‘Life Is Strange’: The Selfie As a Game

Life Is Strange makes me uncomfortable with editing my social mistakes, uncomfortable with the idea of presenting the perfect snapshot of myself to the world.

A selfie and a mirror have something in common. Both are objects that by reflecting the self allow one to reframe the self. They are both ways of preparing one’s face to meet the world and to show others who you intend yourself to be.

As we arrange ourselves in the mirror before we go out, so the photographer of the self prepares, poses, and retakes the photo until the digital representation of the self becomes what that photographer wants it to be — or at least the best that that individual can do at the moment.

The protagonist of Life Is Strange, Max Caulfield (neatly named after Holden Caulfield, I would assume, an infamous character obsessed with self), is a high school senior and a photographer. Of course, youth is associated with a period of time when we arrange, rearrange, edit, re-edit, pose, and then change our pose until we present the self to the world that we feel best suits us, and a self that others will see in the best light possible — or so we hope. As a new student at Blackwell Academy, Max is, of course, deeply concerned with how she is seen and how others see her at her new school.

Thus, it is appropriate enough that as a photographer, Max is obsessed with the selfie as her dominant genre, a form of photography that might mimic candid photography, but so rarely actually is, and that has come to represent the most common form of self representation in an age of social media. The interesting thing about this obsession, though, is not merely how neatly it parallels the themes of identity and social exploration of the main plotline of Life Is Strange, what is interesting instead is how this mode of representation also parallels the central game mechanic of Life is Strange.

While much of the plot of Life Is Strange might be deemed realistic, a girl struggling with the social realities of high school, it is also set in a science fiction universe, one in which Max discovers that she is capable of manipulating time. Max can rewind time a few minutes, thus, allowing her to change, edit, and retouch her own reality. Say the wrong thing to a friend or an enemy? No problem, zip back in time a few seconds and try again, or if that alternative doesn’t work out and you look even worse in that moment (that snapshot of yourself in time), well, go back to your original statement or try something new altogether.

While rewinding time is used in the game as a means of solving puzzles, it is largely used in social situations, creating tension out of the ability to change the consequences of your social interactions. It’s an interesting approach to the kind of “advanced” Choose-Your-Adventure-style branching narrative made popular by Telltale Games’s latest line of point-and-click adventure games.

And maybe those games have infected me in some strange way because playing through the first episode of Life Is Strange, I failed to use this dominant mechanic, the ability to shape the self in relation to others, at all. I decided not to reshape the outcomes of my decisions, to second guess myself ever. If Max said something stupid, something alienating to someone else, I forgot all about the selfie-like ability to reframe my identity for others and just rolled with the consequences, much as one learns to do in a Telltale game. “Gaming the system” by backtracking through hard choices through save games just isn’t worth it, nor is it the pleasure of playing a game like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. It is a game about reflecting on cause and effect to be sure, just as Life Is Strange is, but it is one that fails to offer a way of creating that perfect snapshot of the self.

To be honest, though, I don’t think it was playing Telltale games, though, that made me resistant to attempting to tweak Max’s own self portraits. I think it was the familiarity of the experiences that Life Is Strange presents that made me decide to just live with my social ineptitude and social faux pas. I’ve been to high school, and I have years of practice at putting my foot in my mouth, making myself look weird, and failing miserably in social situations. I know the kinds of choices Max is making, and I know that it is impossible to control all of the outcomes of self representation, so, hey, just do the best you can, right?

I reflected on these ideas as I played through the first episode of the game, which is funny to me because it isn’t as if I am opposed to mirrors or selfies or somehow resist the idea of them in real life. Much as I know that I have never been the greatest navigator of social situations, nevertheless I, like every human being, stop to glance in the mirror before I leave the house to make sure I “look okay”. Sometimes I look fine. Sometimes I run my fingers through my hair to straighten it out. Sometimes I do something more drastic, like go change part of my wardrobe. Sometimes I don’t want people to see the self that I originally caught a glimpse of in the mirror, so its back again to edit and reframe the best shot of me that I can under the circumstances. This is also why I still do concern myself at times with how I phrase things, how I approach someone else, and the “appropriateness” of my social conduct, even if I know I will possibly goof it up in the long term.

However, somehow Life Is Strange (perhaps, because I am inhabiting another self, one who is not me and is fictional anyway and thus can afford to look bad and make mistakes) makes me uncomfortable with editing my own social mistakes. These somehow seem like choices that one has to commit to, wrong or right, wise or foolish. As much as one might want to control how the self is seen, one becomes aware that sometimes we can’t always put on our best face and that perhaps a more flawed selfie is the only way to really tell the truth about ourselves to the people that we meet.