[Spoilers for the game Life is Strange up to Chaos Theory. Choosing to read below the cut may have consequences.]
One of the more necessary plot lines in the time travel videogame Life is Strange involves protagonist Max Caulfield revisiting the day that her best friend’s father died.
Up until that point, the game had solely focused on immediate rewinds and potentially unforeseen or unintended consequences. The first two chapters of the game – and the manner in which the time travel mechanic is utilized – only reveal that Max can rewind time a few moments prior. This allows the player to, among other things, exhaust every possible dialogue option before choosing the one that they feel is “right,” or presume will show them a desired result at a later point in time. An effect of this mechanic, intended or not, is that players continuously second-guess their answers. Even after making a choice, a certain feeling of uneasiness remains, especially in these first two chapters where everything is relatively fresh as the player is learning about the game mechanics as much as they are the protagonist herself, and her friends.
However, when Max travels back in time to save Chloe Price’s father in Chapter Three: Chaos Theory, both Max and the player learn of her ability to leap through time using photographs. This answers some questions regarding the scope of Max’s powers, and also explores the inevitable question that every time travel hero or heroine asks: “What if I used my powers to change a specific, important moment in my own past?” Max does this presuming that it will improve Chloe’s quality of life, which wholly backfires, resulting in Max undoing these actions and returning to her original timeline. Had Life is Strange not addressed this specific narrative thread, the question of why Max couldn’t simply jump back and fix X Event would have lingered on the savvy player’s mind.
Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (The Town Where Only I am Missing, or the English title of Erased) introduces a similar mechanic for Satoru Fujinuma. Fujinuma has a power that he calls Revival, which automatically sends him back in time approximately five minutes before, in his words, something bad is about to happen. He then has to think quickly about what seems off after the rewind, and attempt to avert whatever crisis or injury is en route.
The waning moments of the series’ premiere finds Fujinuma transported back to his childhood of 1988, presumably to prevent his classmate, Kayo Hinazuki, from being abducted.
There are key differences between Life is Strange and Boku Dake ga Inai Machi; however, comparing the two allows for their respective uses of time travel to shine.
For Max, traveling through time feeds her sometimes unhealthy insistence on helping others, or at least being nice to them regardless of their previous interactions. Even if the player chooses to be the meanest possible Max, she comes off as an indecisive hipster teen whose awful communication skills get in the way of her kind-hearted nature. Her time travel lessons are ones that accompany any adolescent through their journey to adulthood, specifically: sometimes, even if you try to change something, it won’t end the way you want, in spite of good intent. Much of the mechanic focuses on rewinding conversations over and over, searching for the perfect answer – something that one with any amount of anxiety will resonate with wholeheartedly – only to discover that there is no perfect answer, just a series of answers with both good and bad consequences.
Fujinuma’s tie to time travel is vastly different. Where Max is a fledgling person, stumbling through repeated attempts at making the right choices, the 29 year-old Fujinuma is already steeped in his failure to save a childhood classmate, carrying the burden as he’s aged. Fujinuma’s Revival periods are a frantic attempt to pinpoint what exactly is going to happen and what he will be able to do about it to reverse or change the situation. Max’s rewinds reflect her indecision and agonizing, incredibly teenaged, thought process. Already jaded, Fujinuma is trying to make amends the only way he knows: by saving others if possible.
I personally have mixed feelings on Life is Strange, which ultimately boil down to the fact that a fantastic journey to reach an end, even an unsatisfying one, is still well worth the trouble. In spite of a surprising amount of nuance – dialogue excluded – when dealing with depression, anxiety, suicide, and bullying, Life is Strange fails at key moments and the thriller aspects of the game often fall flat. It’s doubtful that Boku Dake ga Inai Machi will go this route, due to Fujinuma’s already strong characterization as a person with many regrets in his life. However, the way both properties contrast small, immediate jumps with larger, purposeful ones in service of righting a wrong or saving a friend offer an interesting similarity.