I can’t tell you how many nights I lay awake as a teenager living in the rural Pacific Northwest, imagining how scenarios in my daily life could have played out differently. Every conversation was a minefield of things I wish I could change. If I had had the power to do that, I would’ve been…well, maybe not happier, but I certainly would have used it. And so far, that’s sort of the point of Life Is Strange.
Life is Strange is an episodic game starring Max, a teenage girl (who also lives in the rural Pacific Northwest, as fate would have it). Max is an ardent photographer who has recently moved back to the town she left a few years before. She finds that she can mysteriously turn back time at will—not a lot of time, but enough to do things like impress her teacher, or say the right thing to cheer up a friend. Or, get herself out of trouble when she messes up. You know, teenage stuff. You end up replaying these scenarios over and over again, trying to get the perfect outcome, but this doesn’t necessarily change things. Max isn’t really a happier—or better—person for it. She still struggles with all the same things she’s been struggling with.
A Game About Teens, But Not Just For Teens
Life is Strange is essentially about a bunch of teenagers navigating life’s many problems, some of them mundane, some less so. If you’ve ever watched a drama like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars, some of the themes will be familiar. Issues of bullying, homework and grades, fashion, and cliques abound. There are more serious problems too. At one point Max has to intervene in a spat between two girls after one is accused of sexting the other’s boyfriend. Very teenage stuff, until Max finds a positive pregnancy test.
The thing is, while plenty of teens enjoy these kind of stories, they aren’t really “teenage stories.” These are universal problems, at the very least because every one of us was a teenager at one point—and many of us have kids of our own. As adults we tend to section off stories about children as being only for the age group that the protagonist belongs to. I could cite plenty of examples of media about kids that isn’t for kids, and vice versa, but the main fault in this thinking is that we miss out on a myriad of incredible stories.
While I wouldn’t hesitate to play Life is Strange with someone younger than myself, the game has a lot more to offer than what is immediately apparent.
Going Back to High School Brings Up Memories
Most of us have old wounds inflicted during our high school years. Sometimes our memories can make certain events more horrible than they really were, and sometimes terrible things really did happen. Playing as a realistic teenager—albeit one with minor superpowers—was a more intimate experience than simply watching a television show about one.
Most games have you running around at high speeds, completing tasks (some more arbitrary than others) so that you can move forward. Life is Strange deals with this a little differently. Max simply wanders around her school on the first afternoon, reading posters and narrating things to herself. She doesn’t run; she walks, like one would do in real-life high school hallways. (You can make her jog if you get really bored, but I found it jarring—and there was a part of me that was worried I would get made fun of if I jogged my way around school.)
The school is filled with classmates, most of whom are doing their own thing, and Max will give you her thoughts on them if you ask her to. Most of the time her opinions are mildly judgmental tidbits, not terribly in-depth stuff. In fact, it’s fairly evident that Max spends most of her time focused internally, rather than trying to figure out what mechanisms make her classmates tick. It’s not that she doesn’t care—it’s just that she’s a teenager. Like most teens, she’s a little self-involved.
These are simple game mechanics, but combined with the atmosphere, they really took me back. I was a high schooler again. I know, it sounds kind of horrible, but it wasn’t. I now have the perspective to see past the surface-level interactions and understand more about what was really happening back then. As a teen it’s tough to see past bullying when you’re the victim, but as an adult it’s easier to see a kid lashing out because of anger or sadness. Playing through these scenarios as Max helped me remember individual events from my own high school years and see them differently. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to see them in a more peaceful, less emotionally bitter light. It was, and is, a very cathartic experience.
Memories Help Us Understand the Present
Teenagers are hard to understand. They themselves often have trouble navigating their own feelings and identities. It’s a point in our lives where a great deal of learning and growing needs to take place, with much of it happening away from the guiding hand of parents and other adults. Teens are essentially between worlds—not old enough to do what they want, but too old to do what they used to do. A lot of responsibility is placed on them to make friends, date, get good grades, make it into a good college, find jobs, and even plan the rest of their lives. Some teens do this while struggling with mental or physical illness. Some are abused at home, or take up drugs or alcohol, or become pregnant. They do these things while simultaneously having to ask for permission to go to the bathroom. If you’ve spoken to a teenager recently, you’ll know that this is a great source of frustration for them, understandably so.
That perspective I was talking about before also tells us that many teenagers are truly in need of more guidance than they want in their lives. Whether they like it or not, as adults we are responsible for their health and well being, and they don’t always make it an easy task. One of the most common complaints from teens, I think, is that adults don’t understand them. (Or indeed, that no one does.) A related one is the age-old question, “Why don’t they get it? Don’t they remember what it’s like to be one of us?” Parents and teachers are constantly striving to find ways to connect with the younger generation, and often making pretty massive missteps along the way, partly because of our memories fail us the further away in years we get.
While Life is Strange certainly won’t jive with every teen’s lived experience, the way the game pulls the player back does offer insight into our own memories, and thus into our kids’ lives. When Max witnesses a fellow student pulling a gun on someone else, the principal doesn’t believe her, and in fact threatens to have her expelled for lying. (Perhaps the game is unrealistic in this particular case, but it’s reminiscent of what many kids experience in cases of abuse.) If she rewinds time and opts not to share what she’s seen, she herself is safe, but is left with a sense of helplessness. She is not granted the same personhood as an adult might be, and her problems, no matter how severe, are not treated with the respect they deserve. In the same way that adults often consider kids’ media to be only consumable by kids, we also sometimes put young people’s problems into the same box. That is, we ignore those problems or diminish them.
The same afternoon that Max is left out to dry by her principal, she finds the pregnancy test in her friend’s room. The player can ask the friend about it, or they can pretend they didn’t see it. (A third, perhaps important option, is to ignore the test and not look at it—I have a strong feeling that few players take this route, though.) This isn’t an easy decision. Luckily, Max can rewind time and try it a few different ways, but there’s no guarantee that any of these paths is the “right” one. One thing that is clear, though, is that she probably doesn’t trust the adults in her life with this piece of information—why should she? Would you?
Both of these events illustrate the tough situations teens often find themselves in, partly because of their age, and partly in spite of it. An unexpected pregnancy is no laughing matter, and neither is attempted murder. When these things happen in real life, adults are often quick to ask why the kids didn’t tell someone, or why they didn’t reach out to a fellow student in need. These are legitimate questions, but if we can’t put ourselves in a high school student’s shoes, we can’t make any assumptions about their motives, either.
Life is Strange isn’t necessarily a game about the teenage experience. All teens are different, because all people are different, and there is huge diversity in how people navigate high school (or don’t, for that matter). I don’t want to insinuate that the game portrays what being a teen is all about. What it does do, at least for me, is catapult me back in time as a reminder of my own experiences, and because of that I feel better equipped to understand the kids in my life today. The frustration, the confusion, and the complications of being a teenager are all brought to the forefront, and those are pretty universal.