This Power Might Not Last

During the Christmas shutdown, I was playing a lot of World of Warcraft. It’s something to do but, as I discussed with one of my brothers, it is simply fun-ish. Once I returned to Wycombe, I removed it from my hard-drive and decided to look around for a palette cleanser. There was a winter sale on the Steam service. I picked up a few games, which included Dontnod entertainment’s Life Is Strange. The first episode of Life is Strange was released in January 2015, the last in October of the same year. I will be writing about my experience of playing this game. The story is a coming of age tale with a time-travel twist and elements of murder mystery. I found it a beautiful, albeit flawed, gem. As always, I will warn the reader now that extensive spoilers are to follow.

In Life Is Strange, you take on the role of Max (“never Maxine”) Caulfield, a student at a prestigious US high school, Blackwell Academy, with a particular talent for photography. Blackwell is situated in Arcadia Bay, where Max lived until she was thirteen years old, at which point her family moved to Seattle. Five years have passed and Max has come back, not exactly home.

But in the beginning, you are not at school. Max comes to on a rain-slicked path up a path to a light-house. She is alone and makes her way to the light-house for safety. At the precipice, the horizon is dominated by a massive, freak storm that is heading to Arcadia Bay. As Max looks on horrified and amazed, the storm, with seeming malice, hurls a boat at the light-house, shattering the top, which in turn collapse on Max. Max is not killed but instead wakes from a terrible dream. Of course, it wasn’t a dream, it was a premonition, and the game goes on to introduce us to the conceit of the game when Max is trapped in the bathroom with a Nathan Prescott (a local privileged youth) and a nameless blue-haired punk girl (who Max does not yet recognise but we will come to know as Chloe Price). Max reaches out her hand, cries out no… and wakes up in class once more. Max can travel backwards through time. When she does this, she retains knowledge of everything that has happened and can use this knowledge to modify her actions to a more favourable outcome. Life is Strange is a game about choice and consequence.

Max, as a young woman, is a still-novel choice in the world of computer gaming.[1] She is a waifish figure; young, white, and slim, evocative of the ‘good’ romantic choice in many of publisher Square-Enix’s popular series. My first thoughts on her character design was that this might be an intentional exploitation of user familiarity – though different, Max is familiar enough to a presumed audience that it is considered less difficult to empathise with her. Max is, or at least comes across as, a fastly-becoming clichéd image of the millennial: dressed in non-descript jeans and t, her bangs lowered to cover her face, she walks through the academy halls with headphones on, thinking but not speaking. She is attached to her phone and addicted to “selfies” – though for photography she prefers classic cameras, which she puts of as an affectation but is core to her capabilities as the game progresses. Yet there is more to Max than just what might be presumed. As her Mark Jefferson lecturer observes, while the term selfie might be modern coinage, the practice goes back through the ages. People at all times have been obsessed with capturing their own (and others) images. ‘Portraiture’ he calls it. Jefferson, given to monologue, sets up that this is more than just a teen horror/comedy/romance but implying that there have always been those things, we just lose sight of them as we pass beyond the penumbra of childhood in to the adult world. The setting is likewise the universalised US High School experience, once again intimating that Life is Strange is actually quite familiar.

Max initially considers herself as a camera, even describing herself to one of the ‘jocks’ as constantly taking pictures with her eyes. There was something interesting taking place at this point – a comingling of gaze theory[2] and the post-modern ideas of life experienced through the camera. Max used the camera to keep the world at a distance but also to frame and control it. This is, of course, what Max becomes able to do with her time manipulation. Returning again to the intial, ill-starred monologue by Jefferson, pictures are “little frozen moments of time.”

It is the nature of Max’s ability to only be able to go back in time, not forward. This is a story about approaching adulthood, the difficulties, compromises, but also freedoms that this affords. The ability to rewind is limited by the physical toll it takes on Max. I actually felt this was an unnecessary cliché, for the most part, as the temptation to dither and never stick to a choice is the far more intriguing stinger to this form of time manipulation because, while Max can rewind as often as she likes, the short reach of her power means that she is still as bound by what she (and you) decide on. The reach and scope of Max’s power, along with the bent of the narrative reminded me of Camus’ comments on his novel L’Etranger, alternately translated in to English as either ‘The Outsider’ or ‘The Stranger.’[3] As Life is Strange progressed, time and again I was reminded that the hero must play the game or be condemned. I started to this of the title of the game, with the “is” of the logo in a polaroid as more of a hyphen, as the Life-Strange, the Life-Outside.

At Blackwell, Max’s outsiderness is emphasized by her economic position. She is at school on a scholarship and her interior monologue continually settles on the fact that other students – specifically the elite and cruel Vortex club – can afford extravagant equipment and lifestyles: socks that “cost more than [a] wardrobe”, Nathan Prescott’s personal lawyer, cameras and films in the thousands of dollars. However, neither is Max poor – she’s certainly not as hard up as Chloe, and neither of them live hand to mouth like, say, the nameless Fisherman who is quitting the bay as his livelihood dwindles. Yet this wealth and the concomitant power are not good things: an alternate Max is a member of the Vortex club and spends outrageously, the Prescott’s are villainous and their wealth enables the far greater wickedness of Amber’s kidnap and murder.

The core mystery of the game, outside Max’s vision, is the fate of Rachel Amber. Chloe, Max’s childhood friend and companion in Life is Strange, enlists Max’s aid to find her. When it is confirmed that Amber has murdered, Chloe breaks down in tears over her dead lover’s body. Despite being steeped in sexual violence and threat, and featuring, as well as Rachel’s murder, a powerful sequence that is provoked by sex shaming and culminates in a suicide attempt, Life is Strange tries to navigate a line of sex-positivity in the beginning that is quite broad. The people that slut-shame, or are positioned with as sexually violent, are universally on the wrong side of things. Kate Marsh is never mentioned as bad or prudish for her abstinence, and people are just as wrong for tormenting her when they think she has been sexually active. At the same time, Chloe advises Max in all earnestness that she can now ‘bang whoever she wants and rewind time.’ With great power.

The narrative is also incredibly easy to read in a queer-friendly[4] manner. It’s far from perfect though, and I will return to this point. Chloe is acknowledged within the game as being sexually involved with the disappeared Rachel Amber, and her heart-break at her dead lover is a genuinely moving bit of performance by Ashly Burch.[5] Max’s explicitly acknowledges that it was Chloe being in danger that activated her power in the first place, and their relationship throughout is one of incredible tenderness, affection, and passion.[6] Max’s sexual orientation, and the precise nature of her relationship with Chloe, is left up to player decision but it certainly read as a romantic flirtation to me, a sweet teenage flirtation or a bond that resonates through time and space and will break the world before it breaks it. (Again, I’ll come back to this).

Despite being a wallflower and somewhat socially retiring, Max establishes strong social bonds with those around her. Her best friend at Blackwell, Warren, a young man, a science nerd, is also quite obviously besotted with Max. However, he is also a good person; when it looks as though Max is not interested, he does not become resentful or jealous but maintains his friendship. I found Warren perhaps not as well realised as he could have been until his second confrontation with Nathan, where he charges in like Achilles to protect Max and Chloe. It is after this, after you can choose to pull him off or not, that Warren’s characters shine through: he is sickened by the violence and glad that you stopped him. Warren contrasts with the failures of every other male figure in Life is Strange – he is able to both be himself and allow others to do the same. Joyce, Chloe’s mother, hopes that she will be a good influence on Chloe, though eventually she recants this position. It is through what you know about and say to Kate on the rooftop that determines whether she lives or dies – and at this point Max is unable to access her power; it is all on what you have done before and what you say now that places Kate’s life in your hands.

The world that Max at least initially inhabits is one that is subject to the failure and over-reach of masculine identity and authority.[7] Principal Wells is a drunk and greedy, broken down by the compromises he has had to make to keep Blackwell going,[8] only taking action when things have escalated out of control, only taking steps to change in an abortive alternate world when it is impossible to let things go on as normal. Mark Jefferson, despite being positioned as ‘cool teacher,’ even at the earliest point, is hinted at having inappropriate interest in the pupils and (at this point as far as we know) innocently asking if Kate brought her shaming on herself. Nathan Prescott, a child of money and privilege, is a near complete monster: violent to the point of murderousness, drug-abusing, his social position keeping him completely shielded from harm. In many ways, Nathan is the dark cypher for what Max is capable of doing: Nathan chooses to do wicked things and can escape the consequences for doing so. Nathan is the wicked shadow cast by his father.[9] This is a recurring motif in Life is Strange, that the men in the game don’t so much take part as meddle. David Madsen, Chloe’s ‘step-douche’, is a war hero who can’t leave the war behind and who charges in to situations with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. In Episode 1, he questions Kate Marsh but comes across as an interrogator. You can choose to step in or not but you can only do damage control, not stop him. Even William Price, a good man and caring father, cannot live if his daughter is to – when Max goes back in time to save him, it causes a chain of events that leads to Chloe being made paraplegic and, after spending the night together watching Blade Runner[10] and telling Max that she wanted her last memories to be of her, she asks Max to end her pain. It is tragic that perhaps the best gift Warren can give Chloe is to leave her, to die.

Yet the game is not stating that men bad, women good. It does not ask that they be completely inactive: Luke, though he wants the Vortex Club to burn, hides behind his telephone. Hayden likewise sits it out, content to get high and close his eyes while someone is in danger (literally) right in front of his eyes.[11] Samuel is kind but ineffectual. In the male dorms, there is only a single sign expressing any sympathy for Kate’s near-suicide.[12] It is not enough to remain on the outside.

Warren, as mentioned, is the complete antithesis of this and may be the most uniformly decent character in Life is Strange,[13] stepping in when he is needed, stepping out when he is not. The game uses several fathers and father figures and it is Max’s and Kate’s that representative good fatherhood, good parenting because they step back from their daughters, allowing them to have their life. Max’s father sends messages to his daughter, reminding her that she can come home, but trusts her. Likewise, while everyone else in Kate’s family is oppressively religious, it is her father’s message of support in the scripture that helps you talk Kate down from the literal ledge, saving her life. Even David Madsen, in his finest hour, descending in the Dark Room to save Max, acknowledges that he did a shitty job of detecting while Max and Chloe put all the pieces together with nothing more than their brains and working as a team. The narrative point here is that, as a rule, people should support but not control other’s lives.[14]

As you uncover the disappearance of Rachel Amber and discover her fate (and the fate that nearly befell Kate Marsh), the parallels between Max and the abductor are quite stark. It of course makes perfect sense that it is not Nathan but Mark Jefferson, the famous artist coming to the enclosed safe world of Blackwell. He collects the images of his victims, posed and frozen in time; Max is likewise on the outside, initially due to her disposition and eventually because of her power, but no less the stranger. Except Max’s photos are selfies and things she sees out in the world and, in the course of the game, she is given the choice to step in and take action. All that is required is that she do something.

The motif of the vortex recurs time and again in Life is Strange. It is not just the vision that awaits Max and Arcadia Bay at the end of the week, but also the Vortex Club and its social elites, the grinding down of personhood that is going on at Blackwell academy, and the threat of absolute oblivion.[15] Throughout Life is Strange, pamphlets warn Max, and us, that we might get sucked in. Yet in Episode 4, she willingly descends in to the Vortex Club and its darkness, to find and stop Nathan. The music transforms from the airy emo guitar to grinding industrial beats. Everything is occluded by the play of lights and shadows. It seems appropriate that it takes place in the same location as the tenderest moment between Max and Chloe, at the pool they broke in to for a midnight swim. Yet all is not hopeless here – there are friends you have invited and made, and you can speak to party goers and even in, what seems the darkest place, you can reach out to help others, or see that you have helped people like the socially reclusive Daniel. Yet the warnings prove premonitions as Max is drawn through the vortex, via Rachel’s grave, back in to the Dark Room and Jefferson.

Time is an illusion, Max reveals, as she ravels and unravels its path trying for the best, most favourable outcome. Samuel, in a moment of reflection, tells us that time is infinite. While this might not be exactly true for him or anyone else in the Bay, it is the case for Max.[16] With unlimited time in which to decide, Max is something godlike. Chloe once again speaks sagaciously when she off-handedly jokes that once Max can control her power, she will rule. Yet with a power so infinite, it reveals Max’s true power. She could spend her whole life looking at one sunset yet that would not be normal, nor desirable. As she is becoming an adult, Max is learning to take action and accept the consequence. It is that, not time travel, which is her power. This is demonstrated at the climax of Episode Two and Kate Marsh’s attempted suicide – at this time, Max’s power has failed her and she can only act now and accept what happens. There will be no reliving this moment. Yet it is there, without her ability, that Max’s reputation as ‘Super Max’[17] is established. Max changes in the game – she takes a stand, she declares herself a pacifist, she believes things and takes action – but those changes are least of all influenced by her ability to change time. In Episode Three and Four, when she tries to use her power to fix Chloe’s life, by resurrecting William, that she learns that there are limits to her power, that she cannot control the outcome of everyone’s actions. Regretfully, she has to undo what she did.[18]

It is after Chloe is murdered for the last time[19] and Max is taken to the Dark Room by Jefferson that we at least see the spiral that Max is bound up in. She uses her power to attempt repeated escapes, but at each turn she is unable to escape because she is continuing to walk the spiral. Her first attempt has her become an ‘Every day hero’, a successful artist, Jefferson and Nathan caught before they can do any more damage, Chloe saved, Blackwell redeemed, and Max in San Francisco. But a call from Chloe, as the cyclone destroys Arcadia Bay, sees her hurling herself back in time to try and save Chloe again. She destroys her picture and ends up back in the Dark Room – only this time Jefferson is angry with her, having destroyed her diary and any other picture she could use to get back. David Madsen arrives to rescue you but it is only through your prognostication can you save him. Your path is continually littered with people that you can step in and help or ignore.[20]

The final turn of this spiral, after you save Chloe once more, takes place in Max’s mind. She is stalked in her mind by Jefferson, Nathan, David, Warren, all the men who have loomed large as spectres. She is locked in rooms where she must decipher the key by reflection. She walks a winding path through her and Chloe’s experiences this past week, where we are reminded in Chloe’s heartbreak over Rachel that this is not a just world, and, finally, Max meets Max. This is an alternate Max left discarded in time by ours, one who has reached different conclusions to her. Our actions have been shallow, self-serving, telling people what they want to hear, just vanity. Chloe comes to save us and we return to her.

The two stand on the rain-slick peninsula we saw at the beginning and have returned to in visions so many times, beneath a now ruined light-house. We are given one last choice. In the Two Whales diner, Warren postulated that the cause of the hurricane was caused by this power. Chloe makes an impassioned speech offering another explanation, that the cost for her life is this storm. She has been close to death so many times throughout the week and each time Max has pulled back the clock to undo it. Perhaps that comes with a price. By this point, there are no secrets between the two; Chloe knows how much Max has done to keep her alive and well. Chloe argues for her own euthanizing. I scarcely hesitate when I am asked: I choose to save my friend.[21]

It has generally been accepted that sacrificing Chloe is the ‘good’ ending. I disagree. I believe that Life is Strange, at the last moment, exceeds itself in this because the lessons imparted in playing the game are not that Max’s time travel is the cause of all woes, nor is it the solution to them, but rather that being unable to accept the consequences of your choices is, that wanting to stick things in time, to freeze the past in place like Jefferson, never able to see past the moment to the change after that and after that, is the ultimate ill ends. Max is to strive, to choose, to act on and for those people and things she loves. It was never her power that made Max powerful, but her willingness to do something – save Kate, guide David, protect Chloe, speak up, act out. In other words, to be an adult. If Max chooses to save the Bay, to return in time and sit and listen as a friend who does not know how much she is loved dies, she betrays this. Keep in mind that her first choice, to reach out and cry out, was when she did not know who Chloe was. It was the first step in to becoming a participant in her own life. By choosing Chloe, Max chooses love, yes, but also the consequences of loving.

Dontond have stated that they are working on a Season 2 of Life is Strange but that they will not be returning to these characters. This is of course entirely appropriate for a game where you have to accept the results as they fall, with no take backs at the end. Life is Strange is a coming of age story, about the blandishments of age and adulthood but also what comes after that. They are made manifest in the tornado, a literal manifestation of destruction against the symbolically and actually corrupt town of Arcadia. Its destruction is a symbol of the renunciation of the life of the child, of choosing to come in from the outside of your own life. As you drive away, a family of deer, the symbol that Max has followed throughout, return to the city; a promise of renewal and new chances. Max accepts that she will play the game and she will not be crushed.

[1] Dontnod’s previous effort, Remember Me, likewise featured a female protagonist.
[2] Particularly interesting when this is usually spoken of in terms of Mulvey’s male gaze. Of course, Max is herself framed by the gaze of the writers/artists/players but there you go.
[3] This is no doubt an intentional invocation on Dontnod’s part; the game is too savvy about its construction and too ready to name-drop famous theorists, photographers, and texts at the opening, establishing its affidavits, that this would not be something the writer was familiar with. In the first episode, Chloe tells Max that this isn’t an anime or a computer game – lampshading that it is inspired heavily by and is both of these – and this post-modern construction continues throughout.
[4] To be fair, ‘queer-baiting’ might be more honest a phrase.
[5] The only name I recognised on the cast list.
[6] That’s something I liked about Chloe’s character on the whole. While it would have been easy to present her as too cool for school, she instead comes across as massively exuberant, great in her mirths and melancholies. When angry, she does push people away out of fear of abandonment but is quick to reconcile.
[7] The opening section with Max walking through the halls to Syd Matters ‘To All of You’ is, in retrospect, comes across more as Max (and all the other young women at Blackwell/the world) being in an ant-farm. The music production of Life is Strange is likewise thoughtful and builds in to the overall narrative of the game.
[8] So we are informed by Professor Grant when we speak out against Wells.
[9] Or fathers as it turns out. Nathan’s message from the dead, received on the road from the Dark Room to save Chloe one last time, is touching and while not redemptive, does let us see how so much of Nathan is because he was a troubled boy who needed help and got all the wrong sorts.
[10] The them of memory and disappearance of moments are of course powerful in Life is Strange, so the intertextual nod to Roy Batty’s final monologue, that all these moments will be gone, is a powerful and important one.
[11] “Nobody at Blackwell ever learns” Max reflects as she looks on this scene.
[12] However, the game itself dwells on the fact that this is less caring girls, carelss boys; Max comments that more than a few of the Vortex club women’s concern for Kate is inauthentic. It is better to read this as the fact that while the genders have different signifiers that are permitted, it remains about what images are permissible – the girls simply couldn’t not express sympathy, the boys simply cannot, because it passes through the social coding they operate in.
[13] Or pretty much any computer game. Warren has his shit surprisingly together for a teenage boy.
[14] The parental angle is appropriate given this is a coming of age story: the kids have to learn to look after themselves, to grow beyond the shadow of the adults who have hurt or even nurtured them.
[15] It is even in one of the doodles drawn by Chloe when she and Max were children.
[16] “How many seconds in eternity?”
[17] I think the pun on a prison is intentional here – Max’s powers can be a prison for her as well as for others, because it could be that only Max’s choices matter any more.
[18] I think that this action does have an effect – it changes who Max is. When she saves William, the scene ends with her triumphant, exultant, confident – and she will grow up to be one of the Vortex club. Yet when she goes back, she is heartbroken, able only to tell Chloe that whatever happens, she will always be with her in spirit. I think that the grief and guilt of that Max carried over to her childhood self, who carried through the rest of her life a feeling of guilt and powerlessness, that by taking action she made things worse.
[19] It was obvious from the outset that Chloe was time’s hostage over Max. From the first to the last, Chloe was threatened with death and Max had to step in to stop it.
[20] Alyssa really needs to pay attention to the world around her.
[21] There is a problem here that I mentioned I would return to, and have vacillated back and forth as putting as a footnote or in the main text. I’m going to step out of the game for a moment to explain a little bit. I studied Creative Writing at University and as part of that I had to do a bit of writing for a dissertation. My original drafts included a character that I would later remove to sharpen up the story. That character was a lesbian, to provide cultural contrast to a gay man on the other ‘side’; as part of my writing I’d read an awful, awful lot of theory on the way in which gay women in particular are destroyed or removed in fiction. I’ve never forgotten either the theory or the fact that I reproduced it, even with the best of intentions.
Life is Strange really lets you down at this point because two young women who are very easily read as a couple, one of who is textually queer, are presented with a choice: either one of them dies or the sin of her existence is so great we destroy the world. The canons of literature and film are stacked high with the bodies of dead queer girls and I didn’t feel like adding one more but neither do I think that having her living require punishment from an idiot god is that much better.
I can see what the writers were going for here: in a game of binary choices, you have to have the stakes of the choice be as high on either side – and the only thing as precious as the personal value of Chloe is the knowledge that by picking her you (potentially) annihilate everyone else you have known in Arcadia Bay. It is a choice engineered by the history of computer games, where there is always a ‘best’ ending, where if you collect enough bottles you can come out with the girl and the world saved. It’s just a shame that the wider media has punished queer girls for so long that you can’t tell this story without also telling the other one.
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