Life is Strange was one of the standout games of 2015, following the life of one Max Caulfield, a photographer with a gift for framing those perfect moments around us. The game was a choice-driven adventure, along the lines of other recent reimaginings of the adventure game genre.
The story centred around a few core ideas, though ultimately the focus is two-fold – the choices that we make, and Max’s relationship with her childhood BFF, Chloe. These aren’t the only aspects of the story, with it quickly moving from time-travel, school cliques, teen angst, and fate, through to conspiracy, darkness and catastrophe.
The direction (in the film sense) hones in on the photo-heavy focus and informs the presentation, while the gentle soundtrack allows for a quiet build into the eventual emotional turmoils.
On the surface it might appear as though Life is Strange is a light-hearted story of friends, it rapidly ramps up the grim to the extent that the idyllic Arcadia Bay could well fit between the pages of a Stephen King novel (though the bay is firmly in Oregon, and not King’s recurring milieu of Maine)
The small town aesthetic is part of what makes Life is Strange work, and reinforces the take on causality through the way the townsfolk seemingly live shoulder-to-shoulder with the neighbours, and none of the characters are isolated from either Max or the other characters.
Everything is linked, and that becomes one of the foundations of the story as everything unfolds.
Early in the first episode, Max takes a photograph of a butterfly that she labels as a spirit, which naturally suggests the idea of the Butterfly Effect, which is also a contributing factor to theme with Life is Strange.
A lot of effort is given to the player experience with the game, with the obvious ones being the way that the choices made ultimately change the course of the story (though naturally the overall waypoints on the narrative continue to hold until the end of the game).
Supplemental decisions are catalogued at the close of each episode, begging to be discovered on subsequent plays, just as dialogue choices become dressing on the story too. The moments in even these minor choices add to the richness of the story, and help to build a tangible state for Arcadia Bay.
Further reinforcing this is the wealth of written material that’s available through the game. Be it posters, text messages, or the many pages of notes that Max scribbles about the characters in the game, or the story as it progresses, there is so much content here that help build a more thorough world for Life is Strange, and they’re present as complementary to the experience.
You can play through the game and not read through Max’s journal, or compare the two post-it notes about a tablet with cat pictures that is a great example of environment storytelling, or any number of these types of things.
What these do best is give insight to the player around how Max sees herself. Through playing we see her when she’s reactive to others and what’s happening around her, but the written parts of her journal let us see her moderately-filtered conversations with her own thoughts.
Life is Strange is no pioneer in this. Many other games have used written material to build into their world, side quests or audio logs to flesh out characters that are never encountered, all in service of laying out a world that requires less effort to accept as plausible.
Max Caulfield is undoubtedly an introvert. There’s a touch of wallflower to her persona, even a degree of passivity, yet it’s not the shy stereotype that the media often equates to introversion.
She is unsure of her place in the world, but she’s secure in herself – possibly more than the overtly outgoing Chloe is. She is comfortable enough approaching others to talk to them, and photography contest aside, she has a confidence in herself that rises when she’s put to task.
Introverts aren’t the usual archetype for playable characters. Even the reclusive playables that tend to show up from time to time are classic campbellian stories, drawing on the reluctant hero that resists the call to adventure rather than the one that resists the call of people in general. In the cases where they avoid people, they’re more often than not the abrasive type, the one that gets the job done without playing nice.
The same is true of the crowd-pleasing PC. Personal storytelling aside, the playable characters that go out of their way to please others are more readily found in roleplaying, where there’s a vested interest in having the strongest squad possible (and a goal that conveniently aligns with the player’s goal of having the greatest chance at besting obstacles).
Max Caulfield is the note played for those that acquiesce, who try to keep the peace and please everyone around them. She still maintains agency, in spite of her trending toward reactive.
Everyone has their own idea of what choices Max should make, with those later in the game being ones that very much warrant discussion of their own. That’s definitely something to talk about at a later time, but there’s another aspect to Life is Strange that works really well.
One type of interaction that Max has with the world, if the player chooses, is presence. Not in the sense of the inimitable presence of a character overflowing with charisma (as in the kind that everyone that’s met Rachel speaks of), but in terms of being able to be present in the world.
There are a few places where Max can tune out from what’s happening in the game, and spend the time in self-reflection, pondering or otherwise lost in her own thoughts. Whether it’s sitting on a swing, playing guitar alongside a favoured song, or simply sitting beneath a tree, Max has the ability to simply be there.
These are conscious design decisions. It’s possible to be still in many games, which invariably triggers an idle animation sequence. The ability to explore a world at leisure tacks on to some of the feeling behind this, but falls short. Many games also give the player a chance to sit down and do nothing, but this is a purely passive endeavour. The presentation of these interactions in Life is Strange is something active, even as Max stays in place.
These moments don’t propel the story forward and they aren’t obvious, but they have the ability to contribute so much to the character. There’s a moment on the swings in the first episode, a reflection on a memory that becomes prescient when taken across the breadth of the game. It’s also possibly the first time that Max expresses the desire to become a photographer, one of the foundations of the character as we know her, and it’s entirely missable.
What works so well in those moments is beyond what they show or tell. Knowing that Max and Chloe talked about travelling together when they were kids adds something powerful to the overall narrative of Life is Strange, but when that mental playback stops, what it adds is time. For a game that’s so heavily concerned with time travel, the narrative often presents time as something that Max is always short of. It’s never hers to do with as she pleases, but always in service of some other goal.
What these moments of distraction do is give that back to her. They aren’t bound to a purpose beyond her being present. It might not seem like a great power when compared to the ability to rewind time, but it’s the one that gives her space. It’s also one we can sometimes have ourselves.