Life is Strange is a narrative-driven interactive adventure game created by Dontnod Entertainment that focuses on player choice and action throughout the story. The game follows the story of Max Caulfield, a senior at a high school academy in Arcadia Bay, a fictional town in Oregon. During the first moments of the game, Max finds out she has the power to rewind time, and the rest of the story follows her as she tries to make sense of her newfound power and deal with the consequences of that power, and her actions, all while trying to navigate high school, friends, relationships, and the quest to find herself. Despite its sci-fi elements, Life is Strange tells a very human story that uniquely uses its sci-fi themes in the background to drive the tales of realistic people with real problems that takes the forefront of the narrative.
Apart from the main events of the story, there is an abundance of optional things to find, read take pictures of, interact with, and talk to. Much of the story is not told through cut scenes but through things that, as a player, one must explore and find themselves. The basic mechanics of the game are simple and the controls are what most familiar with third person video games would expect. The uniqueness comes into play with the time rewind mechanic. Both when making large-scale narrative decisions and also when just walking around and exploring, the player has the ability to rewind time and undo what they just did for the past few seconds. There is a limit to how far the player can rewind, ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes depending on the context, and major choices have to be committed to after a certain point (a player cannot rewind back multiple levels to change a decision, for example).
Another interesting mechanic present in the game is the ability to see what percentage of players made each decision. At the end of every episode, a screen is shown revealing the ratio of people who made each choice for each prompt during that episode. Most of the choices had an obviously more popular decision made by the players, except for the ending choice. Without mentioning what the ending choice is, players were split almost completely evenly between both choices, prompting much discussion, debate, and writing from the online community of fans and even the creators of the game themselves. Adding this level of interactivity allows for an additional layer to the experience, showing the player the decisions others made, affecting how players react to their own decisions after seeing what others chose and revealing an insight to the fact that the experience of the game is different, if even only by a little, for everyone who plays it based on their actions and choices.
Aside from the ever-present narrative (but although intensely intertwined), the art and audio styles of Life is Strange are some of the most compelling seen in games. Instead of using hyper-realistic graphics, Life is Strange goes for a more hand painted, almost dream-like art style that immerses players into the world of Arcadia Bay. The attention to detail in the game is uncanny, from graffiti written on the walls to small objects placed in seemingly meaningless places that end up telling stories or revealing major details about a character, it is evident throughout every level that everything was placed where it is for a reason. A player can get lost inspecting the minute details of every environment throughout the game, and they should, for much of the telling details of the personalities and troubles of the characters are scattered around their environments.
The music of Life is Strange is also one of its most defining components, which each song meticulously selected to evoke the mood of the scene and to provide insight to the events that are unfolding, and often foreshadow future events. The selection of music in the game is made up mostly of indie rock and indie folk, including Syd Matters, alt –j, Amanda Palmer, Jose Gonzalez and many more, in addition to the instrumental score written by Jonathan Morali specifically for the game. Most of the music is calm, mellow, or downright depressing but there are a few more upbeat songs for those few brighter moments and the music is only of the most impacting parts of the delivery of the story. In an interview with the developers, they said they actually wrote and designed some scenes and levels after songs they wanted in the game.
While the time rewind mechanic, unique art style, and meticulous selection of music make the game part of Life is Strange one of a kind on its own, what drives Life is Strange is the stories it tells, and the people those stories are about. Throughout her journey, Max learns about depression, bullying, love, loss, suicide, strained families, growing up, responsibility, drugs, regret, forgiveness, redemption, fate and so many other themes through so many characters it would be impossible to encapsulate all of them.
Beyond everything, Life is Strange tells this story through people. Realistic, normal, believable people, rather than mystical characters or seemingly normal characters with over-dramatized problems. The hurdles that these characters go through are those that real people go through every day. The sci-fi elements of time travel and the time rewind mechanic exist only as a platform for which to drive the story forward, the story is not about time travel. This places Life is Strange in a special position, allowing players to connect with its characters and lessons not only on a level of fantasy, for which players take on the role of someone else, but on a level of deep human understanding and connection to the problems characters face in the game.
Many works of media, and especially video games, do not think to touch on these powerful, yet all too common, parts of life. When was the last time there was a video game that talked about bullying and depression, made players understand and sympathize with people going through those things, and do so in such an incredibly realistic and mature manner that one of the most occurring compliments on the game is that it made them care about the characters as if they were real people? The video game medium is not lacking at all in strong narrative, but Life is Strange took many lesser-explored topics, wrapped them together and made it such a compelling and mature experience that it definitely gives other top narrative games a challenge.
Life is Strange has shown that we can have serious discussions and learn serious lessons about serious issues through video games, and that video games should be recognized as the form of digital art and literature that they are That is what Life is Strange, as well as the many other beautiful narrative games such as The Last of Us, Heavy Rain, Gone Home, and so many others have shown, that immersive storytelling such as this is not only possible in video games such as this, it is only possible in video games such as this.