The first season of Life is Strange, the Dontnod Entertainment-developed episodic adventure game, was released in 2015. It was a time when the Telltale format of choice-based adventures was dying out – only three years later, Telltale would file for bankruptcy and much of their influence forgotten. The status quo set by The Walking Dead led to more and more licensing deals, creating a crunch culture and leaving little time for creative development of the established format. There was no increase or exploration of the depth of control held by the player, and instead an ever-increasing list of cookie cutter franchise tie-ins – Game of Thrones, Batman, even Minecraft – forced the company into general assignment in late 2018.
The lack of original worlds and stories for players to explore and impact in the Telltale roster created prime real estate to create Life is Strange. With more format freedom and fresh storytelling ideas, the episodic choice-based adventure format was better served in the hands of Dontnod and Square Enix. Despite the loud condemnation of story-based games (and a lot of valid criticism about the series’ tone and writing), the 2022 Remastered edition of Life is Strange shows that this exploration of the genre still has legs, almost a decade on.
You play as Max, an 18-year-old photography student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in her childhood hometown, who discovers her ability to reverse time and change established events. Coupled with a mystery surrounding her old best friend Chloe, and Chloe’s missing girlfriend Rachel, there sits within Life is Strange a great example of story and gameplay meeting in the middle. Chaos theory and the ‘butterfly effect’, which states that changing a small detail in the past has major consequences going forward (a butterfly can flap its wings and the impacts cause a landslide chain of events), plays a huge role in the imagery of the game, and ties in neatly with the ideas of regret and past mistakes.
The game is set in the Pacific Northwest which, according to the creators, creates a “nostalgic” feel. Strangely, the coastal and autumnal setting does contribute to this mood. The long sunsets and orange leaves builds a transitional, almost timeless, visual tone. Everything contributes to a sensation of not-quite the past and not-quite the present. As Max and Chloe rediscover their friendship, and learn all the twists and turns that their lives took in the intermediary years, that ephemeral nostalgic feeling sits comfortably with the characters and story.
The game’s choice-based, however, and Max’s burgeoning time travel powers also sit comfortably within that format. One of the major selling points of the old Telltale games was the lack of re-dos. No quick saves, no do-overs. Make a decision and stick with it. It was a conscious choice; the stories were never variable or sprawling. It became clear anyway just how railroaded the experiences really were. Pick between two characters, and all that happens is the game loads one NPC instead of another, for essentially the same effect. In Life is Strange, you can explicitly reverse time and make a differing choice.
Instead of relying on your impulse decisions, Life is Strange encourages you to think through your options. This allows for much more detail in the unfolding story, and lets you define who Max is and what she cares about. In episode two, Out of Time, your powers fail due to overuse – and Max needs to talk her peer Kate down from a literal ledge. If you didn’t explore her room thoroughly enough during the opening, or if you discounted what you found, didn’t think through what you were saying to her then you won’t be able to recall the facts that enable you to save Kate. It’s not a binary choice between two characters, it’s a small series of decisions you’ve unknowingly made over the past two episodes which elects whether Kate commits suicide or not. And you really feel her loss. If Kate dies, she’s dead – and the player misses out on content as a result.
Aside from this outlier, Max has a huge level of control over the story. At any point, during or after any confrontation or story beat, you can decide to reverse time and find ulterior outcomes. Sometimes you can learn an important fact, go back and throw it in someone’s face. Maybe picking a certain side in an argument backfired, so you instinctively erase it and make yourself come out on top. Very rarely are you railroaded into this mechanic, meaning, as the dialogue and exploration tend to be thin on a gameplay level, you find yourself wondering what would happen if you had provoked someone, or decided to flirt with them.
The game offers small moments with side characters, where you can learn titbits or facts and then reverse time in order to impress them. Want to sweet talk your teacher Mr Jefferson? Simply reverse time and quote John Lennon back at him. The game doesn’t force you into this decision, it’s purely a function of whether or not you want people to like you more. This mechanic is turned around in the final episode, Polarized, in which Max’s constant meddling seems to break the time continuum. She’s confronted by another version of herself, “one of the many Maxes [she] left behind”, who berates her by saying that all she did with her powers was manipulating people into liking her. Suddenly the game, which had admittedly shown an ostentatious lack of self-awareness prior, is not only dragging the protagonist, but also the player and its own format.
What gave you the right to think you could control people like that, especially if your first instinct was solely to improve your own social standing? Max isn’t a superhero. Her heart is in the right place (mostly), but your actions and her inner-monologue betrays the fact that so many of her intentions are simply teenage whims. She lets Chloe, the self-destructive pothead, fool around with guns – abusing Max’s power and desire for acceptance as a crutch for reckless behaviour. This is what directly leads to Max’s powers failing during the confrontation with Kate. Max even takes it upon herself to change the entire course of Chloe’s life, using an old photograph to rewrite history so that Chloe’s dad doesn’t die. As the player, you have control over time and want to use that power whenever you can. But nothing ever gave her, or you, the moral right to do that. Criticising players for simply playing the game is always a dodgy creative decision, but here it’s tied up with the blind assumptions that everything you’re doing is okay.
The finale brings this issue to the forefront. Max’s constant changes, all of those flutters of the butterfly wings, have generated a tornado that’s destroying the entire town. You have a photo on your person, a picture of a butterfly Max took at the start of episode one. You can use it to revert back to the point where you saved Chloe’s life. You have the choice of reversing everything you’ve done in the entire game, with Chloe’s survival as the lynchpin. Chloe isn’t a bad person, far from it. Her irresponsibility and blind rage are half of the reason why you’re in this situation, but she accepts what has to be done with maturity. Whether you do that is up to you. Will you sacrifice your best friend, possibly your lover, for the sake of the entire town? Meaning all of the progress you’ve made, the aborted timelines, the mistakes and the triumphs in your adolescent quest for justice – swapped out for the continuation of a status quo that never should have been changed in the first place.
I always prefer to save Arcadia Bay. To save Chloe feels hollow and unearned. It’s a choice that Max never should’ve had, and her life for an entire town of people is never a proposal that felt worthwhile. That’s not a judgement of Chloe as a person, but if there’s one lesson Life is Strange is trying to impart, it’s that letting sleeping dogs lie is sometimes the best option available. You can engineer the final rewritten timeline so that Rachel’s killers face justice, but the Rachel mystery was only ever the plot of the game. The real story, for me, was only ever found in the moments when I realised, I was doing more harm than good.
Life is Strange 2 was released over 2018 and 2019 to lukewarm reception. The attempt to take the powers away from the player character, instead placing you in a mentor role, was admirable but unavoidably made the experience less engaging. It had a less comparable level of mechanical control and thematic deftness, there was little reason to care. The third instalment, True Colors, gave your powers back but still lacked that crucial crossover between gameplay and storytelling that appealed to me. It still missed that understanding of what made the original so distinct. It was a surface-level story also missing some sorely-needed development in other areas, such as dialogue and characterisation. It’s not like I was ever clamouring for more Life is Strange stories. Now the series has been handed over to Deck Nine, I worry they’re making the same mistakes that doomed Telltale. Sometimes the best choices are the ones you don’t see until it’s too late, and you wish you could go back.