This video came off a fair bit more critical than I had intended it to. I think it was a consequence of a few things. First I had finished the game when the finale came out in late October, and I had utterly fallen in love with it. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to writing this video up until mid-December and needed to replay the whole game to get footage. Having to go back through the whole thing mechanically after emotions had cooled felt like an obligation, and I think that cold analysis is felt pretty strongly here.
Also: I frankly wasn’t brave enough to comment on some of the more interesting subtext of the game (this could alternately be read as “I was smart enough not to say anything beyond my personal experience”). A lot could be said of the way the game treats the sexuality of Max and Chloe. It could be read as progressively fluid – no sexualities are outright stated, and the audience is expected to accept that Rachel and Frank, Chloe and Rachel, Max and Chloe, and Max and Warren could all potentially and easily be couples in this universe. That romantic subtext also informs a lot of the coming of age story – it can easily be read as a coming out story that asks players to choose between Chloe and greater society, though I have issues with the way the game frames their journey that makes me hesitate to do so. Namely, the destruction of the town could be viewed as upheaval of existing social order in the name of true love, but the game is so casual about its non-heteronormativity that their being together never felt like it was bucking the system so the destruction of the establishment as a sacrifice for love seems unwarranted. Especially because it wasn’t some mild social rebellion or monocle popping; lots of people died. Anyways, “straight dude has hesitations about an otherwise totally valid, interesting queer reading of the text” only serves to make me look like a jerk, so I avoided the topic altogether in hopes of not coming across as such.
Instead I avoided the game’s emotional core in favor of a more dry, distanced analysis. In retrospect it was probably the wrong choice for a game so driven by characters and their feelings for one another.
Anyways, here’s the transcript:
Earlier this year I released a video covering the first episode of Life is Strange – its strengths, its weaknesses, its budding thematic strands. It was new territory for me, since it felt like covering a game based on just its first level… although come to think of it I did that this year too. Anywhoo, now that the season has been concluded for a few months, I think it’s time we went back and looked at how all of that played out. Let’s take a look at Life is Strange – this time, the whole Life is Strange.
The one thing that the series has focused on throughout its entire five episode run has been a sense of emotional truth in the moment. This has its upsides and its downsides. On one hand it’s able totally sell some really touching moments because it contorts everything from its lighting and cinematography to its soundtrack to get to the heart of any given scene. Like, my favorite moment in the whole game is the morning after Chloe and Max broke into the Blackwell swimming pool. They wake up in Chloe’s bed, she sets up some music, and the two of you just chill in the aftermath of all the chaos you caused last night. It’s at once serene and nostalgic – a clear attempt to recapture the mornings after the sleepovers of their youth. And you just want them to stay in this perfect moment forever. And the game teases you by letting you linger there, in the morning light of Chloe’s room! You have to choose to break the moment and get up, and you don’t want to. But you can’t stay forever – you have to get up. Max has to go to school and you have to finish the game. It’s this great mechanical encapsulation of the game’s themes of the folly trying to capture a moment and stay in it forever; a reminder that nothing, no matter how perfect, is permanent. It’s the sort of quiet moment most games don’t take the time to offer, let alone really sell.
That interest in emotional truth in the moment also manifests itself by having Max’s powers be… awful conveniently tied to the themes of the current episode. Kate’s gonna kill herself if we don’t say the right things? Well that’s fine we should just be able to rewind and – uh oh! Our magic time travel juice is all… juiced out… or something. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderfully powerful moment in the game. It had Max stepping up for the first time unassisted by her powers and taking her first steps to self-actualization and completing her arc, it had that really pretty frozen-rain sequence, and it generated tension for the player in a clever way by taking away a crutch without warning. But this limitation on Max’s abilities comes out of nowhere and is never really brought up again and exists just to sell you on the gravity of Kate’s situation, and while it totally works as it happens it can’t help but feel a little like a parlor trick afterwards. Something similar happens when Chloe gets mad at her dad: Max now suddenly gains Ashton Kucher’s powers from Butterfly Effect and can travel back in time by looking at old pictures, and those powers just happen to manifest as Max is looking at a photo taken immediately before Chloe’s dad was killed, enabling her to change the timeline and save his life in an attempt to make Chloe happy. Again, the resulting scene is worth the awkward rule changes – we get to examine Chloe and her relationship with Max in an alternate timeline, giving us better insight into how Chloe Prime works the way she does, and it gives us nice sympathetic moments with William and Joyce. But it’s also a series of contrivances aimed at keeping the emotional threads of the current story alive even if they don’t make the most sense when you think about them. Life is Strange is less interested in solid narrative structure or world building through establishing rules than in resonating with you as you play it.
That same interest in immediate emotional truth also means the game has a habit of bungling its way into really hotbutton issues it doesn’t really commit the time or interest to do justice. Domestic violence, date rape drugs, sexual assault, euthinasia, suicidal ideation, drug dealing, and murder all come up as issues, but none of them take up more than a half of an episode a piece. They serve as melodrama building blocks but not issues in their own right; they’re monsters of the week Max has to solve or confront to move on. And that’s not bad, per se, and a lot of it is done for tone reasons. Twin Peaks remains a major influence on the series and the idea of an idyllic small town in the mountains hiding a much darker side seems to have inspired a lot of the game. And like the happy bits, the game does try very hard to sell you on them in the moment: Kate’s desperation and isolation or Chloe’s desire to end her suffering or David’s abusive nature are framed to resonate. But in aggregate their artificial nature as drama-generation engines or game-like challenges to be overcome starts to become apparent. Life is Strange oscillates between its main story of Max’s character arc rooted in her relationship with Chloe and the missing girl mystery that reveals Arcadia Bay’s darker side. It feels like they knew they needed to send Chloe and Max on adventures in order to facilitate Max’s coming-of-age narrative, but they also knew they wanted to keep things comparatively grounded and local. So they shot for a Twin Peaks mystery as a motivating agent for our gal pals to uncover, but without the Lynch-ian surrealism they landed closer to a series of Dateline episodes that felt oddly heavy and impactful as we watched them yet largely consequence free (save for maybe Kate Marsh’s suicide). It’s an odd thing to pair up with a teenage coming of age story, like if Houlden Caulfield had his internal development while also being a noire detective trying to solve the murder of a hooker with a heart of gold.
So if the seedy underbelly of Arcadia Bay is all in service to the coming-of-age plot, how did that pan out? It turns out: okay? Max goes from a timid, unsure blank slate to a confident, bold blank slate. It would have been nice to see her grow a bit more personality in addition to her self-confidence, but she has to act as a cipher for the player so pretty much all prickly personality traits get sanded off in favor of a more broad character arc. It also would have been nice if it were shown rather than told to us – Max can have a number of undeniably heroic moments the shy girl at the beginning of the game would never have done, or moments of compassion that put her above her peers. But too often her growing stature is told to us. This feels like it stems from a lot of different points of failure. The wooden facial animations are incapable of showing the subtle difference between saying something timidly or saying something confidently, so the game leans heavily on the writing and voice acting to provide much of the characterization. Consequently Life is Strange is a game that tells you things more than it shows you things, and for a game this minimally interactive and cinematically inclined that’s sort of a bummer. Like, we know David really loves Joyce, but we know that because of his computer password and some other found object storytelling techniques. But what we see is a constantly pissed off guy who only knows how to bark military-style commands and hits his daughter. From snooping around files and computers we know Nathan Prescott has a bad family situation and a cold, emotionally abusive father that may help explain his character, but what we see is a spoiled brat who commits horrendous crimes. We don’t get to see David’s tenderness or Nathan’s need to make his father happy, we’re simply told they exist because we found some baubles that suggested it.
It’s not that environmental storytelling is bad at all, but it limits the sort of stories you can tell. Gone Home worked because it was telling stories about the past; stories that came before and have no bearing on your current scenario. Kate Greenbriar’s story is one of discovery, not of action. Fallout 4 does the same trick when it asks you to examine an abandoned house or whatever. You’re basically piecing together an extant story while playing what amounts to a at best a denoumont. But Life is Strange is happening now, not at some point in the past, and telling so much of the story by way of environmental cues and found objects distances us from a lot of the character development. This is why even after five episodes Victoria still feels the most humanized out of all of the antagonists – she is gracious when you’re nice to her after the paint situation, and she does appreciate your warning her of Nathan’s plans assuming she believes you. You don’t find out about it by reading an e-mail, but instead it happens here, now. Granted, it’s still in dialog rather than impacting the plot through action, but it’s there and you experience it as it happens. This is also why Max and Chloe’s relationship works so well, and why I have fonder memories of Chloe’s parents than of Max’s parents who are exist and have characterization but don’t appear on screen.
When the game chooses to show rather than tell (or at least, tell in the moment rather than tell via found objects), it’s carried by some great performances and writing that, even when it’s awkward, is all geared around characterization. We get a sense for Joyce’s exhaustion and love for her daughter in both timelines, we can sense that Chloe was probably closer to her dad and that explains a lot of the family dynamic, we see that Frank puts up a tough front but is really a good guy, we see that Kate is shy but has a tremendous sense of empathy. The game needed more of that from its main antagonists, who are only given depth when they’re offscreen. And, frankly, the game needed more of that from Max. In a game so driven by characters it’s odd to me that she feels like she’s had her personality dampened. She’s an artsy hipster but not too much so, she’s geeky but not too geeky, she’s unsure of herself but not really worried about it. The result is that her arc, which drives so much of the game, falls flat. She’s too much of a player avatar and not enough of a character in her own right to have that culminating moment resonate..
And that culminating moment, that final choice, is the other key issue with Max’s whole coming of age thing. And… look, I’ve never been a big fan of how these kinds of games handle choice. Very rarely is it meaningful, either thematically or in the sense of giving players agency. Players expect their choices to drastically impact the narrative which will never happen for numerous reasons and developers tend to give empty options that only offer players superficial choice out of obligation. However, Life is Strange’s final choice manages to stumble hard into the opposite direction: it is very tied to the game’s themes and it is hugely impactful to the resulting narrative. In fact, it’s so tied up in Max’s arc that it probably shouldn’t have been a choice at all. So at the very end of the game Max and Chloe meet up at the lighthouse and realize the storm what ends the world is likely a result of the past week’s worth of time travelling adventures that all stem from that time Max saved Chloe from Nathan in the bathroom at the beginning of the series. They also realize that maybe fate kind of wants Chloe to die, given how very many times she’s died in alternate timelines. The choice is, then: go back in time and let Chloe die as is her destiny in order to save the town, or run away with Chloe and abandon Arcadia Bay to ruin. And it’s such a poorly thought out decision. First of all, it boils down your final choice to the “Which group of people do you save?” thing, a cliche contrivance that got old years ago. Worse, running away with Chloe basically undoes all of Max’s character development. All of that “getting older” and “finding herself” stuff, building up “doing what is right when the time comes” in the finale, spending thirty minutes helping Max explore and confront her subconscious fears and desires to prep her for that moment of self-actualization? If Max runs away with Chloe none of that matters; none of it can matter. Not only that, but you’re denying Chloe the conclusion to her arc as well – she finally acts selflessly and in defense of a town and a family she’s insisted she’s hated. She wants you to do this for them, for her, because despite everything she does give a shit. And it’s clear Dontnod do not want you to pick it, either: If you let Chloe die you get an extended cutscene that brings our main players back for one final bow after showing you that everything is alright. If you run away you get a brief cutscene of the two driving wordlessly through the wreckage of the previous level set to a song we’ve already heard – at worst lazy content reuse, and at best suggesting that Max remains stuck in adolescence and hasn’t really gone anywhere.
You don’t really want to put this kind of core thematic point in the hands of the audience; it’d be like letting viewers vote on whether Rick should let Elsa get on the plane in Casablanca. An option that negates the point the whole work has been building to should not be an option. Max should have to go back and let Chloe die, and if there are choices they should have been how we as Max choose to grieve for her. That is impactful while in-line with our character arcs, it lets us send everyone off while still letting us respond to the text in-game.
Despite all of its flaws, I love this game. Like I said, Life is Strange is aimed at finding a sense of emotional truth, and while it stumbles from melodrama to mawkish sentimentality to awkward videogame-ness in its search, it manages to strike a chord often enough that it’s worth all of the other junk just for those moments. There’s an earnestness about them, especially with Chloe and Max’s friendship, that simply isn’t found often in video games. That doesn’t make a particularly strong argument for Life is Strange in the greater media landscape of 2015 – there are plenty of movies, books, and TV shows that do as good a job at this sort of thing if not better. But in video games it is still something rare, something to cherish. It’s a game that dares to go small, to believe that something as mundane as a friendship between teenage girls is more interesting than time travel and apocalyptic portents. Structurally – mechanically, even – it’s a bit of a mess, throwing in plot cul-de-sacs and random gameplay change-ups based on whatever feels right rather than a cohesive whole. But it’s a mess that finds grace in its characters and their everyday struggles wherever it can. I don’t know know if that makes it a good game, but it does make it a touching and memorable one.