First a warning.
This is a post about the game Life is Strange. If you’ve been reading for a while you will have seen me make numerous reference to it since January. This is the companion piece to my blog about what the game made me consider.
This is a post that may help explain why this game is worthy of attention and what it tells us about ourselves.
This is not a game review. Not all of my readers will care one jot about game design choices. The game deals with issues and themes though that don’t require any background knowledge of playing games so it may still be of interest.
Final caveat before we move past the boring tutorial section: This will involve big giant chunky spoilers so if you haven’t played the game and still want to (if you can you really should) then stop reading, play it and then and come back later.
The next section is for people that have played through the game or those that have no intention of doing so but are curious as to why it merits a mention on a blog where the focus is usually more specific. It also forms a companion piece to this post on locked doors which goes into more personal detail on that point.
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The basic premise of the game is a familiar one, what matters is the way that the story is told and what it tells us about ourselves and our own desires.
The main character is Max, a young woman starting out at a college specialising in photography. After a disturbing premonition of a tornado destroying the town she seeks refuge in the toilets only to witness a terrible crime.
In doing so she learns that she is able to rewind time and prevent it from happening. This then starts a chain of events reuniting Max with her old friend Chloe and a search for her missing friend, Rachel. Along the way they uncover a wider web of drugs, abuse and corruption. They also rekindle a long dormant and neglected friendship left fallow by Max moving away after the death of Chloe’s father.
The game gives you a choice of how much you can use your powers enabling you to choose different conversation options or approach the simple puzzles in a different way.
The game makes pains to warn you that your actions will have consequences and depending on your choices you may have different encounters and see the story play out in a different way.
This sounds like a great idea, the chance to try again if you say or do the wrong thing. Some of the puzzles are based on that exact premise.
Later on you discover that this does not come without cost. As any keen sci-fi fan will tell you changing the past can have a devastating impact. Ominous changes to the environment escalate the more Max plays with time and while Max can change time the memories of the events remain (the in game journal keeps track for you).
As you play Max discovers that not only can she rewind time, through holding a photo of herself she can travel to that time and alter the events most notably when intervening to stop Chloe’s father from taking the ride that will kill him.
This saves Chloe’s father but in turn she is the one that gets in a car accident and ends up paralysed in a wheelchair. The bills are crippling the family and after a bittersweet reunion Max discovers the injuries are too severe and that Chloe will soon die.
This led to a moment where I had to put the controller down and walk away for a bit.
Chloe asks Max to give her a morphine overdose to end her life and spare her and her parents the pain of having to look after her.
Time and time again throughout the story Max manipulates time to save Chloe. She watches her die over and over from the dumb choices she makes and risky situations they get involved with from the first botched blackmail attempt at the beginning to her shocking murder by Max’s tutor.
This will not be the only time that Chloe will ask Max to let her die.
Chloe is only part of the story though. One of the main story arcs involves the bullying of Max’s Christian classmate, Kate. After being filmed in a compromising position at a party footage is shared online driving her to despair. She cannot deal with the shame and in the games pivotal moment tries to die by suicide.
Here the game takes a swerve. While Max can use her powers to slow time so she can get to Kate she cannot rewind time on the next event.
Depending on your choices on that rooftop, how you spoke to Kate or the actions you did or did not take to defend her you either save her or she jumps to her death.
There is no rewind on this. I read an article about how saving Kate whilst being the right thing to do is not how it was meant to pan out. He was playing the game with his wife and failed to save Kate. His wife couldn’t allow that to happen so on discovering there was no rewind on this one, reset the game to get it right and save her. [For some players this sensitive issue wasn’t handled as well as it could have been but I felt that the creators had done their best to not trivialise or sensationalise it]
I didn’t think much of the theory that Kate is meant to die but in the final chapter Max goes through a nightmare sequence where all her decisions come back to haunt her. A particularly disturbing encounter is meeting an angry Kate.
Far from being grateful for Max’s friendship and saving her life she angrily remonstrates with her for interfering as her suicide attempt means that her family won’t leave her alone.
The discussion ends abruptly with Kate opening her dorm door and falling to her death.
This sequence in the final chapter is one of many confronting Max with the possibility that rewinding a death doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Her actions instead create an alternate time line where they do live.
All the little and big mistakes you undo with Max’s superhero power create new consequences and the other characters taunt her with her failures and ask why they had to suffer just so Chloe could live.
It also openly questions the motives behind using your power. Are you really using it for the greater good of so you can say the right things so people will like you?
Even though Max acts with the best intention of saving Chloe and getting justice for her murdered friend Rachel all it does is create more pain.
The tornado from her premonition becomes real and threatens the whole town. All the events have been leading to this. Even with the fake happy ending of her sociopathic tutor locked up for kidnap and abuse the tornado is still there.
The ultimate choice comes when Chloe asks again to let her die. You can choose to sacrifice the town and save Chloe or you can go back in time one last time and just let her get shot.
The punchline is brutal. All the things that you did to save Chloe and get justice for Rachel and the harm that you caused intentionally or unintentionally were for nothing. Had you let Chloe die in the first instance then her killer would have been arrested, caved under pressure giving up his monstrous father figure and sociopathic tutor leading to his arrest anyway.
It’s a bitter sweet ending of sorts. While Max loses her power and her friend she retains all the memories of the alternate time lines including the chance to rekindle a lapsed friendship and heal old hurts but in doing so she had to suffer horribly and live with those memories. The opening of chapter 5 was incredibly uncomfortable to play and before frustration kicks in the nightmare sequences are as disturbing as anything Silent Hill has produced.
Having spent so much time with Max and Chloe and the cast there is a real weight to the decisions. The game is great at setting up the common tropes of high school drama and then subverting them not to be clever but to show people are a mess of contradictions. Even the main character is flawed. All of our actions create ripples and unintended consequences can follow the most mundane decision.
It’s not a perfect game or even story but it does more right than it does wrong. It shows how interactive stories can be more than just pretty decision trees and the world it creates feels more real because of its flaws. It’s a world where you can (and want) to explore through conversations, observation and just sitting still and enjoying the music or view. The story has stayed with me to the point that I am still looking up articles and discussions about the story and its characters.
If you have played the game I would be interested in your views and experience of playing the game.