Play it again, Max: A review of “Life is Strange”

If Fullbright Company’s award-winning 2013 video game Gone Home has inspired a trend, I certainly shan’t complain. With the release of the first chapter of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange this past week, all doubt about Gone Home’s cultural impact should be dispelled by this most sincere form of ludic flattery. Once again we find ourselves amidst the secluded pines of Oregon and once again our avatar is a young white woman draped by a patina of hipster and punk chic. It’s a start, as these things go.

But this game bursts through the carefully trimmed boundaries of more tightly focused games like Gone Home, and gives us a fuller set of stories that cannot be contained by a few lonely hours of reminiscing. From its scope to its art style, it’s a graphic novel come to life. Maxine Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student and neophyte at an exclusive academy for senior high schoolers, groggily staggers from her favorite class after having had an unsettlingly realistic nightmare. In the women’s washroom, however, she stumbles into the waking nightmare of a murder in progress. In this moment, Max discovers she can rewind time and thereby alter events.

Max’s newfound power is the game’s core mechanic and all of the dialogue, moral choices, and challenges in the game feed through this elegantly designed system. Choosing which moments to rewind, when, how, and what you do with what you learn, all figure into the story. It’s fitting that Dontnod, whose 2013 Remember Me had a criminally underused “memory remixing” mechanic that operated on similar principles (alter events, change the outcome), has taken this opportunity to really explore what rewinding can do.

Life is Strange wears its influences proudly, right down to the forthright gender politics that characterized Gone Home; it’s worth noting that Dontnod had to refuse several publishers who all but demanded they change Max to a young man. Thankfully, what we get is a game where the two central characters are believable and relatable young women just taking their first steps into adulthood– now with added time-travel.

Life is Strange joins the long, steady stream of new, mostly independent games that are telling women’s untold stories in ways that don’t see them merely orbiting some larger male protagonist for the umpteenth time. It remains too vanishingly rare to see high-production-value games like this portray women as people with inner lives that are not always bound up with a male love interest.

On that note, the game also does a fairly good and encouraging job of taking classic archetypes of teenage femininity and humanizing them. Though some have criticized the on cue appearance of high school drama stock-characters like The Punk, The Religious Girl, The Cheerleader, The Popular Mean Girl and so on, this first chapter already does some work to unpack these archetypes. One gets the sense that future installments will continue to take the player beyond surface stereotypes about such women, instead of dwelling on the classic (sexist-influenced) perspective that often sees such caricatures as synonyms for “bitch.” For instance, the Mean Girl reveals vulnerability and compassion in a way that doesn’t feel contrived, the Religious Girl happens to be Max’s best friend on campus, and so on.

It would have been all too easy to take any of these stock characters and just add water to make instant hate figures, but, to take a particularly interesting example, the religious student’s story is complicated by the fact that other students pick on her for believing in abstinence before marriage — and she’s the subject of a vicious rumor about a porn video. The writers clearly resisted the temptation to make her a straw villain caricature, which I appreciate greatly.

Life is Strange Screencap

The new trend of breaking up games of this sort into separate chapters — Red Thread’s Dreamfall: Chapters is another recent example — is, at least to this working adult, a masterstroke. The first chapter was something I could finish in a single sitting that nevertheless felt substantial, one where I came to inhabit and relate to Max. By spacing out the debut of each chapter, developers are making these games a bit more digestible and less intimidating to casual or new players. A chapter costs considerably less than a full game would (4.99 USD in this case) and one can reach a satisfying dropping off point in far fewer hours.

This dovetails seamlessly with the game itself, which makes a core mechanic out of correcting one’s mistakes. Life is Strange seems to ask, “What if your avatar was aware of you reloading your last save, and remembered everything?” It’s this aspect which makes the game both forgiving and innovative, because the ‘save-reloading,’ if you want to call it that, is diegetic. It has a satisfying effect on the story and Max’s awareness of having altered time animates nearly every scene; it becomes something both you and Max learn to use cleverly.It also has the happy side effect of making surreptitious information-gathering your primary means of interacting with the game.

There are a number of decisions you make, however, whose consequences are not immediately apparent, which mercifully preserves a sense of suspense and tension. Life is Strange manages to be realistic about this superpower many of us doubtlessly desire: if all you can see are the immediate consequences of your words and actions, you may still end up no closer to finding out the “right” thing to do. Sometimes you still have to roll the dice.

This ability to genuinely think through the possibilities of such powers is what puts Life is Strange squarely in the realm of worthwhile speculative fiction; the ability to paint reality with an impressionistic twist that makes the extraordinary a new normal. That’s where the ability to push a control stick shines in advancing a story, you inhabit Max’s strange new world, you stagger with her through torrential rain, you run to a late appointment, you nervously commit to decisions and bemoan how even a little time travel can’t make everything right. For someone new to video games, this will be quite the experience—and I’d suggest that there’s no better place to start right now.

But as long as we are dwelling on these questions of realism, I should address one more critical issue.

Gaming journalist Colin Campbell of Polygon wrote a compelling editorial about the portrayal of women in Life is Strange worth perusing. He argues, essentially, that it was clear the two female protagonists of the game were written by men and that we have some ways to go before seeing male-written women that have that all important third dimension. There are certainly moments in the characterization that sound rather flat notes, particularly where an adult writer is clearly trying too hard to speak in contemporary teen argot. You could even argue that Max strays near the Manic Pixie feywilds.

In the end, however, I found myself disagreeing strongly with Campbell: Max and the other main character, whose identity I won’t spoil, came across as convincing. They were women I knew. They were women I once was, in some sense. A bit distorted, a bit hipster, a bit awkwardly written betimes, but still that imperfectly human reflection I’ve seen too many times in the mirror or in the faces of loved ones. When one character stood up to her father only to be slapped by him and blamed for her own injury, I found myself holding back tears — it was pitch perfect to the point of forcing me to relive a buried memory; it wasn’t a man’s fantasy but an all-too-real recreation of something I lived, powerful enough to get me inside that character’s head and know exactly what she thought and felt.

It isn’t often I am able to say that about a game. Hopefully Life is Strange starts a few trends of its own.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

Read more about Katherine

Join the Conversation