The Personal Apocalypse of ‘Life is Strange’
John Darr | Monday, February 29, 2016
The last time I saw a movie in theaters, I watched the world end five times before the opening credits began to roll. Apocalypse films have seemingly flooded the market; somewhere in Hollywood is a room full of writers trying to script one starring Jennifer Lawrence and a ragtag crew of animated minions. Yet so few apocalypse films feel, well, apocalyptic. The end of the world is such a terrifying idea because it involves the death of everything and everyone we know. A commercial film simply doesn’t have the time to develop a world which we really care about saving or a cast of characters who we can’t imagine living without.
The best apocalypse films know this. They don’t focus on bombastic images of falling skyscrapers or exploding planets. They focus instead on the personal, whether it’s the loneliness and survival of people in a dying world (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) or the coping methods of those who find themselves looking their mortality in the face (“Melancholia”).
This focus on “personal apocalypse,” as PC PowerPlay’s excellent review notes, is what grants “Life is Strange” its incredible power. “Life is Strange” is a video game that follows in the footsteps of “Gone Home” by ditching conventional gameplay in order to craft a world and story of near-unparalleled richness and power in gaming. A twist between a mystery, adventure and art game, “Life is Strange” invites the player to investigate, explore and photograph their environment in order to unravel the disappearance of Rachel Amber, a Laura Palmer-esque high school beauty queen.
Rachel’s disappearance is one of the many “personal apocalypses” that has devastated the individuals of the fictional, coastal Oregan town of Arcadia Bay, which provides the setting for the majority of the game. The loss of family members and the deterioration of characters’ mental health are mirrored in the ominous natural phenomena that wrack the area. As soon as the player steps into the wonderful universe of “Life is Strange,” the world is already ripping at the seams; a monstrous tornado tears across the Pacific toward the town as adolescent protagonist Maxine “Max” Caulfied stumbles towards a mysterious lighthouse for shelter. All of a sudden, the game snaps into the perceived present, where Max struggles to understand her vision from her assigned seat in her high school photography class. As Max searches for a connection between her premonitions and Rachel Amber’s abandoned case, the lines between global and personal trauma blur to the point of indistinguishability.
The time-shifting element hinted at in the opening scene is at the very heart of “Life is Strange.” As Max, the player gains the ability to rewind time in order to change the outcome of events. How the player chooses to act drastically affects how the game’s story plays out; the surrounding characters in the game can be saved, killed, befriended, alienated or provoked according to the player’s choices. As Max approaches what she knows to be the end of the world, she is forced to come to terms with her inability to save everyone and everything she loves. Pairing darkness with gorgeous, hand-drawn graphics and beautifully developed characters, “Life is Strange” deftly dives through a gauntlet of harrowing topics such as loss, guilt, drugs and sexual assault. At its conclusion, Max learns how to cope with the suffering of those around her and ultimately, her own.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the game’s success is the list of statistics revealed at the end of each chapter. Upon the completion of one of the game’s “episodes,” the user can see what percentage of players made each choice; many of the most important decision a player can make are split with about half of the player base choosing each option. “Life is Strange” manages to do justice to the issues it tackles by capturing the difficult decisions a person must make while facing them. This, combined with the very visible impact each choice has on the rest of the player’s experience, makes it a remarkably rewarding game to play.
“Life is Strange” manages a tough balance between a host of explosive elements that many other games, books and movies have fumbled in the past. At once hugely enjoyable, beautifully textured and exceptionally poignant, it captures at once the wonder and pain of the moments that shape the rest of our days. Even when its world teeters on the brink of existence, “Life is Strange” finds a way to make its audience feel a little more alive.