I purposefully put off playing Life is Strange for a long time. The premise sounded interesting, but I was skeptical of how developer Dontnod would integrate a sci-fi story about time travel with a high school girl’s coming-of-age story. It seemed to me at first like a cheap way to make a more grounded and mundane story appealing to the gamer nerd crowd. Then I played episode one. There’s a scene early on that justifies this genre mixing, a scene that uses the sci-fi time travel elements to complement and support the coming-of-age story. Every first episode of an episodic series should have a scene like this, one that confidently establishes the game’s tone and its protagonist.
After the inciting incident, in which Max realizes that she has the power to turn back time just a few minutes at a time, she goes out to the front of her school, where a bunch of kids are hanging out.
It’s important to note that the game has firmly established Max as a shy person by this point. She’s the kind of student who never raises a hand in class, who’d rather stay unknown and hidden than noticed at all. I get Max. I felt like her in high school: The fear of saying the “wrong” thing leads some of us to just not say anything in general, at least not to anyone other than our trusted friends.
Yet, when I walk outside, the first thing that I do is chat up everyone I can.
This is something games have trained me to do: You talk to everyone to get the full story. It’s not something that I’d ever actually do. I’d make a beeline for a familiar face. It also certainly doesn’t seem like something Max would ever do. As I talked to one of the “popular” boys, I felt a powerful disconnect between the character and my actions.
This is something that all games struggle with: Should one allow players the freedom to defy their given characterization, limit that freedom, or limit that characterization? But in Life is Strange at this moment of confusion, the mechanics step in to reconcile the paradox.
Max can rewind time and can thus control the conversation. When I talk with a girl flying a drone, the conversation ends with her mocking me for not knowing the model of her drone. Naturally, I proceed to rummage through her backpack, look for the drone’s manual, rewind time, and then impress her with my new found knowledge of drones. When a skater calls me a poser for not knowing what a tailgrind is, I ask about it and then rewind time to define it for him.
I use my time travel powers to overcome the stigma of any social interaction. Max is a shy girl who would normally never talk with these people, she’d be too afraid to make a fool of herself, but now that she can ensure she never looks the fool, social interactions become easy.
This seems to me to be the most profoundly logical use for new found time travel powers, especially for a shy high school student. Max isn’t using her powers to get rich or change the world. She’s using them to be popular for once. It’s an undramatic, unambitious, and inconsequential use of her powers, but, of course, it’s what she’d do.
In this moment, Life is Strange solves the grand paradox of identity in gaming. Who am I when I play a game? Answer: You can be anyone, Max can be anyone, and this leads right into the coming-of-age story.
The sci-fi elements aren’t a cynical ploy to make the coming-of-age story more appealing to gamers, the sci-fi elements are integral to understanding the coming-of-age story. Who does Max choose to be when she can portray herself as anyone? At what point does this portrayal conflict with her actual self? These are questions that we all have to face in high school as we develop an identity, who we are and who we are in relation to the world.
Max doesn’t answer these questions by the end of the first segment, but it’s only episode one. She shouldn’t be answering them this soon in the story anyway. What matters is that the game raises them in the first place.
The time travel doesn’t detract from these questions. It brings them front and center.