Knowledge is a super power in Life is Strange. Well, not really, but close enough. Max Caulfield, the protagonist of Dontnod’s Telltale-esque adventure game, can actually rewind time. This lets her prevent a school shooting and avoid being crushed under a falling tree, sure. But more importantly time travel lets Max weigh her options in conversations. It lets her know just the right words to say or the right facts to hide or reveal. Time travel is a means for Life is Strange to address nostalgia, regret, and the social pressures of growing up.
Recently an old friend got in touch to apologize about an interaction we’d had in the distant past. It was strange to revisit a time that I barely remember, and stranger still to think about my life in that particular moment. I am not an old man, I know that, but even I have regrets. There are people who meant too much to me once that I have let slip out of my life, and there are moments where I wish I could have said the right thing, found the courage to put into words the feelings I wanted to share, to say the things I know now to be true. I have a hard time imagining any life lived without regrets.
This theme of regret is partially why Life is Strange is uniquely compelling alongside other games of its genre. In The Walking Dead, there are no “right” decisions because the world is an apocalyptic mess. In Life is Strange, things actually seem manageable. Yes, a premonition of some sort portends a devastating tornado hitting the game’s cozy town of Arcadia, but the drama from scene to scene centers on the politics of an art academy. When Max is bullied by Victoria, a little bit of “time magic” lets Max dowse her with a sprinkler system and break her entitled bully persona. The game offers a high school fantasy that I certainly envy: the ability to impress, coerce, and befriend with expertise, to make a life without regrets.
Interestingly, voyeurism is a key component of Max’s social toolkit. While poking around a classmate’s dorm room, she can discover a discarded home pregnancy test. When confronted about her aggressive snooping, a quick rewind offers Max an out. Instead she reaches out as an empathetic friend, someone who cares enough to reach out and ask about her well being with tact. It’s a moment to connect with someone, albeit one afforded by an ethically dubious power. Max is exploiting the ability to snoop undetected for all its worth, which pairs nicely with another storyline about a disgruntled security guard who is attempting to install cameras all over the school and actively spies on his own family. Like the guard, Max is trying to safeguard her world from mistakes.
Photography is its own attempt to preserve untarnished moments of time.
Of course even time travel is not enough to map out Max’s life to perfection. The ability to rewind is limited, only allowing Max to jump a few minutes or so into the past. She can take all the time she needs to measure her decisions and test others’ reactions, but when she commits and moves on from a conversation that’s it, there is no going back. For the most part, there are no matters of life and death, but the warning that a decision “will have consequences” is still unsettling. What if I make a mistake and don’t realize it until it’s too late?
Dontnod released only the first episode of Life is Strange so far, but it already has the trappings of an excellent coming of age story. The fear of making the wrong decision, of setting yourself on a path you cannot change, often punctuates adolescence. Even when your life appears wide open to you, it can still numb you with its ability to forge ahead along routes unplanned. Of course growing up fits so perfectly into an adventure game like this one. I expect Max will learn what many of us face as we age, the reality that all of our decisions have consequences, many of them unintended, no matter how empowered we are when we make them.
About halfway through the game, Chloe, Max’s former best friend, confronts her for not being around in her greatest time of need. I too have failed some dear friends, I know that. The ability to rewind time in Life is Strange doesn’t fulfill some fantasy in which I have cleaned my life of regrets. Instead, it reminds me that accepting them, incorporating my mistakes into the narrative of my life, is just part of growing older.
// Notes from the Road
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