The first time I played Life is Strange was during a neuroscientific experiment. The objective of it was to gauge neurological processes in the body during gameplay. During the process, the main variable was about displaying a specific line of text prior to the gameplay, which said something along the lines of “Your choices will directly affect the life of you and the characters in the game. Choose wisely”. A lesson/warning of that kind has definitely increased my heart rate and excitement level. And it was up through the rest of the whole gameplay.
But the reason I picked this particular game – or, an episode of it – for the analysis, was that it interestingly transgressed the boundary between play and narrative, chiefly by balancing between linear and non-linear, and challenging the user’s personal values and experiences through giving them a choice.
The game Life is Strange is difficult to even classify within the genre scope. The Steam description defines the game as an “episodic adventure game”, although adventure seems a relatively vague term to describe it, and doesn’t fully reflect what I think is the most crucial reason why this game would constitute meaningful play. For the time being, I would call it an interactive narrative of choice. The game presents a story of a teenage girl named Max, who has a talent for photography, and a propensity to get into trouble. Her special power, however, is rewinding time – and she can use that to revert negative outcomes and help people, or some other way. It is up to the player to decide.
However at first, the gameplay feels somewhat linear. This linearity of gameplay occurs on at least two levels: first, the predefined features of characters and the environment depicted in the game, and second, the limited amount of choices available to the player. The user starts off in the protagonist’s head, during one of her horrific dreams featuring a storm and a falling lighthouse. The only thing a user can do is: run. Later, the gameplay is interrupted by a series of lengthy cut-scenes of the protagonist’s inner monologue. After that, the player is gradually exposed to the possibilities and choices the game offers. Max, the protagonist, is sitting in a class, surrounded by personal objects – a diary, her laptop, and her Polaroid camera. The user is given a choice to take a selfie with that camera, which later becomes an ongoing theme for the main character. Objects throughout the game are clickable – however, most of them can only be looked at. Other options are only given when the object is relevant to the storyline, for example when you need to use a hammer to run a fire alarm in the bathroom. Other characters have the exact same, clickable interface as objects. You can come up to a person and look at them – or speak to them, if there is anything relevant to the story.
Generally, the user is being served a predefined storyline that is in line with strictly defined personalities of Max and the people around her. The main character is a high school student who, along with several other student, pursues a photography track. She possesses a talent for photography, but her conversations and overall classroom behavior are somewhat avoidant, and because of that her professor is pushing her to reveal her talent in art and photography. She is perceived as an individualist type – not very outgoing and confident, but with a strong sense of right and wrong. Often, it is impossible to make choices that the user can know for sure would be beneficial for the character. For example, when the photography teacher asks her about the meaning of daguerrotype, the only two options available are: “I’m sick” and “Can I go to the bathroom?” which is hardly any choice at all. Generally, despite the number of choices that the player can make regarding the protagonist, Max has a specific set of strengths, weaknesses and talents, that push her in certain directions and give her a specific role in the social life of her school. The user cannot make Max whatever they want her to be. This limitation, however, creates meaning in the narrative, as it allows the user to empathise with the protagonist, and immerse themselves with the story more fully.
There is one, extremely important talent of Max that makes the gameplay different from many other games. It is a common feature in games to put the user in risky situations – for example, the risk of being shot, or losing all your lives – in short, depleting a certain resource. This element seems almost essential for games, but In Life is Strange, many of these features don’t apply, as the protagonist is able to rewind time – meaning she can change the course of action based on prior knowledge. The user is forced to learn and use that power during the aforementioned photography class, in order to impress the teacher. But later, this same power is used to save the life of a student who was held at gunpoint in a school restroom. There are several instances when the protagonist herself might die, for example by the end of the gameplay she is crushed by a rolling stone. However, even in those moments we get a slo-mo camera and a voiceover “I have to rewind right now”, at which point the user knows exactly what to do. The player’s stress after negative outcomes is triggered in different ways – mostly through the black-white visuals, background music, and the nervous voiceover of the main character.
However, since the beginning there is a strong emphasis on the protagonist’s actions and their impact on other characters and the general storyline. As much as these moments are not too frequent (four throughout the whole first episode), they do influence the course of action, and their outcomes can be both immediate and short-term. The first choice is given during a conversation with the principal; we choose whether or not we should report or cover up a wealthy student who was about to shoot someone else with a gun. At first, I tried covering him up and pretending nothing happens, but then I could see the immediate reaction of Max was not that great, and I used the time rewind to change my decision and report the student. This has very soon backlashed, as the said student got into a fight with Max. However, reporting the student has improved Max’s relationship to the principal – and this is actually made apparent by the “friendship” stats in Max’s diary. It is made very clear whether or not a certain action will affect future gameplay, and what will be the immediate outcome.
Further on, when one of the security guards was abusing his authority to verbally harass a female student, Max had a choice to take a photo or to stand up in defence. I decided to stand up for the student, which has had an outcome at the end of the game, when it turned out that the aforementioned guard is actually an abusive stepfather of Max’s best friend. I believe the antipathy of the guard towards Max is bound to influence the course of action in further episodes, as he clearly showed an intention to make things harder for her. This possible outcome is made discernible by the Max’s inner monologue – she literally says to herself that this scenario was not good for her, and getting into a fight with the guard can affect her scholarship chances.
It is important that the choices given to the user are hardly straightforward. There is no right or wrong answer, and the player has to figure out the choice for themselves, based on their values, prior experience and perhaps pure gut feeling. For example in the security guard incident, the player had to choose whether to defect with a large, short-term personal gain (taking a photo of the encounter) or to stand up for another person – and maybe not take an award-winning photograph, but just be a decent human being instead. It occurs to me the only competitive aspect of this game is the way various interests and judgments are “competing” in the user’s mind during the play. It very much resembled the classic prisoner’s dilemma often.
Contrary to the more classic games like shooters, or even Mario, we don’t have a clear objective to follow like shooting the guru or saving a princess. Instead, the play itself is an objective. The end goal is the resolution of the storyline, which the user knows will be affected directly by their own choices. The important element of “risk” and suspense that keeps the user playing is the chance that the story may not end up that great for either Max or her friend, and it might be because of those choices. Throughout the game, we pursue the end result, but we don’t follow an objective – rather, we discover it.
Throughout the first episode, the future course of action is difficult to discern. However, one theme that seems to foreshadow future major events is the “missing person” of the campus, Rachel, whom everyone remembers but no one is able to reach out to. The way the posters are spread throughout nearly every corner of the environment, as well as the ways in which characters refer to “the missing person” might indeed increase excitement and suspense of the player, much like the TV series tend to leave an element of uncertainty for the viewer to come back for more.
It was difficult for me to classify the game as a certain genre, and even as a game at all – at times, it resembled an animated narrative with elements of interactivity. However, the ability of the main character to rewind time, as well as the choices that affect the ultimate outcome, are powerful features that constitute meaningful play with a potential for self-reflection for the player.