The ability to go back in time and change what you’ve done is a life-changing super power. One that can fix mistakes, explore different options, remove regret, and save lives. There’s so many possibilities that it would be hard not to abuse it.
For a story, especially a video game story, a power like that is sure to be exploited. After all, games are about doing something over and over. What’s to stop you from re-doing everything? Some games are even built from this assumption. Dark Souls, and most recently, Bloodborne—which beckons me to play it as I write this—are games that take the usually out-of-fiction respawn and place it into the fiction. Dark Souls challenges are designed with re-dos in mind. Learning through error, not winning on your first try, is the goal.
Life Is Strange’s first episode, Chrysalis, wasn’t interested in exploring this concept. Max Caulfield’s time-rewind power was a tool to survive her high school peers. It could save lives–and it did–but Caulfield wasn’t born a heroine, and she wasn’t ready to jump right into the role. She would rather help someone dodge an incoming football than get involved in saving the world. The end of the episode, unsurprisingly, teased a catastrophic event for her little pacific northwest town, demanding, whether she likes it or not, for her to become a heroine by the end of this five episode series.
That’s a big deal to end on. Bigger than the second episode, Out of Time, deserves. It begins on the next morning. Caulfield is dragging through her dorm room in her underwear, playing guitar, texting her friends, and returning a book. Life Is Strange takes a sharp turn. This is not about cosmic threats; this is high school. At first, the episode’s care for the mundane is jarring. Everyone in the town could be doomed, yet we’re worried about getting to a breakfast date on time. What is this game?
The second episode turns Life Is Strange into the Twin Peaks game we never got. “Fire walk with me” is etched into a diner bathroom mirror, so I’m confident I’m not the only one at this conclusion. This episode is all about filling out the history of the town. You’ll talk to fishermen upset with harbor rights, find fliers advertising boat trips and bigfoot hunts, and meet men and women with history to tell. Caulfield doesn’t need a super power to travel back in time because this town hasn’t changed.
The small town story continues as you track the status of your high school friends and enemies. As expected, your decisions in the last episode bring consequences to the second, but none of them have a great impact. What’s more important is learning about the students, and watching as the game finally turns some of them into proper characters. Caulfield’s relationship with Warren grows, one of her rival Victoria’s friends is humanized, and she spends more rebellious time with Chloe. There’s a longer list of small progressions for everyone. It’s all minutiae to build a compelling case for saving this town, these people.
Out of Time isn’t all talking though. There’s another set of big choices to make and a few puzzles to work out. The biggest event is saving Chloe’s life again. She gets stuck on a train track and of course the train is coming. You race around looking for what needs to be done and what kind of tools you’ll need to do it. On a pure mechanical level, it’s satisfying to solve a problem under duress, but don’t ignore how disturbing this scenario is. Imagine someone, let alone a friend, nearby is seconds away from getting hit by a train. Their blood curdling screams rip through your mind as you’re desperately trying to save their life. You fail, so you rewind and do it again. The screams return just as they were. It’s worrying to me that Caulfield can repeat the imminent, violent death of her best friend over and over and not speak about it for the rest of the episode. The lack of consequences for something so terrible is uncomfortable, especially given that the characters treat it like another amazing win for the day. I’m still not sure how to take this.
That, combined with the game also dealing with a possible rape and suicide in the episode makes me worried for how it will handle the heavy topics it’s keeps bringing in. These are things that are easy to misrepresent when tied to secondary characters. Games are pretty well-versed in the explosive, bombastic, and catastrophic, but getting into incredibly raw, and very real topics is where there’s less precedent. For big games, this is tricky territory. Life Is Strange has the potential to deal with it well, especially since it obviously cares more about its characters than its puzzles and mechanics. But that’s not something we can call at only two episodes in.
Out of Time is a strong episode that’s surprisingly more effective at describing what Life Is Strange is actually about than the first episode. It’s clear where the rewind mechanics sits in the game’s story: waiting in the background of a high school story that’s confident in where it’s going. Hopefully that confidence doesn’t get away from it.