After maybe a month of intermittent playing, I finished Life is Strange this past weekend. Regardless of what anyone thinks a video game should or shouldn’t be, this game is a triumph of immersive storytelling, while at the same time being a massive wink and nod at the nature of choice in video game narrative.
I’m late to the party on reviewing this (as well as kind of late to the party in actually playing through it), so I’d expect most people interested in it already know the basic storyline: Max Caulfield is a high school senior who, through no fault of her own, discovers she has the power to reverse time. This power constitutes the primary mechanic of the game, as you both solve puzzles through manipulating your place in space and time, and plot out your interactions with the game’s many NPCs by seeing the immediate consequences of your decision, and then having a chance to reverse and try the other path.
There’s two great things about the writing of these decisions. First, the consequences are not only the immediate ones you see. In certain cases, other characters would continue to reference things I had done, sometimes two or three chapters later. And that’s only the obvious references, there were of course more subtle changes that would affect what you were able to do or the pathways to solve puzzles. Second, the decisions were not obvious. More than once one of the big decision points would show up and I’d nearly throw my controller across the room because I could not. figure out. what. to do. The lack of obvious right answers helps put you in the shoes of a high school student struggling with something bigger than her.
The high school aspect of the narrative put me in a very particular mindset which happened to highlight the use of false choice in a game like this. The beginning of the game sees Max going to class, going to her dorm, and generally following a schedule befitting a high school student. I immediately started thinking if the game was going to give me broader choices about whether to go to class, what to do, and possibly how to maintain academic status…it didn’t. The game sends you to class when it fits the narrative, and has you not in class when it fits the narrative. This is not a bad thing; focusing only on the times when something is happening is the right decision for pacing. But it does point some things out: since the player has a set of weighty choices to make, what about the choices that are made for them? This is especially poignant because some of these false choices made for you have obvious consequences.
The main reason the game does not suffer from these contradictions of choice and linearity is because it’s a game about Max. In pretty much all of the false choice cases, it’s very clear that Max has made up her mind, even if you, person ordering her around with the controller, has not. And generally, I as a player understood how Max felt, which made those narrative walls way less galling than they’d be in a silent narrator-type game or RPG. Broadly speaking, the characters, all the characters, are what make the game and its story so strong. If you didn’t relate to and sympathize with a whole range of characters throughout the story, many of the game’s most wrenching moments simply would not have been as poignant.
The game is also very on-the-nose in some ways about how it approaches choice. The fact is that the entire plot is deconstructing choices people make, and this focus on choice runs in parallel with the mechanical focus on choice. I will not give any spoilers here, but I will say that the game itself is completely self-aware about the nature of which choices it gives the player and which it does not. Though the writing does provide all the cover the game needs for its mechanical linearity, how deliberate it all seemed by the end made me realize that the developers were a lot smarter about it than I would have thought otherwise.
Life is Strange represents a very strong example of how to use interactivity to tell a story. While interactive narratives and “walking simulators” like Gone Home and Dear Esther represented a start for this sort of game to push into the mainstream, Life is Strange is an example of the genre coming into its own. Along with Firewatch, another superlative game I finished recently, Life is Strange proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that using games as storytelling tools provides new and different opportunities to writers to impact players in a way movies and TV never will.