I'm playing an 18-year-old girl named Maxine Caulfield — Catcher in the Rye reference intended — having a vivid nightmare in photography class without realizing I'm about to witness something even scarier: a school shooting.
The star of the episodic Life is Strange, by underrated Remember Me makers Dontnod and Final Fantasy publishers Square-Enix, is a shy, vintage camera nerd in a hoodie who listens to José González, plays acoustic guitar and decorates her boarding school dorm room with Man Ray art and her own Polaroids.
Max gives off more of an awkward My So-Called Life vibe than the hipster cool of her blue-haired, pot-smoking ex-BFF Chloe, and that retro aesthetic makes perfect sense given her just-discovered power to rewind time.
So Max manages to prevent the tragic shooting. But the butterfly effects of this and other temporal do-overs — with results ranging from saving a bird's life and stopping a sexting scandal to making potentially fatal enemies with the richest asshole in school — will play out over subsequent episodes, building towards solving a missing-girl mystery and a foreshadowed natural disaster.
Life is Strange is something of a meta-game that incorporates the taken-for-granted strangeness of checkpoint restarts/reloads into the actual gameplay. But what's more interesting is how unfamiliar it is — not just the richly developed young female leads and their fractured friendship, or the impeccable indie soundtrack ranging from alt-J and Local Natives to Mogwai and Sparklehorse, alongside an original score by Syd Matters' Jonathan Morali.
It's the game's simple, everyday setting — the life, not the strange. Yes, there are supernatural elements, but mostly it's the sort of realism-rooted, relationship-based story that can be so powerful in other media, but gets forgotten in gaming.
Lately there's been a traditionalist pushback by "gamers" to rigidly define the medium in a manner akin to the political right's attempt to define marriage. But definitions broaden over time, and gaming needs to get out of its rut.
The art form has regularly levelled up over the years thanks to technological innovation. Each console generation from Atari onward has brought huge change — until the most recent one, that is. The NES pushed the form from simplistic single-screen arcade ports like Donkey Kong to complex, side-scrolling platformers like Super Mario Bros. The 16-bit era dramatically increased the audio-visual capabilities while the next few generations introduced such revolutionary concepts as 3D game design, emergent, open worlds and branching narratives.
But a year-and-a-half into the current console era and there's very little noticeable difference. In fact, 2014's best-reviewed titles, GTA V and The Last of Us, were upgraded re-releases of last-gen classics. We've practically reached peak graphics, and the extra processing power has so far done little more than allow for bigger crowds or improved frame rates.
Developers need to stop fixating on the tech and focus on coming up with new experiences that we haven't played yet. Though it takes influences from TellTale and '90s TV, Life is Strange plays like nothing else out there, and neither does Evolve, the latest from Left 4 Dead developers Turtle Rock, which is pushing multiplayer shooters into a new, asymmetrical direction.
Rather than evenly matched teams, each Evolve match involves five players, one of whom controls a monster while the other four control hunters with separate skill sets who must work quickly and cooperatively if they hope to win. The match length also affects the balance (as the monsters evolve into more powerful forms), and flight is as important as fight. Multiplayer has been stuck in stasis for years now, but Evolve finally found a brand new way to play.
Other non-traditional games are coming later this year, too. Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, by the makers of Dear Esther, is an immersive and emotional exploratory story game set entirely within an almost empty English village during the Apocalypse. No Man's Sky, meanwhile, is a story-lite sci-fi title set in an "infinite procedurally generated galaxy," which creators claim means the potential for 18 quintillion unique planets to explore, and similarly limitless ways to approach the open-ended gameplay. Then there's Quantum Break, a time travel-based game released in conjunction with a live-action series that will be affected by your in-game decisions, a multi-media tactic that an upcoming TellTale game will also attempt.
None of these may be the great leap forward of a GTA III or Oblivion, but those were ultimately made possible by new technology, which has proven less of a factor this time. Instead, we need to encourage more small steps in settings and structures to give gaming the diversity that defines every other part of pop culture.