Life is Strange Episode 1 Spoilers Ahead.
A lot has been said about Life is Strange, the new point-and-click episodic adventure game by not Telltale Games, who currently run what is probably the largest game-genre monopoly in history, but rather by Dontnod Entertainment, makers of 2013’s Remember Me. As many have pointed out, some aspects of the writing leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the characters are walking clichés, there is some god awful “down with the kids” conversations that just do not work. It also has some very… odd lip-syncing issues. Despite this however, it does do a lot right: interfaces, presentation, a good value for money episode that doesn’t make you feel slightly cheated (cough cough The Wolf Among Us) or drags on too much. And I’ve enjoyed it too- I’m doing a Let’s Play of it on my channel, and as a big fan of both Point and click-style adventure games to more artistic works like Gone Home and Dear Esther, it’s a very welcome breath of fresh air in a market that was starting feeling slightly stale from an overload of Telltale products (I love you guys, really, but I’m beginning to feel a very definite air of derivativeness recently).
The problem I have with Life is Strange, however, is a pretty big one. A pretty big, glaring gameplay mechanic that I feel simply doesn’t fit within the context of the story or game: time travel. Yes, our main character Max discovers during a pretty out-of-place school shooting (seriously, our main character should have maybe put more thought or worry into the fact that someone in her school is carrying about a loaded gun other than just maybe giving the headteacher a quick tip-off), that she has the ability to turn back time. This is essentially the main mechanic of LiS. You explore the environment, interact with people and make decisions like any other point and click. The difference, however, is that you can immediately undo each option with a quick rewind. It makes for some novel puzzles here and there, but it leaves me with two big gripes.
The Mechanics of Time Travel
A big draw of Life is Strange is its apparent web of possible choices. Each choice you make does genuinely feel like it has an impact later in the game. One interaction for example gave me an option- intervene, or take a photo of a very strange argument between two people. I took a photo. Regretting it, I then rewound and intervened. Later though I realised what a terrible idea I went with. I had evidence! I should have kept it! As great a moment as that was, the problem here is that I was given a cheat sheet. Instead of sticking to your guns and accepting your decision, you can flip-flop as much as you want, take as much time as you want and not have to worry about if you mess up because, hey! You can just rewind! You don’t need to worry about your choices, because
you have all the time in the world. Now this is a fine idea, but the game doesn’t feel like it’s built around it effectively. Where Telltale shines is that although most choices come to nothing and have no real effect, it’s theunknown that makes you anxious. Did I make the right decision? What would have happened if I’d chosen a different outcome?
It ultimately gives our own play-though it’s own identity, because we made out decision and have to live with them. In LiS, it feels more like hitting and autosave button and just spamming for the best outcome. Now this is something I’m willing to bet (and hope!) that the writers have planned for, to lure us into a false sense of security before pulling the rug out from under us, but at the moment it just takes away any urgency. Anything mildly serious move me make, or any potential risks we take have no threat to back them up. We’re presented the entire tree of outcomes and told to play out each and pick the one that’s best. Again, I bring this up first because I think it’s something they might address by showing that our decisions and our messing with time and flippancy have consequences, but as of episode one I felt none of that. I felt like reading a choose your own adventure, then jumping back to the page when you didn’t like the outcome.
The Writing of Time Travel
The second point is more serious and the most glaring, and it’s something I pin on bad writing more than anything. Max, our main character, is completely unfazed by her sudden god-like ability to literally bend the very nature of space and time. This is a classic problem of people not putting themselves into the shoes of their own character or misunderstanding the nature and magnitude of their characters situation. Let’s try to understand this concept. We live in a space of four dimensions, right? As my old buddy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains it:
We have three dimensions that we’re familiar with. On a grid, you might think of it as what street (in New York say), what avenue and what floor that you might meet someone on- these are three coordinates we might give. Remember, however, you would not give a place without a time, nor would you give a time, without a place. The actual coordinates are four numbers, basically. Four coordinates: three space coordinates, and one time coordinate.
So, we can move through spaces, we can jump up or down, move left or right. We can manipulate the first three coordinates. However we are locked, trapped completely, in the present. In time. We can’t jump forward, or move backward along the time coordinate. Max however, can! Somehow, she has ascended to a higher reality of the universe- she can do what no human will ever be able to experience or understand: the fourth dimension. I really want to hammer home how incredible, how mind-blowing and terrifying this ability would be. It would be like suddenly finding out that 1+1=6, or somehow seeing a new spectrum of colours before your very eyes. It is beyond our scope of not just understanding, but imagination. And what does Max use this essentially god-given power for?
She spills some paint on a girl and tricks someone into letting her have a go on their toy drone.
Seriously though, I could understand her maybe experiencing a vision or a Deja-vu style premonition that was allowing her to catch possible glimpses of the future. She sees a flash of the storm about to hit the town at the beginning of the game, and wakes up suddenly. Okay, I buy that, we’ve all had vivid dreams. Could it be real? She heads to the bathroom and witnesses the shooting but suddenly wakes up again in class. Things start to play out the same way… but is this all just fantasy?! We don’t know, and neither does Max! These are reactions I could imagine myself having as a sleep-deprived teen, but it all starts to go off the rails when we start lifting our arm as if Max is fondling a ghost and suddenly she’s pushing back time to any determinable point like an out of control Timecop. Not too far though back in time, mind you or her eyes start to go red, or something? Max doesn’t seem to question this in the slightest however. As she walks from room to room airily commenting on posters and taking selfies, she seems oblivious to the universe changing, humanity-upsetting power she has suddenly received. I know she’s a dumb teenager, but come on. At one point, Max is asked by a girl “what’s my name?”. She accuses Max of being selfish, having been at the school for weeks and not even trying to get to know other people. You’re offered a choice, not exactly making it clear if Max does actually know or not. I got it wrong, so I rewound and tried again, obviously now knowing her name after the girl quite rightly berated me. Now though, the girl brightens up; “Oh! Maybe you’re not as shallow as I thought”. Well except, yeah we are. Max IS a self-centered brat who is now abusing the laws of the very universe so she can seem like she gives a crap about this girl. Obviously though, we don’t. All we actually want is to get past her so we can get into another persons dorm room and have a snoop about. Later, it’s revealed that Max’s old friend Chloe’s beloved father passed away when she was younger. This has obviously negatively affected Chloe’s life every since, but at no point does Max even think maybe she could rewind time and stop that? Further still, at no point does she even consider heading back and doing the classic sight-seeing tours of time travel? Visit Jesus, solve the greatest mysteries in history, kill Hitler, fall from a tree and end up seduced by her younger mother, whatever.
I know, that’s asking a lot of a teenage girl who just wants to take photos of butterflies and get kissed by some jerk high-schooler, but that’s the questions you leave yourself open to when you introduce such unbelievably huge, mind-bending concepts like controllable time travel. It’s the classic case of ‘why don’t people in Zombie films know what a zombie is’? We’ve all imagined what we’d do if we could control him or hell, seen the third Harry Potter film, but apparently not Max. Max doesn’t worry herself over questions like ‘why she can only turn back time a short while’? Why can I not consciously go forward in time? She isn’t disturbed or worried by the pain she is obviously in when she activates her time powers, she doesn’t care or realize that this ability seems to moves the earth around her, adding space and not just time to the list of laws she’s shit on. No, Max is happy enough to use it as a way to get her answers right in a pop-quiz by her photography teacher.
I don’t know. I feel as if Dontnod lifted a lot from their 2013 time travel game Remember Me, which while similarly mind bending, at least was set in a future that had already come to terms with the concept, and jammed it in this game without considering the ramifications to the character. In Life is Strange, we’re presented with a setting I love- a dead-end town, interesting characters, a sideline missing girl story and threat of a storm that feels like something out of Twin Peaks or a Stephen King book. I just can’t help but feel as if this weird time-travel mechanic is slotted in there as awkwardly and inconsiderately as Max behaves all her high school ‘friends’.