The year 2015 has seen some really fantastic video games getting released. Undertale was an independent, genre-subversive masterpiece that questions some of the most basic assumptions of RPGs. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was easily the high point in the series. However, the game that stood out to me the most was Life is Strange, the episodic adventure game from Square Enix.
If you haven’t picked it up, the game follows Max Caulfield, a young photography student who discovers that she has the power to reverse time. This allows her to undo mistakes as she progresses through the game, which involves a murder plot and a mysterious oncoming catastrophe.
Most critics who have played the game start out by deriding the somewhat forced teenage lingo that accompanies many scenes. Max and her fellow students quip and try to be cool, and the results are often more cringe-worthy than suave. Which, frankly, is how it should be. These are young characters on their own and finding themselves, for the most part. Everything is going to be awkward. All that does is up the realism in the story. Diablo Cody has an Oscar for doing the exact same thing, and she didn’t even have to write thousands of lines to go with possible interactions.
The game’s stellar story and competent voice acting aside, where Life is Strange most succeeds as a groundbreaking game is in its meta-commentary on what it means to play a game at all. The main mechanic is Max being able to see the immediate outcome of various actions — such as reporting a student with a gun to the principal — but not being able to see the long-term effects of what she does. This makes playing the game nerve-wracking and in many ways terrifying. There is often very little indication that you have made the “right” decision. There may not even be a “right” decision. All there ever is is the ominous phrase “this action will have consequences.” You can rewind and redo as much as you like, but eventually you have to progress down one path and not the other.
I’ve always applauded the advancements in gaming from the early days when mistakes in games sent you back to the beginning because save states simply weren’t a thing that could be done. On the other hand, I remember the first time I played Bioshock and the vita chamber was introduced. If you died, it would spit out a copy of you. Neat, but it’s also sort of ridiculous. How could any death in the game mean anything if everyone was automatically resurrected? It even made a character purposely turn the vita chamber in his office off simply to make his death sensible.
Most games simply do not burden you with choice. Even games heavily based on the idea of choice – Sleeping Dogs comes to mind – hedge their bets for the most part because they don’t want to lock you out of certain parts of the game. They want to make your choices meaningful, but they fear you'll feel like you didn’t get your money’s worth in terms of hours in content.
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Life is Strange had the courage to make the consequences matter. By the third episode of the game, Max is bending under the weight of choice, and it’s a marvel the game is able to keep the threads in line. Essentially it becomes a combination of Twin Peaks and Donnie Darko. It’s completely sinister, and yet it draws its horror from the simple idea of making mistakes.
The game is about growing up, and the scariest thing about growing up is that sick feeling in your stomach where you are trying to do the right thing. Max feels it constantly in herself, and tries to dodge the feeling through her photography. She captures moments frozen in time with no future or past. She is one of the most thematically solid characters in gaming history.
For a dedicated console player who only occasionally has the sort of laptop optimized for gaming, Life is Strange was a breath of fresh air because console players weren’t getting the cool indie game after the fact. I didn’t get to experience Thomas Was Alone or The Swapper until long after they’d been available elsewhere, and I’m ridiculously excited to finally play Gone Home when it hits consoles next year.
Being a primarily console player means that you often lag behind some of the most interesting discussions going on in gaming. You see the innovations only after they have proven their worth. Life is Strange was a gutsy release from a company known for playing it very safe. It proved that there was an audience for adventure games, quirky mechanics and off-kilter stories on the Xbox and PlayStation, and that players weren’t just mindless Triple A shooter consumers. Just like a good indie film can break into the mainstream to reach an audience with new ideas, Life is Strange was an innovative, yet accessible, title that shook gaming up a little. That’s why it’s our game of the year.