A first look at Life is Strange, Xbox One's time-travelling smalltown adventure

Many games claim to “empower” the player, but many forget that you don’t have to be powerful to feel “powerful”. The smallest decision can be more invigorating than kicking a tower block over in Battlefield, if only because being able to choose at all is an incredible privilege - and decisions that seem small may have repercussions that are more dramatic, even, than the fall of a building.

Here’s an example from Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic adventure for Xbox One and Xbox 360 - the choice of whether to put music on when your friend Chloe asks you to, or explore her bedroom first. It sounds like a trifle, but what if your friend is a fizzling emotional wreck, eaten up with grief for her long-dead father and embittered by the “betrayal” that was your move to a different town? Poking through her belongings rather than heeding her wishes could ruin the relationship for good. It could also help you find out a little more about what’s happened during your absence from her life, about that mysterious friend of hers who’s gone missing recently, and about her violent and intensely paranoid stepdad.
Life is Strange is built around choices of this sort, the minutiae that go into the unfolding of daily life. It’s also, thematically and structurally, about seeing the other side of those choices. Leading lady Max is a 17 year old high school senior who’s returned to the picture-postcard town of Arcadia Bay in Oregon after several years’ absence, in order to investigate the disappearance of her old friend Richard. Early on in the game she’s mysteriously gifted with the ability to rewind time - facing towards the screen with one hand thrust out, as though appealing to the player, while the world distorts and reshapes all around her.

This might allow you to solve a simple environmental puzzle - moving a broom out of the way before opening a cupboard door, for example, so that it doesn’t fall and knock over a stack of boxes when Max tries to hide from Chloe’s stepdad. It also comes in handy during conversation - the retrospective smoothing-over of a chat about Chloe’s drug habit. There appear to be few dead-ends in terms of objects or people you can interact with and plot threads you can thus enable - something as simple as opening a toolshed cupboard may spin the narrative out in a different direction, or at least create a context for subsequent dialogue. More significant choices may be immortalised as photographs - Max is a budding camerawoman - and those photographs may then serve as a basis for conversations, as when Chloe catches sight of a picture Max accidentally took of her selling pot in the school toilets.

The less glamorous take on the time-rewinding thing - which is an evolution, obviously, of the memory editing sections in the developer’s Remember Me - is that it’s just a glorified reload feature. That’s not quite fair, though it’s a valid observation. For starters, rewinding allows you to go through the narrative event by event in reverse, and determine exactly where you want things to branch off. Dontnod is also adamant that there are no “wrong” decisions as such, only different and in theory equally entertaining outcomes, so the feel isn’t quite that of a classic point-and-clicker, where you’d fire up a save a million times over to get the better of a labyrinthine dialogue puzzle.

In terms of its art direction, premise and the writing, the game owes a debt to smalltown coming-of-age films like Juno and Garden State. Brought to life by graphics technology that eschews high fidelity textures in favour of warm colours and subtly accentuated proportions, its coastal setting is a work of painterly nostalgia, complete with a symbolic lighthouse and sun-blushed orchards. The interface is enticingly arts-and-crafty, highlighting objects for attention with thickly penned button icons and sketchbook cross-hatching. All in all, it’s an arresting vision that’s hampered only a little by some slightly painful dialogue, as when Max congratulates herself on her “mad skills” after solving a puzzle. The music, needless to say, is all whispery female vocals and acoustic guitar.

After the sales disaster that was Remember Me - a great but uneven action-adventure notable for not starring a fat-chested white man with a shaven head - Dontnod could hardly have been blamed for playing things safe with its next release. I wasn’t expecting Square Enix to greenlight another adventure game, either, so soon after the paranormal muddle that was Murdered: Soul Suspect. If there’s ever been a publisher-developer duo that seems more in need of a dependable, “core-pleasing” title with bags of guns, few pretensions and zero feelings, it’s this one. And yet, here we are with one of the freshest and most intriguing titles I’ve seen in a long, long while. Life is strange indeed.