What I Played in 2015: Life is Strange
I’ve never been an 18 year old girl. I’ve never been to art school. I’ve never been to the Pacific north-west, and most importantly, I’ve never had the power to rewind time and potentially break the cosmic balance of fate. But after playing Life Is Strange, I kindof feel that I have.
Life is Strange accomplishes that very rare feat of making you nostalgic for something that you never even experienced. It was easy to put myself in Sam’s shoes. Her 18 year old troubles of maintaining and managing friends throughout the pressure of school and the omnipresent reality of adulthood were universally relatable. The core of the story, which revolves around Sam reconnecting with a friend from her childhood, and trying to judge what their relationship means now that they’ve changed so much, was presented perfectly.
Before playing this game, I didn’t often think about my life at the age of 18 in any great depth. It was mostly a blur of weed smoke and playing music. But while I was adventuring through the game’s fictional Pacific northwestern town of Arcadia Bay, I started to remember the emotional fragility and vulnerability of that age. It was a boiling pot of stress, responsibilities, doubt, and a prevailing sense of unearned maturity. There was always a feeling that you should be doing more, being more, now that you were a certified adult. It was a time of great and lofty goals that seemed like they should be attainable now that you were an adult.
Now I don’t consider anyone a real person until they are like 25, so all this nostalgia is a little funny in retrospect. But the emotional response from this game is still warranted, because as far as I can tell, nostalgia is a main theme that this game is going for.
And they nail that theme in some of the smallest, yet most important ways. The way Sam’s best friend’s house is laid out is just strange and familiar enough to make you remember your friends’ houses. The way her bedroom is set up is perfectly accurate for a punky 18 year old. The fact that the game plays around with this house in Sam’s memory through time-travel really layers on the nostalgia. The dorms and classrooms that Sam spends time in are pitch perfect in terms of design and art direction. And above all, the characters are — for the most part — believable representations of young adults. It all comes together to bring up a warm and fuzzy image in your mind of a time when you were old enough to feel like you were important, but young enough to still make stupid decisions.
The time-rewinding power, which is the main mechanic in the game, also plays into this nostalgia. Everyone wishes they could re-make decisions from that time in their life. Everyone has been shitty to another person, or made a poor life decision and wished they could just rewind a minute or two to see what the outcome would be if they said something different. Life is Strange plays with this concept in big and small ways. What would have happened if I had just been nicer to this person? What would have happened if didn’t do this small action that lead to a big situation? These are explored in Life is Strange, but always with an adherence to the butterfly effect. What seems like a good decision in the moment might irreparably change the present and the future for the worse.
This idea of wanting to change your decisions in the moment, coupled with the important and vulnerable age of the characters, makes for an engaging gameplay and narrative loop. The effects of choice and change play heavily in the narrative.
Ultimately, the games message is that you have to live with your choices and that you can’t back out of the things you’ve set in motion. No matter the amount of control we have in our decisions, we will always be beset by the unseen consequences of those choices. Even if we could rewind time, even if we could be 18 again, the storm is still coming. And our friendships are made through trials of impulsion, not perfection.