I’m floored. I’ve just finished playing Life Is Strange and, like anyone else who’s done the same, it is going to take me a while to piece back together the broken parts of myself this game just blasted across the room. It’s hard not to just sit here in awe, but as I try to get enough brain matter back together so that I can write about it, I remember: when I started playing this game I really didn’t like it.
Life Is Strange puts you in the shoes of Max, an 18-year-old photography student who has recently moved back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay after leaving for Seattle five years earlier. Max soon discovers she has the ability to rewind time and starts to investigate the disappearance of fellow student Rachel after rekindling her friendship with childhood BFF Chloe. In many ways her superpower is by-the-by, however – this is a story most concerned with its characters, and the plot is mostly a foil for their development. There are larger questions at play but, at least for me, they felt like a secondary consideration.
I was originally going to call this review ‘Life is Strange and Internalised Misogyny’ because that’s what hit me the most when I started playing. Max immediately lets the player know she’s not like the other girls at Blackwell Academy – the bitchy, popular girls, of course. I’m pretty sure I rolled my eyes at that part. The whole ‘not like other girls’ narrative makes me want to stab someone. I want to be clear here, I have no problem with main characters being special in some way, that’s fine – Max has the power to rewind time, after all. It’s painting ‘typical girl’ as something to be avoided that really angers me. Being a girl is not inherently bad, I promise.
However, as things go along, the waters get muddier. ‘Evil biatch’ Victoria is the locus of all this, but whether or not she gets the redemption arc I was so praying the game would afford her depends on the choices you make. There’s a lovely scene where Max and fellow student Kate discuss Victoria and why she behaves the way she does, about her insecurities, and who she really is as a person – rather than a cardboard prop for Max’s life. But, depending on the choices you make, you may never get to see that moment at all.
The biggest shock I had was at the start of the final chapter, when Max wakes up, having been drugged, in the lair of the man behind it all. Lying on the floor was Victoria, and my first response was “YES!” This game talks about karma a lot, people getting what’s coming to them, things being deserved. When you hear about Kate having been drugged and assaulted, Max suggests that Kate is too good a person for those things to happen to her. If it was someone who Max didn’t think was a good person, like Victoria, would it be okay for them to be drugged and assaulted? I’d like to think no, but the Just World Fallacy that seems to be driving the whole game made me really uncomfortable. So when I saw Victoria on the floor, I was so pleased, because the game was acknowledging that no one deserves such a thing to happen to them.
Except that’s totally messed up. I was pleased that a woman had been drugged and abducted. What was this game doing to me? Logically I know this is a game, a story with a message, not real life, but I was decidedly uncomfortable with how it was making me feel. Then I found out that in many games, Victoria doesn’t end up there at all. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? What is this game saying? What am I saying? I’m so confused.
I talk a lot about how games aren’t real life and how you can’t treat characters as if they’re real people, but that is exactly what Life Is Strange asks you to do. You have to buy into the world that’s been created, otherwise a lot of what makes this game so powerful and so ground-breaking is lost. So I have to believe that Victoria is a person with a rich interior life, that all the women in this game are, which makes using them as props feel especially callous. It’s down to the smallest of details in places – in some scenes Max can look at all the boys standing around, even if there isn’t an option to interact with them at this point, but with the girls there isn’t even that.
The one thing that really didn’t sit right with me, though, was the way this game dealt with romantic relationships. It’s heavily implied that Chloe and Rachel were in a romantic relationship, or at least that Chloe wanted them to be, but Chloe always refers to Rachel as her ‘friend’. This smacks of the whole ‘gal pal’ narrative the media uses when it has no idea how to talk about gay or bisexual women. Bi erasure is already such a problem in traditional media, and to see a game as good as Life Is Strange add to it so egregiously is really disappointing.
Then there’s Warren, a friend of Max’s who has more-than-friend feelings towards her. I can’t tell you how thankful I am that, at least in my playthrough, the term ‘friend zone’ was never used. I think I would have thrown my computer out of the window. Jeffrey Matulef praised the game for having a fresh approach to video game romance, and while I will agree that this is the first game I’ve played where you’re the character being pursued, I felt like Life Is Strange didn’t stray far from the standard ‘nice guy’ narrative. Near the end of the game I got the chance to hug, kiss or leave Warren without showing him any affection. While you could reasonably say ‘Well you can just hug him, that’s friendly without being romantic or sexual,’ earlier in the game Warren goes in for a hug during a cut scene and Max avoids it completely. It’s unpleasant to feel you owe someone a sign of affection but don’t actually want to give it. It would be okay if the game explored that discomfort, but it doesn’t, it just reinforces it.
And I think that’s the crux of my issue with this game. You’re supposed to be Max, but you’re given so much freedom that Max’s wishes are never really considered. By making Max such a well-rounded character, giving me control over her actions feels unpleasant. I always tried to act with Max’s best interests in mind – don’t kiss the person mourning for their girlfriend, don’t feel obliged to hug the guy you’re not into – but I could throw all that by the wayside and just do what I want. For a game that’s all about girls being drugged and losing control of what happens to them, giving players this power over Max feels so many shades of wrong.
Honestly, I could probably spend thousands more words dissecting this game – I loved how the final chapter forced me into decisions that Max clearly didn’t want to make and the game really emphasized that aspect of loss of control (though I still don’t forgive it for the times when it didn’t engage critically with its own mechanics). Life Is Strange is good. It’s really, really good. I think it’s a game changer in narrative-based video games and I would happily sink another 40 hours into any other game like this. I just hope that future offerings are going to be more self-aware.