Enforced Doubt

Life is Strange is a videogame about a teenage girl who discovers she has the power to rewind time. I recommend checking out these reviews from Paste Magazine and Polygon for more info about the game proper, as I'm just going to talk about my experience with the time travel mechanic.

Ever wish you could rewind time and change what you said? That you could go back and maybe make a better choice? Videogames have always let you restart the checkpoint and try again, even when you had to reboot the console and start completely over. And yet, Life is Strange is the first time I've had that idea, redoing everything, put front and center without a failure mechanic alongside. At any point, I hit a button and I go back, even when I succeeded.

The game's protagonist, Max, usually asks herself, "could that have gone better?", after making a small dialog decision. So, I the player rewind time and choose the only other option available, and though the conversation is very different, I get the same self-doubt afterwards from Max. Ignoring several plot holes or oversights with how the time travel works, how often Max decides that the major decision I just made is clearly the worst thing that could have happened, never stopped me from going back and making a different choice every time, rinse repeat. I, the player, too wondered if I made the right choice. This mechanic makes the self-doubt feel inevitable.

I was reminded of a TED Talk about how choice and doubt negatively affect happiness. Titled The Surprising Science of Happiness, the main point of the talk is that our human brains are biased towards believing that events will have a bigger effect on our happiness than they actually will. There's a lot more nuance, data, and humor to be found in the talk, and I implore you to watch or listen. The key take away for this conversation is that we, as humans, feel happier with certainty than with choice. In the talk he cites a study where art students could choose one of their photos to take home and one they'd never see again. Some students were told they could change their mind and trade the photos, others were told it was a permanent decision, and the former all reported being less happy about their decision.

Which brings us back to awkward teenage timetraveler Maxine Caulfield, who's suddenly been given the power to change any and all decisions. There is no more "I made the right choice" because maybe she could make a better one. Maybe things can be different. And I, the player, just feel maybe her life will be nothing but self-doubt from this point. As of this writing, I've only played the first out of five episodes of the game, and at this point the plot mostly sides with making Max doubt every choice she's made, even choices from before she gained the power. This game is wonderfully powerful in that it combines mechanics and story in a way that guides the players, through their own knowledge and choices, to feel the same emotions as our protagonist.

Lastly, shoutout to podcasts Isometric and Latest in Paleo for bringing to my attention the game and TED talk, respectively.