An intangible quality inhabits the very best games and makes them resonate with us for reasons that we can’t always put our fingers on. This can be small or large, but it’s always personal. Generally speaking, this tends to be what people mean when they talk about something being more than the sum of its parts. Figuring out exactly why this happens is one of the more interesting parts of the medium, because gaming can not only create such personal experiences, it can create incredibly versatile ones. This is due in large part to interactivity. It is because of the player’s power to interact with the medium that two people can play the same game – the same part of that game – and take away completely different experiences because of the way they chose to play. Life Is Strange held the key to this for me – let’s look at why.
Recently I keep coming back to (and boring my friends with to the point where they look longingly toward the window, or rather to the ground below) Life Is Strange. It seemed to be that game for a long time. I would raise it with certain people, and it would often be met with the narrowed stare of recognition, followed by the “Oh yeah that looked interesting,” or “Oh god I love that game so much” responses. The latter of those two is always a treat.
I GOT ACCEPTED INTO BLACKWELL ACADEMY
Life Is Strange cannot be discussed without talking about its setting; there is rarely as strong a sense of place as this in gaming. The physical space that perfectly anchors the game to its themes is Blackwell Academy itself. Not only did it tie the characters together within a geographical space, but it became the silent force driving them. To visit that irritating cliché: it was really another character in its own right (*shudders*).
Being at Blackwell transports me back to crisp autumn mornings spent smoking cigarettes and idly chatting with friends before classes began, to the first time I saw the crumbling brick of my university campus when I first arrived – also in autumn. In fact, even the season is important; not only does Max remark on it in her diary, but a large part of Out of Time (my favourite) is spent soaking in the chilly, bright sun as you wander the campus grounds. I was brought back to a time before I was burdened with responsibility, to a time now painted over with the soft glow of nostalgia. Unlike the smells, photographs, diary entries, and the most-elusive memories themselves, games allow us the power to transport back and relive as we choose. That ability comes not from this game in particular, even though it revolves around time travel, but because the medium itself allows us this central freedom: the freedom to abstain. I still remember the first time I was let loose on Blackwell campus in Episode Two; I did something not afforded to me in film or books, I stopped. I moved the camera to take in the sights, I idled along pathways and drank it all in, noting every student, getting used to the layout. I knew this was a place I wanted to be, and I was enjoying just being. (Needless to say if I carried this out in reality – this obsessive loitering – then I would probably be escorted away, and perhaps quite rightly so.)
This is the intangible quality that makes Life Is Strange more than the sum of its parts. I know that not everyone did what I did; I know that it won’t have resonated in that way with most people because it’s a personally emotive connection. This is due in no small part to working a job that I hated at the time I was playing, which drove my desire to travel back to a happier time and place. So then, it becomes apparent quite fast that all these little contributing factors form my love for the game, and sadly that same connection will not be present for everyone.
The central ideas at play in Life is Strange are the way that we avoid living in the present as we navigate through, the idea of trying to recapture something lost, the way that people move in and out of our lives as time passes, and finally regret. Touching on my own circumstances in a little more detail, the idea of not just escaping, but of going back was a hugely attractive prospect for me. The early twenty-something is a curious creature. Get out of university, get a job. The whole idea of going to university was to get a job, a good job, it meant happiness, fulfillment; it meant the future! But then all of a sudden the job sucks, and there are bills, and rent, and council tax. The sensible option that doesn’t exist is to get the hell out of there, to go back, retreat!
For me Life Is Strange was like the tonic, the lotion for the itch; it gave me a story populated with people I cared for, and let me re-live a time not so beyond a stone’s throw in my memory. The game had that rarest of things: it was a pleasurable place to be. Some games are fun to play, other games are fun to inhabit. Their tone and their mood are conducive to comfort and pleasure. The tone was pitch-perfect; whispers of David Lynch lent the game a constant feeling of soft anxiousness, as if something ugly were lurking under every veneer. The idyllic Pacific Northwest of its setting – aside from being a direct nod to Twin Peaks – gave the game a serene feel while playing through. It made you feel like you could escape the conflicts within the game’s narrative merely by wandering. Tone cannot really be quantified because it’s so subjective, and it’s difficult to imagine a publisher putting “feel free in the game’s peaceful Pacific Northwest Setting,” on the back of the box.
The Blank Canvas
We project when we play, and so the game itself becomes the canvas. If you want to be a cold-hearted jerk, then you can, if you want to be a good Samaritan, then you can, if you want to abstain from all of it and wander the halls like a lost dog, you can. In this way there is a lot about Life Is Strange that the player has to be bring to it – I brought a lot to it. This choice allowed me to indulge my ‘what if?’ impulse, and the game’s time-shifting mechanic compounded this feeling of freedom. Not only could I now go back to school, in effect I could be the hero, the villain, the absentee day-dreamer, all wrapped up in one sitting! For me this was why the game held – and still holds – such sway, it doesn’t just encourage day-dreaming and wish-fulfillment, at times it demands it.
It demands that we bring our own elements to the table; all games do this. We can carefully set up shop in a particular part of a map in Call of Duty, and we can start calmly and coolly sniping our enemies or we can run through with a shotgun blazing a trail of destruction. It depends what kind of day you’ve had I suppose (I’ve had plenty of the latter kind of days when stuck on public transport on the way home). With Life Is Strange, it isn’t as though you can run through the halls guns blazing, but the way you see situations and view certain characters are dependent on your own experience. Whilst this is true of any game – of any art really – with Life Is Strange the love I felt came from my own past, my own experiences, and in a way that I hadn’t felt for other games. Its unique mix of parts came together and made a narrative experience that sent my brain to place long dormant.
So just what is the sum of its parts? Well, puzzling, exploration, point-and-click style intelligence gathering, and story-driven narrative. The game is all of these things but there’s so much more, and it isn’t apparent to everyone – rarely can there be a game that is universally acknowledged as such. The x-factor is only going to be there for some, but for those people, the experience will be one of the most potently nostalgic and therapeutically fun that there is in the medium.
What were the games that did this for you? These are the games that you seemed to love and passed others by. Why did they strike a chord with you? What was going on in your life at the time? Why were they more than the sum of their parts? What lies in that space?