Life is Strange - the decision based graphic adventure game from Square Enix - slipped past my gaze during its ten-month 2015 release. It’s a video game so engrossing and evocative I wish I’d paid it more attention when its name was first floating around social media. I also wish I'd written it. Having only now completed all five episodes over the space of a few weeks, I’m still feeling its emotional impact several days after closing the book on that fictional coastal town, wishing I didn’t know what happened so I could experience it afresh all over again. Those who’ve played the game will appreciate the irony in that statement.
Just like a novel your imagination has lived within for however long it’s taken to travel from the front cover to the back, the story of Life is Strange is so well conceived and mapped out that, if you allow yourself the abandon, it can be completely immersive. There’s a reason it’s been nominated for an astonishing number of industry awards and even those who’ve nitpicked at technical parts of the gameplay have still highly recommended it based on its storytelling strengths.
We play as Max Caulfied, an 18-year-old photography student who’s returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, to attend Blackwell Academy, a private school for talented art majors. She’s everything you might expect her to be: shy, introspective, thoughtful, absorbed into the art surrounding her and the mirror image of every unassuming Pacific North West teenager you’ll find on Instagram. She’s also intensely likeable and relatable, which is crucial as we spend all five episodes inhabiting her moral compass. However near or distant your 18-year-old self might be, none of us truly forget how those awkward years of shakily stepping out of childhood felt. Particularly if your own personality echoes Max’s persona.
What throws her world into a literal spin is the sudden onset of the ability to reverse time. Said the wrong thing? No problem. Just rewind and make a more educated statement to endear yourself better to the people around you. It doesn’t take long before this confusing new skill needs to be used for more serious reasons. A chance encounter in the ladies’ bathroom between classes reunites Max with her childhood best friend, Chloe, where she has cause to save her life with her newly acquired time control. The two young women may have found their lives forked onto very different roads in the preceding years, but their rekindled friendship not only forms the most powerful relationship in the game but also informs much of how you make choices on how the story unfolds.
Life is Strange is far more than retrospective teen angst and taking the campus bully down a peg or two. These elements are the mere backdrop to far more sinister and at times surprisingly adult themes for a video game to be tackling. Aside from the weird weather and other ecological mishaps affecting Arcadia Bay, a local student has gone missing without a trace. Rachel Amber has a connection to Chloe and with Max at her side they’re determined to discover what’s happened to her as they wind their way through an impressive cast of friends and suspects.
Meanwhile, the rest of the student body are increasingly stressed and anxious. An undercurrent of unease is sending all their worlds inexplicably off kilter. The aftermath of which impacts directly and fiercely upon Max. There are complex family issues to either unravel or leave well alone depending on what you choose to say, along with dark secrets, sex, date-rape, gun violence, the viciousness of social media, drugs and the dealers who inevitably bring their own brand of trouble.
The multi-layered juggling required of Max as you try to guide her toward making the right decisions for all involved is just one of the things that makes it a game that really sucks you in. The shocking consequences of changing time and fabricating alternate realities makes your own head spin along with hers. Building an adventure game means there will always be moments that have to happen to facilitate the flow of the story, but what’s clever about Life is Strange is that they’ve used the rewind feature to make those inevitabilities fun or engaging or both. Having said that, there are also plenty of tipping points where your choices have a dramatic impact upon where you go next. Both of the heart-wrenching choices you’re left with in the last moments of the final episode leave you with enormously different endings. The feeling that decisions have already been taken for you regardless of which buttons you press was one of the criticisms of earlier Telltale Games. Life is Strange feels far more in your own hands.
Graphically too, this game feels more cinematic than the Telltale offerings. From the moment Max steps into the school hallway to the sound of Syd Matters’ To All of You, the soundtrack turns it into a film you just happen to be entangled with. While Telltale clearly aim for aesthetics that match the franchises they’re lifting from, as an original production Life is Strange has the creative freedom to make something that does fully what a mystery game should; it allows you to feel as if you’ve hopped inside a movie that’s given you control of the script and the puppet strings. There was some criticism that the lip-syncing wasn’t up to scratch and while it isn’t the best, the voice acting is so good that you soon stop looking and concentrate on listening. There are also a few moments where the gameplay feels a touch slow or laboured, especially in episode four, though I suspect this was more my own anticipation in needing to know what happened next. You get the most out of it when you slow down and investigate everything around you. I deliberately started downloading just one episode at a time to force myself into taking breaks.
Video games that stir powerful emotions are rare and a masterpiece of storytelling when they actually work. By the middle of episode five I forgot I was playing a game. It takes a special skill and real confidence to build a game that’s based entirely on testing your conscience and making you genuinely feel things; where you care deeply about what you choose to say and agonise over who deserves your time most. Life is Strange had more emotional pull for me than Clementine’s stories in the Walking Dead games and regularly had the all-encompassing gasp factor I don’t often feel outside of something the likes of Rockstar might spend years developing. The fact that after completing the game I’m wishing Arcadia Bay and its inhabitants were real places and people I could visit and talk to means it did its job. The fact that I’m trying to decide how long is appropriate before playing it again means there should probably be a sequel. But to find out why that might be tricker than it sounds, you’ll have to play the game yourself.