We’ve been telling stories for thousands of years, so we’re pretty good at it now. We’ve figured out different ways to tell them: out of order, back-to-back, even nested within one another. Interactivity has always been a part of it, as well. After all, it’s impossible to retell a story without changing it. The commercialisation of storytelling put an end to this briefly, however. The plots of novels and films are inherently fixed, identical with each retelling. Choose-your-own-adventure books tried to reverse this, but they weren’t adopted very widely. Video games, however, are as mainstream as it gets. And they are an extremely exciting arena for experimentation with interactive storytelling.
Life is Strange (DONTNOD Entertainment) was released episodically throughout 2015, and it was a beautiful game. It dealt with serious issues — child predators, broken homes, and teen suicide — and it dealt with these issues with respect. But it was the time-reversal gameplay mechanic that struck me. The way the mechanic worked with the plot to push player agency was impressive.
The game lets the player take part in the storytelling. This isn’t uncommon, of course; from Metroid (1986) to Mass Effect (2012), interactive plots have been with us for decades. What Life is Strange does differently is time travel. The ability for players to rewind and fix mistakes. Technically we can do this in any other game by restarting the console and loading an old save, but in these instances, there’s always a sense that we’re working outside of the ‘rules’ of the game. In Life is Strange, it’s built in. We’ve seen this in action games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003) and Braid (2008), but I’ve never seen it applied to a dialogue-driven game. There are minor flaws in how the mechanic is implemented, but the groundwork is there, and the opportunities created for both developers and players are incredibly exciting.
I was concerned at first that giving the player the ability to rewind time and re-make dialogue choices would encourage the player to be non-committal. Player agency would be high, but how do you keep people engaged when there are no real stakes? My concern was alleviated at the end of the second episode when the game took away my rewind power. Now I was no different to the other characters. The protagonist’s friend, Kate, was on the roof and ready to jump, and I was forced to figure out what to say to help the situation. No second chances. The game had used low-stakes interactions earlier in the game to train investigation and memory skills, and now they were being tested for real. This made the scene extremely powerful — succeeding was now purely about player skill, rather than an all-powerful magical ability. The scene was stripped of all supernatural elements, and this allowed a touching and powerful humanity to return. All of this, achieved by temporarily revoking our access to a gameplay mechanic.
There are occasional moments where the time-rewind mechanic becomes frustrating, where the inherent clunkiness of it makes it difficult to engage with the plot. The issue appears in some of the longer dialogue interactions, such as the confrontation with Frank at his RV. There are a couple of acceptable outcomes to this scene, with a few game-over outcomes that result in the death of a primary character. The latter type of outcome forces the player to rewind immediately, and problems arise in how the game handles this. For one, the time that it takes to rewind is far too long: more than of 15 seconds, even at the fastest speed. As far as time-punishments in non-action games go, this is excessive. This isn’t taking into account the added time that the player has to spend traversing the conversation again to re-make dialogue choices. The frustration is compounded by the fact that we’re forced to rewind to the beginning of the encounter, unable to simply rewind to the last dialogue choice. We can press the ‘skip’ button to move along the conversation without having to listen to the dialogue a second time, but the game places ‘skip’ cues so frequently that we have to press ‘skip’ 10 times between each dialogue choice. It turns into a frenzy of button mashing, a chore we have to get through before we can actually interact or experience something new. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it does drive a wedge between us and the plot, making us focus our energy on dealing with the frustrating loss of time and button-mashing, rather than on the narrative experience.
Besides these rare moments of frustration, however, the experience is brilliantly presented. DONTNOD borrows the pacing philosophies of filmmaking to strike a balance between action and rest. By alternating between different types of interaction, activity, and mood, we’re rarely made to feel fatigued. Valve discovered the importance of addressing player fatigue during the development of Half-Life 2 (2004). When players are subjected to the same stimuli for extended periods of time, they become exhausted. But by regularly giving players a change of pace, by asking them to use a different set of skills or feel a different emotion at times when they are likely to be feeling worn out from their current activity, we reduce exhaustion and keep them engaged.
Life is Strange shows a strong understanding of this. While many games add quieter moments out of necessity, few take the time to use these moments constructively. A mission briefing or 30-second information dump is not enough time for players to relax. Life is Strange is an emotionally taxing game, throwing so many difficult issues at us that it would be easy to become overwhelmed and feel the need to get some distance. So the game gives us emotional breaks, scenes where we can do some light exploring and let our minds rest. And these moments were given just as much (if not more) attention and care from the production team. There’s a scene where our suffering paraplegic friend, Chloe, has sent us to get morphine from the bathroom. We can slip into Chloe’s old bedroom on the way, and spend time looking around and listening to the protagonist reminisce. While the scene isn’t overtly upbeat and happy, the way that it’s presented turns it into a beautiful opportunity to unwind. Golden lighting streams into the room from outside, the camera moves slowly as we examine details, the color palette is warm and inviting, a soft, finger-picked guitar track plays in the background, and our protagonist’s voice is soothing and gentle. It’s a nice reprieve, a slice of the mundane in a world of trauma and the supernatural, and it’s a welcome change of pace, especially given the scenes that follow it. It’s so easy to get turned off by a longer plot, to feel the need to take a break after unrelenting intensity. Here, the developers have recognized moments where this may happen, and they’ve designed around it in order to keep us engaged and invested in these characters and this world.
Life is Strange may change you. It might not. If you’re looking for plot-altering player agency, innovative dialogue mechanics and a lovingly crafted experience, this could be it. If you want a class on how to keep players engaged through a long campaign of difficult emotions and tricky puzzles, look no further. It’s not a perfect game, but it excels at so much, and raises difficult issues boldly, and unapologetically. If you’re looking at putting together a plot-heavy game, give this one a few minutes of your time. You might learn a thing or two.
Join me next time for more video game plot shenanigans.