Remember those “Choose your own adventure..” books from the ’90s? Or maybe the film The Butterfly Effect? This is basically what Life is Strange is all about.
The series is split into five episodes and tells the story of Max Caulfield, who returns to her home town of Arcadia Bay to study photography at Blackwell Academy. The story begins with Max having a dream about the town being destroyed by a massive tornado, she wakes up in the middle of class and heads to the restroom shortly after to compose herself. Here she witnesses a fight between two people and things turn violent. Instinctively, Max reaches out in fear and discovers she has the ability to turn back time (queue Cher). The rest of the series revolves around her abilities and the consequences her choices have.
The first episode does a great job at introducing us to Max’s world and the characters in her life, specifically Chloe (who was the victim she saved in the restroom) who was a childhood best friend. There is huge depth in each one of the main characters, and it is great to have two strong female leads in this game. Interestingly, I never felt at odds playing a female character – so much so I never really created the distinction. This is due to solid performances from the vocal artists and the graphics of the game (real but still story-like). I felt genuinely connected to Max and Chloe as well as several of the supporting characters (notably Kate). It is refreshing to have a different protagonist outside of the heavily dominated male leads we would usually get. Nor is this choice in female leads in any way sexist: this is not a game just for women or somehow ‘a chick’s game’ (whatever those are supposed to mean). The characters are all very real in their actions and emotions, and very relatable in everything they do.
“You have the ability to make several choices throughout this game – some are subtle, others will stick with you throughout the entire game.”
Another aspect of this story involves the mysterious disappearance of Rachel Amber, who was a close friend of Chloe’s after Max left. It is this element of the story which arcs throughout the entire series, although the focus is thematic: the value of friendship, the consequences of our choices and the complexity of human beings.
You have the ability to make several choices throughout this game, some of which are subtle and may have little consequence to the story. However, there are many other choices you make which will stick with you throughout the entire game. Some of these choices are tough and cut brutally to your emotional core. If you are not invested in these characters and do not have difficulty making some of these choices, then there may be something wrong with you. Sure, this is just a game, but becoming emotionally invested in these pixels – the ones and zeroes – is part of what makes the experience so rewarding. I felt miserable with some of the choices I made (and could not undo) and morally ambiguous about many others. Was this the ‘right’ choice? Am I doing the ‘right’ thing?
The game begins to address the metaphysical issues about interfering with space and time (much like the movie The Butterfly Effect does). It does not delve too deeply into this because the focus is on the characters. We know the reason behind these phenomenon is because the universe is trying to correct itself, but the game does not explain this to you rather you piece it together. More importantly, it does not really matter if it gets explained or not (why Max has this power never is, she just does) because the focus is on the story and characters. All the things which happen are believable within the logic of the universe this game creates.
“Max and Chloe become very close emotionally, which make the final choice all the more difficult.”
I am glad I was able to play the games all in one go rather than wait (this is a preference which extends to Netflix releases as well). The final episode resolves all the story threads quite nicely and the reveal about what happened to Rachel is worthwhile. This game can be quite dark thematically and deals with some taboo subjects, but it does all this with maturity and not exploitation for some cheap emotional beats. Gameplay wise the mechanics fit well and the controls are straightforward. I was never quite sure though if my ability to turn back time was infinite or if I had to focus on which choices I would make over others. I think you can use it as you like for the most part (sometimes it is restricted for the sake of narration) which can lead to some great playthroughs.
As for the ending, well, I had mixed feelings about it. With the way I played Max, it was always about Chloe and my feelings for her. They both have a love between them as close friends (especially with what happens in the main story) and perhaps a deeper, romantic love between them (hinted at rather than overt). I think this boils down to how you choose to view their relationship and the choices you make. These two become very close emotionally, which makes the final choice all the more difficult. Especially because I knew what the ‘right’ answer should be, but I was so damned invested in Max in Chloe I could not bring myself to do it. This is a testament to the emotional power behind this game, something which I have not felt in many other games including The Walking Dead (although that could be just as tense and emotionally devastating).
This game might not be for everyone. It has a maturity about it not found in many other games and it deals with some strong themes about love, friendship, choices and humanity. I was completely invested in all of the characters in this story and many times regretted my actions, wishing I could unwind that choice instead of others but sometimes it was just too late and you have to live with it. As a game, the mechanics are straightforward. Yet this is not a game in the traditional sense. Rather, this is an excellent example of what digital interactive media can achieve.