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.


  1. This game seems amazing! Kind of bummed I can't play it, since I assume (from these beautiful screenshots) that my Macbook Pro won't be able to run it =[

  2. Actually hmm I don't know. I'm downloading this game right now, SO WE SHALL SOON SEE!

  3. Okay it loaded and played just fine! I'm very impressed! Reminded me strongly of THE LONGEST JOURNEY (which you should definitely play), but with its own aesthetic and world. I just finished episode one. I've got my nitpicks, but I want to finish the game before formulating my thoughts. We'll need to get together and discuss once I'm done!

    1. Huzzah! There are certainly issues with it, both technical and narrative, but the stuff it does well is done so well. It's definitely one of the more impactful games I've played, looking forward to discussing with you!