In the past few years, many developers have made an effort to make their games more immersive by giving players choices and decisions to make that have lasting effects throughout the game. For the most part these decisions don’t change the game too drastically but might alter how certain characters react to you. Perhaps you might anger someone, therefore you’ll be unable to access certain side quests. Or by saying the right things someone will help you with a task later in the game. The first game I remember pulling this off in a truly meaningful way was The Walking Dead: Season One from TellTale Games. That game did a masterful job of making you feel a personal connection to what was going on in the game due to the choices that you made. Well I recently played a game that took those choice driven game mechanics to a new and unexpected level. And it really left a lasting impression on me.
(Warning: The following contains spoilers for Life Is Strange Episodes 1 & 2)
Life Is Strange is an episodic adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix. It’s the story of Max, a young photography student in the town of Arcadia Bay who discovers that she has the ability to rewind time. While the game does feature an overarching threat that looms over the entire series and a mystery to unravel about where her powers came from, the game is just as much about the relationships that Max has with her friends and fellow students at Blackwell Academy, especially her estranged best friend Chloe.
Unlike most games that feature player choice, Max’s new abilities mean that she can go back in time to change her mind if you don’t like the consequences of your actions. She can use her powers to do everything from predicting the future to impress Chloe to redoing a conversation that didn’t go the way she had hoped. The trick is to know which decisions to stick with and which ones to rewind and try a different approach. It’s an interesting mechanic that gives you the ability to do a little trial and error as you progress through the game. But the more you use your powers, the more it becomes clear that not only do they pose a danger to Max but that they aren’t always reliable.
In Episode 2, Blackwell student Kate Marsh becomes a victim of bullying and harassment after a video goes viral of her making out with multiple people at a campus party. This has an obviously devastating effect on her and her family have all but turned their back on her for the embarrassment it causes their very religious family. Kate spirals into a deep depression as you try and help her cope with what happened while also trying to get to the bottom of how it happened. Kate has no memory of what happened at the party and believes she was drugged by a fellow student.
Near the end of the episode you return to the campus dorm where a crowd has gathered. Kate is on the roof and is going to jump. You manage to use your powers to slow time enough to get to the roof before she jumps but when you get there you realize that your powers are no longer working. There are no do overs. No second chances. Just this one chance to talk her off of the ledge. It’s then that all of the choices I made earlier in the episode come into focus. When I told her not to go to the authorities yet as she cried in her room. Not answering her phone call earlier in the day because I was “too busy”. I suddenly realized that I had made some terrible mistakes. But it’s too late now. And then she jumps.
For the first time in possibly ever, I feel actual guilt over what I’ve done in a game. At first I thought that maybe this was something that would happen in the game no matter what, but the end game statistics show that you CAN save her. And most people DID save her. But not me. She killed herself because I wasn’t there for her when she needed me. And that really stuck with me for days after I finished the game. And yes, I could have re-started the chapter and try and fix the mistakes that I’d made, but that would feel dishonest. These are the choices that I made and these are the ones that I will live with. I can’t wait to see where Life is Strange goes and how my actions affect the rest of the series. Because Dontnod has managed to create one of the most compelling and memorable games of the year so far.
Have you played Life is Strange? How did that scenario play out for you? Let us know in the comments below!