A lighthouse, rain and a husky monologue, all framed together in wide angle. If you’re thinking that this describes a scene in every romantic coming-of-age move ever made, you would be right.
Life is Strange begins with this extremely clichéd opening scene. Thankfully, the rest of the game is an interesting look into the lows and highs of growing up. It covers a lot of the issues young adults deal with today – bullying, social media, peer pressure, romantic confusion and finding your path in the world.
Our guide through this world is Max Caulfield. Max is a young girl who’s growing up in Oregon. She’s spent the last few years of her life in Seattle, but she’s recently come back home to attend a private school. Her experiences with Seattle were, in her own words, less pleasant than she would have imagined. All of us are guilty of romanticizing places we’ve never been to, and Max realizes that Seattle isn’t quite the adventure-filled paradise she thought it was. But that’s all in the past.
In the here and now, Max is a student at Blackwell Academy. She’s more interested in photography, contrary to most of her peers who gravitate to more conventional pursuits. It is here that our story really begins. The opening scene, it turns out, was actually a nightmare that she had one day when she was on her way to the school bathroom. Her nightmare shows a tornado that is rushing towards Oregon. As she’s making her way through the halls, you see the kind of warnings that you’d expect in a present-day school. There are posters which criticize texting while driving, drinking and other things kids need to be warned about. She puts on her earphones, and you hear the alternative, angsty rock that a lot of people her age probably listen to. While some of the pop culture references might be alien to you, it’s easy to identify with the more universal themes – the strict teachers, the weird loners and that sinking feeling you felt in your stomach when you were asked to answer something you had no clue about.
There’s one thing in this world, which isn’t normal though. You can turn back time. The game introduces this special power to you through a scene where you save a young woman from being shot by turning back time. And since you’ve already been through this moment in class before, you already know what question you’re going to be asked, and what you need to say. You can also tell him the things he needs to hear. And finally, you can undo an event which caused the death of one of your friends.
While the element of controlling time is certainly Life is Strange’s most unique feature, it is also the one which gets in the way of the narrative the most. If you’ve played one of Telltale’s games, for example, you will know how tense it can be to make a choice on the spot which has far-reaching consequences. The fact that the future of the story hinges on your choices immediately lends a lot of weight to all of your interactions and thrusts a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. In this game, however, since you have the ability to rewind time, you can pick a different choice each time until you achieve a desirable result. This makes most of the interactions in the game seem pointless, and progressing through the story boils down to having a decent memory, or just having a notepad handy.
Life is Strange does place limitations on when you can use your time-reversing powers. It doesn’t allow you to alter critical, potentially suspense-shattering reveals. But this doesn’t fix the problem entirely. A lot of us walk around with what is conventionally known as ‘staircase wisdom’ – a phenomenon where we think of the perfect thing to say just after the time to say it has already passed. Here, none of Max’s day to day interactions are of any real consequence. In the Telltale games, you could play your unique version of a character you took control of. Here, it feels like the game just wants you to employ trial and error until you get to where the developers want you to. It’s tough to be emotionally invested in anything Max does, because you can just rewind and redo most things she does.
Life is Strange uses the time mechanic to give you a few puzzles. Each time you rewind, you fill in a different part of the mystery until you have all the information you need to do or say what you have to in order to progress. Think Edge of Tomorrow, if Tom Cruise’s quest was a high-school scuffle instead of saving the world by fighting aliens. The game also plays fast and loose with its own time-travel rules, and this can get annoying at times when you find your powers are almost too convenient.
Some gameplay flaws aside, Life is Strange does have a few things going for it. For one, it accurately captures the state of mind most people Max’s age have. Your early days of college are a strange and often stressful time, and you’ll have flashbacks on multiple occasions while you’re playing the game. Some friends move away, drift apart or start to dislike each other. The interactions between Max and her friend Chloe, in particular, are well acted and moving.
There’s a crime to be solved here, and this episode does its best to keep things ambiguous. Is the tornado of Max’s nightmares real? How does her time-bending affect the plot going forward? While these are questions that future episodes will inevitably have to tackle, the meat of the story is just Max and her own personal struggles. For that alone, this might be worth a look.