Imagine my surprise, after a long day at Gamescom, at walking into a demo room that looked really a lot like my bedroom as a teenager: band posters, random postcards and sweary graffiti all over the walls, bedding and ridiculous goth-y clothes all over the place, polaroids of friends up to no good scattered across the floor. It was a shock. We’ve had absolutely no games about teenaged girls, ever, then suddenly in the past year we’ve had both The Last of Us: Left Behind and Gone Home - and now, here’s French developer Dontnod with Life is Strange, a nostalgic and intriguing adventure game that centres on another teenaged girl, one with the power to rewind time.
The bedroom that I’m sitting in belongs not to Life is Strange’s protagonist, Max - a rather quiet 17-year-old with a talent for photography who’s just returned to her hometown after a five-year absence - but to her rather more rebellious friend, Chloe, all dyed blue hair and piercings and fuck-you attitude. The demo opens as Chloe strides through the door of an almost identical in-game bedroom, flops onto the bed and lights up a joint. Max, meanwhile, is free to look around her den, searching for a CD to put on.
On the wall, there’s a little doodle of Daria, with a speech-bubble that says “Everybody lies. No exceptions.” The flag hanging on the wall has the word FUCK scrawled all over it, with typical teenage subtlety. Handwritten lyrics and paper-thin adolescent aphorisms are all over the walls. (My own bedroom was similarly graffiti’d; I never have quite forgiven my mother for immediately painting over it all the second I moved out when I was 16, without giving me the chance to document it). Things that Max can examine or interact with are pointed out on-screen with chalk-written annotations. She rifles through some photos of Chloe and her late father, checks out her laptop, reaches up to reach something on a top shelf - which then falls to the floor and breaks, eliciting a pained reaction from her friend.
This is where Max’s supernatural power comes in; she can rewind a few seconds, restoring the broken keepsake and avoiding Chloe’s disappointment. It’s not clear whether you can do this at any point in Life is Strange or just sometimes, but it’s the key thing that differentiates it from other story-led adventure games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us. You can play a scene one way to see how it pans out, then rewind and see what happens if you behave differently. Later on in the demo, when Chloe is being bellowed at by her asshole stepfather for smoking weed in his house, Max has the choice to take the blame or pin it all on her friend; the outcomes of each decision are, predictably, very different, and you can see them both.
This might sound a little simplistic, but Dontnod isn’t intending there to be easy “good” and “bad” outcomes for each situation, and whichever options you choose will be remembered down the line. This kind of flexibility and experimentation with the concept of time will be familiar to anyone who played Dontnod’s first game, Remember Me, a rather fascinating game about a near-future Paris where corporations control memories that was unfortunately shoehorned into an ill-fitting action-game template with boring combat and some bizarre characterisation. Remember Me’s memory-remix sequences were the highlights of the game, memorable and thought-provoking. In Life is Strange, the people at Dontnod can devote all their energies to telling a story.
Life is Strange rewinds time in its own way; its setting is modern day, in the year 2013, but Chloe’s bedroom walls are covered with Nirvana posters and 90s indie bands, and Max’s pursues her photographic talents using old Polaroid cameras rather than a smartphone camera and Instagram. That CD player in Chloe’s room is another interesting anachronism. Their sleepy, small-town Oregon home also has an anachronistic feel to it, like it’s a place that exists outside of time. Meanwhile, some of the more modern elements - like the girls’ occasional teen vernacular (“epic win”, “totes”, that kind of thing) - feel rather forced.
Remember Me was a very Parisian game, all grand landmarks and shiny sci-fi reimaginings of jumbled European streets, but Dontnod has approached this rural American setting with similar enthusiasm. The goal for the art style is “animated concept art”, and though it’s not the most breathtaking painterly style I’ve ever seen in a game, it’s already good-looking. The visual style reinforces the nostalgic atmosphere, and works for both the characters and the setting.
Dontnod promises a wistful licensed soundtrack to go with Life is Strange’s nostalgic setting. The track that plays when Max eventually finds the CD she’s looking for in Chloe’s room is modern northwestern indie-folk, with a female vocalist. At one point Chloe gets up on her bed and dances whilst a laughing Max snaps a picture, evoking potent adolescent memories of hanging out in friends’ bedrooms and getting up to no good. (I can’t get on board with Chloe dancing to indie folk, though; she strikes me as more of a Riot Grrrl type.)
I am greatly intrigued by Life is Strange. It's got a bit of a Gone Home feel to it, but it also promises a broader story than the brief snapshot of teenaged life that this first presentation showcases. It’s not the most subtly-written thing I’ve ever seen but the characters are believable, the time-manipulating twist is interesting and the sense of adolescent nostalgia is emotionally compelling - whether or not you’ve ever actually been a teenaged girl with a bedroom covered in hand-scrawled expletives.