly before he gets rid of the subject. In the Mark Jefferson interlude, Max is captured and drugged by him, and basically jumps through time through the photographs multiple times during her lucid periods in an effort to get away from him. One of the timelines she encounters along the way is the one where her photograph won the photography contest and she was flown to San Francisco to attend. But she quickly realizes that while she is happily at San Francisco, things are not well at Arcadia Bay and she needs to return. At the end of the interlude (which took up most of Episode 5), the player returns to the main timeline.
It is later revealed that Max’s meddling with time has resulted in increasingly disastrous consequences for Arcadia Bay’s future, with strange goings on culminating in mass whale beachings, an inexplicable double moom (yes two moons in the sky) and ultimately in a massive hurricane that will destroy Arcadia Bay.
This is the set up for the ultimate decision at the end of the game: Sacrifice all of Arcadia Bay or Max’s best friend Chloe. Save Arcadia Bay and Max goes back in time to let Chloe die after being shot by Nathan, and it is as if the entire game never happened. This is illustrated in the diagram below, which contains the major points in Life Is Strange. While some may argue that many other points in the game have consequences, I would say that they are side notes, because the event occurs but the consequences of the event are only made apparent to the player in brief snippets.
As it can be seen, the single biggest permanent consequence that the player can make is to manage to save Kate or not. The effects echo through the episodes. Yet even this major event is predicated on a single event that the player never played through: the timeline where Nathan kills Chloe. At the point where the player is asked to choose between Chloe and Arcadia Bay, the player is actually made to choose between their entire playthrough…or the alternative timeline (Nathan kills Chloe) where they did not.
I think that is a very unfortunate conclusion to have for this game, primarily this exposes the falseness of all prior choices in that they do not actually provide permanent consequences as promised in the game (nothing chosen so far actually affects these two choices) and leaves the player with two very unsatisfying options instead.
Despite the flaws in the narrative, I still think that Life Is Strange is well worth playing, and if you somehow made it this far without playing the game ( I applaud your resistance to spoilerage), you would definitely not regret grabbing it at the next Steam sale…
And yes of course I chose to let Arcadia Bay die. Never liked the place anyway.
All visual assets are screengrabs from Life Is Strange, and belong to their respective IP owner(s).