Illustration by Popularium
I’m a 31-year-old man on my third glass of whiskey, and a game where you play as a high school girl is bringing me to tears.
I’m playing Life Is Strange, the stunning episodic game from DONTNOD Entertainment. I think I knew I was going to love it from the opening credits, as the protagonist steps into her high school hallway, sighs momentarily, and drowns out the gossip and hubbub with exactly the right indie song. Her internal dialog runs over the smooth lyrics and burbling guitar as she makes her way through the flowing river of students.
Back in the day, games were always about the gameplay. A game was good if it had fun combat or interesting mechanics. Gaming itself was still fresh and new, and the process of interacting with a computer and overcoming challenges was entertaining in its own right. Lately, though, that hasn’t been enough for me. A shooter where the plot only exists to keep you moving down the path towards the end of the game while both your gear and the enemies incrementally improve… it feels stale at this point. More and more, I’ve been moving towards games that skip the ‘action’ entirely in favor of the story.
Once your choice is locked in, though, there’s no going back.
The central mechanic of Life Is Strange is a key reason it works so well. Max, the hero, gains the ability to rewind time in short bursts. Most games would use this as a way to liven up a combat system or to create intricate puzzles to navigate, but in Life Is Strange, you use it to make choices. Everyday, normal decisions, at first — should you raise your hand with the correct answer in class or not? You see people’s immediate reactions, and if you don’t like them, you can go back and pick another option. Once your choice is locked in, though, there’s no going back.
This isn’t Fallout 4 — it soon becomes very clear that your choices have large and growing impacts on the world around you. Friendships and romances begin and end, lives are threatened, and you start to learn more about the characters, the world, and your powers. The ability to rewind time and change your choices leads to long moments of contemplation, exploring all of the options and carefully considering the ramifications, but other than your movement and the decisions, the game plays like an interactive movie. The perfectly selected indie rock soundtrack adds depth and feeling to the scenes and the voice acting is spot on. It takes place in a fictional town in Oregon, and it feels so much like the Pacific Northwest that it’s making me homesick.
And, suddenly, the game isn’t about the game anymore.
I’m only a few hours into the game, and I’ve already completely screwed everything up. I was trying to save someone, but I just couldn’t make it happen. All my decisions have come home to roost. The haunting sound of Jose Gonzalez’s Crosses plays in my ears as the results of my decisions play out on the screen. I’m powerless to stop it.
It’s one of the few times a game has made me roll back in my chair and just sit, staring blankly at the screen and feeling the sick, sinking sensation of every poor choice I’ve made piling up on me, my good intentions useless in the face of what’s unfolding.
The branching path of decisions that have shaped my life has never been as apparent to me as it is right now.
And, suddenly, the game isn’t about the game anymore. I’m transported back through my own life, reliving my pivotal decisions: dropping out of college, moving to Costa Rica on a whim, moving to Japan on another. The branching path of the choices that have shaped my life has never been as apparent to me as it is right now. I’m not distraught because of what’s happening in the plot. I’m mourning for all the other versions of me that I’m not — the ones who bounced down a different path because of an offhand decision, a minor, momentary, careless impulse that sent them spiraling off in another direction. The ones who worked harder, the ones who took more chances, the ones who played it safer…
I shake my head, jarring myself out of my reverie. I chase it away for good with the rest of the glass, the smooth burn searing my throat as I pull myself back into position, enthralled, gutted. All I can do is keep going.