When it comes to super powers in games, players are generally encouraged to go nuts.
They’re dropped in some kind of environment, usually an open world sandbox, given a set of supernatural abilities tied to some rpg-esque skill, and told to let loose, frying bad guys, blowing up the environment and flying over rooftops.
That’s all good fun, but it doesn’t do much thematically or for the narrative.
Enter Life is Strange, and episodic adventure game by Dontnod Entertainment.
The story revolves around Max Caufield, and eighteen year old girl who, after returning to her hometown in order to attend a prestigious photography program, suddenly finds herself imbued with the power to rewind time. Together with her estranged best friend Chloe, she now must solve the mysteries of the town of Arcadia Bay.
A high school student is missing, and Max is haunted by visions of a tornado wiping out Arcadia Bay
Mechanically speaking, this translates to the player being able to rewind/undo any action, including conversations with NPCs, and even major story decisions.
On the surface, her power seems like it could be nothing more than a cheap gimmick in order to shake up the now well worn “Your choices have consequences” Telltale shtick.
Leading up to the games release, many Telltale fans were dubious that the rewind would make all player input feel meaningless. After all, how can there be any pressure if the player can just redo it?
What Life is Strange does better than any game I’ve ever played is weaving it’s mechanics into its narrative.
Max’s powers aren’t simply a gimmicky gameplay tool, but an ingenious storytelling tool that reinforces one of the oldest and most revered lessons of super powered stories.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Spoilers await below.
In the first episode, Chrysalis, Max’s power is indeed introduced as something of a gimmick. Max, alongside the player, starts to learn the basics of how her power functions.
As most is dialogue based, a primary use of the rewind mechanic is talking to characters, learning more about them, and then rewinding, using that gained knowledge to earn their trust get more information out of them.
Want to get in good with gear headed student Brooke? Easy, just ask her what kind of drone she’s piloting around campus, then rewind and act like you’re already into that stuff.
Say something that upsets the pregnant Dana? Rewind, and say something else, coaxing Max onto her good side.
It’s the perfect gameplay personification of something that every high school student wishes they could do at some point, redo a situation when you’ve got your foot in your mouth and end up looking like an idiot.
However, this mechanic is inherently manipulative. Max is lying, using her sway over time in order to push the world into a state of being she desires….when she doesn’t have right to.
No one has that kind of right.
And Max learns that in the most brutal way imaginable.
Episode 2, Out of Time, is where the story starts delving in to what Max can really do. Most of the run time is spent alongside her best friend Chloe, experimenting with what she can do, solving puzzles, and saving Chloe’s life a ridiculous number of times in a twenty minute span.
It’s all great fun, but it also establishes something very important.
Max’s powers have limits.
After spending episode throwing her power around willy nilly, Max’s powers burn out….at precisely the moments she needs them most.
Someone’s life is hanging in the balance, and it’s here that Max realizes her power won’t work. She has no safety net, whatever happens next hinges on her words, and can end horribly depending on how much attention she and the player have been paying.
It’s at the ending of episode 3 however that we start to see the theme of responsibility firing on all cylinders.
After a heated exchange with Chloe, all Max wants is to make things better for her. And, from this desire, her power evolves to a new level that vastly ups the scope of the games story.
Suddenly, she has the power to jump back vast reaches of time and alter events.
Being a loving friend, she of course tries to intervene with the greatest tragedy of Chloe’s life, the death of her father...
And doing so drastically changes the course of time, and in the aftermath, the beginning of Episode 4, Max is left in a strange new world, and take in the suffering and hardship that the people she cares about have gone through as a result of her actions.
For the remainder of the episode, Max only uses her power sparingly, despite being more determined than ever to figure out what’s going on.
She’s realized that her power is not a fix everything magic button.
It’s a tool that can hurt just as much, if not more, than it can help.
What’s so utterly brilliant about the time travel mechanic is the way it serves the narrative and the characters. It’s used as a foreshadowing tool to future events, and as a dark, shattered mirror on Max’s, and the players, choices up to that point.
In the same instant, it makes seems like a mighty demigod, and then shows just how powerless she really is in the face of trying to change the unchangeable.
In between the moving interpersonal relationships and compelling mystery, Life is Strange is a narrative meditation on the weight of power, and how it can effect a person’s perception of themselves and the world around them.
Max has gone through quite the quantum meat grinder over the course of her story.
And if Dontnod can pull of episode 5 with same deft plotting and characterization that’s made me fall in love with the game so far, Life is Strange may just take its place as one of the most important games ever in the realm of narrative design.