We’re doing sequels to blog posts now?
Look, I’m not asking you to remember the history of my blog. There are better uses of your brain out there. But if you somehow did, you might recognise this as the second post I’ve done on the episodic 2015 game Life is Strange, the one and only entry in the genre of coming-of-age teen sci-fi surrealist psycho-horror thriller melodrama. The first one is here, and it’s a pretty effusive look at why I loved the game first time around.
But Life is Strange is a hard game to love in a way that’s simple and clear-cut. It is not, in any way, a conventional masterpiece made by people with a total grasp of the story they want to tell and the form they’re telling it in. It is almost objectively a mess on a plot and structural level, and it’s evidently written by middle-aged white men trying to thread a needle with a sewing machine.
So, with that in mind, I gave the game a second run-through in a bid to try and untangle whether this weird, sometimes brilliant experiment withstands its many, many flaws. And… oh, God knows what is up with this game. Trying to pin it down is like trying to catch a caffeinated rabbit. On a second go-through, the plot hiccups and general sloppiness of the game become more frustrating, while its strengths become even more elusive and hard to describe.
The thing about Life is Strange is that it’s a genre blend on steroids. Fiction wouldn’t work if we kept every single genre in its pen, restricted to a narrow set of tropes, because you’d just be telling the same story over and over again. Name any seminal work of fiction, and the chances are it’ll have mixed and matched genres in a way that had never been done before. Twin Peaks, the drama that Life is Strange bears a very superficial resemblance to, took the small-town crime drama and introduced unexplainable surrealist weirdness that eventually overwhelmed the story. So you can tell that Life is Strange‘s approach at being more than just one thing is pretty normal.
What isn’t normal is how it tries to blend, seemingly, every genre ever. No, really. The game is trying to be, at once, a wistful teen drama indie flick about a shy teenager and her old friend, a layered crime drama that peeks under the hood of an idyllic Pacific Northwestern town, a philosophical time travel story about fate and the consequences of free will, and eventually an unsettling psychological horror about a patriarchal monster who considers murder and rape to be art. Maybe two of those, together, would work? The first two episodes, the best of the game, are a straightforward blend of time travel and teen drama that explores the tangled interpersonal dynamics of high school and the idea of consequences in a way that is genuinely interesting and mostly coherent. I also like the bits of the final episode that are compellingly bonkers and commit to a very sci-fi way of making Max feel the consequences of her tinkering with time.
The rest, though? Yeesh. How about the game’s riff on Flashpoint, where it hops over to a vastly different alternate universe that it spends twenty minutes in, mostly going over character details we already knew before returning to the main plot in a way that also wipes out the conflict that made Max change time anyway? How about the game’s insistence on shoving uninteresting idiot characters into the spotlight time and time again where there are massively consequential stakes to what’s going on elsewhere (my favourite of that is Warren, the boring and whiny ‘nice guy’ love interest, and his incredibly relaxed attitude to what he has surmised is the apocalypse)? How about the strange details of apocalyptic symbolism the game keeps throwing up that make no real sense (why… are there two moons?). Around half the time, the game is working against itself, telling two different stories at once that just do not cohere, where the intention of the author is evidently a million miles away from the execution of the ideas. If you want a food metaphor, it’s like putting Marmite into ice cream. Don’t do that.
There’s no better way of summarising this than Chloe, the secondary character. I didn’t talk about Chloe last time, because I didn’t really mind her. This time, though. Oh, jeez. There are a lot of irritating characters in this game, but at least they occupy their own little spaces on the fringes of the game. Chloe, on the other hand, is right at the centre. She’s there all the time. She is inescapable. Frustratingly, she’s about 2/3 of a good character; her reignited friendship with Max after years of estrangement is interesting, and there’s clearly an attempt to explore depression and the debilitating impact of grief through the lens of her directionless anger and rebellious behaviour. I’m all for exploring mental illness in teens, especially in a more detailed and nuanced light than the clanging theatricality of 13 Reasons Why. The game’s commitment to exploring this experience is one of its most admirable aspects.
But it doesn’t really go into any depth with Chloe, who is mainly defined by her actions. And good lord, her actions are not sympathetic at all. She’s abrasive, demanding, and ferociously self-absorbed, coming across as an extortionist more than a friend who uses her powers of guilt and coercion to push her friend into scenarios she’s not comfortable with, but never compromises herself. She is seemingly incapable of processing and evaluating decisions before making them, and rejects support from sympathetic characters like Max and her mother regularly. And what’s weird is that the game basically supports her in all this. It actually valorises her constantly – there’s a strange aside where Max comments on her fearlessness for no apparent reason, just to let us know how great Chloe is. Life is Strange wants you to love Chloe. The ending, ostensibly an agonising choice between head and heart, pivots around you loving Chloe. The prequel that’s coming out soon makes her the lead character, too. And, look. She’s a popular character, so obviously this approach has worked with many. But for me, Chloe is deeply tiresome, and casts a shadow over the more interesting and nuanced high school story that Max, a less easily categorisable character, dominates, and there really isn’t a lot of room to allow this interpretation in the text. It’s strange to play a game and constantly disagree with it, but that’s how my play-through this time around went.
It’s also interesting to consider how weird it is to play a game about the benefit of hindsight with complete foresight about what’s going to happen and what the best choices are. Despite all the rewinds you can have, the rewind trick is just that; a trick that barely intrudes into the narrative until the final episode. The game is more concerned with scenarios that cannot be fixed, presenting two ostensibly problematic choices where there’s no right answer. In arguably the best scene of the whole thing, Max’s power stops entirely so, for once, you have to play through the immediacy of talking Kate (whose arc is a bit strange, considering it’s a story of a bullied girl driven to desperate measures, but also the specially chosen model of innocence by a psycho photographer) off the ledge with no room for error. The thematic point of this is obvious; you have to live with the consequences of your mistakes. Life is Strange, for four and a half episodes, cares a lot about holding your feet to the fire over decisions you’ve made across the game and now can no longer undo.
Except, once you know the ending, the minutiae of whether you try to shoot pointless drug dealer Frank or not or whether you cause the death of your dog is basically meaningless. You have to live with the consequences of your decisions, but these are decisions that all get undone at the end. (The end I’m talking about here is the one where Chloe dies, because that’s the only ending that makes any conceivable sense and doesn’t make you a monster). The game is all about choice, but it ultimately ends with a lack of choice; a resignation to the same passivity that began the first episode. This isn’t bad storytelling – the idea of coming to terms with the imperfections of life is a pretty good conclusion to the game’s themes – but it does make a second run-through, with knowledge of what’s to come, a bit pointless. Every side character the game tries to convince you as important and consequential becomes the obvious stalling tactic they are. Even the ostensible bad guy, Mr Jefferson, becomes transparently pointless, caught easily once you rewind back to the start. In short, it feels like nothing really matters in the world of Life is Strange apart from the two central characters, who are also ultimately passive at the end, once you try it again. I have no idea whether this existential nightmare is what the creators intended, but it’s… definitely there.
In case this post sounds incredibly negative, then it’s worth qualifying; I still stand by what I said last year, more or less. The game’s earnestness and empathy for everyone is admirable in a story that could easily tip into bleakness, and I still like how every unsympathetic character save one is revealed to be well-intentioned or suffering from problems like mental illness or a bad family dynamic. The coming of age story that begins and ends the game and intrudes every now and then in the middle is still a fundamentally interesting one, because Max is the kind of character we don’t often see as a protagonist (she’s not unlike a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in concept, but since we’re in her shoes, the game can subvert those sexist tropes). And, ultimately, the game’s commitment to just going for it at any given point always has some pay-off along the way. For every tedious bottle hunting quest, there’s a scene like the confrontation with drug dealer Frank, which sets up an easy situation and then slowly unfurls the impossibility of solving it without spilling blood and causing trauma, or the rooftop moment with Kate. For every awful moment spent indulging Chloe, there’s a rewardingly unusual bit of experimentalism like the bit in the final episode where you hop between alternate realities, scribbling all over the established events of the game in a bit to create a ‘perfect’ timeline.
Life is Strange‘s ambition, and dedication to tackling sensitive subjects in depth, is commendable and somewhat rare in mainstream video gaming. But it is, admittedly, impossible to ignore the game’s bone-headed insistence on interpreting the characters a certain way, or its overwhelming and incongruent genre mix-and-match, or that the dialogue needed to be comprehensively rewritten by someone, anyone who isn’t a middle-aged white man. But it’s the fascinating messes that are ultimately more interesting than the competent baseline success stories. I’d compare this to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which similarly starts with a successful and coherent blend of genres and then slowly collapses under the weight of its own batshit mythology. Both works of fiction are frequently aggravating and sometimes feel completely misconceived anyway. But, nonetheless, I’m kind of glad they exist.