Saturday, November 19, 2016

Can't Go Home Again

I lucked out and managed to snag Gone Home during a brief window when it was available for free download. This was very generous of the developer, who offered it "for people who need something about hope and love right now". That definitely applied to me last weekend, and I was grateful for the chance to immerse myself into something new and positive.

Gone Home has been dimly on my radar for several years now. It has a reputation as one of the archetypal indie games: using games as an innovative storytelling device, with a unique perspective, a clear thematic goal, and non-traditional gameplay. That last point can trip up so-called "hardcore gamers," who are often left asking, "Is this even a game?" Without enemies to defeat, or resources to acquire, or other traditional markers of progress, this wave of indie games seems to step back from the ordinary signifiers that reward players for their effort. In my opinion, though, that ultimately magnifies their impact: you aren't trying to bump up artificial numbers, and instead can focus on the pure narrative in front of you.

In many ways, Gone Home looks like a fully-polished modern game. In contrast to the retro/pixel-art style loved by many other indie developers, this game is done in gorgeous 3D, with a lovingly detailed interactive house for you to explore. Ambient lighting, sound effects, and such contribute to the fantastic atmosphere. Again, there's no HUD to distract you, no inventory screens to manage. When you pick up an object, you simply hold it in your hands. Most objects are pointless, but it still feels weirdly good to be able to interact with your environment in this way. You can inspect loose ballpoint pens, flip around magazines, check out the logo on the back of a dinner plate. Occasionally, an object will reveal additional uses, such as a cassette tape that can be loaded into a nearby player.


I got a SERIOUS nostalgia rush while playing this game. It's set in 1995, and its environment overlapped in many ways with my own childhood and teenage home. I was often struck by things that I hadn't thought of in years - at one point, you find a table that folds out into a sewing machine. In an instant, I was transported back to the sewing room in my basement, where I played with that exact same model. That machine is long gone, and I might never have thought about it again for the rest of my life if it wasn't for this moment in a game.

There are a lot of very specific ways in which the game diverges from my own experiences, most obviously in the family itself. This family just has two sisters, with you playing as the older and the story primarily interested in the younger. I think the developers are drawing on real-life elements for these stories, but those details are less familiar to me - girl punk bands, beauty magazines. And that's good! The shared experiences help it feel authentic and immediate, while the unique experiences help me share in thoughts and feelings that I personally haven't held before.


The game doesn't have clear rules for progression or goals, but as you explore, you gradually figure it out. There are a handful of very simple mechanical obstacles (I don't want to say "puzzles") to overcome. You might find a key that opens a locked door to a new wing of the house, or a fragment of the combination for a padlock. While the overall feeling of the game is incredibly free and lets you wander anywhere at any time, these few guards help establish narrative coherency and dramatic progress. Deeper secrets are only revealed after you have discovered the clearer ones.

Early on, I thought that the game would be about learning what has happened to your family. In this pre-Internet era, you've flown back from Europe on short notice, to find a seemingly-empty house waiting for you. Going through old letters and messages and press releases and such helps reveal what's been happening in your parents' lives. Your mother has been rising in the ranks at the National Park Service, and there are some hints that she may have become romantically entangled with a younger ranger. Your father is a failed novelist, shamed by his own father for writing conspiracy thrillers, and is skating by with tedious equipment reviews for an audiophile magazine. Each has a happy ending, though. Your mom seems to have ended things gracefully with Rick, who is getting married, and your father has received recent encouragement and inspiration that has rejuvenated his creative writing. For a while I'd worried that they'd both left the house due to unhappiness, but it turns out that they're off on a week-long retreat for couple's counseling and therapy. They've recognized the problems they face, and are working to rekindle their marriage.

While those are interesting stories, though, it eventually becomes clear that the real heart of the story is learning about your sister. You learn about your parents through written fragments, but you can actually hear Samantha's voice, narrating the diary that she left behind. There's also a ton of artwork, and some really engaging short fiction that she wrote. This was probably the most impressive part of the game: just how fully-fledged of a character they were able to create, one who never appears and you can never interact with, but who still feels incredibly vibrant and alive.

I had a sense early on of where her story was headed, and loved what they did with it. Samantha gradually falls in love with a schoolmate named Lonnie, over a progression of really tender and sweet realizations. They are kindred spirits, complementary and compatible. There's a ton to like about their relationship, but one high point was their collaboration, as Lonnie illustrates Sam's writings, or they work together on a girl-power zine.

I had a weird feeling of indirect guilt while playing as Katie reading Sam's notes. In-game, Katie has been gone from home for several years, and so hasn't been around to support her sister, or even know about what she's going through. That resonated with me. I haven't been in that exact situation, but as an eldest child, I've felt bad about not being physically or emotionally present for my younger siblings when they've gone through difficult events. That's actually lessened somewhat in recent years - we're all better at keeping in touch and communicating now, thanks to the Internet and maturity - but putting myself in Katie's shoes reminded me of my disconnection during high-school and college years, when I could have made a bigger and more positive impact.

I was also relieved at where the story ended up - there are some dark suggestions throughout the game that Sam might have come to a bad end, as well as ongoing hints about curses in the house. If the developers had wanted to, they could very easily have made a terrifying horror game here! There are a couple of moments, when a light goes out or a door creaks shut or you read an ominous warning, that your heart rate might jump up as you worry that things are taking a frightening turn. But it's ultimately the same sort of suspended dread that most of us have felt when we're all alone in a large and unfamiliar space. We jump, startled, but eventually realize that it's okay, we're safe, and everything will be fine.


I loved this game. After the heavy narrative rush of Life Is Strange, this felt much more relaxing while still relevant and important. I feel like it opens yet another door when it comes to storytelling in games. I'm not sure if other developers will follow in these footsteps, or if it will remain as a bit of an oddity, but I'm really glad that it exists.

Oh, yeah: here's a little album! It spoils the story.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Forget Me Not

I'm still trying to fill the void in my life left by Life Is Strange. I know nothing will fill it, but have been looking for acceptable substitutes. One obvious place to look is Dontnod's only other game, "Remember Me". This game didn't get much of a reception on release: decent but unspectacular reviews, and I think it sold rather poorly (especially for a AAA title that spent five years in development). So my expectations were fairly low, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal.

To be clear: this game does not play at all like Life Is Strange. It's a fast-paced action game, very different from LiS's laid-back adventure game structure. It's set in a dystopic future rather than the realistic present. Still, you can see some of the same DNA at work in both titles. The games share an interest in identity and empathy, and there are a couple of game mechanics that span both entries.

The bulk of the gameplay is focused on combat sequences. They feel a bit like the fights in Shadow of Mordor: mostly melee attacks, with occasional ranged strikes. You sometimes fight up to a dozen enemies, and combat has a very fluid feel, as you flow from foe to foe and dodge and flip your way out of harm's way.

The most innovative part of Remember Me's combat is the combo-creation lab. This is a bit confusing, and not explained very well in-game, but once I got the hang of it it added a whole other level of coolness to the game. Basically, you have two main attacks: a punch (left mouse button) and a kick (right mouse button). There are several combos that you learn as you progress through the game, each of which follows a fixed attack sequence: P-P-P or K-P-K-P-K or K-K-K-P-P-P-P-K. You can choose to slot different abilities into each attack position: damage, self-heal, ability-cooldown, or a multiplier. Abilities become more powerful later in the chain.

One thing I really like about this is that you don't need to learn as many moves as in other games (like The Witcher or Shadow of Mordor): there aren't buttons for parry or dodge, for example. However, there is still a lot of complexity and strategy, but it's a strategy you need to come up with yourself rather than learn and apply. Based on your own personal playstyle and the specific obstacle you're facing, you'll want to make or use different combos to get through the fights.

By the end of the game, I was mostly using the long 8-attack combo: it started with a small heal and cooldown reduction, but everything else was damage-oriented, and a full chain could wipe out multiple weak enemies. However, I also kept two shorter combos around for more particular applications: the 5-attack chain was focused on healing, while the 6-attack one focused on cooldowns. There are some enemies who damage you each time you strike them, which can be deadly, but using the self-heal makes them fairly easy. And some bosses can only be damaged by your special abilities, so killing mooks doesn't accomplish anything, but they make great fodder for bringing your abilities back up again.

I played on Medium difficulty, which was nicely challenging. There were a couple of boss fights that were frustrating, but after enough tries I was able to finish everything. One thing I really appreciated was that, during fights that had unusual mechanics, it would float hint text on the screen after you had gone for long enough without making progress. It didn't feel condescending or cheap, but would show up when it would be appreciated. You'd also have to survive long enough to see it, so it wasn't boring either.

I did get a bit annoyed at the QTEs, which are used in most boss fights. These are used like in God of War, where you need to press the correct button quickly in response to an on-screen prompt. The worst part about this was just figuring out what each symbol meant, since I was playing on PC and didn't know what each one corresponded to. I had to look it up online, and for reference, here are the defaults:
  • Fist (Punch): Left mouse button
  • Foot (Kick): Right mouse button
  • Bending arrow (Dodge): Spacebar
  • Gear (Interact): "E" key
 Even once I learned what each meant, it usually took me at least two tries to get through a QTE sequence, since my reflexes aren't very fast. But it gets much easier each time you repeat, since it's always the same order at the same time, and in any case there are usually just 3 buttons to remember anyways.

The QTEs are probably my only real complaint about the game. Quite a few players were disappointed that the game was short... it is noticeably shorter than other games in this genre (my total playtime was just under 10 hours), But personally, I'm more and more attracted to shorter games. There's no padding in Remember Me, and it uses its length very well.

One small design quibble has to do with the level design. Unlike Shadow of Mordor or even Bioshock, levels are very linear, where even backtracking is often impossible. I actually enjoyed this: there's a fun, propulsive feel to the gameplay, particularly when you're in constant motion, leaping from ledge to ledge and always pressing forwards. But, there's also a collection mechanic to the game, where you need to examine and explore areas thoroughly in order to find hidden power-ups and experience boosts (which help increase your maximum health, maximum focus, or available pressens). That aspect of the game is, in itself, also pretty fun: the levels are gorgeous, and benefit from increased scrutiny. But that leads to an unfortunate tension between opposing forces: the game feels best when you constantly rush ahead, but it's frustrating to realize that you've missed out on single-chance opportunities to improve your character. I'm not sure if there's a solution to this problem, or if it even needs one, but it's something that bugged me off and on.

Oh - but the movement itself feels fantastic. I haven't played Assassin's Creed or Mirror's Edge, but it seems to embody the same parkour-esque design of those games. Nilin looks amazing when leaping to another handhold or landing in a crouch after a fall. The animations and environments combine in wonderful ways. While this isn't a challenging part of the game - you just need to press the right button and can usually take your time - I'm glad that there's so much of it, which helps this feel like more than just a fighting game.


I enjoyed the story, but many of the characters felt very under-utilized. Nilin and Edge and most of the villains got good character development, but allies like Tommy and Olga get very little screen-time. Which is odd, since they look amazing and very thoughtfully developed. I'm left wondering if there was additional content planned for them which got cut out of the final game, or if they planned to tell more of their stories in a sequel that never came. Or maybe it was intentional all along - again, I'm not inherently opposed to a shorter and more focused game, and it's probably better that they leave us wanting to know more about intriguing characters than leave us bored with too much information about people we don't care about.

The world-building, though, has got to be the highlight. I'm already a sucker for cyberpunk, and I adored having such a fresh take on that setting. You still have the requisite hallmarks of the genre: neon lighting, huge skyscrapers, omnipowerful corporations, cybernetic augmentation, virtual reality, noir-inflected storytelling. And yet, you would never confuse Neo-Paris with Shadowrun or Blade Runner or Neuromancer or Cyberpunk 2020 or other iconic cyberpunk franchises. Remember Me is brighter and more elegant, as befits its location in the City of Light. Megacorps are also less malicious, more reminiscent of Brave New World than 1984: they're delivering experiences that the people demand. Overall, while it's probably still a dystopia, it's much more optimistic than the standard hopelessness of most cyberpunk. And I like that!

A lot of cyberpunk deals with the impact of technology on human life. Remember Me feels unique in the way it focuses on the mental implications of this, rather than the physical. The core technology it explores is memory modification. This widespread, commercialized product allows people to store and refresh their memories of past events, remove painful memories, and even share their memories directly with one another. We mostly focus on the personal use of this capability, but the game also looks at institutional implications: prisoners can serve out their sentences without any memory of who they were before, and have the painful memories of their incarceration removed once they are released. And talented professionals can receive memories that tell them how to accomplish specialized tasks (similar to "skillsofts" in Shadowrun).

Nilin, though, has a unique ability. She can do more than just add or remove memories: she has the extraordinarily rare ability to remix memories, changing details of what happened in the past to influence a person's actions in the present. For example, rather than killing someone, she can convince someone else that that person has died, and so recruit them as an ally to her cause.

This is the one part of the game that seems to overlap with Life Is Strange, as memory remixing shares many similarities with the rewind mechanic. In Remember Me, you'll see a scene play out multiple times. You'll go back, change one event, then see how that change affects the subsequent actions. Finding the right combinations of alterations to make will allow you to accomplish your goal.

This was by far my favorite part of the game, and it's a shame that there's so little of it. I think there are maybe five or so memory remixes over the entire game, definitely less than one per level and fewer than there are boss fights. The remixes themselves are also far more linear than the situations in Life Is Strange. You can try different things, but as far as I can see there seems to only be one correct solution to each memory, and you must select it in order to proceed. That isn't necessarily bad, though... Remember Me isn't a choice-and-consequences game, and they created something cool that doesn't require player choice.

It gets at some interesting philosophical ideas, too. I was reminded of Inception and, even more, Dark City while playing this game. To what extent do our memories drive our actions? Do our pasts determine who we are? Is our identity entirely derived from our mind, or is there something more than makes us human?

The game ends on a very powerful question that is really resonating with me this week. Simplifying a bit, it asks, "Should we live in a happy illusion or a painful truth?" That dilemma is literalized in the world of Remember Me: the great promise of M3morize is crafting a world free of sorrow. But, as the scope opens up, we realize that there are massive problems facing the rest of the world, beyond the intimate circles Nilin occupies. She has the ability to change the world for the better, but she can only do so by discarding the pleasing platitudes, confronting her own issues and those around her, and struggling with the world as it is rather than the the world we wish we lived in.


Remember Me doesn't address these philosophical and moral issues as deeply or as comprehensively as Life Is Strange does, but it still does more with them than any recent AAA action game that I can think of, and that's a worthy achievement on its own.

I don't want to oversell this game - it isn't an instant classic, just a really solid and interesting video game that happens to feature some of the best world-building out there. It is a shame it didn't do well, because it definitely left me hungry for more: as the closing credits began to roll, I thought, "This feels like it would be the perfect prologue to a new story." There aren't any cliffhangers or anything, it comes to a satisfying conclusion, but it did such a great job at opening up this original world that I'd love to explore in the future.

Albums! Here's a big one that covers the whole game. It technically has spoilers, but don't be afraid to look at the pretty pictures. And here's a small one that features some of the unlockable concept art and other goodies from the game. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Love Is Strained

Okay, I lied: Here’s one more (last?!) post on Life Is Strange. (And, improbably, some initial thoughts on the presidential election, down at the bottom below the spoiler block.)

I’ve been following up with more interviews with the directors, as well as a terrific GDC talk that they gave on the game. The content is great, and the French accents make it all the better. They’ve been pretty open about the message that they want the game to convey, which helps unlock more of the story for me and better parse my own reactions to it.


I’ve also been dipping more into the fandom, and have noted a very consistent reaction to the ending. Most people are sad about it, understandably so. Some of the early gaming press reaction was along the lines of “It’s like the Mass Effect 3 ending! It’s a choice that doesn’t reflect all of the other variables that have come before!” Actual players seem to appreciate it more, but are more fixated on the unequal treatment of the two choices. The correct choice (Sacrifice Arcadia Bay) is really poignant and emotionally affecting, but also brief, with a roughly 30-second cut-scene and recycled music. The other choice (which I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch) apparently leads to a much longer multi-minute closing sequence, with multiple scenes showing the aftermath and more closure for the various characters, as well as new music unique to this ending. Overall, people seem to feel like the developers leaned on the scale to favor one choice, which was not the choice that most preferred.

With that in mind, it was cool to hear Dontnod’s description of the creative process. The initial spark that drove the creation of the game was the idea of a rewind mechanic in a choice-and-consequences game. From there, they quickly decided to set it in high school, at the cusp of when children transform into adults. They had the idea of that final choice prior to any of the other plot of the game. It wasn’t “tacked on” or something that they fell back on because they didn’t have any other ideas; they constructed the rest of the game to lead you to that moment and that decision.

Ultimately, as the directors say, Life is Strange is a game about becoming an adult, which means accepting that you can’t make everything perfect. I hadn’t really considered that while playing, but after hearing them say it, it makes perfect sense. As children, we can have an expectation that the world will be fair. We trust our parents to provide for us, to make the right decisions; bad people will eventually be punished, good people will be rewarded. As we grow older and experience more of the world outside the comfort of our homes, we realize that this is not a universal law. There is injustice in the world, bad things happen to good people, we experience senseless pain. We often rebel against this, with the idealistic clarity of youth: things aren’t perfect, but if we try hard enough and use the right words, we can *make* them perfect.

Sooner or later, though, most of us will eventually realize that perfection is unattainable. No matter how hard we try, some evil will persist in the world. We are limited, flawed individuals: you and I and every other soul we see. With maturity, we come to understand our limitations. That isn’t an absolution of responsibility, but does prepare us for the rough path we need to tread.

In my initial post, I had been a little incredulous that anyone would choose the “Sacrifice Chloe” option, asking what the point of the whole game would then be. With this theme in mind, though, it makes perfect sense. At the start of the game, Chloe dies senselessly and Max can’t accept it. By the end, though, Max comes to understand that the death must happen. She can grieve, process it, and move on.

But! While the devs don’t touch on this, what’s interested me the most is the asymmetry of the two ending choices. They’re both about acceptance, and markers of maturity, but I think they’re two very different kinds of acceptance.

The “Sacrifice Chloe” option is a fatalistic attitude. It’s about recognizing that bad things can happen in this world, and we cannot stop them. It’s about letting go of the things we cannot change so we can continue to function in the rest of our life.

The “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” option, though, depicts Max as an active agent. This is about accepting responsibility for your actions. Throughout the game, whenever Max makes a mistake, her instinct is to fix it, to strive for an ultimate solution that will please everyone. This is, as Max ultimately realizes, impossible. If she wants something badly enough, she needs to understand that it will require sacrifices. In this ending, she takes ownership of her choice and the impact that it has on the world, instead of deflecting or avoiding it.

Both endings see a wiser and more mature Max, and a Max who is equipped to proceed into adulthood and chart her life course. But they also depict two Maxes with different philosophies. One is a more peaceful Max, who has learned to live with a world that sends bad things her way. The other is a more optimistic Max, who has gained the confidence to make changes to her world. The prior Max will probably have an easier but sadder life, while the latter Max’s life will be more challenging but may bring her greater happiness.


I didn’t think at the start of this post that this would be about the election, but that’s kind of where it ended up! The different attitudes towards the endings of the game seem like a fairly accurate reflection of the difference in French and American attitudes. France, along with much of Europe, tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of implementing real change in the world, whether good or bad; they have strong but sclerotic institutions that resist alteration. Americans have a greater tendency towards idealism: not just that things will be better in the future, but that their actions in the voting booth will change the world.

This seems like the start of a dark and scary time. The world ahead will be worse than the world we left behind. I feel afraid, and sad, and am fighting very hard to keep those emotions from sliding into despair.

I and others who feel the same way need to think of our mental health. It's natural for us to be shocked and depressed today, but sooner or later we'll need to move on. The question is how. The easier and sadder approach will be to accept that this is the world in which we now live. It isn't that radical of a thought; for most of human history, populations have lived in deprived and unjust countries, and civilization has endured. We can find comfort in religion, in culture, in friendship, and burrow into a smaller part of the world for solace.

The alternative is to take the harder but more rewarding path, where we each willingly make sacrifices in order to change the world for the better. That may mean sacrificing money, as we donate to organizations that will protect those most at risk. It may mean sacrificing personal comfort, as we publicly expose our bodies and our voices to speak out against injustice. It may mean sacrificing our careers, as we turn away from the acquisition of money to the betterment of society. It may mean sacrificing friendships, or status, or time, or happiness. Those sacrifices will each hurt, but, if we willingly make them in order to achieve a greater good and roll back a harmful tide, we have a chance of living in the world we want. In fact, it's the only way we can bring that world into existence.

Much like in the game, it sucks that we have to make that choice, but we do need to make it. We need to decide how we are going to relate to the world. I won't fault anyone who chooses to live with the world as it is, but I hope that enough people are willing to make the harder choice and take the actions that will be necessary to change it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Life Becomes Ordinary

I hadn’t planned on writing another post on Life Is Strange, but since finishing the game I’ve spent some time watching the (excellent!) developer commentaries and reflecting on the ending, and have taken a pretty significant turn on my thoughts about what’s happening in the game. There still is a lot of ambiguity, but I can (fortunately) lay some of my wilder theories and fears to rest.


The dev commentaries really are quite great. I always enjoy these sorts of things, whether they’re written post-mortems or audio commentaries or whatever. This set is particularly interesting because a significant portion is focused on the fanbase’s reactions to the game. Because LiS is episodic, much of the development took place after the players had already formed a connection with the game. While the overall arc of the story had been set from the beginning, they were able to adapt and tweak it in response to what they were hearing from their fans.

Most of the interviews are with the two directors of the game, who are very thoughtful and humble and have great, thick French accents. They were amazed at the devotion of their followers, who were able to figure out and solve some things that they hadn’t thought people would be able to. They also pointed out a few items that most people missed. For example, on your first visit to the junkyard, the spectral doe appears on the spot where you will later find Rachel’s grave, significantly strengthening my impression that the doe was related to Rachel’s spirit.

For the purpose of this blog post, though, the biggest piece of information is an abandoned letter that Chloe had written to Rachel. It appears that she spent a lot of time writing it, and probably never sent it. It explains a ton about the Chloe / Rachel / Frank situation that had confused me so much, and eliminates the most-paranoid interpretations I’d had about the game’s story.

So, first, the facts it reveals: Chloe and Rachel did hook up, one night outside Blackwell. We already knew that Chloe was fully into Rachel; Rachel was very close to Chloe and cared for her a lot, but that hookup seemed to convince her that they couldn’t be romantically compatible. Because she cared so much for Chloe, though, she was never able to actually come out and say it, and Chloe kept believing that they were a couple.

Rachel did later connect with Frank. Again, she withheld this information from Chloe, knowing that it would be super-painful… because she cared for Rachel, and also because Chloe thought Frank was so skeevy. All this time, Chloe was still planning to get her and Rachel to LA.

Connecting this letter with the other events of the chronology: Rachel never sent the letter. After she disappeared, Frank never told Chloe about their relationship. Chloe had already lost Rachel before her disappearance, but didn’t know it.

What can we infer from this? First of all, it probably definitively establishes that Rachel didn’t have rewind powers. If she did, she would have rewound and not slept with Chloe. Yes, Rachel was very popular; but, honestly, that’s probably because she was beautiful and charismatic. People like that exist! Her attraction to Frank is perplexing, but not the strangest thing in the world.

Likewise, this almost certainly means that there wasn’t some secret Rachel/Chloe scheme afoot. Chloe was out of the loop, working on mistaken assumptions. She badly wanted to get Rachel back, of course, but absent Rachel having access to the rewind, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Chloe can manipulate time either.

So, all this removes most of the supernatural mystique around Rachel, which is actually a good thing - it eliminates some wilder scenarios that I’d been weirdly obsessed about.

The other big thing I’d gotten hung up on is the conversation with Chloe in the lighthouse at the end. I’ve replayed it a couple of times, and this is how the crucial part goes:
  • Max says that, by changing fate and destiny so much, she has caused the storm and all of the accompanying death.
  • Chloe tells her that she was given her powers for a reason. Those powers were given for her to save Chloe.
  • “All of this” had to happen. Except for Rachel’s death. But they found what happened to her.

I’m still not 100% sure about what Chloe means, but I think that she’s trying to absolve Max of her guilt. Max thinks that, by fighting against the pre-ordained sequence of events, she is personally responsible for all the chaos that has resulted. Chloe is pointing out that Max never asked for these powers. The powers happened to Max, just like Chloe’s death happened. I interpret this to mean that Max’s actions aren’t violating destiny: they are because of destiny. There’s an overarching causality here, beyond the simple linear timestream.

So, people are dying because of Max’s actions, but Max’s actions didn’t occur ex nihilo. They’re happening because something or someone gave Max these abilities.

Then, probably as an aside, Chloe reflects on Rachel, the death she’s most concerned about. I think her point here is that Rachel died prior to Max gaining the rewind, so even if Max undoes all of her meddling, Rachel will still be dead. But, some good came out of Max’s powers: they solved the mystery of Rachel’s death.

This interpretation seems a little odd, since it appears to imply that Max should retain this future that she has created… well, I guess the point is that she hasn’t created it, she was an instrument in its creation. But, immediately after, Chloe urges Max to sacrifice her and save the town.

I dunno. I’m probably focusing too much on rationality and not enough on emotion. These are two teenagers who have gone through horrific experiences together and are facing the end of the world, who love each other dearly and want them to be okay no matter what. Chloe’s main job here isn’t to provide narrative exposition. It’s to comfort her friend, her soulmate, coming up with the words that will clear Max’s conscience and allow her to live the rest of her life, no matter which path she chooses.

The biggest problem remaining for me is still what to make of the nightmare. I’m more confident now that, within the confines of this game, Max is the only one with time powers, so I no longer think that a malicious external entity is tormenting her. It’s telling that the only time we see bizarre occurrences is within the nightmare: in all the time-travel incidents occurring elsewhere, everything follows rational physical laws. It’s only in the nightmare that we see objects disappearing, infinite corridors, or other characters with access to Max’s inner thoughts. So, I don’t think that she’s been taken to a “real” place either. Despite it feeling incredibly real, it doesn’t seem to actually take place in the physical universe.

The most obvious answer, and the one I’m increasingly leaning towards, is that it really all is in Max’s subconscious. It feels vivid in the same way a lucid dream would. It makes sense that Max’s time-travel powers are altering her brain chemistry (tying in with her nosebleeds, fainting, etc.), and thus experiencing vision-like dreams. It isn’t “real”, but it allows her subconscious more substantial access to her experience, and so she experiences particular urgency from the experience.

The problem, though, is how to connect that back to the vision in Episode 1. Is it the same kind of dream? It doesn’t seem like there’s any way that her subconscious could know about a storm arriving in five days… she’s tapping into some external form of knowledge to acquire that information. So maybe they’re two different things, a vision in Episode 1 and a nightmare in Episode 5. Which I guess makes sense… Max is visibly unconscious and being moved around by Chloe during the nightmare, but the vision seemed to occur in a fraction of a second in Episode 1 without anyone else noticing.

The other possibility is that both the vision and the nightmare were caused by the dissolution of spacetime. It might be an alternate-universe version of Max who is taking over Max’s mind for a while, in the same way that prime-Max seizes alternate realities. We already know that Max’s experiments in time have interfered with natural phenomena, and it seems even more likely that such experiments would have altered her mind as well. As noted in my previous post, I’m fine with the idea that a future disturbance of time could have repercussions in the past. I dunno… this would all make so much sense if the vision hadn’t caused her to reverse time in the first place. Atemporality is great, but non-causality seems wrong.

ANYWAYS, I can’t keep re-litigating this. Moving on:


In a more conventional light, I really appreciated the insight into their production process. The discussion of casting voice-actors was particularly intriguing; video-game acting has been an interest of mine for a while, and in light of the recent strike and #PerformanceMatters it’s even more on my mind. The whole voice cast is great, and particular attention is paid to the two main leads. Ashly Burch is the only one who I had heard of before - she is universally beloved for her portrayal of Tiny Tina in the Borderland games, and is the sister of Anthony Burch, a fantastic writer (and creator of my second-favorite GDC speech, "Plot Is Dumb, Character Is Cool"). She kills it as Chloe, of course. But what was more intriguing was Hannah Telle, a relative newcomer who voiced Max.

This was a huge undertaking. I was startled to learn that the whole game contained almost 14,000 lines, and Max delivers over 10,000 of them. They went to a lot of effort to find Hannah, auditioning 40 people before choosing her. It was a little surprising to actually hear Hannah, because she sounds exactly like Max. I'd gotten to used to hearing that voice come out of a shy, mousy high-school student, and it was startling to see a striking blonde speaking Max's words. Hearing Hannah and the directors discuss the process of creating Max just reinforces my support of the importance of voice actors and my support of their strike. Hannah talks about how important the role of Max was for her, and how she identified with the same feelings of inadequacy that Max struggles with, which both helped her performance and helped strengthen her personally.

That sense of collaboration is one of the defining aspects of video games. Unlike a painting or a song, which can be a single creator's vision, video games are highly collaborative, melding together a wide array of disciplines and talents to create a varied yet cohesive whole. Character creation is one of my favorite aspects. The early collaboration takes place between the writers and the artists, but the voice actors are the ones who get to touch it last, and are a key element of what we love about those characters. Just imagine Solid Snake without David Hayter, or Commander Shepard without Jennifer Hale, or Maxine Caulfield without Hannah Telle.

Writing is still crucial, though. I'd been curious all along about exactly how Life Is Strange was created: after all, it's a French studio, which is pretty remote from the Oregon setting of this game. They explained that, with their love of Twin Peaks and other American stories, they already had a strong impression of the sort of Pacific Northwest setting that they wanted to make. They wrote the original story, and visited an actual high school (in Washington State) to see the flyers and banners and maps and fire hoses and other details that went into creating a believable environment.

For the actual screenplay, though, they hired an American screenwriter. I loved their stories of cultural corrections that he made from their original script. Some were a bit mundane: the original parking lot had small, Euro-style parking spaces; he pointed out that Americans drive big vehicles, especially in rural areas, and would need much larger spaces. My favorite, though, was the first scene with Max and Warren. As originally written, Warren kisses Max in greeting. To these Parisian developers, this seemed perfectly fine: it's just a greeting! But, as their American representative pointed out, kissing means something very different in America, and there is absolutely no way Warren would even try to kiss Max at this point in their relationship. They had to go back and re-do the animation, but it was worthwhile.

I found that especially interesting since, as I noted in my previous post, that awkward aborted hug was one of the most painfully wonderful parts of the game for me, and resonated very powerfully. It's surprising to learn that it wasn't part of the original vision. Again, though, that speaks to the fantastic collaborative nature of video-game development: when things change, they often change for the better.


Unfortunately, this will probably be my last post on Life Is Strange. Considering how little time I've spent playing the game, it's had an enormously outsized impact on my mood and thoughts. I will say that I really appreciate the fan community, which has produced a ton of gorgeous and uplifting LiS art that has satisfied my need for MOAR CONTENT after the end of the game.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Death Was Normal

Life Is Strange is an amazing game. It's one of the more emotionally affecting games I've played, with vivid relationships and some incredibly relevant social issues. It also holds up really well as a game in its own right, with a very clever union between the mechanics of play and the contents of the story.

It belongs to the modern genre of choice-based adventure games, like the Telltale Games series (e.g. The Walking Dead) and Dreamfall. It has a very fresh feel to it, though, with a unique style and set of concerns. Where Telltale Games draws on established IP for its games, producing pieces that are often superior to their inspiration, Life Is Strange has a more tenuous connection to its predecessors. The most obvious parallel is Twin Peaks, with an honorable mention to The X-Files. The creators' love for those shows shines through in the Pacific Northwest setting and the mood of Arcadia Bay, a benign slice of Americana that conceals troubling secrets.

Like most other modern adventure games, LiS was episodic, with the final episode released about a year ago. Also like most other modern adventure games, I only started playing after all of the episodes had come out and could track the reaction to the series as a whole. I really enjoy playing through an entire story without waiting for months for the next installment. That's even more true for this series, which had some incredible cliffhangers that must have been agony for fans.

However, I do kind of regret waiting until this long to write about it, just because I have way too many thoughts bouncing around in my head. The game covers a ton of territory, and it would probably have been better to write a post for each episode. Now that it's all over, though, I can't really disentangle individual threads, so any spoilers in this post will apply to the whole series. I'll try to keep huge revelations confined to the Mega Spoilers section. So, let's start out with some


I'm sure that a big part of the reason Life Is Strange affected me so strongly was due to drawing parallels between it and my life. Early in the first episode, I started identifying very strongly with Kate. Her situation in high school reminded me a lot of my own situation in middle school: a quiet, religious kid who was studious and emotionally open, and also felt ostracized and unwanted. As Kate's arc continued, I became increasingly grateful for the support I'd received in my own life, and also thankful for attending school in a pre-social-media era. This game takes full advantage of the video-game artform, instilling understanding and empathy by immersing you in scenarios you might not encounter in real life.

Later, towards the end of the first episode and early in the second, I also got to relive some ancient feelings of guilt. Much like Max, I moved away in middle school, leaving behind some very close friends. I think I was more fortunate than her at forging new connections at a new school, but still treasured those old relationships. Still, also like her, I found it very difficult to maintain those relationships: writing or visiting or otherwise keeping them intact. Reuniting from someone in my past is incredibly easy, and it seems like in just a few minutes we're transported back to our old relationship, comfortable with one another. But, I do feel bad about not reaching out or doing the work to maintain those friendships. I'm grateful for the ones I've held on to, but too many have withered away.

Again, the game excels by placing us in characters' shoes and helping us grok others' behaviors. One small but concrete example really resonated with me. In the second episode, Max receives a phone call from Kate while she's walking out of the diner with Chloe. Now, this is the sort of situation where, in real life, I would be upset if I saw Max take the call. She's right there in person with Chloe, and I have a deep-seated assumption that physical proximity should always take priority. Chloe is also Max's best friend, and someone she hasn't seen for a long time, and thus seems most deserving of attention. And yet, in the game, I barely hesitated before picking up the call. Why? Because I knew that Kate was suffering, and needed to know she had a friend, and that a few seconds of attention would mean a great deal to her. I hope I'll remember this the next time someone takes a call while we're hanging out: I don't know the details of what's going on in everyone else's life, and should trust my friends to make good decisions about things like this without letting it bother me.

And, in another bit of reversal, Warren. Oh, geez. I empathized so much with him, especially that awkward aborted hug he tries to give Max early on. I've been on the other side of that multiple times, and it was really... I dunno. Kind of aching, but not painful, to play the other side in an unrequited relationship, sort of seeing myself through the eyes of the protagonist I was playing as.

In retrospect, it's interesting that I didn't pursue Warren in the game; with a certain perspective, that could have been a kind of ultimate wish fulfillment. I did put a lot of thought and care into guiding the relationship, letting him know that I appreciated his actions while kindly-but-firmly rejecting any overtures that would lead to the path of boyfriend-ness. Which, again, kind of hurt since it rekindles memories of disappointments in my own life, but... I dunno, I feel like it was ultimately healthy and healing to walk through that from the other side, looking at what was in my own heart while I was playing as Max.

I was very much Team Chloe in my play-through, and also worked pretty hard at playing matchmaker for Warren. In-game, Max thinks that Warren and Brooke would make a great couple, and I quickly seized on that as a consolation prize for Warren. Brooke is much more into him than he is into her, so I figured she could use the assist. Heh... at one point, I rewound dozens of times trying to get Brooke to help him with his science experiment, before finally giving up and going online to find out how to do it... only to discover that (a) you can't get them to team up there, and (b) everyone else also thought that you should be able to. I helped him achieve the best outcome of the experiment, then went back and did the version where it blows up in his face, just because that seemed much more in keeping with the tenor of our relationship.

Speaking of the rewind... that's the clearest gimmick/mechanic of this game. The most obvious parallel is to Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Like that game, it's a brilliant way to incorporate something we all do (reloading saved games, restarting levels) and actually work it into the narrative, rather than have it be something artificial that's done from outside the story. The way they actually play out is very different, though. PoP:SoT was a platformer, so it was all about redoing missed jumps. LiS, though, is a dialogue-heavy adventure game, and, like all entries in that genre, I'm much more worried about picking the "wrong" answer in a conversation than dying. So you can keep rewinding and replaying conversations over and over again until it goes the way you want it to.

That speaks to me as a player, and also as a person. I think a lot of people have had the experience of regretting things that they've said or not said, wishing we could turn back the clock and try it again. Sometimes it's something significant, like taking back an ill-timed criticism. Often it's something petty, like thinking of a clever comeback hours later. I sometimes think, "Oh, I would have looked so cool if I'd said this one thing right then!" Well, Max gets to be as cool as we think we would be. She works at it, too, diligently trying over and over again until she gets it right.

More broadly, this idea of turning back time and making different decisions is something I've idly fantasized about off and on since late in my teenage years. When a series of events has led me to something painful, I think about what my life would be like if I had gone back to the start and chosen a different path. I've ended up with the same kind of conclusion that the game seems to draw: it's impossible to predict how things will turn out, and if I had steered clear of one type of mistake, it's very possible that I would have ended up in something even worse. I also have the benefit of a much longer period of hindsight, and can see how outcomes that had seemed devastating in the moment were themselves steps on the path to something new. I still indulge in those fantasies sometimes, but more as a curious thought-experiment than a desperate wish for escape. But this game vividly reminds me of when those branching choices seemed deadly urgent.


I was a bit confused about the mechanics of how the rewind worked, though. When we first see Max do it, she rewinds from the bathroom back to the classroom, going back in time and space. So, I'd assumed that's how it works: she jumps back in time, keeping her memories intact but leaving the physical world alone. It wasn't until near the very end of the first episode that I belatedly realized that that's not how it actually works: Max herself stays constant during the rewind, occupying the same place in space and retaining any objects on her person.

That opens up a lot of really clever gameplay ideas and puzzle constructions; you'll frequently advance through an obstacle, then rewind to reset the obstacle back to its initial state. But it makes me more confused about how the power itself works. Even when you rewind around other people, nobody ever remarks on you, even though, to their eyes, it must look like you have abruptly teleported to another position.

In all, I've identified five types of time abilities that Max seems to have. I assume that they are all related, but each seems to have its own rules and limitations.
  1. Standard rewind. This is what we use for most of the game. Max remains in her future body, sending it back in time. This has a limited duration of a couple of minutes. Using it is taxing, causing nosebleeds and eventual fainting.
  2. Full rewind. This happens in the classroom at the start, and in a couple of other places where you run out of rewind time and would lose the game. It puts you back to a fixed time and place, retaining your body.
  3. Time freeze. This is what Max uses at the end of Episode 2. I'm not sure if it's just a weak version of #1, where she's constantly exerting her power but only succeeding in stopping rather than reversing time, or if it's actually a unique power.
  4. Photo jump. Unlike all the other versions, with this kind Max actually inhabits a younger body of herself. She keeps her memories of the "prime" timeline. This visit has a fixed duration (which seems to be about as long as the "buffer" of her standard rewind). After she leaves, she jumps back to her original time, but into the new universe caused by her past actions. She does not inherit the memories of what happened between the past and the present, only the actions that the "prime" Max has taken.
  5. The nightmare. This is the only type of travel that goes forward. It's the most ambiguous type of travel in the game; it's implied to be real, but may be some form of prophetic hallucination. Max never takes any concrete actions while in the nightmare, and it's unclear whether they would impact the real world if she did.
One of the bigger questions I had in this game was how her time-traveling affects reality. Specifically, is there just a single "prime" reality that Max keeps reshaping with her actions? Or does each different choice produce a separate universe? Is Max hopping between slightly different realities, or reshaping the existing one?

The end of the game seems to strongly imply that it's a parallel-universe structure, which makes sense but would also be very disturbing. That means that all of Max's bad decisions have still occurred, just in universes that she's lucky enough to no longer inhabit. (Shades of Bioshock Infinite there.) I'm not sure if this is 100% established, though. Most of the "evidence" for the multiple-worlds system comes from the nightmare near the end of Episode 5, which needs a frickin' huge grain of salt.

So... what is the deal with that nightmare? I initially thought that it was something sinister being designed/used by Jefferson/Prescott or something. As you move on, though, it seems increasingly chaotic and unplanned. It would be very reasonable to think that it's being generated by Max's subconscious. There are clear reflections of her existing anxieties (her friends/lover don't actually care for her, laugh at her, etc.). In a particularly cruel vein, she's specifically hounded for using her rewind powers: making herself seem smart and popular. I felt guilty at that: not as a character, but as a player. I had been enjoying the sense of "winning" conversations, but it was all artificial; not really much different from someone who enjoys the sense of winning a battle that's fought in a virtual level by killing all their enemies, I was vicariously achieving social status.

But... as Max comments over and over again, the nightmare feels incredibly real. Can it all be in her subconscious? After all, the vision did show her the tornado, including the date when it would occur. One particularly disturbing hypothesis is that the nightmare is real, populated by the detritus of the ruined and abandoned universes that Max has thoughtlessly cast aside during her quest. Is there some malevolent intelligence directing it towards her? If so, from who? Perhaps the other Max that she encounters in the diner? That would explain the cruelly personal effectiveness of the obstacles she finds.

I dunno. Everything about that scene is intriguing and confusing. Like when Chloe comes in and angrily says something like, "Give her a break! She's only been here for a week, and has no idea what we've been through!"... who is she talking to? Prime Max, or Nightmare Max? If the former, then this (memory of?) Chloe has her back, defending her against a reflection of Max who sees only the destruction wrought by Max but not the good. But if it's the latter, then Chloe has been manipulating Prime Max all along, plotting with Nightmare Max to bring her to this point.

At the very end, we learn the truth about the tornado: it has been caused by Max's time-traveling. All of her actions to try and save the town have actually been enabling its destruction. That's clever, but also made me extremely confused. We see the tornado vision before Max first uses her time-travel powers. Now, in general, I'm fine with the idea of an action that disturbs space-time causing effects that spill back into the past (as in the "All Good Things" finale to Star Trek: The Next Generation). But I just don't understand how the causality of this would work. Max starts using her rewind after going to the bathroom, and she goes to the bathroom because she was freaked out by her vision. So she needed the vision to get time travel, but apparently needed time travel to get the vision. It seems like a clear paradox, and I don't really get how this could have ever started. (I've since learned to find solace in this paradox, since it lets me embrace my "bae over bay" decision by concluding that Warren and Chloe were wrong and my powers weren't causing the cyclone after all.)

At a meta level, I'm kinda opposed to saving the town because, if you sacrifice Chloe, then what was all of this for, anyways? It seems to turn the whole series into a shaggy-dog story. I suppose Max has gained some wisdom, but it still seems dangerously close to "it was all just a dream" and hitting the reset button.

Another big nagging question for me is what the deal was with Chloe, Rachel, and Frank. Rachel herself is a huge mystery. Around the end of the third episode, when I realized that Rachel was also close to Frank, I started thinking that Rachel might have had the rewind powers as well. She seems to have been preternaturally adept at moving between different social groups and gaining everyone's approval, as diverse as the Vortex Club, the skaters, outcast rebel Chloe, and skeevy Frank. I knew from experience that that was very doable with time-travel powers, and if one person can gain those in Arcadia Bay, why not another?

I'd assumed that Rachel was a victim, and Chloe a victim by proxy. But when meeting with Frank in episode 4, he drops a brief, unexplained bombshell: he yells at Chloe that she was one of Rachel's problems. That's interesting! Chloe seemed to think that it was her and Rachel against the world, but was Rachel actually scared of Chloe? If so, why? (I'm also curious about the chronologies - presumably, Frank had been Chloe's dealer for a while. At some point, Rachel goes to visit him, but Chloe never knows about it. Rachel never shows up in Frank's logbook. She later gets caught with drugs on campus. Was she actually buying from Frank? Or did someone plant them on her? If so, who, and why?)

Nightmare Max blames Chloe for everything that has happened. Why? The immediately obvious answer is the one that Chloe gives back in the real world: Max kicked all this off by saving Chloe. But what if there's something else going on? Did Rachel have or know about rewind powers? Did Chloe? Was Chloe trying to get Max to go back in time to rescue Rachel? Think of whenever Max popped back in time using her photo powers, borrowing her body to change the course of history - did that ever happen to Max during the game, with Chloe or someone else nudging her in a certain direction? (I'm particularly attracted to this idea thanks to the Primer references, like the nosebleeds and one-way back-only time travel rules.)

At the very end of the game, Chloe is comforting Max at the lighthouse and says something like, "All of this had to happen. Everything... Except for Rachel dying." Why is that the one thing that's contingent? Is Chloe still trying to fix it? And I keep thinking of how, for most of the game, Max is using the camera Chloe gave her... which is William's camera... which is the one that took the shot that sends Max back in time. I've always assumed that Max's powers were somehow biological in origin, but is it possible that Chloe (or Rachel) used that same camera in their own experiment?

Needless to say, the whole arc of the fifth episode caught me off guard, in a really good way. I absolutely adore it when a series gets meta and weird at the end. It's uncommon, but you're much more likely to see it in anime and television series; I haven't seen that sort of surreal left-field twist often in video games, even episodic ones. Everything from the end of the fourth episode through the very end of the game upended my working theories and assumptions of what the game was about. The Prescott stuff ended up seeming to be a red herring: I'd figured that all of the plot threads would eventually lead to Sean Prescott, who has been built up as a big behind-the-scenes villain.

So, it was really effective to redirect attention onto the real villain. Still, there are so many other unexplained questions that I keep wondering if the Prescotts still have some unexplained role in all of this. Given that the Prescotts are behind everything happening in Arcadia Bay, are they also the ultimate source of Max's powers? If they have access to rewind powers, then that would certainly explain their uncanny and long-lived record of success. There definitely seem to be some great seeds here that can be harvested in an eventual spinoff or sequel, especially with the sinister references to Nathan being groomed for something, and Sean's eagerness for an "enema" about to be delivered to Arcadia.

Okay! That's a lot more theorizing than I had planned or wanted to go into. It's a bit misleading... that's the stuff that's at the front of my mind since I just finished the game, but overall, the biggest thing that affected me wasn't the unanswered questions, but the difficult choices I'd made along the way.

As I keep writing on this blog, choice & consequences has been a big obsession of mine over the last few years of my video-game playing, and I'm always intrigued at the unique frameworks and philosophies that different developers come up with for constructing and handling their choices. Life Is Strange's choices included some of the most difficult and personal-feeling ones I've encountered. Part of that may have to do with the realistic setting; as noted above, I felt a particular connection to many of these characters and their situations, and that made the scenarios feel much more relevant and powerful than they would in a more typical fantasy or science-fiction game.

The choice that I probably agonized most over, both in the moment and especially afterwards, was advising Kate on whether to go to the police or not. It was a total head-versus-heart debate for me. I'm on her side, I care for her, I want her to get help, I want the people who did this to her to be punished, and so all of that pushes me towards recommending her to go to the police. And yet, based on my encounters with school authority figures and everything I've learned from all of my conversations, I know that the Prescotts own every aspect of this town, including the police force, and Sean will spare nothing to shield his boy from any reprisal. Given this situation, and the fact that Kate doesn't have any eyewitnesses to back up her account, or even vivid memories of the night in question, it seems like going to the police would be a disaster. It would tip our hand, Nathan would still get out (on bail at the absolute worst, most likely not even brought in), and would bring Kate in for a fresh round of pain and rejection.

So I thought the smart thing to do would be to advise her to wait. I told her that I was still working on collecting proof, that we had to do it right, but she didn't take it well. And I don't blame her! She really needed a friend, and my rational advice seemed too much like skepticism.

I felt even worse later on when I was trying to reconstruct the chronology. When exactly did the abuse happen? I had figured that it occurred last week, and was just coming to a head now because the video had circulated so widely over time. But if it was more recent, then it would be absolutely critical that she go to the police now, to have a rape kit collected and make a record of the crime. Versus if she's already waited several days, then the forensic evidence may no longer be available, and she's wholly dependent on the external evidence I can gather. Based on the timing of this week's Vortex Club, I now think that it probably happened the previous Thursday. So that backs up my head decision, but given everything Kate goes through, I'd be sorely tempted to follow my heart next time.

The ending of episode two is absolutely incredible. Not just an emotional razor, but also one of the best examples of game design I've seen lately. There are so many inputs going into that climactic scene on the roof, all the times you've helped Kate or turned her away. The dialogue itself is crucial as well, and you need to draw on everything you've learned about Kate to talk her down. These were things that didn't seem at all significant when we first encountered them, just a few more random examples of the copious amounts of flavor the game has to offer. But I'd felt so invested in Kate's story that I'd held onto those fragments vividly, and could call up the right words when it mattered most. That was one of the most intense game experiences I've had, and the result felt like the most earned, especially with how the aftermath reverberated throughout the rest of the series.

I liked Kate, but I really liked Chloe. She's definitely very different from Max: aggressive and impulsive where you're cautious and thoughtful. They make a fantastic team. The decisions with Chloe often feel like threading the needle: I want to make her happy, but I also want what's best for her, and those might be two different things. Do I honor her wishes and stay hidden, or stand up for her and reveal myself?

More broadly, how much do I let her "bad girl" attitude affect me? The biggest decision on this matter was stealing the money from Principal Wells' drawer. In general, I'd be very opposed to theft, especially theft of a charity fund. But I knew that Chloe really needed the money. If it would get a scary drug dealer off her back, then it could save her life. And I knew from reading Nathan's file that he had gotten merits for fundraising to this very same "handicapped fund". Given that link, and the fact that it's in an envelope in Wells' desk, made me think that it was probably bribe money anyways, Prescott dirty funds for looking the other way and letting Nathan coast along. I felt much better about stealing tainted money.

But was it tainted? In a later episode, you see that renovations to make the dorms ADA-compliant have been put on indefinite hold due to insufficient funds. That made me feel awful - I guess that it was an actual charity after all. Even if it was bribe money, Wells wasn't using it for himself (buying ugly art...) He made moral compromises, but justified it by making sure they benefited the school. And I had ruined it.

Which made it all the worse since, in the alternate timeline, I had learned that Chloe was gently kicked out of Blackwell after her accident since the campus wasn't ADA-compliant. And I'd seen how that contributed to her social isolation and depression. It felt like I was betraying her all over again. Even if that Chloe doesn't exist any more, I now keenly felt how awful that situation would be, and was responsible for causing more people to suffer.

Speaking of Chloe and suffering... I often talk about "difficult decisions", but that can mean two pretty different things. One is when you have multiple choices and have a hard time picking the best one. The second is when you know the choice you want to make, but it's very emotionally challenging. In Dragon Age terms, the first type of choice is exemplified by destroying Caridin's Forge. There are strong arguments to make on both side of the case. The second type is exemplified by the Dark Ritual. I'll always do it, because the reasons for it are so strong, but I'll always feel guilty about it.

Well, the decision about euthanizing Chloe is my new go-to example of "I know which option to pick, but it's incredibly hard to actually click it". This is the first time since the first The Walking Dead game that I've cried while playing a video game. A lot of my sorrow had to do with Chloe in the game and all the emotion I'd invested in her, and in her relationship with Max, but a lot was also due to drawing a connection to loss in my own life. What's weird is, I usually don't cry in real life in response to suffering or death: I feel sad, and comfort those around me, but I instinctually bottle up physical signs of mourning. I'm sure that's due in large part to socialization and gender roles and all that. But for whatever reason, art is much more effective at accessing those emotions and letting the grief out. It felt a bit like tapping a valve and releasing some feelings that I'd been carrying inside for nearly a year.


So, yeah. This was an excellent game. It made me think and feel many things!

I also (surprise!) took a lot of screenshots. Each has spoilers for itself and preceding episodes, but doesn't spoil future ones. I captioned the first four albums after playing the first four episodes, so they don't reflect (or anticipate) events of the final episode.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4 (includes some borderline NSFW images)

Episode 5 (less extreme than 4, but view with caution in public)

I'm sure I'll dive into the fandom for a bit to see what other crazy theories people have come up with. I'm personally really happy with where the game ended... it has a fulfilling emotional arc, but leaves enough ambiguity and unanswered questions behind to be fruitfully explored in the future. Much like Twin Peaks and the X-Files, individual mysteries can be solved, but the world as a whole continues to be a strange and possibly unknowable place, a dangerous but delightful universe to explore.