By their very nature, most games come with a built-in rewind feature: If players regret their decisions, they need only reload an earlier save. Life Is Strange is more open about this, making the ability to rewind time the central mechanic of its episodic adventure. That naked honesty, incidentally, is what makes the game so compelling, even important, and its impressionistic aesthetic keeps the whole thing from being mired in the insistently photorealistic dread of a David Cage title like Beyond: Two Souls.
Life Is Strange also benefits from its unusual choice of genre. Though the final two episodes lurch toward a lurid climax seemingly ripped from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the majority of the game is dedicated not to overcoming horror-movie tropes, but articulating the everyday angst of being a teenager. It’s essentially a gamier version of Gone Home, for both better and worse.
Although the writers sometimes hit their thesis a little too squarely on the nose, making the game’s 18-year-old protagonist, Max, a photographer helps to emphasize the conceit of taking Hitchcock’s “little moments of time” and picking them apart, analyzing the nuances or the balance in the chiaroscuro to find the perfect shot. Through this lens, so to speak, Life Is Strange develops—pardon the pun—four-dimensional characters and locations, using the rewind to tease out each character’s hidden secrets. Nobody, not even alpha-bitch Victoria or “step-douche” David, is what they appear to be at first glance, which makes rewinding all of the side conversations rather addictive.
The game’s developer, Dontnod Entertainment, does such a good job with these experiences that it can sometimes be hard to make a decision even within the alternative timelines that start cropping up around episode three, “Chaos Theory.” These moral choices are grounded in everyday ethics—assisted suicide, or the needs of the faceless many against the love of a specific few—as opposed to those of, say, Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, which can’t help but feel a bit unreal given the zombie milieu. G.I. Joe was right: The knowing that comes from Max’s time-reversing powers is only half the battle. If anything, players have to make even more agonizing decisions, considering that they can see the immediate outcomes of each.
That said, it’s a bit disappointing that choices don’t always appear to have all that much of an impact in Life Is Strange; the finale, in particular, is almost more binary than the one from Mass Effect 3. This isn’t like Until Dawn, in which every character can (and probably will) die unless players make all the right moves. Given the stakes of the catastrophic tornado that Max keeps flashing forward to, it makes sense that some choices are absolutely minor (whether or not David gets a scar, if Max’s plant dies, if Alyssa winds up TP’d by her classmates), but it makes their inclusion seem like obvious fluff.
Worse, characters sometimes seem shoehorned in to make political statements, as in Ms. Grant’s belabored discussion on the dangers of a surveillance state, or to serve as ominous portents, like the soft-spoken janitor, Samuel, who would not be out of place in a Final Destination film. During these disconnected moments, Life Is Strange feels like a thin climate-change allegory, a reminder that, in the big picture, some choices matter far more than others, and that painful sacrifices are sometimes called for in the present in order to protect the future.
That’s why the final chapter, “Polarized,” is so effective: It literally uses a collection of little pictures—Max gains the ability to rewind to and alter the events immediately preceding any picture that she’s in—in order to stitch together a big, meaningful conclusion. It plays differently than the earlier chapters, which focus more on dialogical puzzles than logical ones, but at the same time reflects everything the player’s done to that point by way of a hallucinatory time schism that suggests Doctor Who on acid. This chapter shows Dontnod at their most creative and frightening, building upon the experimentation of their underrated Remember Me.
Judged solely as a video game, and not as an interactive movie, “Polarized” is the most engaging chapter, surpassing the ambition of the epic End of the World rave in “Dark Room” by featuring a chaotic and time-sensitive rescue in the midst of a tornado. But ultimately, there’s no single audience-pleasing chapter, as each segment offers something different, from the crime-solving investigation of “Dark Room” to the rekindling of friendship and playfulness found in “Out of Time.” It’s the mix of the mundane and the mercurial that makes Life Is Strange worth living.