Life is Strange has been the most pleasant surprise of the year so far for me. Its trajectory, episode by episode, has gone from “this is interesting, you might want to check it out” to “actually you should be playing this” to “holy shit this is getting seriously good, now”.
Although, after playing the third and most recent episode, “pleasant” probably isn’t he right word; Life is Strange shocked me last week, not just because it’s suddenly gone in a direction that I wouldn’t have predicted, but because it’s also now telling some uncomfortable truths about life that no game I’ve played has engaged with before.
After playing the first episode I was worried that Life is Strange would spiral off in a supernatural direction and leave the very human concerns of its characters and their otherwise normal lives behind. It has done exactly the opposite.
(Spoilers for the first three episodes of Life is Strange follow.)
There’s a lot in Life is Strange that reflects my own life as a teenager. That is this game’s genius: the same is true for everyone I’ve talked to who’s played it, whether they grew up male or female, in a small American town or a big European city. Everybody had a friend like Chloe, or they were Chloe. Everybody can relate to those teenagers’ bedrooms, covered with graffiti or posters or torn-out pages from magazines, littered with the evidence of the chaotic inner life that almost all teenagers are trying desperately to conceal. The game’s depiction of the everyday, of life at a posh secondary school in a small American town, somehow manages to resonate no matter where you’re from. It is most effective not when it’s telling you Max’s story, but when it’s making you reflect upon your own.
I’ve always thought that Life is Strange’s time-rewinding mechanic was a clever thematic device, as well as a useful gameplay conceit that puts a new twist on the choice-and-consequence adventure game by letting you experiment. That time of life is a time when pretty much anyone would give anything to be able to rewind and undo stupid decisions, if only because you make so many of them. Teenagers are actually wired to make stupid decisions; the risk-reward centres of their brains are completely out of whack.
The things that Max begins (intentionally) changing start out small. She un-spills a glass of water, un-says the wrong answer in class, warns a classmate before she’s soaked by a car speeding through a puddle. But they begin to slowly escalate, up to the climactic point of episode 2, where Max realises that she must rely on herself and not her power in order to save Kate from jumping off the roof of Blackwell Academy. The message of episode 2 seemed clear: even this enviable power has its limits. Some things can’t be undone.
In episode 3, though, Max learns what would happen if you could change something huge. She tries to undo something much bigger than anything she’s tried before: the death of her friend Chloe’s father when she was 11, the defining event of her life, the thing that she repeatedly claims was the start of all her problems. Now, with its time-rewinding mechanic, Life is Strange is saying things about life and the nature of memory that I don’t think any other game has articulated in this way. It’s saying: even if you could change things, maybe you shouldn’t.
It is a very human temptation to believe that if you could just change this one thing, your life would be better. If you could just rewind this one even, re-do that one decision, prevent that one terrible thing from happening… This is a very human impulse, and one that Life is Strange very gradually introduces. I think everybody has these turning-point moments. We hang on to these events for our whole lives and never stop mulling over the implications, consciously or subconsciously. If only I had never met my ex-wife. If only he hadn’t left me. If only I’d got that job, or passed those exams. If only we’d never bought him that motorbike.
My dad died when I was little. I know what that feeling is like, the feeling Chloe articulates throughout the second and third episodes of Life is Strange. I’m a grown woman now, but I won’t pretend that over the years I haven’t gone through every possible permutation of what could or might or should have happened, from the smallest to the biggest changes. What if he’d never gotten sick? What if he was diagnosed earlier? What if I had been older, at least, so that I could have known him properly? You go over it and over it, until eventually your brain puts these questions in a small black box somewhere deep within the recesses of your mind, along with your grief, and you move on. You learn to live with it.
Imagine what would happen if we suddenly had the opportunity to change it. It would be a complete mind-fuck.
For Chloe, her father’s death is the turning point of her life. It’s the magic bullet: if only this one thing hadn’t happened, my life would be completely different, and everything would be better. Life is Strange’s protagonist Max, given that opportunity that so many people would kill for - to go back to a certain moment in time, with the knowledge of what comes after - drops Chloe’s father’s keys in the sink on the day he died in a car crash on the way to pick his wife up from work. Returning to the present, she finds that what she’s done hasn’t magically made everything better. In fact, it may have made things worse.
We don’t know exactly what happened to Chloe in the alternate timeline that Max finds herself in, but it’s obviously not good. That last scene of episode 3 sees Max reeling in horror, slowly absorbing the consequences of what she’s done, desperately trying to compute the permutations that have led to this. Taken together with the climactic scene of episode 2, in which Max realises that her powers can’t help her stop Kate from taking her own life, Life is Strange is telling us all something worth knowing about life. The biggest things that happen to you in life can’t be changed, and even if they could, there is no guarantee that you would be any better off.
It’s a tough pill to swallow. But it’s part of growing up.