Favorite Game of 2016: Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange has become my favorite movie. I’ve watched it twice, both times with somewhat different decision-making but with the same basic themes, one of which was impressed upon me at the game’s midpoint: Maxine and Chloe, the title’s protagonists, are partners in time. The dynamics of the cast of associated characters revolve around this locus and play out based on your decisions large and small. Tonight I’ll be playing it for a third time, bearing in mind the knowledge and theories I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of pages of commentary, fan fiction, and analysis, as well as from watching dozens of videos devoted to its intricacies. It’s a game that invigorates the imagination and invites endless discussion on the heavy themes it addresses unflinchingly: bullying, suicide, euthanasia, PTSD, and mental illness, among others.

I briefly thought about writing a hyper-ballad dedicated to this wonderful game with which I’ve become obsessed as of late, but that multi-part treatise has already been written. I’d like to invite you to read Polar Opposites and Binary Choices: A Critical Reading of Life Is Strange – Part 1 at Dubious Ideas which discusses many of Life Is Strange’s most fascinating elements in no fewer than 47,000 words divided into six sections.

At its core, Life Is Strange is an episodic narrative which Dontnod, the game’s developers, intentionally leave open-ended so that you, the player, are the one who decides the precise nature of the things that go on around you. It’s also stress-free and slow-paced: there is no sense of impending danger and no rush to do anything. It is predicated on rewarding you for the simple act of stopping to smell the roses. Click on everything you can find. Sit down on a bench, a couch, a bed, and watch the world around you from Coppola-esque camera angles as Max pontificates. Announcing what your characters are thinking is presumably one of the cardinal sins of authorship – Life Is Strange utilizes this to great effect in a flawed masterpiece whose conclusion and lingering resonance have left me in a state of emotional vulnerability that I have not felt in a long, long time.

Life Is Strange is a story about 12th grade senior and aspiring photographer Maxine Caulfield who has been accepted into Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Here, she reconnects with her childhood best friend Chloe Price, whom she had not seen since she moved with her parents to Seattle shortly after Chloe’s father, William, died in a car accident five years prior. Through a series of strange events, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time, first using it unintentionally to save Chloe from being shot dead by drug-dealing rich kid Nathan Prescott in the girls’ restroom. Chloe is trying to extort money from him for the purpose of repaying the debt she owes to Frank Bowers, a local drug dealer.

Max’s powers become central to Chloe and Max’s efforts in trying to locate Chloe’s missing “angel” Rachel Amber, a magnetic personality and social butterfly who served as Chloe’s anchor – and crush – during Max’s absence. In the process, Max and Chloe’s rekindled relationship redevelops over the course of five days and, based on player choice, may blossom into romantic love. Max continues to have visions of a tornado that will destroy Arcadia Bay at the end of the week; it is discovered throughout the course of the game that Max’s use of her powers are thought to be the cause of this. Plot twists abound and culminate a final, heart-wrenching decision for anyone who has become attached to the protagonists: sacrifice Chloe by letting her die and thereby saving Arcadia Bay from the time-tornado (which now never happens because Max did not use her powers to save Chloe) or sacrifice Arcadia Bay and spare her girlfriend.

When I first started playing back in January of this year I was far less patient when it came to “fluff” in games and so thought nothing of the characters beyond Maxine or the introductory episode’s pacing and environs. The dormitory setting houses a mountain of interactive exposition which is mostly Chloe-free. Instead, we learn about Max’s life, her interests, and the people she has come to know at Blackwell Academy. Later on, when we first meet Chloe (after five years apart), our first impression of her may be somewhat negative: she is loud, profane, obnoxious, self-centered, petulant, and arrogant, so of course she’s going to nearly hit us in the parking lot driving the rusted out beater truck we saw earlier double-parked across two handicapped spaces.

Ten months later, I shook off my Secret World habit long enough to start playing through Episode 2 in which we get to know Chloe a little bit better. And by getting to know, I mean going along with her as she tests the validity of our powers and then convinces us to use them for her personal amusement by shooting bottles at an improvised target range in the junkyard she and Rachel Amber used to hang out in. The shooting attracts the attention of Frank Bowers, the drug dealer to whom Chloe owes money. Turns out she borrowed from Frank so she and Amber could leave Arcadia Bay for Los Angeles; that dream died when Rachel Amber went missing. The player is left to determine how the encounter plays out. The episode ends with Max using her powers to save Chloe from an oncoming train – the second instance in which she rewinds time to save Chloe’s life.

Max also deals with the attempted suicide of her friend Kate Marsh, a devout and kind-hearted student who was drugged at a party and videotaped kissing several boys; the video goes viral and sends her into a deep and dark depression. You have the option of talking her down from the roof of the dormitories but without the aid of your rewind powers as you’ve used them to stop time so that you can get up to the roof before she jumps.

To this point I had been able to play for an hour or so before becoming restless and stopping. Episode 3, the game’s midpoint, was where I began to fall for the relationship between Max and Chloe and by extension, everything surrounding them. Chloe texts Max close to midnight and the two meet for a moonlit rendezvous in the main building of Blackwell Academy. Chloe managed to snag the entrance keys from her step-father (also known as “step-douche”), an overbearing war veteran suffering from paranoia who serves as the head of Blackwell security. I’m a sucker for night-time settings; skulking about the halls of Blackwell when all the lights are off to the background hum of deliciously intoxicating dark music rubs me in all the right places. I absolutely love the fact that Max’s “flashlight” is an app on her smartphone. Circle the camera in front of her, and she moves her arm to accommodate it. (I cannot adequately describe how cute this is.)

After obtaining information about Rachel Amber from the principal’s files, the two head off to the swimming pool for a midnight dip. They have a playful, intimate heart-to-heart conversation – and it should be mentioned that Life Is Strange treats its protagonists as human beings first and foremost. They then return to Chloe’s house where they crash for the night.

The following morning, the two muse on how they used to hang around all day. Max’s clothes are covered in chemicals from the previous night’s swim, so Chloe invites her to try on some of Rachel’s clothes that have been left in her closet. When Max expresses hesitation (“they’re not my style” – “Max, you don’t have a style”), Chloe dares Max to kiss her in the name of being more adventurous. Prior to this, I had read somewhere that Chloe dies in one of the game’s endings and thought nothing of it. At this point, the relationship between Max and Chloe became central to my play through and I started engaging in marathon play sessions. I wanted to see exactly where the story would lead them and how things would play out. Yes, romance was the hook that lured me in.

At the end of the third episode, Max discovers that she can travel back in time by focusing on photographs. She does so with a photo of herself and Chloe in their teens when Chloe’s father William was still alive. Seeking to make a better life for Chloe, she travels through the photograph back to Chloe’s house and prevents her father from taking his car to pick up Chloe’s mother from the supermarket and thus never dies in a car accident. In exchange, Chloe receives a car for her seventeenth birthday and is permanently paralyzed from the neck down when she is thrown from her vehicle after being cut off on the highway. When Max returns to the “present day” of the reality she has created, she is horrified to see Chloe strapped into a wheelchair with a respirator attached, completely dependent on her parents.

Episode 4 is where my love for the character of Chloe and her relationship with Max were cemented. The “better” world inhabited by a bed-ridden Chloe in which her father is alive is offset by a strange, howling wind that blows outside the house and flocks of birds that flutter about in bizarre formations. It’s intended to give one the sense that the world is a bit “off.” It’s here, when Chloe is most vulnerable, that Max and Chloe’s love for each other is allowed to exist in its purest form, free from the pretensions of everyday, artificially complicated life. Chloe is helpless, Max has come back into her life to help her. This episode highlights the role that Max plays in Chloe’s life as an anchor, someone who gives her space in which she can be interpersonally secure and thrive. Max is Chloe’s rock. Alternate reality Chloe floored me, so when she asked me to obviate her eventual respiratory failure by giving her a fatal overdose of morphine, I did so and sat for a while in the room as she drifted away. Her final memory was of us together, looking at photos taken when we were both children and the world was not cold and cruel.

Max then returns to teenage Chloe’s house and refrains from hiding William’s keys so that he takes the car to pick up his wife and is killed in a car accident. Max is overjoyed to see Chloe again in the primary timeline and they go off to investigate Rachel Amber’s disappearance. They discover that she is dead and buried in a shallow grave in the junkyard which leads to the game’s most emotionally heart-wrenching scene. It turns out that Mark Jefferson, Max’s stylishly hip photography professor, is behind it. He lures them to the grave again at night, allowing him to dose Max and kill Chloe.

The final episode is where things gets real. Max wakes up in an underground bunker which Jefferson uses to photograph his victims at the point where their “innocence turns into corruption.” (He’s a psychopath, it turns out.) Via a series of time-bending photograph leaps, Max is eventually able to right all the wrongs, save Chloe, stop Jefferson, and make the game’s final, most difficult choice: sacrifice Chloe or sacrifice Arcadia Bay.

From reading /r/Games, which appears to be dominated by people more likely to play logically and provide excellent mechanical analyses of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, sacrificing Chloe has been christened the “good” ending due to the fact that the ending cutscene is longer, more powerful, and wraps up this coming of age friendship story by acceding to Chloe’s final, selfless request: let her die so that others may live. Doing so, they say, means that you have grown up and moved on from your childhood. You got to say goodbye to an old friend, something that some people never get the chance to do.

The subreddit I have been visiting lately, /r/LifeIsStrange, is dominated by people more likely to play with their hearts on their sleeves. I fit right in. We decided that we had fallen in love with Chloe despite her massive shortcomings and if the world has to burn for our honeybun, then so be it. Shipping (supporting) a relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, dubbed team “Pricefield,” forms the basis of thousands of fan fiction pieces, some of which I rather enjoyed in a sentimental sort of way. (I’m obnoxiously picky when it comes to fiction.)

And you’re allowed to be sentimental in video games because it’s the realm of the imagination. You’re also allowed to be sentimental in art because it makes really good fucking art. Life Is Strange, from its music to its images to the fluidity of its animations, the scene-setting, heck, even the awkward dialogue (Max is awkward, by the way) have shown me in a way that has touched me unlike anything else that there is beauty to be found in creating and sharing. I’ve even joined DeviantArt and Tumblr to explore my creative side with more enthusiasm. This entails spending less time playing games, which is just fine with me.

It makes me want to create and share so that perhaps some day, something that I have contributed to will make someone feel the same way I do about Life Is Strange.

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2 thoughts on “Favorite Game of 2016: Life Is Strange

  1. I enjoyed reading your appreciative take on Life is Strange.

    I had difficulties enjoying episode 1, partially due to the slow pacing and mostly, I suspect, because I couldn’t grasp or suspend my own disbelief long enough to accept the fundamental goal of the protagonist, which was to desire to use her powers to change reality to make it objectively “better.”

    Especially since I know very well from being spoiled reading tons of meta-commentary that it all comes back to bite her in the a–, with a big reality tornado as amply foreshadowed at the beginning.

    Perhaps I’ve internalized the lessons of one too many time travelling sci-fi attempts to change reality; or perhaps I just fundamentally don’t comprehend/believe in the idea of struggling to change one’s fate/destiny, due to my cultural heritage and/or life experience.

    It gets really hard to play the game when I’m sitting there going, “no, why would I do that? I don’t want to do that. Can’t I do something else, game? Neither choice A nor choice B makes sense…”

    Still, it evidently appeals to a great many others and I’m glad Life is Strange is there for those who do love it. It may be aimed toward more Feelers than Thinkers, fer instance. Perhaps some day I’ll find the time to give it another go.

    Like

    1. I’m chuffed, lupine nomad. Episode 1 is admittedly a slow introduction that immediately throws some of the mechanics of time travel and decision-making into question. For example, why does Max’s first rewind automatically take her from the bathroom all the way back into the classroom, when the rest of the game sees her rewinding either in granular increments or through a predetermined number of discrete events? The developers have explained in interviews that this was an intentional plot device and that they are aware of the inherent inconsistency. Even so, it’s enough to make someone with a critical eye for themes and subject matter uneasy at the unsolicited presence of glaring details that make the suspension of disbelief rather difficult.

      The final decision is probably the weightiest example of an enforced dichotomy that railroads players into a predetermined set of destinies. Why must it be one or the other? Why can’t Max travel back in time using one of the many photographs available to save *everyone* she loves? Why do we not have a third option in which Max sacrifices herself? In the end, it seems our decisions throughout the game don’t seem to matter one way or the other since it’s either A or B that’s going to happen, so why not just let fate run its course?

      As Ashly Burch, the voice actor for Chloe Price, opined, the game is essentially about emotions and making a series of emotional choices. A large part of the game is presenting Max as enough of a blank slate without making her completely devoid of personality so that the player can make these choices for/as Max and then experience the emotions that arise as a result of those choices. Indeed, in making these choices, many players have found themselves spending twenty minutes thinking over their course of action despite the fact that they could, in most cases, rewind and make the other decision. It’s the emotional weight of the choice they decided to make *first* that counts, as well as the emotional impact and fallout of that choice. Later replays invite a more nuanced exploration of dialogue options if one chooses; the first play through, as I experienced first-hand, is absolutely captivating – but only insofar as you resonate with the game’s emotional essence.

      If you’re not into it, you’re not into it. Not everybody is. Give it another go some time, definitely.

      Like

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