Distributed last year across digital channels in five episodes, “Life is Strange” is being given a physical release this month. Regardless of one’s preferred format, the game is best experienced as a whole since the tropes it introduces in the premiere episode are complicated over latter installments in provocative ways. What at first seems like just another story of wish fulfillment, reveals itself to be a tragic journey towards disillusionment.
“Life is Strange” throws players into the role of Maxine Caulfield. Max, as everyone calls her, is a senior at Blackwell Academy, a prestigious Oregon prep school. At the beginning of the game, Max has a vision of a catastrophic storm bearing down on the town that surrounds her school. When she awakens, she is startled to find herself in photography class listening to her instructor discuss pioneers such as Hitchcock and Diane Arbus. Within the larger context of the game, these are not idle references. Both the filmmaker and the photographer have been accused of manipulating people in the service of their work — an important theme in later episodes.
Feeling the need to splash some water on her face, Max visits the ladies’ room where she notices a butterfly pirouette in the air before landing on a cleaning pail at the far end of the bathroom stalls. Sensing a photo op, Max pulls out her old-school instamatic and takes the shot. Positioned where she is, she goes unseen when Nathan Prescott — a scion of one of the richest families in town — enters the bathroom. Clearly disturbed, Nathan talks to himself until a blue-haired teenage girl enters the bathroom. Eavesdropping on their conversation, Max hears the girl threaten to expose Nathan’s drug dealing if he doesn’t cough up some hush money. Nathan pulls a gun on the girl and shoots. Acting instinctively Max leaps from her hiding spot and to her surprise rewinds time to the moment where she was sitting in class just a few moments earlier.
Armed with a knowledge of future events, Max contrives a way to prevent the shooting from happening by pulling the fire alarm in the bathroom. Later, she discovers that the girl she saved is none other than her best friend from childhood, Chloe Price. Notwithstanding their initial excitement over running into each other, their reunion is tinged with feelings of resentment on Chloe’s part for Max’s failure to keep in touch after the Caulfield’s out-of-state move, and jealousy on Max’s part over Chloe’s relationship with Rachel Amber — a celebrated student at Blackwell — who has gone missing.
Adhering to the venerable “Twin Peaks” formula, Max and Chloe embark on an investigation into the whereabouts of the missing high school student and, in the process, uncover all sorts of the secrets. Cropping up throughout the game are addictions, mental health problems, and insolvency issues which are handled with tactful humanity. As I helped Max use her powers to rewind time in the hopes of attaining the best possible outcome for her community, I reflected on the literary symbolism of her surname which obviously points towards Holden Caulfield, the cynical teenage icon from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Though it’s been years since I went through my Salinger phase, I still recall Holden Caulfield’s dream, which clarifies the title of the book: “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.” With her powers to rejigger events to save people from accidents and themselves, Max seems like an incarnation of Holden’s catcher. Though sadly, her power is not immutable.
The beauty of the game’s rewind mechanic is how it’s sprung on players like a trap. The more one uses Max’s rewind ability the more one grows lulled into thinking there is a best possible outcome for each situation. But “Life is Strange” is about the impossibility of finding a perfect solution. With tremendous cunning, Dontnod’s game moves from a teenage super-power fantasy toward a comment on our universal wish to repair time.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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