Spoiler warning to those who have not played the first Life is Strange game.
The concept of time as a narrative tool is something used in most stories, whether they are interactive or not. Time is constant and passing. With games as a medium, you can use these intangible concepts as a mechanic for the player to let the story forward, as something more than just a narrative tool. A game that uses time in this specific way, not only in narrative but in the game’s mechanics, is nowadays cult favorite Life is Strange. You may be familiar with this game or just recognize the blue-haired and bob-haired protagonists. The game has, since its release in 2015, earned critical acclaim, a solid fandom, accolades, and an entire series. But the original game has a remastered update that will soon come out on platforms, so it feels fitting to revisit the starting point of the franchise.
In Life is Strange, we meet Max, a seemingly normal girl coming back to her old home in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay and making a quick conclusion—after a little eavesdropping—that turns into a first-row seat to a murder, realizing she can literally rewind time. The game is a coming-of-age drama with not only the mysterious time-bending, but also with a more sinister crime mystery that gets untangled through the episodes.
I want to dissect more on how this rewinding of time was used in Life is Strange as both a way to push the plotline and narrative. Time-traveling often turns into complicated, intertwined loops, and stories like this are often just a sequence happening over and over again. With the on-the-nose butterfly effect theme that is recurring in the game, and has recurred in games like Until Dawn but differently, Life is Strange from the start shows the player that there’s something much bigger going on than Max randomly turning back time. They also use the blue butterfly as a literal symbol for Max and her powers. Life is Strange grabbed the player into this emotional world and not only is now a classic game of “different choices, different outcomes,” but also how one person can create chaos trying to go against something unstoppable and old—time.
The narrative of the game clearly shows how different choices in specific moments change Max’s path, but also that they literally tear realities apart. This is a very replayable game, but one of the things that are interesting is how clear the game wants to be to the player, and to Max as the playable character, that actions have consequences, and rewinding won’t fix anything—especially with gaming as a platform, where one of the easiest ways to fix a playthrough not going how you wanted is basically to rewind the timeline. Life is Strange so clearly took this rewinding the timeline to the next level with making our playable character aware of it, and her actually doing the rewinding herself. But then, the rewinding in Life is Strange never is about Max literally dying and coming back, but more that she brings other people back from the dead—or, more correctly, stopping them from dying in some way. If we were Chloe, for example, the story would be very different considering Chloe just knows about the different timelines by Max telling her and not experiencing it firsthand as Max does.
Life is Strange is still a story with a beginning and an end; even if it is a form of interactive media, it is still narratively structured like any story. The fact is that if Life is Strange would have been presented at first as any other type of media, I don’t think it would have made as much impact. Yes, it is a good story, but being in Max’s literal shoes and trying to navigate huge events and an ongoing storm coming towards Arcadia Bay takes things to another level. As Max, we follow her as she rediscovers not only her hometown, but her relationship with Chloe. It is a coming of age in a very refreshing new way.
The portrayal of Chloe and Max’s relationship that was one of the strong points for a lot of players, me included. Having a tender lesbian love story at the centerfold of your mystery, time-bending game is not very usual; especially since, when this game came out, LGBTQ+ representation in games was more scarce than now. But that also depends on if you choose to romance Chloe; but it is most likely canon that they have a romance—or I like to think so.
However, as a player, the turnouts of your choices are, of course, not endless and, after rewinding and replaying, it turns predictable. Here is where the whole rewinding time theme turns into more of a weakness—when trying to show a deeper meaning, more than a very smart narrative way of presenting an interactive story. It depends on how you would like to experience the story—but at the same time, only playing it once feels like discrediting the detailed worldbuilding. It becomes a bit of a loop overall.
With the other games not having this time-bending power, instead of other people with mysterious powers, they do not feel like they hit the mark as well as the original Life is Strange. Maybe it is because of how solid Max’s powers are in relation to the story, or maybe because expectations were too high. Another reason could be because the sequel tried to put the player character in the perspective of the companion to the one with powers instead of the one manifesting the powers. That didn’t seem to work as well as other installments, especially because of how players control someone with powers in the new game yet again, True Colors. I haven’t played the newest game yet, but am interested after all the rave reviews to see if it will feel as solid as the first game—if Life is Strange works as an anthology franchise or if I will just loop back to replaying the Remastered version.