It’s been a long time since I received a game as a present that I didn’t specifically request. It’s been longer since I received a game with the warning, “this may be a bit disturbing to you, but I think you’ll enjoy it.” Looking back, there isn’t a truer description of the episodic adventure time-travel game, Life is Strange (made by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix).
Life is Strange takes place on the Pacific Northwest over the course of one week in October. Max Caulfield, an 18 year-old student at prestigious Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, is visited by a vision of a horrifying storm destroying the bay. When she awakens from the vision, she is in her photography class listening to a lecture. She rushes to the bathroom to recover from the horrible vision, but instead discovers that she has the ability to rewind time when she stops a fellow classmate from shooting a girl in the bathroom. That girl ends up being Max’s former best friend whom she hasn’t seen in five years, and the two quickly reconnect.
The story over the next 4 episodes (5 in total) involves a missing person’s case, a friend at the Academy who is being subjected to bullying over a viral video, and also trying to prevent the massive storm from destroying the town. The game is decision based, and all of the choices you make throughout the game affect the final outcome of the story. Throughout, Max can use her Rewind ability to go back in time and change outcomes, make different decisions, and redo conversations in order to gain more information. The game involves puzzle solving and clue collecting in addition to time travel and decision making.
Honestly, I’m not usually prone to being disturbed by the content of games, except for jump scares or zombies (literally can’t even with zombies). But Life is Strange handles a lot of tough content, making you as Max live through it and make tough, sometimes morally challenging decisions. I’m not one for trigger warnings, but this game is hard. Not necessarily hard in terms of gameplay, but the story itself can get under your skin and affect you, I know it did me. The story even takes a turn towards horror game in Episode 5. It covers everything from bullying (cyber as well), suicide, parental death, drug use, mental illness, gun violence, date rape (in an indirect manner of speaking), kidnapping, murder, and torture, not to mention natural phenomenons such as town-destroying natural disasters. That list makes it sound far worse than it is, but this game is certainly emotional and could be upsetting for some players. In fact, the makers were so aware of that fact that on the main menu it has a scrolling message with a link to find support groups. They knew they were tackling hard issues that could be similar to what some players have personally experienced.
They do that very well. I walked away from the game wanting to replay it immediately to see how other choices play out. And I will replay it soon, after I take a few days off while it’s all still fresh in my mind. At the root of the game is the joy that is intimate friendship. A lot of horrible things are happening in Arcadia Bay, but the reunion of two childhood best friends is so satisfying that everything else can seem secondary at times. The ability to have such incredible interactions with all of the characters, even secondary, means that Max can even have an effect on the “Mean Girls”-esque clique of bullies, and forge lots of deep connections. I found myself so involved with the characters that I wanted to keep playing not just to solve the many mysteries that abound, I also wanted to keep interacting with all of the characters. The writers did a fantastic job of creating relatable, rounded characters that you really do learn to care about. A lot of games tend to miss out on that factor and can leave the relationships feeling flat and forced.
I’m incredibly glad I played this game, and I can’t wait to play it again to see the different choices I can make and their outcomes. I love games where choices that I make matter, and have an overall effect on everything that happens. I love the Dragon Age series for that reason, the ability to shape the game so it feels more customized to you personally. Add in the time-travel element, and you’ve got a fantastic, emotional, story-driven game. Oh yeah, and it has a fantastic soundtrack.
Here’s a link to the trailer, if you’re interested.