Life is Strange

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***Warning: Spoilers Ahead.***

Life is Strange one of a rare breed of games that serve as portals into another person’s life, another person’s story, allowing players to vicariously share in their characters’ joys and sorrows. Life is Strange has that ineffable spark that transcends its flaws and makes it something truly special, something with real emotional impact.

In Life is Strange, the player assumes the role of Max Caulfield, a high school photography major in Oregon.Having moved back to her hometown to attend a prestigious art school, she realizes that she has the power to alter the past when she inadvertently uses it to save the life of her estranged former best friend, Chloe. The two rekindle their friendship as they struggle to make sense of Max’s powers, and try to unravel the mysteries surrounding the town.

The player’s ability to change their gameplay choices by reversing time a brilliant innovation from a gameplay perspective, as it legitimizes the (often immersion-breaking) urge to explore every narrative nook and cranny of the game. Furthermore, it’s a good example of ludo-narrative harmony, that all-too-rare case in which a gameplay mechanic makes perfect sense in the context of the world in which it takes place. Not only does it square in with the time-travel aspect of the story, but it also serves the thematic function of acting as a sort of Faustian bargain. Max’s powers are every teenager’s fantasy: the ability to go back and erase one’s mistakes, to explore the what-ifs, to grow bolder and more confident as a person, with greater certainty of the outcomes of your actions. But, as with every superpower, there is a cost, and there is regret.

As with all mechanics, there are limitations, and the times when the player meets those limitations results in some ludo-narrative dissonance. The amount of time Max can rewind feels arbitrary to suit the demands of gameplay, and often rewinding offers no new choices where it might have made sense to include such choices. Some of Max’s powers are clearly nonsensical – like being able to access locked rooms by busting the door open, walking in, reversing time and opening the door from the inside.

The game, like most narrative games, is limited in the breadth of agency that can be afforded to the player. For all the chaos that you’d expect changing time to cause, the choices available to Max are largely binary. And being in a genre where interacting with objects in the world is the main source of gameplay, the game encourages you to play fast and loose with other people’s possessions at times, rifling through their stuff just to get that next juicy bit of flavor text or snarky comment from Max, which can get immersion-breaking at times. And lastly, there are also a few frustrating gameplay sequences that could have benefited from better design, such as the quest for the five bottles and the extended stealth section in the final episode.

Yet, cognizant as I am of  the game’s limitations, my week playing Life is Strange will likely remain one of the most affecting gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

Like few others, this game makes you feel a sense of attachment to its characters. Playing as Max, you apprehend a beautifully crafted world, full of interactions and events, mysteries to unravel and friendships to develop. The player can look at and interact with objects and people to hear Max’s thoughts about them. That sense of relatability and discovery is essential to the game’s effectiveness, and is one of the best parts of the game (although the game does let you pry a little too much in situations where it would have been awkward to do so). These interactions allow the player to learn more about Max as a person, and through that process, you grow to empathise with her, and to identify with her aspirations and insecurities, guiding her through the interstices of sun-dappled Arcadia Bay.

It doesn’t hurt that Max herself has been carefully constructed to be able to relate to as wide a gaming demographic as possible. She’s somewhat androgynous, somewhat introverted, and wonderfully quirky, a lover of photography but also a big pop-culture and film nerd. These attributes create a character with a personality and a sense of history, but also a foundation upon which we can watch her grow, piecemeal, as we play as her.

The affective bond the player has with Max enables them to really apprehend the emotional centerpiece of the game, Max’s relationship with Chloe, on a deeper, affective level. Chloe is a harder character to like than Max, but she’s a wonderfully complex character, one who starts out bitter and cynical at the lot she’s dealt with in life, but who grows emotionally as she continues to hang out with Max. Chloe’s welfare is what drives Max, and helping her is what Max spends much of the game doing, even sacrificing a bright future to rewind time and save her. It’s the kind of emotional bond that would frankly be very difficult to construct in another medium, and it really has to do with the fact that the player has agency, however limited, to feel like the choices that Max is making in the game are theirs, to some extent. It might be an illusion, but it is a convincing one, and that is what matters.

The earlier episodes construct that affective bond and allow the player to understand and relate to Max and Chloe. It’s an extended process of acculturation to the world of Life is Strange, in which the player explores this world, once full of the kind of hope that comes with youth (and the concomitant – and oft-criticised – teen dialogue), accentuated by the wonderful things that Max is capable of doing with her rewind powers. The player feels like a hero(ine), in that they are using their agency to help people and solve problems. These earlier episodes have a wonderfully genteel charm to their environments and interactions, one very reminiscent to a dreamy indie film. There are moments where Max can sit down, lost in her thoughts, while a gentle strum of an acoustic guitar sets the mood. This game, especially in earlier, less emotionally sapping episodes, is wonderfully atmospheric.

But in episodes 4 and 5, that sense of accomplishment is brutally and brilliantly taken away as the game finally reveals the flipside of the rewind power – that it comes with consequences; namely, in which a tornado devastates the town. Episode 5, in particular, is a nightmare of an experience, one in which the player, like Max, loses that sense of youthful optimism, that agency, that belief in one’s own invincibility, to be able to make things right. And the two endings that the player can choose from are both brutally and tragically brilliant in how they are presented, an impossible choice that the player must take.

A lot of people didn’t like the ending. And that’s perfectly natural. Both were devastating in their own ways. And people felt that being shepherded into making that binary choice was not in line with the agency that they had been given beforehand. Surely there must have been another, better way, than to force players to make a choice between two moral extremes. But, in this case, I think the endings were steadfastly logical within the rules of the gameworld. But they are incredibly depressing. In one ending, Max loses Chloe but saves the town. But not only does she lose Chloe, she loses everything she had built up with her powers – the things she – and by extension the player – accomplished in the course of the entire game. And she has to live with the knowledge that what could have been can never be. The player’s agency, their role in the game’s events, is wiped clean, like it never happened. Worst of all, in this timeline, the plot of the game resolves itself, and the villains are caught, without even requiring Max’s heroic intervention. And that’s terrible, even if it was the morally “right” choice – because Arcadia Bay was saved.

And Chloe…she died angry and terrified and resentful and alone, never having met Max in this timeline, never having experienced the things that they’d experienced together in the timeline that Max had created.

If that isn’t a gut-punch of an implication of this choice – I don’t know what is.

The other choice – sacrificing Arcadia Bay to let Chloe live – is equally devastating because it’s a selfish choice – to allow a town to die to preserve Chloe and the player’s own sense of agency. And this ending is ambiguous. If Max and Chloe survive, what do they do? Where do they go? Does Max really abandon her future, her family, to disappear with Chloe? Where is everyone else? Did they survive the storm? These questions are never answered, leaving their fate unknown. It is an uncertain ending. One without finality.And what’s even worse: the game offers us a tantalising glimpse into an alternate future for Max – one in which she saves Chloe, wins the photo contest, and is ready to embark on her future career as a photographer – but the storm, and her desire to save Chloe, lead her to irrevocably close off that path to her – by ripping up her contest entry at the moment at which she took the photo. That, in retrospect, might be the single most devastating moment of the game.

I chose to sacrifice Chloe and save the town because I thought that was the moral thing to do. But now, I’m not so sure. That a game could get me to mull over my choices even now! Not many games could leave such a deep and lasting emotional scar on my psyche.

It’s not clear why the developers took such a brutal and depressing route to end off the series, but it’s certainly a choice that left me reeling for days after I finished playing the game, listening to the (brilliant) soundtrack and wondering what might have been in a better future. Are they life lessons? Do they demonstrate the implacability of destiny, the necessity of sacrifice to protect that which you care about, the stark and harsh realities of the real world? Considering these questions leaves me hollow.

Life is Strange can pull of those endings with such emotional power because of the brilliance in which the game builds up the player’s emotional investment in the characters and plot. It might be cruel for the developers to have foisted those choices upon you, but it certainly is effective from an aesthetic standpoint.

In closing, Life is Strange is an almost transcendental gaming experience. It has wonderful characters, a gripping narrative and a superb sense of atmosphere. Considered as a whole package, it, despite some flaws, just embodies that ineffable spark of storytelling that truly allows the player to inhabit its narrative space in a way that would be nigh on impossible in other mediums. That’s an achievement to be feted in the world of gaming.

But now, please excuse me while I hide in a corner and recover from the all the feels.

I give this game:  4.5 out of 5 instant cameras

 

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