Life Is Fucked Up is what the title of this game would be if Square Enix weren’t so polite about things. I’m not suggesting that this is a “spoony bard” translation of a Japanese phrase; rather, it’s a polite way of describing the floating crap shoot of snotty beeatches and psychotic assholes in the life of shy hipster turbogeek Maxine Caulfield, a young photography student at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in fictional Arcadia Bay, Oregon whose lack of reservation when it comes to using profanity recalls the protagonist of the same surname in The Catcher in the Goddamn Rye (actual title; J. D. Salinger was also being polite).
(Before we go any further, it must be pointed out that Oregon is properly pronounced Or-e-gun and not Or-e-gone, as the latter implies to its residents that it has traveled somewhere.)
I played through Episode 1: Chrysalis which was part of the Square Enix humble bundle offered during the holiday season. At USD$1.00 and bundled with five other games, this was an absolute steal that was too good to pass up. The game is prefaced by a pre-apocalyptic vision – experience, to describe things more accurately – in which “Max” struggles to make her way through the terrain of a familiar location in dark times. Later, during photography class with the serendipitously and tactically foul-mouthed Mr. Jefferson whom Max admires greatly, she discovers through happenstance that she has the ability to rewind time in sparing amounts such that she can “replay” events she’s already experienced. Much more than a “replay level” feature, this ability allows Max to navigate time-bound situations with alacrity and precognition.
The beginning of the game feels very much like the opening credits to a movie. The strumming guitar playing in the background along with the “American Girl”-themed lyrics drape a layer of folksy, down-to-earth feelings over Max’s slow walk down the hallway of her high school. She enters the bathroom to freshen up and has her first encounter with the extent to which the world around her really is messed up – one of the local rich kids reacts to an extortion attempt with deadly force. Max’s first task is to use her powers to obviate the otherwise fatal conclusion.
Moving through plot events can be done quite rapidly once one knows what to do – this is not the point, however. Much of what the game presents are details about Max’s reminiscences and relationships as she begins to make the physical and mental transition into adulthood. It is the sum of the small decisions that Max makes throughout the game that shape the character of her experience. Actions that have lasting consequences and will thus affect the way the story plays out are announced by the flapping wings of a butterfly in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Max also wonders aloud whether she shouldn’t use her powers to go back and make a different decision.
It is up to the player to decide just what sort of moral choices Max will make. I played the way I thought a young, well-meaning woman would who is more interested in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, anime, and outdated cameras than in setting the world on fire. Depending on the context of the situation and my understanding of Max’s worldview and moral compass, I stepped in, I stayed hidden, or I remained silent. At the end of the episode, one is presented with the choices one made in comparison to the choices made by everyone else who’s played through the episode. It was interesting to note which choices appeared to be morally ambiguous and which choices had a “correct” response. An additional benefit of seeing these responses was learning about the things one missed while playing through the game. This invites a replay in which one takes the time to explore the environment and interactive objects more carefully.
It’s in wandering through the dormitories, courtyards, and houses in the twilight of Max’s high school life that the game really shines. At various points, the player is given the opportunity to get to know about Max’s interests and childhood through reflection scenes in which Max sits in a particular place that triggers specific memories and muses on events and conversations associated with them. One of the scenes that resonated with me emotionally was in Max’s dorm room when she picked up her guitar and starting strumming along to an otherwise rather ethereal and plaintive folk song. Max’s live performance accompaniment somehow made everything much more personable and palatable – it lent things a human touch. Her touch.
The beauty of this story is in the innocent humanity that Max brings to the dehumanizing behaviors of the more “mature” individuals around her – the drunkard director, the overzealous security guard. Her power to rewind time plays a crucial role in her ability to deal with these situations without ceding control – as opposed to blazing up, as her former BFF Chloe suggests – and foreshadows its centrality in solving the social mysteries that have been thrust upon her as a young adult: where is Chloe’s darling, Rachel Amber? What is Nathan Prescott’s problem? And what exactly crawled up Chloe’s “step-führer’s” ass and died?
The initial inanity of the game’s abundant fluff has given way to a genuine interest in discovering what happens next – not as a passive viewer, but as one who is present when decisions are made. I have a feeling I’ll be accompanying Max a little further on her journey.