Immersion is Strange: Why Life is Strange is an Empathetic Masterpiece

[Life is Strange is an episodic story driven game this post will contain nothing but spoilers. Sorry.]

We have all experienced those pocketed quiet moments. No more profound than walking out your front door. In those fleeting interconnected moments we experience what Miyazaki describes as ma.

“The time in between my clapping is ma.” – Hayao Miyazaki.

In game design this theory is replicated in design by subtraction, seen in the vast open traverses of Journey or Shadow of the Colossus. It is a concept seen in many successful titles spanning all media. When used effectively this idea draws the player in immensely, the implementation of so little, is so immersive that it could keep us talking about a game for years.

Time spent doing little is what makes Life is Strange so powerful.
Time spent doing little is what makes Life is Strange so powerful.

A poignant experience in Dontnod’s latest title Life is Strange is initiating quiet moments and listening to the thoughts of 18 year old college student Max. Life is Strange follows Max’s return to her hometown to study photography at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, after 5 years abroad. Through dramatic circumstances Max discovers she can rewind time. Max is already being fronted by her past, and acclimatising to her new life when manipulating time is thrust upon her. Her past is personified in the best friend she left behind, Chloe. While Max’s new superpower can alter a moment in an instant the lost time with Chloe is something she will never regain. Dontnods earnest representation of fleeting time makes the time you spend quietly enjoying the game all the more immersive and intimate.

From a narrative standpoint, Life is Strange offers a most sincere insight into teenage existence, and all the cringe worthy insecurity that goes with it. The game has been notably flagged for having jaw-clenching and borderline cheesy dialogue. From my own experience with the game this “flaw” made it more immersive for me. I remember saying things like “hella” and “are you cereal?” in high school, and that Life is Strange doesn’t shy away from recounting these aspects brings immersion to the forefront of play.

The Junkyard is full of memories.
The Junkyard is full of memories.

Dotted throughout the game there are opportunities for Max to become engrossed in her own thoughts for a while. Places where you can linger and sift through the world around you. You begin to realise that while Max, who holds a new perception over time and how she can manipulate it, she is acutely aware that time is slipping through her outstretched hand. Her visions of an impending catastrophe hang over her like an impending deadline. Even her home town of Arcadia Bay that feels like a place that time forgot, frozen like a photograph. The Junkyard Max and Chloe visit in episode two “Out of Time” is a prominent place where this experience is captured. As you wander through this place, which was a favourite hangout spot of Chloe and her friend Rachel, you are given the opportunity to ponder the past of all the discarded objects strewn across the heap. Max finds an old den where Chloe and Rachel would spend their time and it becomes clear that Max left Chloe here, discarded.

Chloe (left) filled the void left by Max by meeting Rachel (right)
Chloe (left) filled the void left by Max by meeting Rachel (right)

It is a feeling that anyone who has ever changed school or gone to university is familiar with. As someone who has drifted away from friends this way, this was exceptionally powerful. Enticing these melancholic experiences feels like looking at a photograph, and one can empathise with Max in her decision to study photography. With time slipping away it is easy for one to feel destitute, so capturing these moments preserves what time takes away.

polaroidpictures
Max and her Polaroids.

Moving away from narrative and into the design of the mechanics, the most unique feature is the ability to rewind time. This is invaluable as a storytelling tool and generates interesting puzzle based gameplay. If we look at other games of this genre we immediately think of games produced by Telltale games, and anyone who has played the games like Wolf Among Us or The Walking Dead will know crisis of “No, no that’s not what I meant to say.” In these circumstances you must either stick with your choice or reboot the game and open a previous save to have another crack at your choice. Max’s time rewind superpower does away with the Telltale standard and allows players to make a decision, then rewind if they don’t like what their actions brought about or simply want to see all their options. This eliminates the immersion breaking hassle of restarting the game when presented with a choice.

You would think however that being able to reverse time would let you make the perfect decision every time. What becomes clear is that the right choice is never clear, its not as simple as black and white. Max is an 18 year old student, and all her choice options are made from this juvenile perspective and the outcome is never quite what she hopes. Therefore since there is not always a clear cut right answer this engages the players own moral compass, encouraging the poignant notion of what would you do as opposed to what would Max do. I’ve never had an experience with a game where I felt more engaged with the characters than Life is Strange.

Max listens to music in the intro sequence.
Max listens to music in the intro sequence.

I started playing Life is Strange at a point when I felt disheartened by the tough realities of school. Days didn’t seem easy. I was looking for a game to play, and realised I had nothing in my steam library that was appealing given how I was feeling. I didn’t know what to expect from Life is Strange but I felt like things were getting better even after staying up till 2 a.m playing on a school night. I didn’t need a happy go lucky game, or a violent game to take my mind away. What I got was something pent up and hopeful, something sincere. Playing the introduction sequence where Max walks down the hallway at school with headphones on blew me away, introducing me to the exceptional sountrack of Life is Strange. So little was at work but it exceeded every expectation I had.

Life is Strange is a story woven together with interconnected ephemeral moments. Moments that feel as real as if they were our own.

– Battz


References:

– Hoogenband, C. (2015). Retrieved from Button Masher. Life is Stange: Immersion, Expression and Empathy in Video Games.

– Hamilton, K. (2015). Retrieved from Kotaku. What Telltale could learn from Life is Strange.

– Belman, J., Flanagan, M. (2010). Designing Games to Foster Empathy.

– Brown, E., Cairns, P. (2004). A Grounded Investigation of Game Immersion.

– Eskelinen, M. (2001). The Gaming Situation.

– Ebert, R. (2002). Hayao Miyazaki Interview.

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