[Note: spoilers for the third episode of Life is Strange lie ahead.]
The passage of time can seem like a benign certainty. Before you know it, you’re pushing 30 and find yourself sharing dubious, self-assured articles like ‘15 Reasons Why You Have More Fun In Your 30s Than Your 20s’ on your Facebook feed. Around this point, you begin to realise that most decisions you’ve made are set in stone, and the limited time remaining to you will be spent dealing with the consequences. Thank god, then, for video games.
Many modern blockbuster games offer the chance to make big, weighty choices – or, at least, give the illusion of doing so. The Mass Effect series is stuffed full of ‘kill or let live’ scenarios, which act as gateways to narrative progress, and every gamer remembers all too clearly whether they saved the creepy little girls of BioShock or harvested their flesh for resources (though really, it didn’t matter). Meanwhile, pretty much every large-scale RPG now seems to incorporate some kind of romance system, encouraging players to choose from a handful of options, including the pursuit of a virtual relationship with another character. An alarming proportion of social media discourse around games like Dragon Age: Inquisition centres on which non-player character (NPC) players choose to flirt and develop romances with, a trend I’ve started thinking of as ‘choice porn’.
These choices are almost never as meaningful as game developers intend them to be. Supposedly moral decisions often have little tangible impact beyond determining a game’s final sequence (and any alternate endings are readily accessible on YouTube). You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead.
At first glance, Life is Strange seems to downplay the weight of player choice even further. The currently-in-progress episodic adventure (three out of five planned episodes are available to date) centres around the idea of choice and consequence; its main mechanic is the ability to ‘rewind’ time, allowing the player to see the outcome of their choices and make a choice over again if they prefer a different outcome.
Unlike other big-budget console games, however, Life is Strange‘s premise is the pedestrian everyday life of a teenager attending a private high school in Oregon. Main character Max faces situations already far more relatable than the fanciful, far-fetched scenarios presented in most forms of choice porn: instead of deciding which galaxy to save or which alien NPC to sleep with, Max deals with more ordinary conundrums, such as whether to stand up to a verbally abusive authority figure or instead stay out of sight and out of trouble.
Life is Strange isn’t perfect – its teen characters use cringe-inducing words like ‘hella’ and ‘cray’ far too often, and Max’s adversaries are no better characterised than cartoon villains. Still, the familiar high school world is a fitting setting for the rewind mechanic. There’s probably no other time of life we wish could be rewound more than the dramatic, judgement-riddled days of high school.
The inclusion of the rewind mechanic doesn’t inherently differentiate Life is Strange from other choice porn games – how much do choices really matter, if events can be rewound and redone to achieve the desired outcome?
However, I’ve found myself making minimal use of Max’s much-touted rewind powers. Despite its past-altering mechanic, I’m beginning to feel that Life is Strange’s underlying message is one of acceptance and fatalism.
Through the first three episodes, Max has witnessed her rebellious best friend Chloe’s life crumble – something Chloe blames on her father dying in a car accident years before. At the end of the latest episode, Max – whose rewind powers were previously limited only to a few minutes – is able to rewind all the way back to the day Chloe’s dad died. It’s interesting to note here that the player has no choice but to sabotage the way the event plays out, hiding the car keys so that Chloe’s father is unable to drive, thereby avoiding the accident that killed him.
Unfortunately, upon her return to an alternate timeline in the present day, Max witnesses what the butterfly effect has wrought: Chloe’s dad is still alive – and the once-vivacious, blue-haired Chloe is now wheelchair-bound. It’s a real gut-punch of an ending, and one that subverts the game’s ability (and the nature of gaming entirely) to allow players the chance to do things differently – suggesting that maybe the past shouldn’t be meddled with in the first place.
Where previous games have largely employed divergent plot possibilities and the rewinding of time as a gimmicky gateway to unreal lands of make-believe, Life is Strange instead seizes it and turns it on its head completely. In making the rewind its primary gameplay mechanic, Life is Strange actually teaches that perhaps it’s better to take life as it comes – being able to change the past isn’t as satisfying as we might expect, and it’s better to instead look forward to the surprises that may lie in the future. Both in the game, and in life.