Max Caulfield's time-manipulation abilities are a key element of Life is Strange, and her discovery of these set off the events of the game. Likely triggered by the shocking experience of seeing a "blue-haired girl" get shot in the girls' bathroom at Blackwell Academy, Max's power manifests for the very first time in Episode 1 as she jumps back to a moment in Mark Jefferson's classroom where she then discovers she can rewind time. Throughout the game's events, her powers manifest in various ways which are listed below.
- Main article: Rewind
Max's most frequently used power is the ability to reverse the flow of time; she can comfortably rewind time several seconds to a few minutes. Max herself is unaffected by the time alteration, remaining in a fixed position while time flows backwards around her, and she retains all recollection of what happened afterwards. As a side effect of this, Max may seem to suddenly disappear and/or appear out of nowhere to those under the effects of her powers (i.e. by moving to a different location and then rewinding time, this allows her to be in a different location than where she was standing originally). Any item(s) on her person before time traveling are also kept with her after the fact. As a focus for her powers, Max normally extends her hand out to rewind time. It is unknown if this short-burst method of time travel entails any paradoxes as even her small changes may contribute to a butterfly effect.
Max can use also use her rewind ability to erase the physical position of her old self by walking to a new location, rewinding, and then resuming time. To bystanders, it would probably seem that Max has teleported unless it is done cleverly with nobody around or vigilant enough, such as when Max teleports to behind the principal's office door when she knows nobody would be inside, or when she can push an obstacle out of her way at the Blackwell pool party and appear on the other side, and any surprise from those present could perhaps be passed off as a drunken hallucination.
Spontaneous Time Jumps
While her rewind usually enables Max to reverse time without moving her body, she discovers her rewind ability the first time with a "jump" back in the Blackwell bathroom during the attempt of saving Chloe and then suddenly finds herself back in the classroom. In the Director's Commentary, Michel Koch said that they honestly don't have a good explanation for it. It could be a deeper manifestation of her rewind ability that requires a lot of energy — energy she was only able to muster in such a dramatic and stressful situation.
- Main article: Max's Visions
Max can see the future to some extent. Through lucid visions, Max was able to witness Arcadia Bay being destroyed by an oncoming storm. During these visions, Max seemed to be experiencing the future event first-hand; thus it's possible that they aren't just visions but rather 'time jumps'. Her experiencing these specific visions may stem from having saved Chloe from dying and in turn causing a butterfly effect.
Max has the power to freeze time while also being able to move normally. Max discovered this ability during her attempt to save Kate Marsh from committing suicide, but the amount of concentration to maintain it was extremely harsh on her body, as seen by her being rendered too weak to use her rewind power after she made it up to the roof (her nose also bleeds a little). Similar to when she is reversing time, Max held her hand out during the duration of time being frozen.
Max can also pause time without being able to move. This ability comes in handy when she faces a difficult decision, mainly in dialogues. It is also essential during more serious situations, such as when she attempts to prevent something bad from happening; it assures she will not pass the time frame of her rewind ability or have to witness the consequence of her (in)action. It is unknown whether Max's nose bleeds are the result of an accumulative use of pausing or whether a pause can be sustained indefinitely.[note 1]
By focusing on a photograph, Max can transfer her consciousness back to the time period when the photo was taken in order to change the past. However, once there, she is unable to pass the 'photographic bounds' (i.e. the areas of her environment that seem "out of focus") while the ability is in use. The ability also appears to be limited to photographs in which Max herself is visibly present, whether as a reflection in her own photography or a subject of someone else's. Max is also confined to exist within the physical form she was in when the photo was taken (i.e. going back in time using a five-year-old photo put her 18-year-old mind inside her 13-year-old body), so if she were to use a photo of when she was two, her mind would be placed in her two-year-old body. This ability is used several times throughout the game when Max needs to go to distant past moments.
Episode Three - "Chaos Theory"
- Max discovers the ability for the first time. She focuses on a photo of her and Chloe from 2008 and prevents William Price from leaving the house and dying in a car crash.
Episode Four - "Dark Room"
- Max focuses on the same photo of her and Chloe again to undo her actions and return to the original timeline.
Episode Five - "Polarized"
- In an effort to escape from the Dark Room, Max focuses on a monochrome photo taken by Jefferson. She manages to kick a trolley, forcing Jefferson to take a different series of photos.
- Max focuses on a different photo of herself and finds her diary during the focus.
- Max uses her winning selfie in the Zeitgeist Gallery to return to the day it was taken and tears it up, preventing herself from winning the contest.
- She focuses on a photo of her and Warren Graham taken in the parking lot to prevent Chloe from going to the End of the World Party and subsequently dying.
Photo Time-Jump Mechanism
The mechanism involved with the time jumps through pictures involves Max's mind moving back and forth in time while her body doesn't.
Note: The "autopilot" process brings out some confusing points: After the original 13-year-old Max was possessed by her 18-year-old self, how is she going to remember these few minutes when she hid the car keys when Max jumps her mind back to the body she left in the future?
- Max won't remember these few minutes and will go on living normally.
- Max knows she was possessed and knows about her future time travel powers. Not likely, as it would affect the timeline too much.
- Her brain will fill in the gaps with fake memories: 13-year-old Max will think she acted from her own will when she hid the keys, maybe thinking it was some kind of prank she doesn't clearly remember.
When a possessed Max warned Chloe on the parking lot, she said to Chloe that she wouldn't remember anything from this time jump ("In a few minutes, I won't know any of this happened... nothing.") Our Max couldn't have any way to know that for sure, but it would imply the first theory is perhaps correct: all autopilot Maxes experience some amnesia and/or blackouts.
Chloe has witnessed Max's blackouts on a few occasions: when she tells Max she "totally blacked out" by the lighthouse in Episode 1, when Max collapsed and passed out in the junkyard in Episode 2, and when she passed out on the beach to experience a nightmare. However, no time-jumping is believed to be occurring on these occasions as they are only linked to Max experiencing visions and a nightmare. But this raises the question as to whether Max's visions that lead her to points in the future count as time jumping and result in the same side effects.
Life is Strange is basically the player following the journey of one iteration of Max's mind through time.
Side note: It is interesting to note that the first example of autopilot Max is the only one who doesn't have time-travel powers: this Max never saved Chloe in the bathroom. It confirms Max got her powers, or at least only trigger them, by saving Chloe in the bathroom.
Using her power too often causes Max to experience headaches or a physical breakdown, as seen in Episode 2 when Chloe forces her to rewind multiple times. When Max uses her photo jump ability, she often gets nose bleeding inside the photo boundaries or afterwards in the new timeline. However, player-triggered rewinds, regardless of how often, do not seem to have any significant impact on her.
It can be debated whether or not it is ethical that 18 year-old Max jumped into a version of herself in an alternative timeline where her life was completely different and she was a member of the Vortex Club. Even though the original 18 year-old Max is the one who created this new timeline, is it right for her to interrupt the life of another Max? It probably bothered Max a lot since, in the nightmare sequence, the Max ghost introduced herself as "one of many Maxes [she] left behind" and told Max she's "left a trail of death (and suffering)" behind her. This could be interpreted as a statement about all of the autopilot Maxes' lives "our" Max interrupted. Whether what the dream Max said is true or not is unknown as it could just be Max's own fear or theory talking.
- The game files indicate that the moment when Max focuses on a picture and travels back into that moment is called "Polarewind" (short for Polaroid rewind).
- When Max is "inside" a picture, a weird effect seems to define impassable boundaries around her referred to as "photo boundaries". The effect is called "Film Burn Particle" in the game files.
- The moment when Max is in her room and tears up her winning photo is the only time when the boundaries don't look like burning walls but like a burning sphere instead.
- At a given time Max can use her laptop for research about her power, after opening a page about Wormhole, she will comment on how that theory makes sense. If taken into account how her power works during the rewind Max may actually be right. She may indeed open a wormhole in the fabric of time, (not space), allowing her to go back in time and not to have moved at all in space. This would also explain why pause rewind is harder for Max to perform, in Kate's rescue, under this theory when she pauses time, she actually has to open a wormhole in the fabric space/time as she needs to move herself as well. Further, supporting this theory, is the fact that the rewind position in the timeline is indicated by a "swirl meter" that resembles a crude drawing of a wormhole in the corner of the screen.
- Illustrator Florent Auguy refers to the timestream montages as "tunnel".
- The pausing of time and rewinds can be sustained for as long as the player sustains it as a game mechanic.
- Although freezing time was implemented as a game mechanic to give the player time to get Max into the dormitory building before Kate jumped, it is still a power that Max has, as stated by Raoul Barbet in this video from the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in 2016 - from the 22:02 time stamp. A visual cue that Max is using her power is her constantly extended right hand that remains in front of her as she walks slowly towards the building.
- Max is seen reflected on a metal surface of a bucket in her blue butterfly photograph.
- Chart by User:Magiccarot.
- Reddit post by /u/AwesomeDewey
- Florent Auguy's ArtStation Profile