Photographs, particularly digital or polaroid photographs (remember those?), are both immediate and mediated, both portals and barriers. They are small physical reifications of memory, which both manifest and falsify the past, insisting that our recollections adopt precisely one physical position, and one instant, out of the infinitely many that we occupied during any given experience, as though we were, in David Hockney’s words, ‘a paralysed cyclops’. They promote recall with a vividness that would have seemed a powerful magic to any human born during the vast majority of our collective past, when even hand-made images with any degree of mimetic fidelity were vanishingly rare. That magic is, of course, still present, but we no longer recognise it as such, regarding the images in our photo folders (or albums, if we’re really old) as scientific samples of a materially verifiable experience, stills from a video-recording that exists somewhere in our brains. In a game I recently played, that magic is literalised, the barrier at the photograph’s surface opened, the manifestation of the past expanded until it supplants the present. The dendritic flow of experience that our snapshots freeze and slice into a singular stream of morbid quanta, becomes a living, branching continuum, a habitable space.
Life Is Strange is a thoughtful work of fiction in the guise of a video game. It’s an adventure game, which is to say a game without action sequences, but a 3D one, in which the player freely traverses and explores a number of fully rendered volumes. Each space is essentially a puzzle, in an episodic format, which requires the player to find a path through the available actions until one of (usually) several conclusions is reached, at which point they move onto the next space. Such games traditionally have involved a certain amount of saving and loading, as various options are explored and rejected, but here that mechanism is built into the narrative. Max Caulfield, an 18 year-old high-school student in Oregon, discovers that she has the ability to rewind time and to second-guess her choices. What follows is a philosophical exploration of causality, in the form of an emotionally engaging story about friendship, loyalty, memory and loss, focussed on Max and her slightly older friend Chloe. Both young women are social outsiders to some degree, and the story also explores the experience of belonging, in various ways, to various contexts.
If the game has a genre, in its capacity as a fiction, it is a young adult story. I don’t say this because its central characters are young adults, but because at the centre of the plot is a particular kind of melodramatic, thrilling villainy which is characteristic of commercial work in the young adult genre. From my own middle-aged perspective, I didn’t feel like the story needed it: in fact, given the kind of teacher-protege relationship around which it is elaborated, an entirely prosaic form of villainy suggests itself, one which will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time around arts education. But this paragraph has already become a huge spoiler, so I’ll say no more on the specifics of the narrative, and if you ever choose to play this game, sweet lector, you will need to forget you read it.
The plot is entirely driven by the characters, and if the story is ‘about’ something, it is about their relationships. I guess I probably used to imagine that could only ever be said of a game like this, which does not make violence ludic, involve representative abstractions of strategic activity, or require the player to spend long periods of time managing an inventory of virtual objects. Having played Red Dead Redemption 2 I now have to concede that any genre of game could be fundamentally character-driven, but the developers of Life Is Strange made a sound decision to avoid such mechanics; other than movement, the only real game mechanic is Max’s rewinding ability, which is completely congruent with its narrative presence, aside from a simple graphic representation. This clear focus means that the game stands or falls as much on its writing and acting as on its design. Both are excellent, with the caveat regarding plot devices given above.
Controlling the actions of a character promotes identification, in a way that shortcuts much of the work required to establish them in more passively received forms of narrative; for this reason characters which are quite schematically rendered can become quite powerfully present for the player. It’s probably easy to overestimate the quality of writing in a game, and I guess that I am also inclined to cut games more slack than, say, TV series, simply because their developers didn’t care or even notice what quality of writing they commissioned for them until recent years. It’s easy to mistake a feeling of ‘wow, this isn’t terrible’ for one of ‘wow, this is brilliant’. So if I’m careful, and step back a few paces, the writing on Life Is Strange isn’t brilliant: much is simplified that you would expect to be given some nuance in a serious drama. But it’s certainly not bad, and the voice actors bring their characters to life, especially Hannah Telle as Max, and Ashley Burch as Chloe.
The experience of a game is not identical to the quality of its dramatic materials, however. So many factors combine, in ways that are still quite mysterious to me, that a well-made game produces an immersive effect that completely absorbs me, in a way quite distinct from any other medium. My lack of knowledge, my inability to analyse, makes games the only cultural form that I can experience while I’m playing them as pure entertainment. I don’t mean that I’m not entirely entertained or immersed in books or movies or other media, but that my critical faculties are always active as well. With games, my more rudimentary criticality takes aim after the event, in a way that is uncannily analogous to Max Caulfield’s rewinding of time and exploration of possibilities, as well, obviously, to the opportunity games afford to load a save and play them over. There is an amusing metafictional point to Life Is Strange, which is that its protagonist’s special ability is something that almost everyone will have fantasised about possessing (‘if only I could go back and say X’), but that every player of video games, within that limited arena, already commands. This game’s philosophical investigations, and its insistence on experience as a branching web of possibilities, put the seal on what is one of the most immersive and life-affirming interactive narratives I’ve enjoyed.