Can love fix Life is Strange?
If you've ever said or done something and immediately wished you could take it back, you'll appreciate the premise of Life is Strange. A game about having the ability to rewind time and fix your mistakes, its cleverest idea was to give that power to an 18-year-old— because who else is as full of regret and shame as a teenager? If anyone needs access to temporal do-overs it's an indecisive kid. And so Arcadia Bay student Maxine Caulfield uses her time powers to not only save lives and solve the mystery of a missing girl named Rachel, but also to take back every single embarrassing thing she says and does. And like you at that age, she says and does a lot of embarrassing stuff, it's just that Max has the ability to clean the past like a blackboard and draw in a better version.
Life is Strange hit a nerve with many of its players, and I was one of them. They filled Tumblr with fan art and fiction; I wrote articles for PC Gamer. Life is Strange made you want to contribute. It had the kind of demonstrative fandom shared by Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter or Star Wars, where dedicated fans are inspired to add to the original but often disagree with the creator's vision while they're at it. They have their own ideas about who should have paired up with who at the end of Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows or whether the prequels count or what really happened with Moriarty.
This stuff goes back at least as far as 1893, when Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes and then waited almost a decade to bring him back. It was an unpopular move. Sherlockians – that is what they call themselves – filled this “Great Hiatus” with their own stories, resurrecting the fictional detective themselves. They were writing early examples of what fans now know as “fix-fic”, the kind of fanfiction that takes issue with the original and sets out to repair or replace it entirely.
As important as Life is Strange was to its fans, it also divided them. First there were its romantic options: classic nice guy Warren inspired a vocal hatedom, and while blue-haired punk Chloe was more popular, there were fans unimpressed by the sense of being presented with these two options as though they were reading an in-flight menu. Since Life is Strange was released episodically, there were the usual “which episode is the worst” arguments, but here they tended to focus on the fifth and final chapter, which took a turn for the dark so severe it felt like surviving an endurance test. The plot's revelations were divisive too, with twists that were shocking to the point of exhaustion.
So some of the most creative fans of Life is Strange made their own fix-fic, a game called Love is Strange. It's a visual novel that takes place in a version of Arcadia Bay where Rachel never went missing, and where Max doesn't need the ability to manipulate time to save anyone or solve anything. In fact, very little of the original game happens in this alternate timeline: nobody gets shot, there is no tornado, and the skeevy photography teacher seems to never have existed.
Instead, Love is Strange has Max take part in a photography competition run by a teacher who is a gender-neutral cartoon hot dog (yes, really) while also romancing one of four ladies – her childhood BFF Chloe, snobby rival Victoria, new friend Kate, and Rachel Amber herself, the missing girl whose absence is central to Life is Strange, where she exists mainly in rumors and on posters.
In between its Scooby-Doo investigation and time-travel shenanigans, Life is Strange was a game of quiet moments and awkwardly sincere conversations, earnest teenagers listening to indie music and being endearingly pretentious while trying to figure out their feelings and their futures. That's the part Love is Strange focuses on. Instead of performing a light adventure-game puzzle to prevent a train from hitting someone or to convince some bullies to let you into your dorm, you make decisions about what gift to buy a friend, or choose how to answer their probing questions.
Life is Strange took a couple of episodes to find its characters' voices, but the writers of Love is Strange have them down pat. Reading their dialogue for Chloe Price, I could imagine her voice actor Ashly Burch delivering it all. Even Rachel's voice rings true, and she's a character mostly extrapolated from a collection of hints and second-hand stories.
That fidelity is important because in spite of the differences in plot and tone between Life and Love, these characters need to feel like the same people we grew attached to in the original. The closer they are, the more easily we can use them to play out our preferred version of “how things should have been”— and then test out the other storylines to get a glimpse of what those ardent shippers on Tumblr see in the less sensible pairings, the ones that differ from your own One True Love version of events.
That's fine, but playing through Love is Strange really reminded me how much I'd enjoyed Life is Strange. Even though I wrote a couple of thousand words about how disappointed I was in its ending, and I warn people who haven't played it that it doesn't really get good until the climax of episode two, there was a lot to like about the middle of Life is Strange, which is where most games shine anyway.
It's an emotionally affecting game, both in the serene moments where you sit down and watch light play across scenery for as long as you want and also in the shocking twists, even though they display a brutal disregard for its own characters. Life is Strange is about the brief time we might have with our loved ones, whether death or simply growing up and apart is what separates us. It makes you reflect on relationships in your own life and see how important they are. That's a rare achievement for a video game.
Love is Strange takes away Max's power and gives it to the players, so we can rewind time and undo everything before winding it forward again to choose our own perfect, happy ending. That's fun, and obviously a lot of work went into it – thousands of words, new art, new music – but in the end it only made my feelings about Life is Strange clearer. The problems I had with its ending weren't that it was dark and unhappy, but that it didn't bother tying up loose ends, that it fell back on some embarrassing cliches, and that one of its two branches felt a bit underwritten. I'm happy to have a sad ending, so long as it makes sense. Love is Strange performs its repair-work with gusto, but it's fixing something that wasn't broken in the first place
That said, I would love a BioShock visual novel in this style where I didn't have to shoot anyone and could just enjoy the backdrop of an impossible city while talking to the weirdos who live there.
Love is Strange can be downloaded from Tumblr.