I’ve recently been playing through Life is Strange, an episodic interactive drama that passed me by when it was first released in 2015. This is a style of game I’ve been intrigued by ever since I first played and fell in love with Telltale’s The Walking Dead series all the way back in 2012, with its branching storylines and shifting character relationships quickly investing me in its plot. The influence of that incredible game is overt throughout Life is Strange, but developer Dontnod brings enough new ideas to the table to keep the experience fresh; unlike Telltale’s ever-growing stable of adaptations, Life is Strange features a completely original premise and cast of characters and, despite not offering the familiarity of a beloved franchise, was very quickly able to draw me into its world.
18-year-old Max Caulfield, a quietly intelligent photography enthusiast, is struggling through her first few weeks at elite arts school Blackwell Academy when she discovers she has the ability to rewind time. This rewind mechanic is put to very creative uses in Life is Strange, serving as not only a tool with which to solve puzzles but also as a way to preview the immediate consequences of decisions made by the player. Early on, shaken by the sight of one student threatening another with a gun, Max must decide whether or not to tell the school principal what she’s witnessed. Will the principal believe her? Will he be more suspicious if Max simply says nothing? While the player must eventually make a final decision, they’re able to get enough of a glimpse of the future to inform their choice. Max’s constant revisiting of her own past eventually has graver consequences but the game remains on a very human level, using a huge science fiction concept to tell a personal, intimate story.
“Obstacles” by Syd Matters, used to score the final moments of Episode 1, is similarly dichotomous in this regard, feeling small and epic all at the same time. As freak snowfall hits the sunny town of Arcadia Bay, we briefly visit each of the major characters in the story as they’re stunned by this strange weather, unaware that it represents a portent of a far more devastating storm. “Obstacles” is a major factor in the success of this sequence, linking these small scenes together and making these disparate characters feel like parts of a bigger whole. Something extraordinary is brewing in Arcadia Bay and its going to impact on the lives of each and every one of these people, something that is all too easy to forget when seeing so much of a story from the perspective of its main character. Other songs by Syd Matters can be heard throughout the game but none are used quite as successfully as “Obstacles”, contributing as it does to a transcendent sequence that is truly moving, something that too many people believe video games to be incapable of.