Time reversal is nothing new to games. Recently, titles like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and breakout indie hit Braid used time rewinding to great effect in platforming. Racing games have also made use of time turn back. My barely decent racing times in the Forza Motorsport franchise serve as proof. Dontnod Entertainment’s latest adventure — one they call a mix between Gone Home and The Walking Dead — also lets you turn back time.
Dontnod’s previous effort, Remember Me, also centered on a time-rewinding mechanic. But everything else about Life is Strange is new for the Paris-based studio, and it brings a bunch of firsts for publisher Square Enix as well. The game plays out across six episodes, all of which will be spent drawing the player through a rich narrative, telling the story of a girl and her friend reunited in their hometown after five years apart. It’s a story-focused experience that goes all-in on character development, ditching action completely.
I’ve have the chance to play through the entire first chapter in a preview. The title’s unique approach to storytelling makes it one of the most captivating I’ve played in some time.
Life is Strange is all about choices, but the ones you’ll make seem inconsequential when compared to the storylines of a typical narrative-driven video game. As an example of how small the choices can be, one of the initial decisions protagonist Max Caulfield has to deal with taking a selfie with her instant camera while halfway through listening to a lecture in school. Is it time to be arty and original? Should she be interrupting the lecture to do so? What is everyone else in class going to think? These aren’t monumental, world-saving decisions. Not yet, at least.
And Max is quite the opposite of a typical game hero. She’s a shy, quiet photography student who has just returned to her childhood hometown in Oregon after some years to attend school. She’s not even confident in her knack for snapshots. She’s a loaner that tends to dwell on her insecurities for too long.
As unremarkable as this all sounds, Life is Strange manages to be highly engaging with the choices it presents and the possibilities those choices could lead to. Seemingly mundane, day-to-day decisions gradually reveal new facets of Max’s personality. Guiding her interactions with others sheds light on her upbringing and details on her surroundings. Before you know it — before you’ve really done anything of note — you find that you’re wholly invested in Max, drawn fully into her world.
While smart writing and strong performances go a long way toward this immersion, the real hook is tied to the aforementioned time-control ability. Max finds that she has the power to freely turn back time early on, allowing her to rectify wrong choices. Any action in the game can be redone, which means that Max can go back and restart a conversation to work toward a better outcome. Or, as in the first case in episode one, save a life.
Dontnod did an impressive job of gradually revealing the depth of this time-rewinding power through character development and storytelling. Max’s first use of the ability has her rewinding back a dangerous moment to save a friend, allowing her to make a last-minute change to her environment to distract an attacker. But she finds later on that her actions in that moment drew unwanted attention, which could cause problems for her and her friend further down the line. Should she go back and do it all over? Or maybe just some damage control through a white lie? Or does she press on, hoping that the path she’s on will be the best one?
Which brings us to the most interesting aspect of Life is Strange: You won’t know if you made the right choice until the end. Creative director Jean-Maxime Moris tells GamesBeat in an interview that a right or wrong choice doesn’t really exist, at least not in the short term.
“There is no perfect combination. There’s no white. There’s no black. It’s always positive and negative,” explains Moris. “We want you to feel like your choices matter. We want you to wonder what would have happened if you had done something else. That’s the way life is. You don’t get to rewind.”
While these choices seem small, you can still feel their weight. Even without seeing it, you sort of know that your guidance is going to have an impact on how the rest of the narrative plays out. Choices and their results are woven into a tapestry of developments that make your own story. But it’s not a choose-your-own-adventure situation. Moris says that all players are headed toward the same goal. It’s just the path that is different.
“We are doing something that is following the general philosophy of Telltale Games,” says Moris. “So the general story is going to move in the same direction for everyone, regardless. But it’s your choices that are going to determine how your story gets told and how that story feels different from other people’s.”
“What we’re trying to add to Telltale’s formula is really make as many scenes as possible feel very different depending on what led into it. What I mean by that is that the same key events are going to be happening on different reasons based on your choices.”
Laying out a narrative with so many choices across five separate episodes is no small task. Moris explains that his team started from the top down, beginning with the story, working in the choices and the settings as they continue. Even with the first episode releasing this week, they’re still working on how Life is Strange will play out in the end. Through online connected tracking of choices, even player input will be considered for the events of later episodes.
“All the major beats of the story are locked down. The story is written in stone. But in terms of production and all of the secondary choices you make, the further out you get in terms of release…for example, episode five is still very much open to being tuned depending on what gets done by players in episode one.”
He continues, “We have to work on all episodes at the same time. So, today episode one is done. Episode two is probably 65 to 70 percent complete. Episode five is 10 to 15. All of the others are in between. Every day some work gets done on two, but also three, four, and five.”
Moris tells GamesBeat that each episode will have about 20 choices for the player to navigate. This leads to about 100 pathways across the full season, with all of these geared fully toward making each player’s experience unique, to make them feel like they’re living a life.
“It’s about feeling that the experience is unique. That can be done with very simple things,” Moris explains.
“Again, events are going to happen for different reasons. And it’s going to be little things. You’re going to have a different shot in a cutscene, a different line of dialogue in a cutscene. Or a different prop or accessory in a cutscene because you put it there, and it’s a result of you having a different combination of interactions. It’s going to be the text messages you get, and the timing that you get them.”
At the end of five episodes, after these 100 or so choices, the things one player’s Max experiences could be hugely different than what another player’s character goes through.
“In 95 percent of the people that play will not have [what you did], says Moris.” He notes the goal is to keep the game unique for each player without using branching. “I think that’s the best way today to tackle interactive, story-driven games.”
Even with some knowledge of how Life is Strange is being built, I found myself second guessing every decision while playing. One more notable crossroads had me doubling back four times, worried that my decision to aid a friend being bullied might cause trouble for us both down the road. Even the smallest situation could leave you wondering about future implications, and Max’s inner monologues and in-game prompts mess with your head even more. Maybe I should have been nicer, I wondered. Maybe I shouldn’t have messed with so many personal things in a friend’s dormitory room.
This constant consideration had me more engaged in this game than any I’ve played in some years. In just this one sitting, I found myself looking away from the screen many times to consider the future result of my decisions. Some of my choices stayed with me through the end of the day.
It kills me that the repercussions of my choices won’t be seen until later episodes, especially when you consider that Square Enix has spaced the releases of the five episodes six weeks apart from each other. Dontnod knew that they wanted to approach Life is Strange from an episodic standpoint from the very beginning.
“The first meeting on Life is Strange, which was code-named What If at the time, happened in April 2013,” says Moris. “The two things that came out of that first meeting were, one, the rewind, two, go episodic. Everything else came from there.”
“It’s really something we wanted to do,” he explains. “It’s not something that was tacked on to the recipe. I think it shows. Each episode feels as an episode, with a beginning, middle, and end. There is a sense of closure with each of these, and there will be a sense of closure on the season as well.”
Just one season is planned so far, but Moris says that more could follow if this one goes well.
Dontnod has created a potential benchmark title for interactive storytelling. In just one two-hour episode, I experienced smart humor, violence, loss, love, and friendship, all of which were conveyed through striking abstract artwork and outstanding vocal performances. And again, the time rewinding mechanic and the choices attached to it make for an incredibly engaging experience.
I’m very much looking forward to the next episode.