Sometimes in life, you really have to take a step back and stop to smell the roses as they say and appreciate the little things and what you have. You can’t take things too seriously all the time and just got to relax sometimes, y’know? That’s one of the reasons videogames are so great. Unlike movies and books, videogames offer a way to give unique experiences whilst letting the player have a way to actually get involved in the story and even change it. So much of videogames now is trying to be flashy and expansive with guns and explosions and huge open-worlds, so it was really nice and refreshing when I finally got to try Life is Strange by Dontnod Entertainment, a game simply about teenage melodrama and time travel. The fact that it has some of the best characterization and story in videogames and the most meaningful sense of choice I’ve seen yet doesn’t hurt either.
Put simply, Life is Strange is fucking amazing. It starts off simply about 18 year-old Max Caufield, who’s recently moved back to her hometown of the Arcadia Bay to pursue photography at the Blackwell Academy. Before too long however, she discovers she has the ability to rewind time shortly when she sees a girl get shot in the bathroom, and is able to then save her. You then use this power throughout the game to solve various puzzles in cool ways, but it also lets you try out conversations in different ways and try different choices if you don’t like what you’ve done. The game came out across five episodes, and it uses these ideas across them in really smart, varied ways. The environments that you go through to go to the next story beat or puzzle also have tons of small things that you can interact with that really add to the world-building, and a lot of details help you out with knowing what to say to people in the future and understanding people’s characters.
Although the game prominently features the time travel mechanic, it smartly uses it as the backdrop to Max’s life at Blackwell and more importantly, her growing friendship with Chloe and a missing girl’s case in the town. Chloe’s basically the antithesis of Max: she’s really spunky, has blue hair, does drugs and is involved with some shady people. In the first episode, the writing for the characters is borderline cringe-worthy and felt like it was written by someone who was really out of touch with what young people really talk like. But the game’s writing and characterization really, really improves across the episodes, and by the end you really feel attached and invested to not just Max and Chloe but almost all the side characters too. Characters that initially were pretty one-dimensional get much more rounded, and Max and Chloe both grow as characters pretty gradually and naturally. By the end you really feel like you know all these characters and care about them and their troubles. There’s a really great sense of progression and escalation to the events of the game too, as things gradually get more out of control you just want to find a way to return things back to normal.
The time travel mechanic is really ingenious too as it serves both a story purpose and a gameplay purpose. As mentioned before, it lets you go back and try conversation options you didn’t like, and change events that happen nearby so that they either do or don’t happen. It’s really smartly used as a puzzle mechanic too, because there are many puzzles that see you getting information in the future, then going back to use that information in conversation, and using the rules that when you rewind you stay where you are physically but other people move in reverse. Basically it uses the time travel abilities in a variety of ways so that it never feels cheap, repetitive, or boring, and also feels integral to the story.
The story, and more importantly how you interact with the story, is where Life is Strange really shines. It uses choices to the greatest effect I’ve seen in games to date and really makes you feel like you’re making a difference. I don’t want to spoil anything but every choice really has a weight to it that really makes you think. There’s a clear positive and negative to all of the major choices that each come back to the story later, so it’s not as black and white as most other games. Additionally, there seems to be at least ten minor events in every episode that don’t even appear as choices but have enough ramifications that make you feel like you’re making a difference. Together they really make the world feel like a real place. One small example of something that can happen is a bird will hit a window near you when you’re walking around a house. It doesn’t prompt you too, but you can then rewind time and open the window so when the bird comes back it lands happily. A few episodes later the bird still flying around and there’s a small scene where you try to shoo the bird out of the house so it can be free again. It’s small interactions like this that really make Life is Strange’s world feel immersive.
And even though everything you do leads to the same final choice, it doesn’t really matter because the game is so much more than that. Everything you do helps tell a story that really feels like your own version of the story. All the experiences you have in the game can give you different reasons to pick one or another, and what’s so smart about it is that it makes Life is Strange about both the journey AND the destination, which is something you can’t really say for most stories. Life is Strange is just a really special game; everything about it comes together to form a perfect synchronization of story and gameplay that makes it greater than the sum of its parts, and really is one of my favorite games in quite a while.