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Transitioning from Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, I went into Life Is Strange not entirely sure what to expect. The premise was simple: an interactive adventure game played from the perspective of photography student Max Caulfield. However, it throws time travel and the butterfly effect into the mix to make one of the most intriguing games I’ve encountered this year.
The game is set in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay, where protagonist Max is in her last year of high school at Blackwell Academy. The episodes take place over the course of one week in October 2013, and the first episode opens with Max’s discovery of a sudden ability to rewind time. This, I discover later, allows me as a player to redo virtually any action I take in the game. While that sounds like a welcome contrast to games where you have to watch your character fade off behind a “Game Over” screen, Life Is Strange is quick to remind its players that it isn’t as nice and convenient as it seems.
The butterfly effect is heavily incorporated into the gameplay, and I learn early on that each of my choices, no matter which one I pick and how many times I rewind time, may have long-term consequences. In this sense, there’s a blurry line between the right and wrong choice, and instead, I’m left nervously waiting for my own choice to backfire on me. This, I believe, contributes most to the intrigue of the game. Instead of being given the chance to truly start over from scratch, you suffer through the possibility of being wrong. It’s a feature that allows the player to be deeply involved, and to have an emotional attachment that’s not purely to the character you’re playing the game through. There’s a connection to the storyline brought by the knowledge that it is your choices that are shaping the story, and that any of your actions can influence how the game will ultimately play out for you.
We also get a glimpse of potential themes in the game, an element I appreciate in a storyline featuring adolescents. The teenage aspect is strong and constant, and it’s nice to see that playing through Max actually feels like being in the mind of a teenage girl. She’s not perfect, and when you are making choices through her, you get to truly experience the uncertainty and frustration that would come if you were to make those same choices in real life. Some of the conversations throughout the game feel stilted and nuanced, but the emotional undercurrent remains present in the implications that grow stronger as more is revealed of the central characters.
Online reviews criticize the awkward dialogue and the lack of lip-syncing, but these are issues that can be easily overlooked once you get into the storyline. The only problem I found with Life Is Strange is that, for a game heavily relying on choices and consequences, there isn’t always a wide variety of decisions to pick and choose from. If there’s anything to be truly frustrated by in this first episode, it’s that you’re awarded the freedom to choose, and yet trapped by options that are at some points too rigid and black-and-white. There may be game conventions to follow, but there are quite a few scenes — Max’s interactions with other Blackwell students, especially — that could have been designed better.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful for the next few episodes of Life Is Strange. There is a lot of room left for character development, and it’s exciting to anticipate what the rest of the game has in store. It’s early on in the storyline, and the game has done well thus far considering the experimental TV series format. It’s a fantasy world that’s fresh and interesting despite its clichéd flaws, and if anything, it has definitely captured my attention. The first episode has set up an interesting world left to be explored, and has shown signs of subverting video game archetypes. The next few instalments will establish whether the game can follow through on these promises.
After all, who doesn’t want to live vicariously every now and then through a time-traveling high school student?