Have you ever wished you could undo a choice you made, or take back something you said? What would you do differently? And what new consequences would be created in the wake of that new decision?
These questions lie at the heart of Life is Strange, the supernatural coming of age adventure game from developer Dontnod Entertainment and publisher Square Enix. Life is Strange sees the player take on the role of Max, an eighteen-year old woman who discovers she has the power to rewind time.
Max hasn’t always had this supernatural power. In most ways, she’s a normal teenager, who after spending five years in Seattle has returned to her Oregon hometown to pursue her passion of photography. Enrolled in a prestigious private school, she’s forced to navigate the cliques, personalities, and embarrassments that typify the teenage school experience. During this time, Max also finds herself reconnecting with her childhood best friend, Chloe, who can’t help but feel betrayed after Max abandoned her for the big city.
Life is Strange is to be released in five episodes, and the first episode, released today on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360, is very much about reconnecting to the past. Chloe holds on to much of her history with Max, and the game sets out in exploring both how these two characters have changed and how much they’ve stayed the same. Nostalgia burns at the heart of the experience, and players will find troves of old photographs and notes filling in the blanks of a friendship that is only now being renewed.
This first episode is entitled Chrysalis, and primarily sets the stage for future action. After reconnecting with Chloe, Max learns that Chloe’s father died shortly after Max left for Seattle. While grieving, Chloe formed a close bond with a girl named Rachel Amber, who has since mysteriously disappeared. Max sets out to help Chloe investigate her disappearance, which brings them into contact with a number of suspicious individuals all over the town. The atmosphere of these explorations is ominous, as the game foreshadows a cataclysm to befall the town. Whether these events are related is unclear.
Naturally, Max’s life changes in a big way when she discovers that she has the power to rewind time while witnessing a tragic confrontation. This power becomes the core gameplay mechanic, allowing Max to undo decisions and conversation options, or to see and avoid future events. When Max rewinds time, however, she doesn’t rewind herself. Items she has picked up remain with her, and she doesn’t revert to her previous position. Such manipulation of time is key to the game’s puzzles, which require careful consideration of the specific advantages granted by Max’s power.
However, Max’s ability to rewind time is limited, bringing her no more than a few minutes into the past. When she reaches the limits of her power, we see her struggle while the screen burns like an old roll of film, underscoring the episode’s overtones of nostalgia, as well as Max’s passion for photography. Max also can’t rewind prior to the game’s checkpoints. These limitations ensure that some choices are truly unchangeable. Max won’t always know the effect of her choices down the road, either within the episode or in future episodes.
Indeed, like many of the best adventure games, Life is Strange features branching decisions, each of which alters the environment and progress of the narrative. While the different short-term consequences of many decisions can be explored simply by using the rewind mechanic, players will still have to live with the more complex and important decisions they make. The ramifications of these decisions may be felt quickly, or may only be seen in future episodes. Because of this, some players will undoubtedly want to revisit the game down the road to see what other outcomes could be realized.
And these outcomes are each treated with the same attention as the carefully constructed and realized characters. Indeed, Life is Strange was created with a focus on narrative depth and realism. Likely, both players who barely remember their teenage years and those who are still living them will find it hard not to relate to the slightly shy and awkward protagonist as she manoeuvres through the turbulence of young adult life.
Ultimately, developer Dontnod expects that it will be the player’s connection to Max that will entice them to see her journey reach its end, whatever that end may be. So if you’re looking for an adventure game that ties together the best of supernatural fiction, puzzle gaming, and coming of age stories, Life is Strange- Episode 1 may be for you.