I still remember Lyra, the child protagonist from the book trilogy His Dark Materials, who runs away from her Oxford home to save a friend, travels through gaps in the fabric that separates parallel universes, and falls in love with a boy from a universe not her own. I grew fond of Lyra and got to come along on her journey, but only as a spectator: when trouble found her, there was no way to help her, nothing to do but turn the page and hope.
When I got to know Maxine Caulfield bit by bit this year – through observations, conversations with those around her, time-travel and decisions that still weigh on me – over the ten months it took to unfold the story, it was with that implicit promise of games in mind: you’re not a mere spectator. In Life Is Strange, it is your decisions that seal the fate of Arcadia Bay and those who call it ‘home’ – and the ripples of each decision affects Max and those around her. Normally, I would need to get a book off the shelf to find a character like her: a relatable and multi-layered woman who grows and becomes more interesting as the story unfolds and events outside life forces her to rewind time to save the people she loves. Life is Strange had bugs that would frustrate – it froze whenever I rewound time twice in a row – so-so graphics, and an end that I still feel ambivalent about. But despite its rough edges, its storytelling and characterization was a step forward for both the genre and for games as a medium.
Although the episodes were short, each took me on an intense emotional journey that left me thoughtful for days. In between each, I would wonder about what the characters of Arcadia Bay had gone through – what I had put them through – and wonder, sometimes worry, about how their lives would turn out. I got to know life at Blackwell through messages written on dormitory whiteboards, text messages, overheard conversations, the ‘Max Caulfield Photo Memorial Wall’ and her commentary – all of which made the world and its characters come alive, so that when the end credits filled the screen it felt like a ‘goodbye’ to a friend after a journey that had taught me things about both of us.