If you could turn back time, what would you do? What would you change? Those questions are as old as time travel stories themselves and yet, for all that time travel has fascinated science-fiction writers, they’re questions that have rarely been addressed by video games, at least not as directly as this. For in Life Is Strange, every action and decision is reversible, giving you instant and unlimited do-overs to shape the world just as you like in that moment. The potential is there in equal measure for clever time mechanics and unmitigated plot-hole disasters, and Life Is Strange certainly has both of those, which is why it feels weird to say that it’s not what sticks in the memory.
The mechanical heart and is in a few big decisions which are spread throughout each episode, where the screen blurs and a big choice appears. Press B to do one thing, X to do another. These are suitably grey choices, too, with no right or wrong answers — someone is going to come out badly regardless of how you decide, and giving the ability to reverse that choice as many times as you like allows for plenty of agonising over which to chose. Not only that, they have real effects that trickle down and notably changing how the story plays out, even if the big plot points remain more or less the same to stop the story getting out of hand. It’s intensely satisfying to see them play out an episode or two down the line, imagining how much different things might have played out had you just known at the time.
Then there are the smaller every day choices, mainly used for the purposes of world and character building. With the freedom to play with nice choices, sarcastic choices, boorish choices and pretty much everything in between, it’s possible to poke and prod almost every character you meet, giving the writers room to flex their skills and really flesh out the characters. As a result, the characters for the most part feel remarkable whole, even when their role is limited to only a few token appearances, as you can have multiple conversations with them without going through. It’s a clever fusion of mechanics adding to gameplay, and it makes the world so much deeper.
Naturally, as time goes on, the nature of these interactions scales from everyday life to matters of life and death. Despite this, the best moments are where your rewind powers are temporarily taken away. Without the fallback of an instant do-over, the stakes ramp in a way that’s far more effective even than the context of what’s going on around you. It also gives the opportunity for some scenes with obvious “good” and “bad” endings, with the tension of the ambiguity of your decision replaced by the tension of knowing that you have to live with it for the rest of the game. It’s a satisfying twist on the formula and it works very well indeed, doubly so because it’s only done occasionally.
Unfortunately, things start to go off the rails later on. The final two episodes feature several scenes with obvious “good” outcomes but which also allow you to rewind until you achieve them, simultaneously removing both the intrigue and drama of only having one or the other. Even the final scenes (which you’ll probably see coming a mile off but are otherwise satisfyingly played out) have an resolution which the game wants you to take, if only because the pay off for choosing it is so much better. Was it assumed that the preceding five episodes and 15 hours would lead most players down the game’s intended route? The near half who didn’t would beg to differ.
The confused finale ultimately epitomises the the hot mess that is the final episode. That jumbled nature of the latter portion of the game is inextricably linked to the introduction of some hard science-fiction and the ability to jump back further in time using photographs, doing more significant damage to the timeline as you go. As Max attempts to fix the past over and over again in this way so that all disasters are averted, the story trips over itself and totally fails to explain what’s going on (a recurring complaint, but until then easy to ignore). For all the jibes that Life Is Strange is little more than a teenage girl simulator, it is those portions of the game that work best and it’s significantly worse for trying to get away from them later on.
That Life Is Strange is able survive these missteps is testament not only to the overall quality of the story but also to the characters that tell it, who are almost without exception fascinatingly whole in a way rarely seen in games. Max and her peers are introduced as the usual line of high school clichés (the rich sod, the science nerd, the goth, the jock, the punk rebel, the social misfit, et cetera) but they’re multi-faceted and complex when exposed to your unique gaze, giving the writers space to flesh them out more than 99 percent of games out there. They all have their own hidden lives which contextualise their actions, capable of transforming from moustache-twirling villains to sympathetic anti-heroes if you’ll just give them the time of day.
The attention is definitely centred on Max and Chloe, however, and their double act is not only the focus of the plot but home to most of the best moments. The two are great foils for one another — both are still figuring out their place in the world and often seem lost and aimless, but while Max withdraw into herself Chloe lashes out and gets into trouble. The usual scenario unfolds with each exerting a positive influence on the other and shaving down their worst elements, but it’s told with poise and refreshing vigour. This is done not only through dialogue, but also through environmental design. Chloe’s house, for example, shows a previously happy and well-adjusted kid who flew off the handle in the face of adversity while Max was away. It’s a trick that’s pulled throughout, with every environment being full of tidbits of information and exposition, painting a far fuller picture than any number of dialogue trees ever could.
It’s the little touches that make the experience work. It’s when the quality of the writing and voice work drowns out individual lines that often come off awkwardly; the moments when the beautiful painterly style hides the stiff animation and shockingly poor lip syncing; the times when you’re painted a sunset and Syd Matter’s phenomenal soundtrack kicks in to add heart to almost every scene. Even though there are times when everything in Life Is Strange feels like it comes with a caveat, it’s the moments of beauty that make them worth tolerating.
So no, it’s not the perfect 10, polished in every way like whatever the video game equivalent to Oscar Bait is, the appeal is more subtle than that. Tragic, heart-warming and totally its own — Life Is Strange stays with you.
Developer: Dotnod Entertainment
Platform: PC (PS4, XBO, PS3, 360)