Life is Strange: A Summer/Fall Romance That I Have Since Forgotten

WTF is Life is Strange?

Life is Strange is an episodic game that was released in five chunks by Dontnod Entertainment in 2015. It’s available on a few different platforms, but I played on Steam.

The premise of Life is Strange is that the main character, a high school student named Max, sees one of her friends get shot and discovers that she has the power to rewind time and change what happened. Max’s rewind powers usually only allow her to travel back a couple of minutes, but, as the story progresses, she discovers that she can use photos to travel father into the past.

Max teams up with her un-shot friend, Chloe, to solve the mystery of what happened to Chloe’s missing girlfriend, why Max has visions of a tornado destroying their town, and whether some creep at Max’s school has been drugging and abducting other girls.

Gameplay mostly involves puzzle-solving that takes advantage of Max’s rewind abilities, requiring the player to loop through the same scenes over and over again. Each chapter also involves a series of minor and major choices that affect the way the story plays out later on.

What’s it like?

Life is Strange starts out in a low-key, melancholy way. Max is an average, unremarkable student who doesn’t stand out at the boarding school she goes to. She’s passionate about photography, but soft-spoken and self-doubting. A lot of the game, even after she discovers her powers, is about how she enjoys modest things like playing her guitar, or being outside on a beautiful day.

Once Max discovers her powers, most of the story is about her relationship with Chloe. She feels guilty that she didn’t keep in touch after her family moved away; she’s jealous that Chloe replaced her with a new and closer friend; she understands that her jealousy is unreasonable; she’s confused about whether she’s sexually attracted to Chloe; Chloe is a bad influence on her and keeps getting her into trouble; Chloe makes her feel cool and interesting; Chloe is marked for death somehow by fate.

The story is built around an “everyday hero” photo contest that Max is afraid to enter, and it doesn’t take the player long to figure out that Max’s powers have turned her into an everyday hero herself. She has the opportunity to help people in both large and small ways, and gradually becomes more and more outspoken about her belief that we should all be nicer to each other.

To be honest, that makes her a bit of a drag. There’s something simultaneously touching and annoying about how earnest Max becomes – how simple and straightforwardly nice she is to everyone as the game goes on. The final episode actually features a scene where she meets an alternate version of herself who says she’s full of shit and just pretending to be a nice person so everyone will like her – I can’t say I didn’t have the same thought.

The second episode of the game also features a harrowing sequence in which Max’s rewind powers fail and she only has one attempt to talk a classmate out of suicide. Your success in that mission greatly depends on whether you chose to be friends with this classmate ahead of time and it’s completely possible to fail and watch her die. I succeeded, so I felt all right about it, if a little shaken up – I know there were other players who failed and were a lot more disturbed.

Also, the ending’s bananas.

I like the last episode of Life is Strange but I sat there saying “WTF WTF WTF” the whole time I was playing, and I’m still not sure it makes sense.

What I like about it, though, is that the game-makers really go for it. They don’t hold back at all. Max’s powers have been getting less and less reliable the more she uses them, and have started to produce strange side-effects. By the time we get to episode five, everything just goes nuts and we have to play through strange, bizarre sequences where people move backwards, and everyone disappears intermittently, and she’s inside a snow globe, and she turns into other people, and all the other characters are stalking her through settings from earlier in the game, and there’s a waxwork museum of other things that happened in the game, and the guy who turns out to be drugging and kidnapping women keeps drugging and kidnapping her, and he seems like the devil, and a giant tornado comes to destroy the whole town – it’s insane! But amazing.

In the game’s last moments, you’re faced with one last Major Decision, to which there is no good outcome. No matter what you do, something awful will happen – the end.

I actually kind of love that, too – it makes sense as the ending to this coming of age story – that the last decision Max is faced with is an irreversible choice between two bad options. Welcome to adulthood, etc. At the same time, I think it’s the decisiveness and finality of the ending that stopped me from thinking about this story after it was over. The final choice, while horrible, isn’t very interesting philosophically, and it honestly wasn’t that difficult for me to make. Everything gets wrapped up one way or the other and then the story’s just done.

In conclusion

Not all the pieces of Life is Strange fit together – the plot is about this guy abducting women, and it’s very exciting, but it has basically nothing to do with the themes, which are about friendship, self-knowledge and choices – and the main character’s kind of lame as the story goes on, but it finishes really strong, and there are genuine surprises and moments of insight along the way.

The whole thing turns out darker than it seems like it’s going to be, but, also, weirdly more wholesome than it has any right to be. It’s a really interesting experience to play Life is Strange, and I don’t at all regret the time and money I put into it, but it didn’t stay with me after.

Image: Life is Strange; Dontnod Entertainment | January 1, 2016