[Vague spoilers for LIFE is Strange. Sorry, didn’t mean to shout that one word there. Just sort of happened.]
Life is Strange could only ever be as good as it is thanks to the interactivity of videogames. It’s a brilliant story that could be told in a book or on TV in one way or another. But what makes the game so special, and what makes it so powerful when it reaches the final scenes, is that it’s a love story. No matter what happens, it will always be a love story. But whether that story is one of love between friends, or love between partners, is entirely up to you.
It’s a small piece of the game, really. Something that doesn’t affect the story a great deal, and isn’t particularly reflected in the mechanics. It’s something that stands out to me, though, simply because it couldn’t be done anywhere else. It’s a story about two girls, and it’s a story about being a teenager. It asks the question what would you do if you could rewind time? What about when you were at school, and you said something dumb in class, would you zip back a few seconds and sort the whole mess out? It’s a fantasy I’m pretty sure everyone will have had at some point in their lives, and it’s one that makes my mind race with the possibilities. It’s a great metaphor put to excellent use. But as the story marched on and as I heard the two main characters speak to each other, slowly, almost subconsciously, I realised it was they who were the true hooks keeping me invested in the story.
The main thing you do in the game is decide between multiple options about what to say, and thanks to that rewind power you often get to um and arr and change your mind over and over until you realise you’ve been standing in the same spot for half an hour. But these choices, these decisions about what to say, they matter. They matter a whole lot. Not because they effect the game all that much, but because they effect the way you look at the characters.
By the end of my game, I realised Chloe and Max weren’t lovers. They were incredibly close friends, but not lovers. I just didn’t end up playing them that way, and I had pointed them away from that direction without even knowing it. This is something that doesn’t matter to the game. The story will play out broadly the same whether they want to kiss each other or not. But my Max changes, and the way I play her changes, and the decisions, when they start to get big and huge and difficult…
The reason this game works so much better than many other choice based games, I think, is because you’re not making a choice based on morals. People often argue choices in games should be greyer, that there shouldn’t be a good and bad thing to do, but a series of complex decisions. The problem with this is that in the end most of these morally grey decisions just come down to what the player thinks is the least terrible thing to do. It’s about the player and their feelings, rather than the characters they’re playing. The decisions in Life is Strange, however, when they get big and important and difficult, are decisions I make not based on my feelings, but based on Max’s. I made my Max a friend to Chloe, but not a lover. I did something terrible because of that.
I’ve thought about it, a lot, and if I had played the game differently, if my Max had in fact been in love with Chloe, I would have made the opposite choice.
That’s just incredible. The writing is so strong, and so characterful, that the narrative ended up being driven by people rather than plot devices. Having strong characters is hard in videogames because you have to leave room for the player to express themselves, and when you do that you often end up creating nothing more than a surrogate for whoever’s holding the controller. Life is Strange, though, lets you change the way Max feels, acts, and reacts. But it never makes Max you.
There are a million more reasons this game is so good, and I’ll probably get round to talking about them someday, but for now I think it’s enough to celebrate the way it does character so right. It could be a TV Show, or a book, or a film. It might even be great like that. But it’d never be quite as good as the story it helped me tell.