Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Most people know the feeling of wishing they could spend more time with someone who is no longer in their life. Life is Strange is about getting that time. It is about seeing the person you love again and getting the chance to tell them what you never did. Through its story of a high school senior with the ability to rewind time, Life is Strange forces you to come to terms with loss. I went in expecting escapism, but Life is Strange more often reflects the real world and the different kinds of emotional pain many of us have experienced, and that is one of the reasons Life is Strange is such a powerful work of art.
Episode one (of five) begins with Max, the young woman you play as, having a vision of her town’s destruction due to a tornado. Her teacher wakes her, but soon the bell rings and she walks out into a hallway bustling with students. She then puts her earbuds in and the acoustic finger picking of “To All of You” by Syd Matters fades in.
The opening brilliantly sets up both the high school setting, a larger threat of the tornado, and Max’s removed tendencies. Max goes to the bathroom, where she witnesses Chloe, the other protagonist, being shot and killed. It is at this point that Max gains her power to rewind time (one of the main gameplay features of Life is Strange) and is able to save Chloe.
The dynamic and relationship between Max and Chloe, respectively played by Hannah Telle and Ashley Burch, is the focus and best part of Life is Strange. Max is a shy and nerdy high school senior studying photography, whereas Chloe is a punk dropout with blue hair. They were best friends when they were younger but drifted apart. The main story of Life is Strange involves the two of them working together to find Chloe’s missing friend.
With the looming threat of Max’s vision of the tornado, they scour the town of Arcadia Bay for clues about Chloe’s friend. Arcadia Bay is beautifully realized. Life is Strange takes you to different locales in the town, from junkyards to forests to diners, all captured with stunning detail. Life is Strange has made me want to visit the northwestern United States. Sadly, I won’t be hanging out with Max and Chloe if I do visit.
Max and Chloe’s chemistry brings every scene to life, and the developers at Dontnod, the studio behind Life is Strange, were even able to create a subtle sense of sexual tension in some scenes. The developers and writers work in nuances and as such have created two very real characters. It truly feels like Max and Chloe are two people who have known each other for a long time. Their dialogue highlights this dynamic.
In one scene, after the two of them have broken into the principal’s office, Chloe says, “Maybe we shouldn’t leave without a gift.” “No, you are not taking the cozy chair,” says Max. “Max, do your powers include mind-reading? Or did you just rewind because I tried to steal the chair? Shit, I’m confused,” says Chloe.
Female relationships are a rare portrayal in games, and Life is Strange nails it.
Life is Strange should be an example on how to handle female representation. Not only are the two main characters and a majority of the supporting cast female, but they are all well written, believable, and flawed. In addition to Max and Chloe, the supporting cast includes characters such as Kate, Victoria, and Joyce. Kate is a religious classmate of Max’s struggling with bullying. Victoria is an insecure but often cruel fellow photographer. Joyce is Chloe’s widowed mother, who is trying to do her best to raise Chloe. The writers at Dontnod portray many different relationships between women, including friendship, romance, antagonistic, and maternal.
I especially loved the way they developed the character of Victoria and her relationship to Max. In the first episode she comes off as a stereotypical mean teenage girl, but the nuances of her character and the reasons for her cruelty slowly reveal. She and Max are able to have a great conversation in episode 4, if the player so chooses, about how they wish they could have been friends.
The fantastic dialogue was a major element in connecting me to the characters. It often reminded me of the way my high school friends and I talked to an impressive, almost too-real way. Many of the lines are cheeky and come close to being silly, but almost always hit their mark (no small thanks to the wonderful voice actors). In episode 3, right before they break into the principal’s office, Max and Chloe have the following exchange:
Max (to Chloe): “I’m so glad you’re partner in crime.”
Chloe: “As long as you’re my partner in time.”
Max: “Insert groan here.”
I grew to have an intense connection to these characters. I feel for Max’s desire to do what is right while struggling with taking action, and her nerdy references had me smiling. Chloe’s love of life and reckless nature is endearing, even inspiring sometimes. This is contrasted with the brutally honest depiction of her loneliness and fear of abandonment, which I could connect to on a deep level. By the halfway point in the game it felt to me as though Max and Chloe were real people. Now I find myself wishing I could spend just a little more time with them — how appropriate given the game’s themes.
It was likewise wonderful to see a realistic depiction of high school. This is the first time I’ve seen experiences I’ve lived through depicted in a video game, and it felt amazing. I know what it’s like to be an awkward high school student like Max or to feel alone like Chloe, but this is the first time I’ve played as a character like that. And this isn’t some Disney Channel sitcom where the worst things people do are steal your homework and everything works out in the end. Dontnod did not shy away from showing the awful things that can happen in high school.
Life is Strange tackles many heavy themes: love, bullying, mental illness, death, and moving on are all central issues. In a painfully emotional scene, Max must try and talk her friend down from committing suicide; however, her rewind power isn’t working. You only get one chance. Knowing how personal this is to many people, Dontnod worked hard to make this scene respectful and realistic. They didn’t gamify the subject or make light of it. Dontnod included this and other issues because these are important and relevant topics to growing up and being a teenager today. Max and Chloe goof off together and make jokes about time travelling as a way to cope with the difficulties that they, and many other people, face. Life is Strange is able to handle these issues because it gives its characters time to breathe with slower paced scenes that let the player become more intimate with them.
Many video games feel that to keep the player engaged they must have non-stop adrenaline-fueled action. Life is Strange takes the opposite approach by intentionally having slow scenes. It is the presence of these scenes that makes Life is Strange feel so unique. My feelings of immersion only grew with these scenes as I came to know the characters in more intimate ways.
One scene in episode three begins in Chloe’s bedroom, with Max and Chloe lying together on her bed. As the camera pans across the room, Max begins to stir and Chloe is still sleeping next to her. The quiet sounds of the neighborhood can be heard through the open window. Max reaches for her camera and takes a selfie of her and Chloe, thinking, “Always remember this moment.” Chloe wakes up and as they begin to talk, she reaches for the remote and turns on her stereo to “Lua” by Bright Eyes, a melancholic song about changing times. “I wish we could just hang out all morning like we used to,” Max says wistfully.
Max talks of the difficulties of her high school; Chloe talks of paying back her debts and skipping town. But for the moment, the two of them are just lying there. Their conversation dies down and the music plays on. A prompt appears to get up should the player press the X button, but it disappears if you ignore it. You can let them lie in this moment for as long as you like. They talk a little bit more, but eventually the three of us are left just listening to the music. I love that Life is Strange lets you linger in these peaceful moments for as long as you like, and the entire experience is better for it. There are many emotional scenes so it is so nice to have a quiet moment to just…take everything in. I identified with Max’s desire to remember this moment and I could feel the two of them becoming more intimate.
The music and soundtrack of Life is Strange, full of beautiful indie songs, perfectly sets the mood to the game’s events. If you pay close attention to the lyrics, you’ll even notice mirrorings or foreshadowing. Moments like the opening hallway scene or being in Chloe’s bedroom are elevated by the music and makes the story even more relatable by setting it to these songs. It allows the characters to relax, to not talk, and lets the player live in the moment of these scenes.
The gameplay of Life is Strange consists largely of choosing conversation options while talking to people, exploring the different locations in the town of Arcadia Bay, and using Max’s rewind power to solve puzzles. During conversations, you are usually presented with two to four ways of responding at points.
Life is Strange took an interesting approach in its puzzle design by turning certain conversations into puzzles. Max and Chloe are trying to solve the mystery of what happened to Chloe’s missing friend, and as such frequently need to get information out of people. For example, there is one scene in which Max and Chloe are trying to get a drug dealer to help them. If you don’t play your cards right, he will end up shot or dead and you will have no information. Remarkably, Life is Strange allows you to keep playing, but the fun is using Max’s rewind power to find out what to say to get people to help or believe you. This is juxtaposed with the more standard environmental puzzles, such as trying to find a way across a gap, get a locked door open. Dontnod then added twists to many of these puzzles through the use of Max’s rewind time power.
At its center, Life is Strange is a choice-drive game. Each episode has obvious choices you must make. Steal money to pay back Chloe’s debt? Tell someone the truth? During these moments everything stops and things go hazy.
However, the game also has things that are less obvious “choices” but are still impacted by the player’s actions. For example, Max and Victoria’s relationship can progress positively or negatively, but that isn’t determined by a single obvious choice, but rather by the summation of many smaller actions throughout the game. Life is Strange is able to make relationships and events feel more real and meaningful by having some outcomes based off of many smaller choices rather than a single obvious one.
Almost everyone has had the thought,“I would give anything to have that person back in my life.” Life is Strange actually gave me the chance to choose how much I would give up to be with the person I love. I’m still not sure, but Life is Strange got me to think about how much I appreciate the people I love, because I won’t get a second chance like Max did.
It’s been days and Max and Chloe are all I can think about. I miss them. I miss their wonderful dialogue, their cute interactions, the way Max always wants to protect Chloe and the way Chloe brings out the adventurous side of Max. Their story was a harrowing and emotional experience, but also a beautiful one.
As the credits rolled on Life is Strange I rolled over on the couch, curled up, and clutched my pillow to my chest for solace. The next night I was still thinking about them and I couldn’t focus on my work or fall asleep. I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood at 11 o’clock at night. As I walked the darkened streets alone, I broke down in tears. It took a little while for the full force of my feelings for Life is Strange to sink in, but no work of fiction has ever made me feel as emotionally vulnerable as Life is Strange has.
Life is Strange is available on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. It may just be the best $20 you’ll ever spend.