Max isn’t a stereotypical outcast teenager; she’s a rather quiet, intelligent girl, just trying to get by. Also, she can rewind time at will.
Developer Dontnod's new downloadable episodic game Life is Strange, which is out today on PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360 and Xbox One, begins like many high-school stories. Max, an 18-year-old who’s spent most of her life in a big city, returns to her small childhood hometown on a scholarship to study photography at a prestigious private school. She has to deal with making new friends and figuring out how to cultivate her talent, in the kind of company that you might expect at a private arts school: shy nerdy types, entitled rich kids, insecure loners.
Max’s interest in capturing moments on film is part of Life is Strange’s larger thematic preoccupation with time, memory, and nostalgia. The game frequently transported me back to that time in my own life, and I feel like that will be true for a lot of people who play it.
The central conceit – introduced within the first twenty minutes, which you can watch – is that Max can rewind time. Only by a few minutes, so not enough to seriously mess with the space-time continuum, but enough to undo a mistake, or unsay the wrong thing, or unspill a carton of milk all over the floor. This is a power for which we would surely all have been grateful as teenagers, a time of life when errors in personal judgement are more likely both to happen and to be amplified by intense embarrassment.
Many games force the player to make narrative-altering choices. Life is Strange’s twist is that, upon reaching a juncture in the story, Max can rewind time. This means that you, the player, can try out both scenarios and then pick the one you want to stick with. It’s a stroke of mechanical genius for this genre.
It’s not like there’s a right or wrong option: the real consequences of the things you do don’t become apparent until later episodes, far beyond the reach of Max’s time-rewinding capabilities. But you can see what happens in the moment, and sate your curiosity. I’m always tempted to behave like a total dick in adventure games, but I so rarely do because I’m wary of the consequences it might have later on. Here, I can be cruel or callous to see what happens, then go back and do what seems to be the right thing if I can’t live with myself.
For instance: when one of the school’s classic mean girls gets unflatteringly spattered with white paint, I relished the opportunity to Instagram her humiliation. Then I rewound and extended the olive branch of kindness, like a nice, magnanimous person would. Then I went back and humiliated her again, because she completely deserved it.
There are a couple of puzzles, too, that rely on rewinding time to trigger the correct sequence of events; not many, but enough to show that there are interesting things to be done with the time-rewinding mechanic besides experimenting with choices.
In terms of the effects that your choices have on what’s going on, Life is Strange falls somewhere between Telltale games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us and Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. There are four or five big moments in the course of the first episode that will strongly affect what happens later on, and then another twenty or so smaller choices that you can actually bypass entirely, if you neglect to explore. These choices are itemised for you at the end of the first episode, so you can see what you missed and compare the decisions you eventually make to other players’.
At this stage, there isn’t so much a story as there is the beginning of one. The first episode spends a lot of time acquainting us with Max, her posh new school, and the oddly timeless small-town setting of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. We meet Chloe – Max’s long-estranged best friend from childhood, your classic rebellious teenager with an asshole of a stepdad – and the new friends she’s beginning to make at school. We learn that another teenager, one of Chloe’s best friends, has gone missing. This episode is all about setting the scene, and it does that admirably – from the high school’s crowded hallways to the run-down backyard of Chloe’s family home, with its faded drawings from her childhood, it’s redolent of suburban adolescence.
Life is Strange is just a little bit scared of letting its characters and settings make their imprint on you without interfering. Now and then the script kind of interrupts what you might be thinking or feeling. While walking around Max’s photography classroom, for instance, I was enjoying listening to her enthuse inwardly about the various artists and vintage camera equipment on display when the line “Man, I’m such a photography geek” kind of came out of nowhere. It was like… yeah, thanks, game, I didn’t need you to explain that for me. There are a few of these redundant lines that pull you out of the moment.
The script can also get a little enthusiastic with the teen-speak. At one point a character actually says the words “I’m going to post this all over the social medias,”, while another delights in the prospect of someone’s “ass-clown face all over teh Interwebs”. I don’t know who wrote this teen-speak, but it was definitely not actual modern teenagers. I’m far closer to 30 than I am to 18, but I definitely know that’s not how they talk. The script is a lot better when it just leaves out attempts at being contemporary altogether. (A tip: if this does bother you, turning off the subtitles is a must.)
The majority of the time, Max and Chloe and the other people around them feel authentic and likeable. They’re also dislikeable, when they’re supposed to be: there’s a security guard on campus who reminds me of horrible porn-'stached Mendez from Orange is the New Black. Max herself is reserved but smart, shy in a believable way, and I think most girls had a friend like Chloe when they were a teenager (or they were Chloe). The places – the girls’ messy, teenager-y bedrooms plastered with photos and posters and graffiti, the school grounds in their autumnal light, the classrooms and corridors of Blackwell Academy – look and feel like real places, rather than stage settings.
As a result, Life is Strange is surprisingly immersive. You can really sink into it for a few hours. I felt no urge to rush through. There are some meditative moments of peace and contemplation: when you turn on the stereo in Max’s dorm room, Jose Gonzales starts to play, and if you pick up her guitar Max sits down and tentatively plays along for however long you let her. This reminded me so intensely of my own university dorm room that I let her play until the song ended, enjoying the memory. Life is Strange is immensely successful at evoking that sense of nostalgia. The story is set in the present day, but to me it feels like it could be taking place in the Nineties, or the early ‘00s, when I was a teenager. I hope subsequent episodes retain episode one’s groundedness. It would be a shame if it went all David Cage on us later on.
There’s space in later episodes for Life is Strange to grow in confidence, and I hope it does. All the same, episode one is a promising start to a type of story that’s rare in games, and not just because it stars two teenaged girls. For the price — and especially with a demo available — you should definitely try it.