The Greatest Games: Life is Strange (2015)

Life is Strange (2015)
Developed by Dontnod Entertainment

Greatness does not mean without flaws. While most of my favorite games achieve this status by juggling several strong ideas without notable hiccups, Life is Strange has some obvious issues. Namely, this is a Telltale-style adventure game with some stilted dialogue. A narrative-focused video game with questionable writing should be a death knell. This is the story of two teenage American girls written by two middle-aged French men and it shows. I start with this because I don’t want anyone thinking I’m somehow blind to these flaws. Rather, I believe the positives of this experience greatly outweigh these negatives, to the point that these apparent flaws actually add an odd charm to the overall experience.

When The Walking Dead shot onto the scene, it promised a new era of video game storytelling. The magic wore off almost immediately once people recognized the limits. This was largely a case where that initial game was simply that good of a story and its formula couldn’t really be repeated, at least not without some inventive thinking. The gameplay itself was largely tedious. The Walking Dead showed that games could act like television, but what did that experience add if the gameplay itself wasn’t gripping and when we’ve all learned choice is largely an illusion?

There are a few things Life is Strange does differently which sets it above these similar titles. First, there’s true justification for its gameplay style. Most of Telltale’s games could have been more involved. There are moments where something like The Walking Dead feels like it’s holding back despite the medium allowing more. But the Telltale formula is a perfect fit for a modern high school mystery. Life is Strange is using this formula to tell a story which otherwise wouldn’t be told in this medium.

Secondly, Life is Strange is a game which outright acknowledges the inevitable several times over. A game like The Walking Dead carries a negative aftertaste when you look back and realize nothing you chose mattered. By giving glimpses of the future state, Life is Strange instead becomes a game where the central theme is fighting against fate. By narrowing the focus, it’s easier to accept these limits. This is a perfect example of not negating but embracing limits. While not hitting the player over the head with a golf club, this is ultimately a deconstruction in the same vein as Portal and BioShock.

I shouldn’t bury that statement at the end of a paragraph. Life is Strange deconstructs the idea of choice-based video games while playing itself straight. There’s never a moment where it seems to get caught up in its own cleverness. Instead, there’s a layer of utmost sincerity, which results in this being one of the most emotionally resonant works I’ve experienced in any medium.

Let’s cycle back to the beginning again; before we can discuss the deconstructive nature, we must first establish the surface tension which hooks us in the first place. The game begins with protagonist Max navigating her way through a violent storm before waking up in class. She heads to the bathroom, where she watches a violent confrontation resulting in an unknown girl getting shot. Max suddenly jumps back to waking up, where she is suddenly able to answer her teacher’s question due to the memory before heading straight to the bathroom and stopping the shooting. She soon realizes the girl was her now-distant childhood best friend, Chloe.

Life is Strange thus operates as a murder mystery where the murder never happens. But it’s clear from the set-up that something needs to be done about Nathan Prescott, the would-be killer. The narrative juggles a few major threads. Chloe’s best friend in the intervening years, Rachel Amber, has been missing for months. Max and Chloe themselves have a lot of catching up to do, especially for Max’s silence while Chloe was coping with the sudden loss of her father. Taking after Twin Peaks, there are a couple dozen minor characters with their own arcs. A lot of your opinion of this game will be shaped by how easily you can handle Chloe’s brash and impulsive nature. For me, I instantly adored her character.

All of these elements are reinforced by Max’s power to rewind time. The first major choice in the game involves deciding whether or not to tell the principal about Nathan having a gun. Naturally, Max can rewind time after making a choice. This also means most choices are designed where both options have some sort of negative element. By seeing the immediate outcome and being able to cycle back, Life is Strange isn’t about making choices but learning to accept them. Most choice-based games have you make a decision and that’s that; Life is Strange wants to paralyze you in the moment, forcing self-doubt and hesitance.

It’s at this point where I need to put up the necessary spoiler warning – it’s difficult to argue the greatness of a narrative work without diving into the specifics.

From an interactive perspective, Life is Strange’s strongest suit is its seamless ability to rewrite its own rules. The moment that really hits people occurs at the end of episode 2. While Max and Chloe spend the day trying to learn Max’s limits, there’s a b-plot about a fellow student who had an embarrassing video posted online. As Max returns to the dorms, this student has climbed to the roof and is threatening to jump. Max is able to somehow freeze time and work her way up to the roof, but pushing her limits like this causes her powers to temporarily stop working. The player must now talk the girl down without the ability to correct mistakes. There’s a sense of powerlessness in this moment that I’ve never experienced elsewhere, but I was lucky to have paid enough attention to her to find a peaceful resolution. A game has never left me feeling so relieved, while others had to face the despair.

Similarly, at the end of episode 3, Max discovers a new power which allows her to jump back to the time of a photograph. She naturally uses this to reverse the death of Chloe’s dad. By doing so, Max finds herself in a twisted world where Chloe has been paralyzed. This sequence telegraphs the ending, but this is also where the deconstruction really takes hold. You are given an outright meaningless choice here. Chloe asks for Max to end her misery. This alternate Chloe does not matter in the grand picture, as Max has already decided to reverse this change. Despite this apparent lack of weight, this moment is absolutely gut-wrenching. The game seems to be asking a very important question: does something have to canonically happen to carry weight? Or is it more important that both the protagonist and the audience has seen these alternatives, even if it’s something we can only share among ourselves?

Perhaps the most depressing moment comes at the end of episode 4, entirely independent of choice. Max and Chloe learn Rachel Amber had been murdered and buried just a few steps down from their hangout spot near the tracks. In a game where it feels like we have increasing power over fate, this is a striking reminder that certain things in life are beyond our control. Seeing Chloe break down as she digs is another powerful moment you rarely see in media, let alone in a video game.

This game makes a perfect pairing with Undertale because there’s only one ‘real’ path. Of course, there is a choice at the end of the game which gives two wildly different conclusions, but only one is satisfying and based around learning the message of this game. As I said earlier, this is a game about acceptance – after every awful side effect you’ve witnessed, you have to accept that you can’t actually save Chloe. To do anything besides turn back time and let her die in the bathroom would be selfish. The fact you have to be the one to hit the button is what makes this so heartbreaking.

It’s easy to write this experience off – to turn back time means literally erasing everything you have done over the course of this game. But you haven’t, for both you and Max have still gone through that experience. This is a game about grieving loss, and the story has stolen everything from you but the memories; but are our memories worth nothing?

To put it in another perspective, imagine your closest friend has died and you are given a chance to spend one more week with them; after that week, the events themselves will be wiped from the earth, but you will still remember. Would anyone reject this offer? Life is Strange is about that sort of purgatorial experience of wishing you had just a bit more time with someone you had taken for granted.

Life is Strange carves out its own unique niche, telling a story with heavy yet human themes in a setting few games explore. This is a tragic tale with a great cast. And, sure, maybe the characters overuse frankly bizarre lingo, but for a game trying to capture the spirit of Twin Peaks, these eccentricities fit perfectly.  This is the one game to truly fulfill the promise laid out by Telltale’s The Walking Dead, featuring a story powerful enough to paralyze while including key moments of interactivity that could not meaningfully be pulled off in another medium.