We Were Younger: ‘Life is Strange’ and Nostalgia for the Moment
Dontnod's episodic game seems to take place somewhere outside of time, both now and then, today and yesterday.
In a 2011 interview, the writer Jeanette Winterson said, "Time is never linear. You always feel that everything happened just yesterday but also 100 years ago. I don't want to experience time in a line."
On its surface, the episodic game Life is Strange, which just saw the release of its second part, is about literally not experiencing time in a line. Your character, the introverted photography student Max Caulfield, discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, a gift she uses to both impress her friend Chloe and to save Chloe's life more than once. This mechanic is Life is Strange's gameplay hook, its gimmick, but what makes the game so fascinating to me is the way that its concerns with time go so much deeper than Max's nifty superpower. This is a game that understands that we live our lives in interconnected moments, not in straight lines.
When Max and Chloe are thrown together by circumstance in the five-part series' first episode, the weight of time is present in their interactions. Five years ago, the two were best friends. Then Max and her family left the town of Arcadia Bay, and she and Chloe have had no contact since, until they find themselves barreling down the road in Chloe's truck. Can the two of them pick up where they left off, and return to being the best of friends?
There are hard conversations that need to happen first, feelings of neglect and betrayal to be aired. The past—not the immediate, linear past but the past of their friendship, the past of five years ago—must be confronted and reconciled with the present the two characters find themselves in. Max's life seems to be going pretty well. She's pursuing her dream of becoming a photographer at an elite private school. Meanwhile, Chloe's life is going to shit. Her new stepfather is an authoritarian asshole, her family is struggling to pay the bills, and her new best friend Rachel, who filled the void left by Max's departure, has vanished.
The contrast between what Chloe and Max once were to each other—which the game lets us see in photographs of their shared past, and lets us hear in Max's memories—and what they are now, is present between the two of them in even the happiest moments they share. Things change, even when they don't.
And while Max's ability to rewind time is Life is Strange's most obvious way of letting you engage with the passage of time as a player, it is not, to me, the most interesting. I love that, here and there in the game, there are opportunities for you to just inhabit a quiet moment for a while. On her school's campus, there are spots where Max can just chill and enjoy the afternoon. In her dorm room, she can strum the guitar to her heart's content. My favorite opportunities to linger in a moment come in the second episode, "Out of Time," at a junkyard Chloe takes Max to, a place laden in so many ways with the weight of the past. Max is mindful of how every discarded object in that junkyard—every refrigerator, every junked car, every scrap of an old punk T-shirt—has a history, and was once a part of someone's life. More than this, she's mindful that this is a place where Chloe and Rachel spent time together.
In one spot, Max finds graffiti on a wall asserting that "Chloe was here" and that "Rachel was here." The game gives you the option to leave your mark, too, asserting that you were there, but to me, doing so would have felt profoundly disrespectful of the time that Chloe and Rachel shared that I, as Max, wasn't a part of, staking a claim to moments that weren't mine. There's a real beauty to the junkyard, this physical manifestation of the passage of time, and because the game gives you a few spots where you can just sit, relax, and wistfully take in all the detritus of people's lives for a while, you get the sense that even Max, who can rewind time to an extent, is keenly aware that the moment is always slipping away, and that in the end, there's nothing she can do about it.
These are moments that you can linger in for as long as you want, but there are also moments you can't. My favorite moment in episode one, an exuberant scene when Chloe starts dancing on her bed and the friendship between Chloe and Max is at its least troubled and most joyous, is cut short when her stepfather barges in. This, the moment I most wanted to linger in, is over almost before it starts. But at least you get to take a snapshot of Chloe dancing before it's gone. I kept thinking of the Japanese term mono no aware, a kind of wistful awareness of how everything is fleeting. What better way for the game to make you aware of how each moment is slipping away than by casting you as a photographer, and letting you take what you can from a moment before it's over?
Life is Strange is set in the present day, or near enough—it plays out in the autumn of 2013 in the Pacific Northwest—but the way its characters drop more references to songs and movies of the 80s than they do to contemporary hits makes the game feel to me like it takes place somewhere outside of time, both now and then, today and yesterday. Amplifying this feeling is the fact that so much of it is bathed in a beautiful golden sunlight, the kind that makes you nostalgic for a moment even as it's happening. It makes you aware that it's slipping away. It makes you feel like you're already looking back on it from a great distance, like it's a faded photograph, soft and somehow perfect.
As the first episode of Life is Strange, "Chrysalis," comes to a close, a montage plays in which we see many of the game's characters taking notice of the strange snow falling on Arcadia Bay. All of them are bathed in that golden sunlight. Accompanying these images, we hear the Syd Matters song "Obstacles." "We played hide and seek in waterfalls," Jonathan Morali sings. "We were younger, we were younger."
Life happens in a straight line, but because some things stay with us while others fall away, that's not always how it feels to us. Moments in the future can bring the past flooding back. We were younger, and we are, and we will be again.
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