Life Is Strange Feels like an Indie Movie
Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. Everyone has wished they could change the past, and do things differently. Life Is Strange elaborates this natural impulse into its core mechanic; the protagonist, Maxine, has the ability to reverse time, spooling the action back to the last checkpoint, and choose a different path.
This is all the more interesting since Life Is Strange is primarily an adventure game, where making decisions form a huge part of the experience. Choices are frequently put in front of you. Some are seemingly minor, while others obviously carry greater significance – do you intervene when you see your friend being confronted by an aggressive step-parent?
Telltale does a similar thing, but the way in which you make your decision is completely different. Telltale games ask you to make a lot of your judgements quickly, instinctively, and as a consequence you sometimes regret those hasty choices. Life Is Strange takes a different tact. There's no time, no pressure to make a split-second call; and even if you make what you think is an unwise choice, you can return to that moment and change the outcome.
I recently played an hour-long section lifted from episode one, in which Max returns to the picturesque town of Arcadia Bay and reunites with her old friend Chloe. They two grew up together, but haven't seen each other in years. They've both changed, but Chloe's been affected by loss – her father died the year Max left town, and more recently, her best friend, Rachel, disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It's a delicate collection of scenes, in which the pair begin to rebuild their friendship and work out where they go next.
While Chloe lies on her bed and smokes weed, you're free to explore her room and the rest of the house, read notes and rifle through old photographs – all of which help to piece together what's happened since the day Max left Arcadia Bay. There are objects to be retrieved and minor puzzles to be solved, with some even utilising Max's time-travelling ability. There's a moment, for instance, when you enter Chloe's parents' bedroom and a bird flies into the window and is killed; you can save it by rewinding time and opening the window.
It's a melancholic section which gradually builds towards a dramatic encounter with Chloe's overbearing, ex-military step-father, David, who returns home early from work. Chloe panics and urges Max to hide, as she extinguishes her cigarette. Watching from the safety of the wardrobe, you see your friend shouted at and demeaned. You're offered a choice: stay hidden or stand up. If you decide to stay in the wardrobe, Chloe will be humiliated and remember your decision. Alternatively, if you step out and say the joint belongs to you, Chloe appreciates it, but it's implied her step-father will use it against you further down the line.
The reason I know how each decision plays out is because I was able to rewind time and see the outcome of both choices. But wait, isn't this cheating? Within the context of an adventure game, isn't this the equivalent of activating god mode?
I didn't quite get what Life Is Strange was trying to do until I replayed the section for a second time. It allows you to rewind time because it wants to emphasis the agony of making decisions. It wants you to focus on them and question yourself. And even though you're privy to the immediate consequences, the long-term out ramifications remain inscrutable. Initially, I thought this would undermine the decisions I was making, but in fact it's trying to achieve the opposite – it's trying to underline just how much stems from small choices.
When I spoke to Jean-Maxime Moris – one of the co-founders of the Dontnod Entertainment, the game's French developer – he was all too aware of how this could've derailed the entire experience. “It is a very dangerous mechanic in a way," Moris tells me. "That’s a danger we spotted from the very beginning. If you allow people to rewind their choices, you’re basically taking the weight out of the choice. So what we did, very early we introduce this polarity system to every choice. Sure, you can test their short-term outcomes, but the long-term sequences – who can tell what could happen?
"It’s never white or black. It’s always shades of grey. We really wanted to surprise the player with the long-term consequences. The rewind isn’t a way to cheat the game."
This theme of choice filters throughout the rest of the game. It's why the lead characters are teenagers; the developers wanted to focus on a time when decisions have the greatest impact on a person's future. And the characters are worth mentioning in greater detail. Based on just a few exchanges, Max and Chloe feel like three-dimensional people to me. They haven't seen each other in years, and this is betrayed in the way they interact – there's an unspoken distance between them but also a dormant familiarity that stops it from ever becoming awkward. Chloe coaxes Max into dancing and taking her picture; they talk about their dreams and desires and anxieties, not boys.
It's refreshing, and it ties in to Life Is Strange's overall aesthetic. The developers have been quite open about how they want the game to emulate the feel of American Independent film, particularly the type of film that would be at home at either the Tribeca or Sundance film festivals. It makes for a wistful experience, with melancholic songs filling up the soundtrack and a painterly art-style giving the world a soft, hazy appearance. It's all been carefully thought out; photorealism wouldn't make sense, since this is an experience all about memory and recollection, and so everything's been hand-painted. This soft, impressionistic style gives the world a softness, as it's all being recalled. Similarly, onscreen text appears handwritten, presumably scribbled by Max herself – again, it's another personal touch.
But the decision to align with Independent film is more than just a stylistic one; it’s a political statement about gaming in general. By aligning in spirit with this type of filmmaking, Dontnod is taking leave of gaming's Hollywood – the noisy world of triple-A blockbusters – where there wouldn't be room for this type of story or cast of characters. When I spoke to Moris about how they found a publisher for the game, he was open about how having a game with not one but two female protagonist was a hard sell. “Just like with Remember Me [Dontnod's first game], most of the publishers were put off by that choice," Moris reveals. "Character gender can be an issue on the publishing side, mostly marketing-wise. But with Square, and this is really not a political answer, it was a non-issue from the beginning.”
I’ve just read back the last couple of paragraphs, and I’m aware it makes this all seem rather high-minded; it's really not. Life Is Strange is simply trying to tell a different type of story, and to do so it's using a style that's been used in film as a foundation.
I have to admit that while I like some of the films Life Is Strange is channelling – Juno, Sideways, Garden State – I'm not a fan of all of them. Some can be pretty tedious, navel-gazing affairs, so probably not the best source for an episodic adventure game. Thankfully, based on the section I played, Dontnod stay clear of this pitfall; while it might be tapping into this style, there's plenty of intrigue and mystery lurking beneath its chilled-out appearance. The disappearance of Rachel casts a sinister shadow over everything, and there are plenty of secrets to uncover in Arcadia Bay... like why does Chloe's step-father have security cameras secretly rigged through the house?
Life Is Strange is a smart, introspective project; it confidently takes on big ideas – memory and identity – and features two compelling, credible female characters. But more importantly for an episodic adventure game, it doesn't lose sight of the importance of plot, which will hopefully make for a compelling narrative experience, not just a laudable exercise in style and characterisation.