Invisible walls, authority figures who have pre-determined mistrust towards you no matter what you do, no sense of personal privacy, and a never-ending to-do list… I guess I never realized all the inherent similarities between high school and videogames until I played the first three-hour episode of Life Is Strange. Ordinarily, facing inexplicably fenced-in virtual areas bugs me, and when I’m told I can’t leave until the cut-scene (or the lecture) is over I scoff at the unrealism—but that is how high school works. Our heroine, Maxine “Max” Caulfield, is a teenager with a scholarship to a prestigious arts high school who discovers one month into her senior year that she has the ability to rewind time. Pretty lucky, too, since she’s going to need that power if she wants to save her friend’s life, solve the mystery behind the disappearance of a local girl, and warn the rest of the tiny town of Arcadia about a mysterious storm brewing.
Yes, it’s all very videogame-y, which Max’s friend Chloe actually points out aloud in the final conversation before the closing credits to Episode 1. Some advice, dialogue writers? Putting the words “this isn’t a videogame” into the mouth of a character in a videogame will ruin a serious moment every time. Speaking of off-putting dialogue, Life Is Strange will probably go down in history as having the most embarrassing teen slang possible. No 18-year-old actually spells “crazy” with a “k,” not even in her private journal, and I strongly doubt any teen says “hella” as often as Chloe does.
In spite of occasional conversational clumsiness, though, I couldn’t help but relate to Max. Maybe it’s because I’ve also kept physical, paper diaries since elementary school—and maybe it’s because sometimes I actually did use stupid slang terms in those pages, just to try them on for size in private before testing them out in real conversation.
The least realistic part of Life Is Strange is Max’s age; the story begins immediately after her 18th birthday, which is always a red flag. (The last time I played a game that began on a high school girl’s 18th birthday, it was Lollipop Chainsaw, a game that openly invites the player to lust after the protagonist.) Luckily, Life Is Strange doesn’t seem to want me to see Max or her female friends as sex objects—they’re fully realized human teenage girls, complete with embarrassing social missteps and performative fashion choices.
It’s Max’s first month at a high school that apparently lasts for only one year and is only for seniors—which also makes no sense, by the way. Just let her go to an actual arts high school and have her be a 14-year-old freshman. Max and all of her friends act more like they’re 13 or 14 years old, too. If Max’s friend Chloe is also 18, for example, why doesn’t she just move away from her horrible stepdad—or, more realistically, why hasn’t her horrible stepdad kicked her out and forced her to drop out of high school and get a job?
Admittedly, I didn’t think about any of those niggling plot holes while I played the game, because I was too busy actually worrying about the stepdad. Even with the ability to rewind time, there are some systemic problems at Max’s new school that can’t be solved, from the social politics of high school bullies, to the larger issues of the town and the school’s corrupt administration. A rich and powerful family owns Max’s school, so if she reports their son for bringing a gun to class, Max will be the one who gets in trouble. If she doesn’t report it, though, she’ll get in trouble anyway for her own suspicious behavior. Depressing, but realistic.
The time-rewinding mechanic in this game reminded me immediately of the memory-scrubbing in Remember Me, the first game made by this developer. Back when I played Remember Me, I constantly wished the whole game had been about the memory mechanic, and Life Is Strange has finally delivered on my wish. It’s even easier to rewind this time around; instead of using the joystick to twirl backwards, the two trigger buttons allow control over the speed of the memory. There are a couple of puzzles in the game where it wasn’t immediately clear what I should do, but they weren’t hard to figure out; Max seems to have infinite tries, and Life Is Strange lets you easily skip past dialogue options you’ve chosen before. Time travel feels so seamless and simple that it’s possible to try out every solution as you go before making your final choice.
Of course, Max has some limitations; she can only travel back in time about ten minutes or so at a stretch. Usually, each tricky scenario only offers a couple of options, and sometimes, both options end in sadness. I frequently had to decide which choice would be the lesser of two evils, and in every case, I still don’t know if I chose “correctly.” This is only Episode 1 of what will be a five-part series, so my choices may come back to haunt me. That said, I doubt that Dontnod Entertainment plans to come up with that many different endings, since they aren’t a massive studio, so I hope this game doesn’t end with a Mass Effect 3-style outrage from fans who are expecting trillions of different conclusions. I don’t mind if most choices result in the same outcome, since I enjoyed seeing all of the options, and deciding my own path felt emotionally fulfilling enough to me that I don’t think I care about whether the consequences are “real” or not. The game felt real enough to me.
I recommend this game with very few reservations; it’s everything I wanted from Remember Me in terms of mechanics; it even reminds me of the parts of Beyond: Two Souls that I didn’t hate: a teenage girl with super-powers but also, realistic life problems and serious consequences. I even liked the occasional references to cult shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and the inherent reference in the name of Max’s new home. The game is packed with tiny details, from CDs on the floor to digital photos to Facebook statuses to text messages. I loved that the popular girl at school chose to bully Max for a realistic reason: she mocks Max’s old school insistence on an analog camera and teasing her about vintage Instagram filters. Everybody else at school thinks Max is stuck-up and a pretentious jerk; I can tell why they’d think that, and it’s why Max seems human and flawed. She’s just a teenager, trying on different types of “coolness” for size.
The only part of the game that struck me as, uh, strange is the lack of acknowledgement that it’s a love story. I was happy to play a game entirely about female friendship, but it’s obvious from the start that there must be something more going on between Max and Chloe than “just friends”—and when Chloe confesses that she used to know the mysterious missing girl, Max presses further and almost seems jealous—plus, Chloe calls the missing girl an “angel”. Nothing is explicitly stated, but I couldn’t help feeling like Max and Chloe had been in puppy love as kids, and that Chloe was currently looking for her old girlfriend—her “angel”—who had disappeared, not just a “friend.” The resultant tension of Max choosing to help Chloe with her search is part of what makes the story interesting. What’s more, when Chloe’s stepdad shows up to get angry at Chloe for hiding a girl in her room, the way he enunciates the word “friend” seems ominous—like he suspects something more. It’s as though the writers know exactly what they’re implying, but shied away from stating it outright. If the rest of the episodes continue in this fashion, I might be disappointed. Again, this is a narrative choice that would make far more sense of all of the characters were 14 years old—not that much older adults don’t still struggle with questions about their sexuality, but this particular story seems like one that would happen between slightly younger kids, not 18-year-olds.
Nonetheless, I’m hopeful for the rest of the installments in this series, and Episode 1 feels like a promising start. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens… and then immediately changing it.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.