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.

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