(Note: Fair warning, this write up is going to contain a few spoilers for Life is Strange. I don’t feel like I can do this “Thoughts on..” justice without them. If you don’t want to be spoiled stay away.)
This write-up is going to be a little different from my traditional “Thoughts on…” series. That’s because, for me, the things that make Life is Strange such a must-play game aren’t really traditional to video games. Thus, I’m not going to waste time talking about the graphics (solid for an adventure game, though the lip syncing is very bad), the voice acting (stellar, especially Ashly Burch as Chloe and Dani Knights as Victoria), the gameplay (interesting mechanic that lets you rewind time to replay decisions with different information), the music (fits the setting remarkable well), or any other things you’d usually see in this space.
Instead, let’s talk about makes this game so special. In a world of bad stories in video games, it’s rare to get a good one. Those usually come in the form of a major twist that blows your mind, some excellent character development, or a twist on a classic story. Life is Strange has all those things. The time travel story has been told before, but the ways we get there are new and interesting. The arc of Max (the protagonist) and Chloe is one of the better ones I’ve seen this year. And the game brings at least two major twists (one more expected than the other) that are sure to cause you to put down the controller/mouse for a minute or two.
All of that would be great on its own, but what elevates Life is Strange’s story from just good to great is how it takes a setting most of us know well (high school, those these students are at a super expensive art school in Oregon) and forces you to put your own perspective onto the events playing out in front of you.
This effect happened in a small way at first. You begin the game in your art class, but, once the bell sounds, you go out in the hall and see all of your fellow students milling about between class. This is a familiar experience and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people find a reasonable facsimile of who they were back in school if they take the time to look. For me, it was when I came upon Daniel DaCosta.
Daniel is chubby kid who’s really into drawing and, when you first see him is getting beat up. That was pretty much me in middle school, if you replace drawing with Diablo 2 and Starcraft. Thus, I couldn’t help but feel for him and decided at that moment, it would be my mission to help this guy as much as possible.
After receiving my rewind powers in the girl’s bathroom, I went outside to go meet Warren (we’ll talk about him a bit soon) and saw Daniel sitting by himself in the grass. I ran over as fast as I could, hoping to spill all of my advice as someone who had been in his place 15 years ago. Of course, Max doesn’t have that knowledge, so I had to do the only option available. I let Daniel draw me like one of his French girls.
That was when I had to take a step back. Was I using Max to fill my own middle school fantasies? Girls didn’t talk to me. I didn’t have any friends my age. Was I trying to use Max to solve those problems I had had so many years ago? I often roleplay my characters as the best version of myself, so this is likely the route I would’ve gone in any other game. However, because I saw so much of myself in Daniel, it forced me to really examine if I was using Max as a tool to fix my own problems or actually playing the game the way Max would.
We put ourselves into video game characters all the time, especially in RPGs and adventure games. How often do we ask ourself if we should? Is it fair to Max to try and railroad her into a relationship (romantic or not) with Daniel? What if the real Max doesn’t like Daniel? Does that make me a bad person? Does it matter? After all, she’s just a video game character.
Daniel wouldn’t be the last person that forced me to ask myself these questions.
After meeting a few other students of Blackwell, Max and I walked over to the parking lot to meet up with Warren and continue our quest. Warren is a lovable goof, who’s interested in science class, geeky pop culture, and Max. It’s your typical “boy is in love with a girl who barely seems to notice and/or care”, which is a story I know too well.
I spent my junior and senior years of high school along with most of my freshman year of college chasing after a girl very similar to Max. Every time I thought I was moving forward, she would re-enter my life and proceed to lead me on for a few months before telling me she wasn’t interested.
So, you can see why I was able to quickly level with my man, Warren. It’s obvious that he’s smitten with Max, but she doesn’t really seem to reciprocate. My first instinct was to force Max to fall for Warren by making the “right” choices.
But that felt wrong. I was forcing Max into a situation that she might not want to be in just because I had some problems with a girl in high school? What if I could find the solution I hoped would happen to me? So, with that new goal in mind, I tried my best to cut Max out of Warren’s life and let him realize that he has everything he wants in a girl in Brooke (another Blackwell student).
Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really allow for this scenario, but I was able to find solace in a late move that put Brooke and Daniel together. Maybe this was the game teaching me something I’ve struggled with so many years. It’s when you’re not really looking for love, that it actually finds you. Brooke wanted Warren, but couldn’t have him, and Daniel was only interested in drawing. It’s fitting that those two would end up together after I pushed so hard to put Brooke with Warren and Daniel with Max. And, much like before, this wasn’t the last time Life is Strange would surprise me.
My stepdad passed away this past spring in a freak small airplane accident. I’m telling you this so you can understand why I was able to connect, in some small way, with Chloe. Five years before the start of Life is Strange, Chloe lost her father in a car accident. And it wasn’t how the tragedy affected Chloe that got to me, it was how hard it hit her mom Joyce.
When I come home to see my mom, slumped over the bills she can no longer afford, I always think, “is there something I could do?” Could I move back home, take a job, and try to help her out until she’s able to get back on her feet? Would that make her happy? It’s a frustrating place to be in because there really isn’t anything I can do.
But Max can do something. Max can rewind time. Max can save William, Joyce’s husband and Chloe’s dad. And she does. for a split second, it seems like everything is great. Max pops back to the future, finds herself back at Blackwell, hanging out with her friends, and decides to get to Chloe’s house as quickly as possible. For about 30 seconds, it’s complete euphoria. William is back among the living; standing there, greeting Max and calling for Chloe to come to the door. And that’s when the other shoe drops.
You see, in fairy tales (and lesser video games) stories like these can have a happy ending. The princess marries the prince and they live happily ever after. But real life? Well, real life is strange. And when you add mind-bending time rewinding powers to the mix, that’s when it gets truly crazy.
I sat there, hoping to see my good friend Chloe alive and well, enjoying the time with her dad that she lost in the other reality. Instead, Chloe rolled into frame in a wheelchair. She couldn’t feel her body below her neck and had to completely rely on her parents for everything.
That’s when I lost it. I sat there for a good ten minutes, just slack jawed. As tears welled up in my eyes, I realized that, in some weird way, this game was speaking to me in a manner I hadn’t seen before. Life is Strange makes you ask questions. Not questions about what will happen in the next big plot point (though those do happen), but questions about your own life. I had begun the game trying to fulfill fantasies from my middle school days and rectify mistakes I made in high school, but now, now this game, this video game, was helping me deal with a real adult situation that has deeply affected my family. And that was only in the third episode!
In my opinion, that’s the mark of a great story and of a truly great work of art. It makes you question things in life and gives you a new perspective on the problems around you. Life is Strange forced me to accept that there’s nothing I can for my mom except to love her deeply and hold as long as I can. I always knew I’d be there for her, but now I’m at peace with my own limited ability to help her. Just like Joyce and Chloe (oddly enough, Chloe is my stepsister’s name), my mom will find a way. Because that’s what strong people do.
I don’t know if I’ve done this write-up justice. It was hard to write for many reasons, but, if you take one thing from this, it’s this: Life is Strange is worth your time. It’s the first video game I’ve played with a truly great story that you should experience. It tackles important mature topics in a meaningful manner and is among my favorite video game experiences of the year.
Should you play it? ABSOLUTELY