This article contains spoilers for Life Is Strange.
There are several moments in Life Is Strange (2015) which, even now, weeks after finishing it, come into my head on a daily basis. First is the closing sequence of Episode One. As Syd Matters’ “Obstacles” kicks in, we drift away from Max and Chloe by the lighthouse and across the town of Arcadia Bay. We see vignettes of the game’s entire cast—Warren, Victoria, Joyce, Kate, Jefferson, Wells, Nathan. Some of them are working, some are plotting, some are crying. David Madsen, Chloe’s bossy and suspicious step-father, is working on his house. Frank Bowers, the town drug dealer, emerges from his trailer and admires the sky. These are only small moments, but they lend what could otherwise be one-dimensional and predictable characters all important depth.
With the exception of Jefferson who, in one of Life Is Strange‘s most clumsy narrative turns, transforms into a Thomas Harris villain, Christian Divine and Jean-Luc Cano’s script ensures everybody has “a moment.” When he viciously beats Nathan Prescott, Warren is more than Max’s hapless, on/off love interest. When she confides in Max at the Vortex Club party, Victoria is more than just a stock, preppy bitch. David, initially paranoid and bullying, becomes one of the most endearing and sensitive characters in the series. Wells, the avuncular school principal, turns out to be incompetent and a drinker.
It’s a big story, but Life Is Strange always finds time to examine its characters. I’d argue, in fact, that above science-fiction, horror, or even teenage anxieties and a desire to be able to undo one’s mistakes, Life Is Strange is a game about people. As you travel back in time, and later through alternate dimensions, you encounter myriad versions of the same characters, altered and permuted to reveal different aspects of their personalities. It’s profoundly melancholic to see, in the other universe, Chloe’s softer and believing side and then return to the base world, where, although those parts of her still exist, they’re buried beneath the hardships of another life. If the premise of Life Is Strange plays on theories of space-time and physics, the end of its first episode reminds us we can change something’s behaviour simply by observing—characters who have been hostile to Max are, in private, different, more complicated people.
This is what saves Life Is Strange from adolescent simplicity. What could have been a saccharine game about the majesty of youth, compared to the cynicism of adulthood, reveals itself at the end of its first part to be interested more broadly in people. And if you want to talk about Life Is Strange as a coming-of-age story, maturity can be measured by empathy. As a teenager, everyone is out to get you and it’s not your fault. As an adult, you’re considerate to other people and more able to judge yourself. From David to Nathan to Victoria, Episode One of Life Is Strange is filled with villains—in its closing moments, it hints at complexities we’re not yet experienced enough to understand.
The Vortex Club party, in Episode Four, is another sequence that’s stayed in my head. To explain, I first I have tell you that, before I played it, Life Is Strange was a game I was ready to dislike. Its acoustic guitar, Polaroid camera, teenage outcast aesthetic smacked, to me, of a queasy inferiority complex. I expected the script to unambiguously adore Max, for her iconoclasm, and rejection by the high school social elite. I thought she would be pious and noble, and the popular kids would all be nasty and wrong—judging from its artwork and website, Life Is Strange looks like a passive-aggressive revenge fantasy, created by people who were bullied at school, and then grew up to be game designers. And to begin with, I thought my suspicions would be proved right. When Max exits the classroom in Episode One, and walks the halls of Blackwell listening to her iPod, drowning out the voices of everyone around her, Life Is Strange started to feel like another the type of game that worships the imagination of a child and arrogantly implies that for some beautiful, chosen few, the rest of the world isn’t good enough.
But the Vortex Club party is peculiarly welcoming. You can sneak in, although it’s possible for Max to be formally invited. Alyssa, the girl who’s always seen on her own, and who reality itself seems to bully, is here. The music is great. People are having fun. The VIP area, created by draping a sports hall curtain around the deep end of the swimming pool, is endearing more than threatening. And Max knows people. There are plenty of characters—drunks, jocks, cheerleader types—to who she can talk. Before I played Life Is Strange, if you’d told me there was a scene at an exclusive high school party, I would have rolled my eyes, expecting it to be presented as part of a vicious, adulterated place, the reality of which encroaches on precious and simple innocence. But Max is at home here. To the thumping sound of “Got Well Soon” by Breton, I couldn’t help but nod my head. Time and again I’ve written about the determination of some videogames to remain in adolescence, to not just refute adult subject matter, but to effectively lie to their audience, and sell twee simplicity as meaningful insight—to serve up sizzle and call it steak. Of that, the Vortex Club scene could easily have been another example, but Life Is Strange surprised me again. In their own defence, so many videogames attack the outside world, the mainstream and the notion of belonging: since the wider world won’t accept videogames as works of art, or anything above base entertainment, videogames will tell their players that they don’t need the wider world, that it’s a hostile and unpleasant place anyway. Life Is Strange is not that insecure. Aware of what happened to Kate, we arrive at the Vortex Club party understandably suspicious, and are quickly wrong-footed by its congeniality. The high school social elite, such an easy stand-in for all the mainline detractors from games, game players, and game-makers, is unexpectedly friendly.
The greatest part of Life Is Strange, however, is the climax of Episode Three. Travelling back in time to save William’s life to spare Chloe the hardship of growing up without a father is incredibly uncomfortable. Inhabiting Max’s 13-year-old body inside Chloe’s jarringly clean and tidy childhood home, as William and Chloe swap jokes and loving platitudes, makes the whole sequence feel inherently wrong. It’s plastic. It’s sugary. It’s alien. It’s too nice. I felt less like I’d walked into the past and more like I was trapped in some sickly, Truman Show-esque soap opera. When, in Episode Five, Max hallucinates that she is a tiny version of herself, watching the conversation between Chloe and William from within a snow globe on their mantelpiece, it drove the scene home. Chloe and William’s relationship is nauseatingly idyllic, like a father and daughter from a lousy sitcom, and Max watches it, as if watching television. When Jefferson, Life Is Strange‘s worst character, later talks about capturing on film the moment a person loses their innocence, his monologue is straining and hamstrung. The jadedness that comes with adulthood is better illustrated during the scenes between Chloe and William. Watching them as a grown-up Max, a Max aware of the reality these people will ultimately sleepwalk into, their relationship is unbearably naïve.
As too is that ending of Episode Three. When Max has saved William’s life, and returned to an altered present, although the world looks nicer—beaming sunshine, a better dressed and more popular Max, Warren is in love—it’s positively emetic. Climbing aboard the school bus and noting that David is the driver and he doesn’t recognize Max is the first sign that something is wrong. The two whales, washed up on Arcadia beach, cooking in the sunlight, is the next. And when you arrive at Chloe’s house, and instead of run-down it’s classically suburban, rather than hope it is dread that strikes you. This halcyon version of Arcadia is straight out of David Lynch, a director to whom the license plate on Chloe’s truck makes clumsy reference. The sun, the music, the altered versions of familiar places and characters are barely disguising an awful reality. So when William answers the door and we see Chloe in the wheelchair, paralyzed from the neck down, it hardly feels like a twist at all.
Jefferson turning out to be Life Is Strange‘s antagonist is the game’s weakest narrative beat. As well as an inexplicable u-turn in an already unneeded sub-plot, it’s an overwrought allegory for the dangers of adulthood, slapping you round the face with the message that the grown-up world is not always safe. Chloe being in the wheelchair is—arguably—similarly hamfisted, but it’s an attack on whimsy and ignorance. When you see what has become of Chloe in this perfect but fabricated Arcadia Bay, the love that people and the videogames they create have for idealized, internal worlds is swiftly undercut. To pigeonhole this moment as part of a discussion on videogame form—to say that, by showing how right and humanistic decisions can have bad consequences, and that therefore Life Is Strange undermines the usually morally black-and-white choice systems in the medium—is to do it injustice. So, too, is to think about it as part of a coming-of-age story. Max’s realization that she is not all powerful, important, or able to affect the change that she would like is definitely part of her growing up, but Life Is Strange plays on that much better in its final episode, when Max is forced to walk through the myriad unstable alternate realities she has created.
I personally like to think of the ending of Episode Three as a moment of pure despair. When you see a kid eating an ice cream and the scoop falls off and lands on the floor, and the kid bursts into tears, it’s anguishing because it happens for no rhyme or reason—the kid is innocent and has done nothing wrong, and even if the fall can be explained by wind, gravity or some coalescence of natural forces, it’s still unfair. The very reality in which things like that can occur starts to feel premised on vindictiveness. Chloe in the wheelchair, next to her dad, is a lesson in that perverse precept: despite your best efforts, or often for no reason at all, reality itself is your punisher. That idea of things just happening, and being able to feel in the face of that idea, only despair, is a far-reaching human experience, one that Life Is Strange grotesquely—almost gleefully—illustrates.