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In the early days of 2018, a little game called Life Is Strange popped up as a freebie on PlayStation Plus. Incapable of saying no to something free (except STDs), I gave it a go.
For those of you who haven't heard about it, Life Is Strange is an episodic graphic-adventure video game that emphasises player choices in gameplay. You play as Max Caufield, an 18-year-old photography student studying at Blackwell Academy, which is in the fictional seaside town called Arcadia Bay.
She has a vision of an apocalyptic tornado destroying her hometown during a photography class, which quickly introduces several characters and mechanics that you'll be utilising throughout the series. The big change and the main selling point of the game came when she tries to intervene when a boy in her class shoots a girl in the girls' bathroom. She discovers she has the ability to rewind, and to an extent, control time, making every choice she makes enact the butterfly effect.
It's a comprehensive mechanic for gameplay, it allows you to uncover clues about the people around you to get the right information out of them, allowing for better conversations, and also lets you alter the environment to help you progress the game. The first episode is fairly cheesy, and you could easily mistake it for just a regular teen-life game, but it interested me enough to continue.
Now there are certain points of the game that is linear, and no amount of time jiggery-pokery can change what occurs. In the second episode, without wanting to give much away, Max's powers stop working at a critical moment, and it's down to you to make the right choices the first time.
I was so certain I was saying the right things and doing the right things, but as I looked back over my actions of the first two episodes, I realised I couldn't have been more wrong. I'm not afraid to admit that it made me bawl my eyes out, as did every episode from two through to five.
I couldn't bring myself to play it again for more than three months.
It's not the first time that I've cried over a video game, and I doubt it'll be the last (Life Is Strange 2 comes out in a month) but this was on a level that I'd never felt before.
In the past ten years, the general public has started taking the gaming industry more seriously as a real art form. They're right to. Video games give more time for people to be immersed in these varied and beautiful worlds with a level of interactivity that other entertainment mediums simply cannot provide.
Life Is Strange hit me hardest because while the gameplay hinges around messing around with time, it's a deep character piece that dives head-first into some seriously dark issues; depression, suicide, bullying, sexual harassment, and that's just skimming the surface, the smallest and softest of skimming stones. It's a game full of incredible characters that, even though some of them are shit people, they're brilliantly portrayed and make it all the more compelling.
For those reading who know me, you already know my history with mental health issues, so you'll know why and how a game like this would upset me or affect me in some capacity. In a conversation with a friend about it over this previous weekend, she went as far as to say it's the kind of game that shouldn't really be allowed to be played. I'll get back to why I disagree with her, and others, later.
The use of altering time becomes second nature to you through design; you take it for granted. You get lured into a false sense of security thinking that you can't possibly make mistakes. But that's when the game pulls the rug from under you and proves you wrong.
It's very unlikely you'll have an identical playthrough to someone else you'd talk about this game with. The wealth of choices that are made during your time in Arcadia Bay each have some kind of impact on the narrative, some more subtly, in the short term, while others are more dramatic, providing seismic shifts in the narrative that can be carried through right until episode five's conclusion.
Multiple choices and the butterfly effect are nothing new for games or movies, but there's something about the way it's presented in Life Is Strange that really just clicks with me.
After my three-month hiatus, I jumped back into the game with a huge air of caution having been briefly reminded of my cock-ups in the previous two episodes. I worked my way through the remaining three episodes in around two weeks.
To say things only got darker would be an understatement. The ways in which Max learns to manipulate time become increasingly baffling and continue to alter reality as a whole. Some of the choices you're offered really require you to stop and think because they carry this awful weight to them that you just know could come back and mess with you further down the line. The game becomes so dark and increasingly twisted and it's hard to keep track of what is real and what isn't. It burrows so deep into the rabbit hole and doesn't stop until it miraculously pops out the other side.
As I said earlier, every episode from two to five made me cry a great deal. I'm not ashamed nor embarrassed by this; I think it's good not only how much I became invested in the game and its characters (shoutout to my friend who pointed this out while simultaneously calling me a flannel), but also how it actually brought out such strong emotional responses from me. Considering how difficult it's been in the past few years to elicit any kind of genuine emotions from me at all, I felt this was a positive to take away from the experience.
I will say, again without spoiling, that the final choice you are required to make in this game is remarkably simple, but it's also one of the most horrible and heart-breaking choices you could ever make in gaming as a whole.
When I came to the conclusion of the game, and to this choice, I stopped playing for a solid fifteen minutes. I was already in pieces, and this last choice I just knew was going to break me even further. But despite all of the emotions running high, it gave me time to think about the choice. It became less about an arbitrary "A or B" choice and more a question of what was best for the story I'd created, put up against the morality of the player (me) and what I'd do if I was put in Max's shoes.
I went against what I'd chosen myself to better serve the story. Despite believing that I am a good person in real life, I've proven on multiple occasions (again, both IRL and on LIS) that despite firmly believing that I could be doing the right thing, ultimately, I don't always make the right decisions. It brought about a genuine sadness that I couldn't shake off for several days after I'd finished.
My parents had made several comments that it probably isn't the best sort of game for someone with a history of mental health problems to play. I can see their point, they want to make me happy after all, but I wholeheartedly disagree.
In our society, there remains a great deal of stigma and misconceptions about mental health issues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you've got those who romanticise the issues and therefore undermine their significance and impact on the lives of the individuals who have the misfortune of having to suffer.
For all its tricks with time and charming characters, Life Is Strange paints these issues in such a brutally honest way that it's so relieving and refreshing to see that there are companies out there made up of a number of great people that just get what MH sufferers can go through.
Although it can be difficult to watch and go through at times, this is one of the game's many strengths. I found it difficult because I related to some of the issues it presented, and I can guarantee I'm far from the only one. It was also a lovely touch that, once you complete the game, the creators put up a help page on the game's website to several different mental health charities and forums if you'd found yourself particularly distressed by the scenes in the game. It's nice that these people actively show some care for their fans' wellbeing.
Life Is Strange is one of my favourite video games of all time now. It tells a beautiful story, and while the gameplay itself is simple, it's incredibly engaging and keeps you interested, never afraid to pull off some incredible plot twists that'll crack through even the toughest of gamers' hearts out there. While the dialogue and the premise may not be everyone's cup of tea, it stands tall as a triumph in multiple-choice gaming and one of the finest heartbreaks I'll ever suffer from.
I'm now amassing the courage to play its prequel, Before the Storm, so I can be prepared for Life Is Strange 2 when it drops September 27. Popcorn and tissues will be stocked up in preparation.