The best part of watching a television show, for me, is what happens off the screen; sitting around talking about plot points with my wife afterwards, or reading recaps online to gain new character insights. There’s something about TV, more than other media, that makes it feel communal — but video games are starting to fill that role as well. In fact, in some ways episodic titles like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us — experiences with the structure of a TV show, but which are interactive like a game — are even better suited for that kind post-episode discussion. Because they are choice-driven experiences, where your decisions influence the way the story unfolds, there’s so much more to talk about; you’re not discussing the story, but your story, and how it differs from everyone else.
One game in particular has grabbed my attention this year: the time-travelling teen drama Life is Strange, which just wrapped up its fifth and final episode last week. In this new golden age of television, my favorite new show might be a video game.
Life is Strange debuted back in January, and it tells the story of Max, a young high school student with dreams of being a photographer. She lives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest called Arcadia Bay, and early in the series realizes she has an incredible power: she can rewind time, venturing into the past to change events. Eventually she, and her best friend Chloe, start to use this power to solve the disappearance of a classmate. The story has the feel of shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars; young people solving crimes, while also dealing with typical high school drama. There are breakups and unrequited crushes, and eventually the game touches on suicide and other dark themes. Toward the end of the series, it takes on a definite Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vibe.
The experience of playing isn’t all that different from watching a TV show, just more involved. You spend a lot of time watching on-screen events, without pushing a button, but you'll also get to explore the settings and make choices on behalf of the characters. And that’s really where the game gets interesting, because the decisions you make influence how the story unfolds. This is especially true with Max’s time travel power: at several points in the game, you’ll have the option to go back in time and change something significant. But you never really know how those changes will impact the present, and saving one person’s life could ruin another’s. The consequences of your actions aren’t always clear until much later, and realizing you screwed up when it's already too late can hit hard.
One of the great things that Life is Strange, and most similar games, does is keep track of your choices, and then show you how your decisions compare to other players. You can see what percentage of players decided to save that homeless guy from a fire, and when the results are lopsided it can be especially interesting. I often found myself wondering why I was one of the few who made a particular choice. Did I miss something? Or did I see something others didn’t. The finale ends with one of these moments, and I still can’t believe anyone would choose the other option. This helps make Life is Strange a fantastic communal experience. A person watching can feel as involved as the one holding the controller, offering advice for difficult choices or tips on how to best use Max’s rewind power.
These aspects aren’t unique to Life is Strange. Telltale Games has built an ever-growing lineup of episodic games that all use a similar structure, ranging from the gruesome Walking Dead to the more family-friendly Minecraft: Story Mode. But the five episodes of Life is Strange are different for a few reasons. For starters, it’s a totally new story; most episodic games, especially those from Telltale, are based on existing properties. But Life is Strange introduces a fascinating, original story and some great characters that I really grew to care about (even if I hated some of them at first). It also has a tone that is completely unique to games, sort of like an indie movie crossed with Veronica Mars. It explores the lives of young people in way that’s interesting, and punctuates intense revelations with relaxed periods of calm. One of the early scenes has you walking Max down the hall at her school while listening to music; later on she can sit on a swing and think about things for a bit.
Combined, these aspects make for an incredibly memorable experience. I’ve played a lot of games, but nothing that feels like Life is Strange. It has a number of problems — awkward dialogue, uneven pacing, and some tedious puzzles — but now that I’m finished the story, those aren’t the parts that I remember. I keep going back to the girl I could’ve saved if only I’d said the right thing, or whether it was right to value one person’s life over the rest of the town. Like the best fiction, these moments have stuck with me well after I put down the controller and stopped playing. I still love TV, and won’t stop watching iZombie or Brooklyn Nine Nine anytime soon, but Life is Strange offers something different: a deeper connection to the story that comes from being part of it.