Life Is Strange (2015) | PlayStation 4 (Amazon)
Life Is Strange (2015) | PlayStation 4 v. image via Amazon

Undone Apart: Artistry and Philosophy in Graphic Adventure Game ‘Life Is Strange’

Why create such a highly-fictionalized, aestheticized setting as Life Is Strange to express the confusion and contradictions of life?

Life Is Strange
Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch (directors)
Dontnod Entertainment
30 January 2015

Life Is Strange, a video game by the French studio Dontnod Entertainment, released as five episodes over 2015, has since won an impressive list of awards, gathered a worldwide following, and started a franchise of its own. This February, it also became available as a part of Life Is Strange: Remastered Collection. In this essay, however, I focus on the original game alone. It was conceived and stands on its own as a self-sufficient story, all further installments featuring different settings and main casts. Even the prequel to Life Is Strange received in 2017, Before the Storm, was developed by a different studio with a different approach. It does recycle some patterns from the original game but hardly expands it.

Life Is Strange is a narrative-driven game with a strong artistic element. It employs cinematographic techniques in arranging its scenes, uses hand-painted textures to give its graphics a canvas-like feel, features an impressive gallery of pictures and drawings in-game, and places a good deal of emphasis on music. There is a particularly engaging capacity to the story it tells that goes beyond mere entertainment value, a power to urge itself and elicit a response. This is evidenced by many personal, highly emotional, often wistful testimonies – including from the actors who voiced the story over. [Burch 2017] A YouTube channel full of farcical parodies, all charged with the blackest humor, attests just the same power, if from the other end of the sentiment spectrum.

The game does seriously concern itself, unlike most in the genre, with quite a few real-world issues. It was by far the first major video game to directly address teen suicide, and it devotes a whole sub-storyline to cyberbullying. It touches upon income disparity, environmental crisis, political polarization, gun rights and the responsibilities that come with them, proliferation of surveillance practices, drug use and abuse, mental health and physical disability, and veterans’ issues. In some scenes, there is a looming shadow of the Cold War, which at the time of the original release had only made its recurrence known and was not yet spiraling into active escalation. All these subjects are presented within relatable stories, as something anyone can face.

And yet it is not with them that the aesthetic power of Life is Strange lies – and could hardly be expected to. When Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex fills us with awe, it is not on account of what it has to say about epidemics and cold case investigations. What moves us to sympathy in William Shakespeare’s King Lear, are not the inherent flaws of crown succession in an absolute monarchy. In Life is Strange as well, the actually overarching themes are of a different kind. This is not the kind of story to make statements or push agendas. Where it does outline a broader conflict of groups and worldviews, it is not to take one of the sides but only to remind us there are people like ourselves on either – and that each has its own reasons.

First and foremost, Life Is Strange is an étude in personal experience. The player follows the game’s pensive protagonist through her day, listens to her inner monologues and music playlists, takes sneak peeks into her diary and her memories. The game strives not to impress us with grand-scale action but to convey the sense of just being there, inviting us to reflect on what in general makes a moment lived or a thing seen special. The developers called Life Is Strange “personal in trying to be universal”, [Lien 2014], but the reverse seems to be more accurate. 

We play as Max Caulfield, a young woman who has returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay after several years of absence to study photography. Her surname is an allusion to Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The town is replete with pop culture references like this. The principal of Max’s art school is called Ray Wells, apparently after Ray Bradbury – whose book, October Country (1955) is a collectible item in one of the in-game quests – and the prolific novelist and journalist, Herbert Wells. Most license plates we come across feature coded names of US television shows: there is a “TWNPKS”, obviously referring to Twin Peaks, “BRKNBD” for Breaking Bad, and a few others. Titles like Final Fantasy, Battle Royale, Blade Runner, or even Cannibal Holocaust, and quotes from Jack Kerouac or John Lennon come up now and again, too. And when they speak of ‘going back to 1984’, it is George Orwell’s book, not the year, they refer to.

However, these references supply no actual insight into the characters or the story. Like the superficial elements of photographer terminology and trivia the game familiarizes us with, they are there only to delineate the imaginary space of the in-story world. This world is not exactly a fantasy realm, but neither does it belong completely to the familiar reality. Rather, it is an in-between, buffer area of sorts: similar to what we see around us in real life, but envisioned within an explicitly narrowed and fictionalized frame of reference. Thomas Carlyle achieved a similar effect, for his British readers, by extensively using Germanisms and references to German Idealism in his 1836 novel, Sartor Resartus. The result was a story set not in Germany but rather in an imagined sub-world informed by and centered around German philosophy and literature. The 18th-century playwright, poet, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, himself a major figure of inspiration behind that world, spoke of building “a living wall [around a story] to seclude it from the actual world, and to secure for it the ideal plane of poetic freedom.” [Schiller 1962]

This quote comes from an essay on Greek tragedy, and by poetic freedom in it, Schiller meant, in the first place, the freedom to use the tropes and themes of ancient myth. Poorly fitting in the setting of the Athenian polis contemporary to Aeschylus or Euripides, the kings and heroes of times immemorial would elicit the necessary suspension of disbelief if the right imaginary environment was provided for them. Life Is Strange uses a similar kind of freedom extensively to portray, in its small but self-contained world of Arcadia Bay, a cast of archetypal characters – as labeled by the developers [Barbet, Koch, 2016] – informed by the tropes of pop culture. Here we have, among others, a cool arts teacher, a clique of campus bullies, an entitled rich kid, a would-be macho of a security guy, a nerd whom we get every opportunity to “friend zone”, a bouncy cheerleader, and a Catholic girl from a pre-marital abstinence group.

The point, however, is to subvert archetypes and add a human dimension to easily recognizable tropes. The tough guy is acting tough for a reason, and what he wants is only to prove himself and make some positive difference after a failed career in the military. The dissembling, apparently corrupt bureaucrat is not all about personal gain. Still, like many who collaborate with what they do not approve of, he chooses what to him seems the lesser evil. The nerd, cringey most often and a bit creepy at times, turns out to be a brave and honest young man when put to the test. For a few characters, however, this play of archetypes does not seem to work in the same way. It is they who occupy the central places in the story.

Two of them are Max herself and the estranged friend of her childhood, Chloe Price. Reunited by a coincidence so peculiar that it could be predestination just as well, they end up bound together by the supernatural power to rewind time, which Max comes to wield. Unlike the archetypal characters, who all undergo a clearly-defined transition from one-sided to multidimensional, these two are weaved of coexistent contradictions from the very outset. 

Max comes to the town as a helpless witness to everything that has changed in her absence and not the way she hoped – Chloe first and foremost – but gets a miraculous ability herself to change the past. She is the main character but pursues no real goals of her own, driven solely by her devotion to Chloe. As the protagonist of a choice-based game, too, she can go for directly opposite things on the same occasion, with an equal degree of narrative justification for any choice. As to Chloe, her character was designed as a “hostile best friend” to Max [Lien 2014]: someone to love yet to struggle with all the more. She is both snarky and sentimental, rough and vulnerable, pettily manipulative at times, and self-denyingly loyal at others. In contrast to the self-obstructively prudent, second-guessing Max, Chloe demonstrates a pronounced self-defeating, nearly self-destructive strain.

In fact, the main plotline is centered around Chloe and death as viewed from Max’s eyes. Having used her supernatural power for the first time to revert and avert Chloe’s homicide – her “default” fate without Max’s presence or intervention – Max stands by her side for the rest of the story. As death keeps finding Chloe again and again, Max has to travel farther and farther back in time to anticipate it. But as in so many tales and myths, supernatural means do not serve human ends well. The more Max uses her power, the more collateral damage and unintended consequences come about until she is losing her way in an array of mutually exclusive parallel timelines.

A somewhat similar story is told in The Sea of Fertility, a series of four novels published in the ’60s by the Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Here, a person who lost a good friend in his youth keeps coming, throughout his whole long life, across adolescents who seem to be his friend’s consecutive reincarnations. A practical man in a prosaic world (or so he thinks), the main character struggles to understand these supernatural encounters no less than, decades ago, he struggled to understand his dreamy counterpart’s irrational behaviors. But the young people the protagonist meets die in their teens, one after another, leaving behind no answer why his late friend keeps returning or what he might want. In the end, the old man is not sure anymore, even if it was reincarnation at all, and whether he has not spent his life chasing after a delusion.

Like him, Max too has to question the reality of her supernatural experience. If events do not follow each other in the sequence of cause and effect anymore, and if two mutually exclusive things can happen with an equal degree of factuality – what is real then, if anything at all?

In the Buddhist-informed Sea of Fertility, the main protagonist’s journey reaches its ambiguous destination in a temple garden. In the pop culture-infused Life Is Strange, the last scene comes at the end of the world – or at least the world of Arcadia Bay. Max’s tampering with time seems to have disturbed the very order of things: now it is snowing far ahead of winter, two moons are there in the sky, and a giant tornado is coming to wipe out the town. The only way to undo these things is to rewind the rewinding power itself out of existence (another well-familiar trope), by going back to the first time Max used it and choosing not to. But in the normal state thus restored, there would be no place for Chloe and Max together. It is up to the player whether to part them again after their reunion or not. Of the two endings, the game designates neither as the correct one.

Of course, that supernatural power is rather a plot device than a subject matter in this story, and the sci-fi clichés invoked to explain its nature away are but elements of the game’s referential world-building. It is there to create an opportunity to express the human qualities of the two main characters and their relationship. While the subvertable archetype figures supply isolated human themes and traits, it is via the protagonists that all the elements come together as a whole, and a few tropes become one relatable experience. This is close to the sort of poetic freedom we met with Schiller, even though Max and Chloe are neither goddesses nor heroines. This might sound overcomplicated and counterintuitive: why create such a highly-fictionalized, aestheticized setting to express something as essential as the confusion and the contradictions of life, and the need of one human being for another? Or in other words, would not a strictly realistic story have been better?

But let us not forget that reality and factuality are not necessarily the same thing. In real life, external appearance more often serves to disguise the inner nature than not. In art, appearance is all there actually is: the feelings or the qualities of a living person are real even if nobody knows about them, but a character has to make his or hers known at least to the audience. These are to be revealed through action, which must have relatable motives for the audience to care about it at all. Still, the actions and the motives we normally come across in actual life and would have to emulate in a realistic setting have more to do with adaptation to the external reality than an expression of ourselves. The closer we imitate the outward facts and circumstances of life, the less room we leave for the other and the no less real inner side of human experience.

So, to express this inner reality – and Life Is Strange is a thoroughly introspective story – we actually need to wall ourselves off from the external one, be it in a subtler or a more explicit way. Yet the inner reality, even if we imagine it to be sealed up within each individual, is still shared, or else we would not be able to relate to stories or appreciate art at all. This is the value of poetic freedom and the aesthetic space where it exists: here, human beings otherwise separated in their circumstances, roles, and practical needs, come to see in the work of another an image of what they treasure deeply in themselves. This is why Okakura Kakuzō, a Japanese scholar of art who strived to bridge the Western and the Eastern traditions, believed that “Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art.” [Okakura 2008: Chapter V]