The Game of 2015: Life is Strange

A break from my pseudo-academic blogging to talk about one of my other past times, computer gaming.

I played a few games through to completion in 2015. Assassin’s Creed: Rogue ((I really must write up my notes on the conspiracy plot lines of the Assassin’s Creed games.)), Pillars of Eternity, Batman: Arkham City, Invisible, Inc., Broken Sword 5 – The Serpent’s Curse ((If you play one game about the Catholic Church suppressing dualistic heresies this year…)), Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald, The Stanley Parable, Steamworld Dig, Alpha Protocol, Consortium, The Walking Dead: Season 2, D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die, Legend of Grimrock 2, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, Infinite Space III: Sea of Stars, and Life is Strange.

Let me talk a little about that last one, since it is my favourite game of 2015.

Life is Strange (there’s a TM which is meant to go at the end, but I can’t be bothered trying to render that) is an adventure game in which you play Max Caulfield, a 18-year old who discovers she can rewind time to a limited extent (and, later on, use certain objects to travel back to points in the past). Plagued by visions of an impending catastrophe, reconnecting with a best friend she left behind five years, and fascinated by the disappearance of a girl from the swanky school she is attending, Max’s story cribs, borrows and expands upon such tales as Twin Peaks and The 12 Monkeys. (as well as feeling like a weird-but-spiritual sequel to Deadly Premonition, my favourite game ever). Aside from a slightly clunky first episode (and it’s not as if the writing in the first episode is in anyway terrible), Life is Strange ends up being one of the best pieces of fiction I devoured in 2015. It is also a story which could only have been told in a game, and here’s why.

Adventure games, particularly modern adventure games, place a lot of emphasis on player choice. If you decide to act in particular way, for example, the game will track that decision, and it will have consequences. So, if you ferret around someone’s room and get caught, then that character will act suspiciously towards you from that point onwards. Adventure games also tend to lock off options depending on your chosen actions; if you are rude to a character early on, they will returns the favour, and thus you might not be able to get some crucial bit of information out of them later in the game. Life is Strange, however, lets you rewind time; you can ferret around someone’s room, get caught, then rewind and escape the room before being spotted. You can also be rude, find out someone will react, and then rewind and try being nice instead.

The effect of the rewind mechanic is satisfying for two reasons. The first is purely psychological; gamers such as myself often like to find out how different options resolve, and then decide which avenue to take. Traditionally this has meant constantly saving and then reloading the game, and in some cases games do not make that easy. In Life is Strange, I can simply rewind and choose again, and again, and again. Whilst there are limits to Max’s power (more on that in a minute), in most cases you can play an event over and over, explore all the different permutations of your actions, and then decide how you want things to play out.

Sometimes the rewind mechanic even becomes part of the puzzle solving which makes up the bulk of the gameplay in most adventure games. There is a particular conversation in episode four where it’s far too easy for a character to die, or at least get seriously hurt. It’s a long, convulted conversation, and it is very easy for it all to go wrong very quickly. I must have spent half an hour rewinding just trying to pick out a set of responses which ensured no one got hurt. By the time I worked out how to respond to the various issues that came up, I was well pleased with myself. No one was going to die on my watch. ((Ironic, really.))

The limit to Max’s power is that she can really only rewind time by a couple of minutes. That means whilst you can fiddle to your heart’s content with events here-and-now, eventually your decisions get set in stone. This leads to the second reason why the rewind mechanic is satisfying: you can’t go back and change everything, so you what decisions you decide to let play out you know will have consequences later on. For example, early in the game you can decide to take a certain matter to a person in authority, or keep quiet about it. The consequences of this action reverberate throughout the game in a variety of quite interesting (and sometimes quite unpredictable) ways. You, of course, had as many rewinds as you liked back at the time to decide which choice was best, but once that decision is made and the plot moves on, it’s fixed in time and place. As such, every consequence of a decision you made in the game is one you feel you have to take responsibility for. Did you pull a gun on someone? It’s likely you also rewound to find out what would have happened if you didn’t. So if you chose to pull that gun in the end, surely it’s your fault what is happening now…

Life is Strange tells a story which really only works in the domain of interactive fiction, and it’s unique mechanic – the ability to change your decisions by rewinding time – is what makes the story work. The final episode – it is safe to say – deals with the consequences of constantly changing time to get the things you want. It’s a remarkable final act, filled with false endings as you desperately try to prevent ther worst of all outcomes coming true. Whilst some found the outcome of the game predictable, I found it enthralling. A game about choices is always going to propose there are consequences to said choices, and the way in which the story concludes proposes an interesting moral. ((One I cannot go into because it really gets in spoiler territory, which is unfortunate, because the moral is not one I am comfortable with))

Life is Strange is, then, my favourite game of last year. It’s by no means a perfect game; there is a bottle fetching quest in episode two which is truly awful, and some of the side characters end up being less central to the story than they could have been. ((Brooke, in particular, could have had a much meatier side plot with Warren.)) Still, overall, Life is Strange is the only game last year which I thought about for a whole week afterwards, rather than condemned to my Steam list of “Completed Games.”

Well done, Dontnod (the creators). Looking forward to whatever season two is going be about.