Warning: this does contain spoilers for later in the game. If you haven’t finished, Life is Strange, continue reading at your own risk..
Life Is Strange focuses on Max Caulfield during an odd time of her life. Max moves back to Arcadia Bay, Oregon, after having left a few years beforehand. As a narrative choice-based game, Life is Strange allows players to make decisions for Max and watch the consequences of (or in many critics’ eyes, the lack thereof) those actions.
While many narrative choice-based games hook the player on the story-line, Life Is Strange tries to go one step further. Life is Strange tries to give the player the opportunity to rethink and remake their decision any number of times. This manifests in an ability to rewind time and redo something. This mechanic is used throughout the game, sometimes with a puzzle mechanic, and sometimes with the player’s discretion alone.
The beauty of the rewind mechanic is that it allows the player to try other options, without committing to something that may not have been exactly what they thought it was at first. In some cases, the player may choose a dialogue option that does not properly convey the idea they thought it did. In this case, they can use the rewind mechanic to go back and choose something else, which, hopefully, fits their taste better. The addition of the rewind mechanic serves a powerful role in Life is Strange because a misinterpreted, or simply badly written dialogue choice can completely derail the illusion of acting as Character.
For example, some players enjoy adding their own decisions into a character’s life in order to see from their perspective, and to imagine how another person views not only their perspective, but how their perspective might be seen from another person. This is an important aspect of games, which not only allow the player to follow a character and their story, such as a novel or TV show may allow, but also to guide their actions, decisions, choices, and ultimately every aspect of their life within the constraints of the game. This means there is a much greater opportunity for the player to explore a character by exploring opinions and ideas of their own through the character.
In this way, the rewind mechanic helps us to see one powerful aspect of video games - the ability to explore a person's personal thoughts and preferences through the format of a character. That possibility is not the only one, though. For others, playing a character allows them to live as someone else for a bit. In fact, in some cases, it would be a much lesser experience to try to examine oneself from the perspective of a character acting in a virtual world. For those, this concept would be a net negative.
Further, in terms of the rewind mechanic, it allows the player not to commit to what may be a mistake. For example, a puzzle mechanic may be made to force the player to go back and make a specific choice. This is a form of railroading a story for some reason or other. This is purely a game-play aspect, though it assuredly could be used in a plot centric manner. In another way, though, it allows the player to prevent what they consider a mistake. In some games where dialogue choices are cut short in their description (Fallout 4, Mass Effect), they may say something entirely different, or at least feel different, from the shortened version that the player selects. This can be jarring and unnatural, and a rewind mechanic allows the player to avoid those dialogue choices. Clearly, though, the best solution here is to simply have better dialogue and dialogue selection.
Another aspect of the time travel mechanic means that additional information can be given to the player through dialogue and events that happen, chronologically, after the point at which that information would be useful. The player can then rewind time, use that information, and continue on with informed choices, or otherwise interact in a more fitting way. This exact same formula can also be used for puzzle mechanics.
This is clearly notable in one of the first puzzles in the game. A character named Victoria, one of the popular girls at Blackwell Academy (Max’s school) is hogging the dorm steps, blocking your way back to Max’s room. On playing through this section the first time, the player will notice a paint can. The player can manipulate the paint can to fall on Victoria, clearing her out of the way, and allowing Max to get back to her room.
One of the most interesting takes on the time travel mechanic in Life Is Strange is the ability that Max has to travel through photographs and literally change history. In one case, Max is able to use a photograph to go to the past and change the way a certain character’s life plays out. This completely changes them, and while it may be the best possible thing for that character, it also explores the story concept that the best thing for a single character may not be the best thing for a number of others.
The time travel mechanic changes the game in a large number of ways. First of all, it gives a greater sense of possibility. While this aspect is mostly from a story perspective, it nonetheless provides a sense of mystery and curiosity to the player, and helps hook the player into Max’s story.
Time travel, from a player’s perspective, also provides a sense of agency. Players are given the power to pick and choose their decisions with a greater understanding of the possible consequences (though not all of the consequences) and can even begin to feel as though the story they are playing is not merely Max’s, but also their version of Max’s story. This provides a sense of ownership for the story, in addition to a sense of control over it.
The ability to rewind also allows a sense of safety. Players can pick and choose which dialogue they prefer by taking advantage of the rewind mechanic. This helps prevent the fear of missing out on a better dialogue choice, since you can either go back and choose the other, or test each possibility first, to see which option a player most prefers.
There’s also a greater sense of perspective in the game as a result of the time travel mechanic. The ability to see the consequences, and alternative opinions of other characters, allows the player to see what is most important, and fosters a greater sense of perspective. What may seem to be an inane, lifeless, and awful character in one scenario may take on an entirely different life once the player goes down another route and hears more about them. The possibilities for extensive character development through the use of the rewind mechanic is amazing.
Perhaps one of the subtlest novelties of the time travel mechanic is that it allows the player to feel as though they are in Max’s place, making her decisions, but without the negative of filling Max’s role as a character. Max is not a self-insert, and is a developed character of her own, and the player gets the opportunity to walk through her story with her, experiencing her life along with her. This is effected through the ability to alter the choices Max makes, correcting whatever mistakes have been previously chosen.
Finally, the time travel mechanic makes it easier to make a choice. As has been previously touched upon, it lessens the player’s fear of missing out. This helps prevent choice paralysis throughout the game as there is much less possible loss associated with making a decision, especially since most of them can be immediately reverted.
One area in which Life is Strange might have better taken advantage of the time mechanic is to allow the player to go back further in the game at different times. For story purposes, this might provide specific sections of the game, after a major plot point, for example, to go back and change previous decisions, or even completely change the past in lieu of future events.
Another case, and possibly an example of a completely missed opportunity to expand the game in a beneficial way, is that of the photographs ability that Max unlocks later in the story. This ability could have been used in many interesting ways, including simple one-off ways to explore the backstory of multiple characters. It might have also bee
For all of the opinions on Life is Strange, the rewind mechanic provided a lot of positives. It acted as a hook into the game, and even worked double-time to get the player invested. It helped to flesh out some characters, giving extra backstory and additional events with them. It gave the players a better opportunity to problem solve than some other games have done with their choice-based game-play, and it, overall, just felt fun to play around with.