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On Time: How ‘Life Is Strange’ Makes Us Remember Our Regrets

We're still fascinated by Dontnod's episodic game, which asks us to reflect on our own teenage years, and our imperfections.
May 21, 2015, 10:58am

This article contains (minor) spoilers for all three episodes of Life Is Strange.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Life is full of regret. Every one of us makes choices that we wish we could go back on—decisions that, if we'd only approached them differently, could have changed our lives. No matter how old (or how successful) we are, we'll always agonize over what could have been.

Life Is Strange, the currently unfolding episodic adventure from Paris studio Dontnod Entertainment, bases its entire game mechanics around this sense of regret. Players assume the role of Max and are given the ability to direct her actions by both choosing what she says in conversation with others and, more importantly, manipulate time so she can fully explore the ramifications of her decisions. In the series' first three episodes, the latest of which came out this week, Max uses her powers to approach friendship and romance by trial and error. She can see how the choice to kiss a friend plays out by living through its immediate impact and rewinding time to go with it or not; she can choose to either confront authority figures or let them have their way; and so on.

Instead of the usual static decision-making featured in conversation-heavy games (like Telltale Games' The Walking Dead spin-off series), Life Is Strange allows the player to mess with the flow of time. With the press of a button, they're able to bypass the gravity of choice by examining the outcome of their actions from different sides. This gameplay system is one of the most potent video game power fantasies to date.

Power fantasy—the ability to make players feel far more capable than they could ever be in real life—is one of the most compelling aspects of games. But, typically, these fantasies revolve around physical, not mental ability. The player feels like a digital god when games allow them to sprint over rooftops, single-handedly slaughter an enemy army, or shrug off a bullet to the face by recharging their health through a few seconds spent behind cover. Life Is Strange takes a different approach, placing these fantasies in a social or psychological context. It uses a high school setting (a time in our lives imbued with nostalgia and, most likely, lots of regret) to provide its audience with a level of control they never had as teenagers.

'Life Is Strange' episode three, "Chaos Theory," launch trailer.

It's testament to the strength of the emotional ties we form to high school life that the hovering "end of the world" plot point that's been around since the game's first episode—a quietly impending apocalypse of mysteriously beached whales, strange eclipses and unseasonal snowfalls—almost never feels as important as the more grounded, realistic struggle of managing Max's relationships and moral responsibilities. As teenagers, everything feels momentous.

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For the first time, we have to make adult decisions about friends, sex, school, and drugs. We have to deal with how the choices we make define what kind of person we are. While controlling Max, the player has to decide if she's actually interested in the boy with a serious crush on her or whether or not to tell on more popular kids when sat down in the principal's office. In the most dramatic instances, and sometimes with her powers stripped, Max must try to determine how she can help mitigate the trauma of abuse or stop a suicide attempt.

Related: 'The Mystical Universe of Magic: The Gathering'

Instead of living with her failures, though, Max has the opportunity to see the results of her actions and change them accordingly. The kind of hindsight we wish we had—especially when thinking of how a minor decision, made long ago, has impacted the direction of our present life—is given to the player. This is an incredible power fantasy, far more compelling and relevant to most player's real-world concerns than something like battlefield immortality.

The introduction of a new power in the third episode, "Chaos Theory," takes the fantasy even farther. Max, instead of rewinding time by minutes, is able to travel back through the years, inhabiting her younger self and changing past events so that, in one instance, a loved one doesn't have to die. By making her abilities stronger, the game heightens the power fantasy to its greatest extent. It suggests we can erase grief. For anyone who's lost someone important to them, the implications of this mechanic are heart breaking.

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"Chaos Theory"'s final scenes don't speak in complete favor of Max's stronger powers, though. Instead, the ripple effect of time manipulation—the unspeakable weirdness that altering our past would lead to in the present—serves as a reminder that, more often than not, the decisions we've made earlier in life shouldn't be changed. No matter how much we may wish to have done things differently, the choices we make define who we are. If we could play with regret in the way Max does, we would probably lose ourselves in the process. Our personalities and character are, after all, made up of our failures and successes.

Of course, this doesn't make Life Is Strange's version of the power fantasy any less irresistible. It only helps us to better accept that life is difficult and impossible to fully control—that none of us are perfect and that maybe our imperfections aren't always quite as bad as they seem.

Episodes one to three of Life Is Strange are available to download now for PC, PlayStation 3 and 4, Xbox One, and Xbox 360. Episodes four and five follow later in 2015.

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