Life Is Strange Fan Fiction: “After This”

Games are endlessly rewarding: they birth fantastic stories both within and without. Once upon a time I wrote about Guild Wars 2 and I still, from time to time, post flash fiction or short stories about The Secret World. Now, I’m writing about my latest love interest, Life Is Strange. The euphoria has died down; there’s a resonant mental energy that continues to buzz and gives the illusion that I am made of ten thousand moving parts. If you’d like, you can read the illustrated Thing “How to be perfectly unhappy.” by The Oatmeal and you’ll understand how I feel. Games are a conduit, a catalyst, a source of inspiration. Humble beginnings, stepping stones, or maybe…just what I like to do.

“After This” by Karinshastha

I’ve published it on Archive Of Our Own, one of the most active, user-friendly sites I’ve found that’s been designed for people who enjoy reading and writing fan fiction. So far I’ve completed one chapter. It’s a rather dreamy second-person narrative which tries to emulate the style of Alyssa Wong, an award-winning flash fiction/short story author whose work I admire. I don’t know how many chapters are in the cards, to be quite honest. Sometimes I can come up with a first draft that’s fully formed, albeit skeletal; most of the time, as is the case with “After This”, I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story until I’ve actually written it.

It’s great fun.

 

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.

The Park: An Unmitigated Exposition

I bought The Park expecting an evening’s diversion from my normal activities and was not disappointed. Over the course of three hours, I ambled languorously around the perimeter of an autumnal parking lot, stumbled my way through shadow-shrouded rides and attractions punctuated by ghost-eyed halogen lights, and descended into the bowels of a multi-tiered purgatory. Nearly three hundred screenshots sit in my repository as testament to my methodical, inquisitive exploration of Nathaniel Winter’s energy factory, also known as Atlantic Island Park.

Unfortunately, that assortment of screenshots and these spoiler-filled musings on the themes present in the game’s painstakingly crafted environments are the only sort of genuine replayability on offer. To do equitable justice to the experience is to write an abbreviated review as short as the game itself while employing stock phrases to describe the game’s mechanics rather than using one’s own words.

That’s the feeling I’m left with after having spectated the story, so it’s only fair. It does not innovate or introduce anything particularly novel with the horror elements it employs. The jump scares are predictable, the pacing and presentation are inconsistent, and the deadpannish monologues transition roughly into transcendental, prosaic philosophizing. It is, at best, an expensive visit to a museum of picture and sound, one which offers insights into the twisted history of the park, its lore tie-ins to parent game The Secret World, and a fascinating artistic representation of the stages of protagonist Lorraine Maillard’s personal and social disintegration.

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For those who are quite understandably unswayed by mixed sentiments, I would recommend The Park to you if you agree with one or more of the following statements:

  1. I enjoy Funcom’s games and want to support them financially.
  2. I want the top-end neck talisman and/or serial killer chipmunk costume awarded in The Secret World for purchasing the game.
  3. I have a fabulous disposable income and no qualms about tossing it to the wind in search of an ephemeral gaming high.

If none of these ring true, I would recommend watching one of the many recorded streams of other people playing the game, reading syndicated or personal reviews, or perhaps accompanying me on an exploration of the game’s particulars with an emphasis on Lorraine’s descent into psychological purgatory, which I personally consider to be the highlight-nadir of the journey.


The game begins in a parking lot with reddish-eyed mommy Lorraine sighing after a long day of child-rearing in the local amusement park. Son Callum asks from behind a car window where Mr. Bear is. With the collective millenia of parental world-weariness weighing on her shoulders, Lorraine monotones “I don’t know – I’ll go ask information” and walks off, leaving her darling treasure in their 1970s station wagon. This seemingly simple act foreshadows the theme of abandonment that is present throughout the game. As Lorraine talks to the Ken-doll desk manager about her son’s lost toy, Callum sprints past her into the park. Callum, the Scottish form of Latin Columba, means “dove” and represents peace and purity, an anchoring point for the inner turmoil and defilement that become familiar themes later on.

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Like any responsible parent would, I took the opportunity to explore the sparsely vegetated rocks and wind-rippled grass of the parking lot while my son ran unaccompanied in a closed-for-business entertainment complex inhabited by a known serial killer in a chipmunk costume. I first walked up the road away from chirping birds and the heady lights attached to loudspeaker-ringed lampposts to see how the game handles going where you’re not supposed to; waves of increasingly thick mist rolled toward me until my screen turned completely white. “No, I still have things I need to do in the park.” I unlocked a Steam achievement for my efforts.

After wandering around for a while on the lonesome pavement – with a barren flatness that on hot summer days has haunted me since my childhood – I clomped listlessly through puddles past a familiar, mud-tracked hatchback toward the commemorative plaque that welcomes visitors. (I found it somewhat distracting that the camera moves about subtly while standing still as if to simulate natural head movement.) The design is nearly identical to that of the dedicatory plaque found on Kingsmouth Town’s Langmore Bridge (previously known as “Hangman’s Span”) and features curiously deliberate phrasing:

ATLANTIC ISLAND PARK

“A tribute to the untamed heart of Solomon Island and the people who used their talents to bring the dream of Nathaniel Winter to life. May this park be a place where joy and laughter are gathered and used to infect all those who follow after.”

This language is an artifact of the endless word play, references, and layered meanings one comes to know on Solomon Island. The “untamed heart” may be a reference to the magic sealed under the mountain in Savage Coast by the Wabanaki; “where joy and laughter are gathered” reflects the somewhat more sinister function of the park, which is used by Mr. Winter to gather energy (anima) from the happiness of children much in the manner of Monsters, Inc. (as opposed to harvesting their fear which Winter’s colleagues wanted to do); and “infect” is a playful jab at the filth (animus) that will eventually subsume Solomon Island.

I then made my way to the information desk, where the impossibly perfect manager graciously offered to let me into the park to retrieve my darling son. As he returned to the newspaper on his desk, I looked past his seemingly half-dozing figure at the objects that populated his office: detailed maps, book-lined shelves, a waste basket, filing cabinets. I thought to myself that this was a respectable homage to Kubrickian scene-setting, fine details that had been added even though they might receive nothing more than a passing glance.

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There is an exchange that is thrust upon the onlooker. Terrain and mechanical exploration are eschewed in favor of visual, linear storytelling. Even the controls are nominal: jumping is not permitted, shift lets you run instead of walk, left click interacts with selected objects, and right click interacts with Callum. That is the extent of your agency. As I entered the park, I used right click for the first time: “Callum, wait for Mommy!” The response: “Come on, this way!”

As soon as one sets foot on the escalator, there is no turning back. Lorraine begins a flat monologue about how she always returns to the park. At the mid-point of the ascent, the world turns dark and an evil laugh is heard from somewhere unseen. From that point on, I generally had better luck with sound than sight. The promotional video for the game seems to use a gamma setting in which everything is visible; I opted for a literal interpretation of the lighting instructions during the game’s introductory sequence and ended up with a “fumbling about in the dark” experience.

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In a way, this made the soft warbling sounds coming from the park’s speakers somewhat more ambient. And by ambient, I mean creepy. I passed a handful of these speakers on my way to the swan boats, the first ride of several. My silent bird companion paddled softly through a watery cave in which I was treated to an overly long shadows-on-the-wall story about Hansel and Gretel. Their mother and father want to abandon them in the forest because they have no food to eat. Woodcutting father takes them out into the forest and leaves them there. The clever children leave a trail of breadcrumbs so they can find their way back. After they’ve eaten all the food and have no more breadcrumbs left, father does it again. This time, the children come across a hungry witch while trying to find their way out of the forest. The children trick the witch into the oven in which she intended to cook them and they, instead, cook her. And then eat her, because they are ravenous little monsters.

Chad the Chipmunk, a psychotic alcoholic employee who kills people, makes a brief appearance in Story Time Tunnel. This was my first introduction to Lorraine’s fear – the distorted sound of a heartbeat pulsing and heavy breathing. You have to look in the opposite direction to see him at all, and in a way, this characterizes his role in the narrative: he is an unattractive side show.

The octotron is a multi-tentacled light show whose speed can be adjusted from full stop to annoyingly loud. Bits of information are found scattered about including a picture of Lorraine and Callum in which both of them look terrified at the sight of something; it’s as if their co-existence is one of perpetual terror. As Lorraine leaves the ride, she begins an abruptly prosaic rant in which she objectifies her infant son as a writhing red ball and muses that this life is built on a “single traitorous thought.”

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One can be forgiven for thinking that Lorraine might be referring to sex or love. This is our introduction to her all-consuming self-loathing, one that drives her to chastise herself unforgivingly for thinking that she could ever be a mother, could ever be “normal.”

Her exploration of the inactive bumper cars unfolds a scene in which she is seemingly electrocuted on the bed of a hospital table. A haywire car then comes careening over the platform and plows through a fence that guards access to a set of stairs leading up the side of a rocky hill face. As she ascends, she recalls a time when she left Callum in the car as an infant to run a brief errand. She came back to a sheriff writing a citation with a look of judgement on his face. Lorraine becomes vehemently defensive. She would rather be shot than accept help. Help is a thousand volts of lightning. (Help is a clinical hospital bed. Helps means you are a failure and everyone will judge you for it.)

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The slow rise of the Ferris wheel over mist-shrouded pine trees provides the backdrop for the tale of how she met Callum’s father. He was the only man who came into the diner that didn’t flirt with her or try to cop a feel. They went on a magical walk and made Callum that night. Three months later, he was working atop the wheel at the park when his safety strap failed and he fell to his death. “Fairy tale fucking over.”

Lorraine becomes bitter as she approaches the roller coaster. Babies steal your life. She hates people who talk about their kids like they are angels and how they are their entire world. Fuck those people – you spend nine months of your life pregnant just so you can clean up vomit and wipe asses. Callum owes her everything and it would serve the little fuck right if she were to leave him here. This marks the sharp objectification of what has thus far been a largely subjective experience; Lorraine’s mental deterioration derives in part from losing her connection to context as she is deprived of a normal life by the passing of Callum’s father.

As we ride the roller coaster, the fourth wall is shattered with all the tact of the Kool-Aid Man in his prime. The disembodied voice from the escalator talks to us directly in clichés: “You and your boy are everything the park doesn’t want. You are the antithesis of what we stand for. The witch has him now. You’re a fool and always have been.” As the ride gains speed, the narrative hand-holding is dropped and we are subjected to brief flashes from a movie’s “being rushed to the delivery room of a hospital” scene. The doors have been painted with phrases: “NOT SAFE” and “I CAN TASTE YOUR DREAMS.” Callum’s birth introduces a painful mix of emotional ups and downs whose effects are still resonating; our antagonist hijacks these emotions and bends them to his will.

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Sideshow Alley begins the transition from neurotic to psychotic. It is Lorraine’s prescription pills that are the devil, their effects a bitter admission of defeat. She encounters them in the middle of a ring of quiet attractions. “Yeah, these are mine.” The world becomes a wavy, vibrant red; bizarre messages are scrawled all over the walls. A newspaper clipping is written using dictionary words and grammatically correct sentences that make little sense. Abstract prose describes Beaumont and Cassandra, two Secret World figures. Right-click: “Callum, I’m sorry” in a distorted, ethereal tone. “Don’t touch me!” is the angry response.

Callum has bruises and marks on his body, Lorraine says. He looks at her at odd moments, tosses and turns in his sleep, muttering things in languages she does not speak. She tries to ask him what is going on but he does not answer. There will be pain, she says, but in the end, Callum will understand. (My depression medication will make things worse before it makes them better.)

A corpse lies behind the cotton candy stand under the pale watch of a nightmare fuel clown face. We turn around to see Chad the Chipmunk briefly before he fades out with all the elegance of Final Fantasy 14’s texture mesh. Lorraine’s medication wears off and she returns to the pain of reality. The House of Horrors remains the only unexplored un-attraction. “The witch awaits.”

The ground floor of the House is largely forgettable. Diligent use of a discovered flashlight allows one to pierce the shroud of darkness and admire, in some places, the deft arrangement of background scenery. Gas mask-wearing vampire cut-outs toting sub-machine guns pop up from the floor limply. They are a pale foreshadowing of the crescendo of interaction that awaits us as we make our way through a place that is significantly less horrifying than the inside of Lorraine’s head. The mirrors in this place twist her image just as her illness twists her mind: they make her look like a monster, a dark and jagged reflection of the young woman we saw in the parking lot.

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Her antagonist is presumably Nathaniel Winter, the park’s owner, in the form of The Presenter from The Secret World’s yearly Samhain event. He has retreated to the House of Horrors after the park was closed down by an inspector due to the unusually large number of accidents as attested to by his personal journal entries, an internal accident report, and an official police report. He curses the dark magic that the locals believe is bound to this place – it is interfering with his plans to extract energy from children. His grand plans foiled, he latches onto Lorraine’s son and draws her ever downward as he warbles in the background incoherently or sings along sadistically to otherwise innocent childrens’ songs. “Mommy Duck said quack, quack, quack, quack…and NO LITTLE DUCKS CAME BACK.”

The real House of Horrors is a dim meander through an artistic depiction of Lorraine’s house as a reflection of her mind. We descend through the same rooms repeatedly as her condition becomes increasingly worse. Each scene holds several interactive objects; examining all of them allows us to understand what’s going on in her world. When he was still alive, Callum’s father, Donald, suggested the name Emma for a baby girl. Another Secret World reference – there, Emma is the embodiment of anima (life) essence; here, perhaps a reference to unbound happiness and joy, things that the park stands for. Things that fate has conspired to wrest away from Lorraine.

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On the first level of Lorraine’s reconstituted living space, we read a letter from her physician advising her that she is of sound mental health and no longer requires her medication. Callum has drawn her a crayon picture containing a heart and the words “I LOVE YOU.” A hard-bound science fiction novel features a breathy blurb on the rear of the dust jacket. A non-fiction novel tells the tale of starvation among migrants in the Old West. Random letters have been penned on the sticker faces of an unsolved Rubik’s cube with a marker. The static screen of a television buzzes with quiet white noise. A kitchen faucet drips softly. A shopping list features fruits, milk, and Lorraine’s prescription. The refrigerator contains food and a wine bottle. The power company has sent a form letter disconnect notice. Lorraine has been having financial troubles since Donald’s passing.

We descend.

A hand-written note from her mother rejects contact: her (alcoholic) father was a horrible man and she regrets the years she wasted with him. A form letter from Dunwich Emergency Services documents her intake for early pregnancy depression and her rapid recovery in response to electro-convulsion therapy treatment (help is 10,000 volts of electricity) combined with a prescription for medication. A letter from an attorney, Ed Stapleton, informs Lorraine that the beneficiaries of Donald’s estate are his parents. They are not receptive to Mr. Stapleton’s overtures and without legal proof of a biological relationship, they consider Lorraine to be ineligible to receive any of the moneys from Donald’s estate.

They were not married. A child out of wedlock. A single traitorous thought.

The books begin to speak to Lorraine. The slow breaking of her mind reveals new truths to her. Witness:

THE PARK IT WAS A WAIT, WAIT, WAITIN’
ON A CHILD FOR TAKE, TAKE, TAKIN’
USING JOY FOR BAIT, BAIT, BAITIN’
WHILE THEIR MOTHER’S MIND IS BREAKIN’
ANALGESIA WIN!

Medication dulls her depression and, in doing so, blunts her emotional bond with her son. Her father’s alcoholism was an uninvited companion on their journey away from her mother. The wedge that came crashing down between Lorraine and her parents as Callum grows older has proven to be his inheritance.

We descend.

A letter from Donald in which he tells her of not “being in his right mind” because he’s so far from home (the city) and working so hard. His mind is like a spring wound ever tighter, loosening a bit when he goes for drinks with the guys after work. He doesn’t want to come home to her until he’s in his right mind. Lorraine can be forgiven for not wanting another boozing father in her life – but Callum needs a father. His drawings on the walls of the room reflect this absence. He writes in crayon on a letter: “THANK YOU FOR THE WATCH WILLIAM. YOU HAVE MADE ME VERY HAPPY. CARROT.”

Descend.

The tale of starving migrants has been updated:

A long time ago, in a forest in the woods, there lived a woodcutter, his wife and his two children – a boy named Hansel and a girl named Gretel.

They were very poor and had very little to bite or sup. This story has been doctored to hide the truth from the unsuspecting public. Now, our panel of fairytale experts have uncovered compelling evidence that Hansel and Gretel were in fact eaten alive.

In this never before seen exposé read about how their parents inexpertly tried to cover it up by telling stories about a witch and a house made of candy.

All here in the pages of this SHOCKING FAKE STORY!

And then –

“I didn’t run away. Dad took me.”

Lorraine wears the Woodcutter’s Lament around her neck. It symbolizes the despair felt by Father Woodcutter in not being able to provide for his children. Lorraine is now mother and father; she has not been able to provide and has been judged for this. Her sentence: medication.

Her pills lie faithfully on the living room table every time she enters. While other objects throughout the rooms undergo subtle transformations, the instructions on the bottle never change. They are a prescription for dependency on substances, a dependency that touches everything in her life.

Descend again.

The shopping list mentions Lorraine’s prescription on every other line. Remember: more pills, tickets to Atlantic Island Park. Callum’s masterpieces bear inky handprints; rips and tears appear in the form letters. The attorney’s response has become the backdrop for a crayon drawing of Callum’s abductor: a bogeyman and his top hat, suit, and cane. The taglines on the backs of the fiction books form the ABCs of clinical, psychological victory: analgesia, basal ganglia, cerebral cortex win!

(Lorraine feels nothing when she takes her pills. The townsfolk are immobile as Chad the Chipmunk murders. The bogeyman denies his own existence and Lorraine believes it.)

The dolls lose their eyes and their clothing. Their skin becomes shiny. The lore rain beats a steady, arrhythmic drip from a kitchen faucet, threatening to madden the listener.

“The witch always wins. The woodcutter is dead. (Repeat.) All here in the pages of this BROKEN STORY!”

Descend, Lorraine.

Science fiction becomes science reality, warning of the apocalypse and global domination. (Answer us, Lorraine!)

Picture: my two best friends, Don and Laura. (Did he leave me for another woman because I was losing my mind?)  The shopping list is her prescription repeated eight, ten, twelve times. (Is that why he wouldn’t marry me?) Remember: you are alone. Nobody loves you. Callum is not who he once was. (Abused and neglected.)

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Dolls lie in the oven and hang from the ceiling. Callum’s I LOVE YOU drawings burn to ashes.

DESCEND, LORRAINE.

Form letter: “Miss Maillard, As we agreed in our meeting today, we consider you to be batshit fucking insane…” Science fiction novel: “Chad the Chipmunk – Steve Gardener – was locked away for what he did to those kids. Nathaniel Winter hasn’t been seen in years but is nowhere near Atlantic Island Park. We’ve established this. You know this!”

Blood stains walls and fragments of letters. Two corpses hang from the ceiling. A fire burns in the oven. The Rubik’s cube has solved itself and bears a grim message:

See her try. See him die. See her lie. Why?

Shopping list: “Forget: Don, Dad, Ca…not him.”

Move closer. The hanging bodies are Lorraine in sandals and a young woman in a black frock, facing opposite directions. (The witch?)

A shredded letter: “YOU WILL WATCH ME ROT.”

Doors that rattle for attention and slam shut when approached. Right click: “STOP!” Callum closes a half-open door behind him and whimpers, “don’t.”

Descend one last time.

Books, a fan, a fire, documents, candles. Nathaniel Winter’s last journal entry:

…kids broke in today.
it has been so long since I heard laughter. So very long.
I took one of them.
I couldn’t help myself.
it was fast, the others didn’t notice. I liked hearing him laugh, this boy from the academy.
I put him on a slab.
I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe.
My machines came to life, whirring in time to his gasps and shrieks.
I think this is delightful.
The change wrought in me by the machines is not yet complete.
There must be other children I can lay on my slab.

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Eyes without Sparkle, the last novel in a library of psychological abuse. Winter preys upon her fears and insecurities and uses them to convince her that what must happen next is natural and fitting. (I’m a failure as a mother. Things are better this way.)

Like the Red Sargassum Dream, like the dreams anyone has ever had about being in other places, other times, other worlds, the hum of humanity is still present somewhere down here in the multi-hued glow of these dimly lit spaces. Half-imagined sounds and fragments of consciousness build a world in which one could live in muted peace if one simply accepted being alone with eternity as the natural way of things.

Callum, wait for mommy. 

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Asleep, on the slab. (What am I doing?) Her hands are guided by the bogeyman behind her. (There will be pain, but in the end, Callum will understand.)

Good night, Callum.

It’s a story that’s told time and time again: a boy wanders off into the forest and into the mouth of a witch. In the oldest version of the story, the mother and the witch are the same person.

In this fairy tale, a boy wandered alone into an amusement park and never came back.

Fade out. Fade in. A reassuring hand rests on Lorraine’s shoulder as her head rests in hers. She looks up. The information manager sits down behind a desk. “Where did you last see Callum?” (In my heart and in my mind, I always come back to Atlantic Island Park.)

Which parts of this fairy tale were true, sweetling?

Life Is Strange

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.