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

Vehicle of Extinction

Still, there is another set of central characters in Life Is Strange, whose situation is closer to the mythological context of Schiller’s maxim. These are the archetypes that remain unsubverted, the mythologized figures within the in-game world. They supply symbolism for the story, bringing it to the level of universal patterns and not just random people. One of these mythic figures is Rachel Amber (in the early alpha version, she was called Jessie Palmer, an allusion to Twin Peaks), the missing person Max and Chloe are searching for throughout the plot. Missing, in her case, is the mode of representation: her character and significance are mediated precisely by her absence on screen. Max does not have a chance to meet Rachel, and we have to infer our idea of her from hearsay. In this respect, she is not unlike Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, a looming presence that informs and motivates the story from behind the scenes and beyond the grave.

The feedback we get on Rachel breaks down neatly by age group. While the older people are moderately affectionate and reasonably concerned, Max’s peers seem to be outright under her spell. They speak of Rachel only in the superlative, and even minor characters believe themselves to have had a unique relationship with her. It seems to each she was his own Rachel Amber, yet no clique or group can claim her for itself. While the few haters she has are too obviously envious to be taken seriously, Rachel’s devotees are ready to physically fight each other over her. Max herself has to vie with Rachel in absentia for Chloe’s affection – and through this, falls under her influence as well. Just like Chloe’s fixed idea of eloping with Rachel from what she sees as the irreparably broken world of Arcadia Bay, finding Rachel to fix everything becomes a major preoccupation for Max.

However, all hopes and promises around Rachel Amber are bound to come unfulfilled: she is there for everyone but is to leave everyone behind just as well. Rachel is not necessarily to blame for that, and it is actually a violent death that cuts short some of her commitments and leaves her actual intents ultimately ambiguous. But it seems like the very dreams and aspirations she invokes are of an unsustainable nature, not fitting really well in the realm of the possible. Unpremeditated as it was, Rachel’s death itself, in her mythologized storyline, appears rather as predestined: even Max’s power cannot undo it. Rachel was not meant to stay, either in the town or with any of the characters.

In her mythological capacity, we can view Rachel Amber as a representative of that inner force that awakens all of a sudden, by its own laws, and makes every young person feel like he or she is the main character of this life. Unlike that sunny and gentle dream-power which Max and Chloe miss about their shared childhood, it is vigorous and daring, charged with an element of ambition and the dread of failure that comes with it. The themes of sexual infidelity and possessive eroticism in Rachel’s storyline supply a particularly bitter metaphor for this fear of turning out, someday, to not really be the chosen one but instead being denied one’s assumed and trusted worth in a humiliating way. In the end, of course, nobody is the “one”. The power of youth does not discriminate in coming or going.

It is true that Rachel has a few significant relationships with characters in their 30s and older, but all of them are special cases. Two are marginalized, ill-adapted types: one a harmless but ridiculed oddball, the other an outcast career criminal. Both of them are avoided by most of their own peers and tend to seek the company of younger people. We may argue they maintain a trace of rudimentary youth, at their age properly called immaturity. It opens them to Rachel’s visitation, but that does not work out well. The third one is a mythologized figure himself: an avatar-style representative, like Rachel Amber, but of a sinister force.

It is Mr. Jefferson, a popular photography teacher who turns out to be a sadist, rapidly escalating to a serial killer. The portrayal of this character does undergo a drastic change: from staring at Mr. Jefferson puppy-eyed from her desk at the back of a classroom, Max goes on to being tortured by him in an underground bunker. But in both capacities, of an idol and a villain, he remains a thoroughly trope figure. In fact, all his features are amplified to a diabolical extent, leaving no human side to him. This is a conscious storytelling decision: while the pre-release version of the game contains some clues to his background and personal frustrations, in the final edition his personality is obscured by his archetypal function.

Mr. Jefferson drugs his female students unconscious to take photos of them in the purely objectified state of mere physical subjects when they have no control over what the picture would show them to be like. We might be tempted to view this as an unwieldy metaphor of rape, but the story does give some hints to discourage a sexual interpretation. A mythologized figure in an artistically-informed world, Mr. Jefferson’s crimes are not sex crimes, but rather motivated by art. I suggest we treat his photos as representative of the mechanical sort of truth divorced from human meaning, of taking only the external and not the internal reality into account. The picture is technically not incorrect, but it leaves out something so important that we can only detest the sort of reality it presents. In other words, it is an ultimately de-aestheticized view of life made all the more hideous when passed for artistic method. Where such views prevail, the result is not just a decline of arts but the loss of dignity in life.

Like Rachel Amber, Mr. Jefferson does inform and motivate the plot. It was actually for the sake of his course that Max returned to Arcadia Bay, and the lecture he is giving at the very beginning of the story foreshadows much of what is to come. His ultimately fatal romance with Rachel is described in strangely matter-of-fact terms as if to stress that it is rather an interaction of two principles than a relationship of two people. And when Mr. Jefferson calls Rachel’s death “the real tragedy”, we may trust he speaks in the same impersonal and supraindividual way, not of the person but of the power she stood for. Curiously, one of the less popular etymologies derives the word itself, “tragedy”, from the Greek expression for adolescent voice-change. [Winkler and Zeitlin 1992: p.60] 

Rachel’s death does not only represent the loss of youth, but it’s also a reminder that loss is inseparable from life itself. No matter what one does, no matter what one can, something or somebody will always be beyond help or repair. All of us are only circumstances in the larger scheme of things, always at the mercy of blind chance and indifferent fates – that is, when viewed from the outside. But the inner reality of human experience is very different. In it, each is the main character at least of his own life and values it as much as if it were the only one in the whole world. The contrast is so drastic and so immediate that Arthur Schopenhauer saw the task of philosophy precisely in reconciling these two opposite truths [Schopenhauer 1877: p. 295]. It is echoed in the final choice of Life Is Strange as well, where so many nameless lives are thrown on the scales against Chloe’s. 

This is not simply an arithmetical question of whether one or a few have to go, but rather of how we can judge the intrinsic worth of human beings to start with and whether it always corresponds directly to the number of persons involved. The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who formulated and examined a similar situation (it was later dubbed the trolley problem) in her Virtues and Vices, had to state that “… We are not forced to the conclusion that the [quantitative] size of the evil must always be our guide.” [Foot 2002: p. 30]

We may find yet another philosophical dimension to this choice if we take a closer look at the symbolism of Max’s supernatural power. As we observe above, her storyline is centered around Chloe and death as engaged through the manipulation of time. But time itself, viewed as a phenomenon of human experience rather than theoretical physics, is the vehicle of extinction. With its passage, things and the way they are, conditions and opportunities, living beings, even our own old selves are left behind irreversibly. The very memories fade, and sometimes we might not know for sure anymore if something was really there or what it really was. We may understand, rationally, that new things too are coming all the time, not as often to replace as to imitate the old. But with a limit set on our own lifetime, it is always a countdown at the bottom line. The very word, “time”, is most probably derived from an ancient root meaning “to separate” – or if you will, “to do apart”. [Wilkins 2000: entry “da II”]

So it might not be a coincidence that the first thing Max does with her power is revive a dead person, as death is its proper substance. All other rewinds are just lesser instances of reversing the finitude of things, conditions, and moments. But finitude in time, just as borders and dimensions in space, is what defines things for us. The present itself would not be present anymore if it is never to become past. This is why the reversal of time and of death is impossible in the world as we know it: not just because it does not happen, but because it is unfathomable to our very minds. Even if we managed to bring someone back from the dead, would it actually be a bringing to life? Or rather, would a world where something like that happened still be the world of the living?

Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed all philosophy begins with the thought of death [Schopenhauer 1977: Volume I, Para. 8], once said that the condition of being alive as a human is defined by limitation: our inability to be everywhere and have everything, all our many needs and weaknesses, our mortality. [Schopenhauer 1877: p. 301] But these limitations are precisely what makes us who we are, and we – limited in our cognitive abilities as well – cannot really imagine or perceive any other mode of existence. Or, to be more precise, if we try to imagine it and not contradict ourselves at every step, we can think of it only as the negative of life as we know it. But this is just the definition of death if we do not restrict it to the biological process alone.

Thus, paradoxically, an attempt to make death redundant lands us, mortals, precisely … in the realm of death. We may argue that Max’s assumption of her power marks the moment when the border between the world of the living and the world of the dead is lifted, and the unlimited and unimaginable things from the other side tamper with the laws of our own. From this standpoint, Max’s storyline can be viewed as her journey to the realm of death, with Chloe as her guide.

However, unlike the logistically straightforward trip, say, of Dante and Virgil in the Divine Comedy, Max’s one is rather a reverse journey of sorts. The world of the dead is obviously not a physical place, and a living person cannot walk in there over a geographical border. We should rather think of it as a mode that replaces for the traveler, with or without her own awareness, the normal mode of living experience. Or in other words, it is not Max taking a road to the otherworld, but her world – the world of Arcadia Bay in this story – being gradually consumed by it.

In this new mode of another realm, miraculous things are possible; and yet they are incompatible with life as we know it. This is why this transition is to conclude in wholesale destruction, which yet does not threaten Max herself. Chloe, too, cannot last in the world of the living. Until the transition to the otherworld is completed, she keeps dying again and again; but the reversal of each death brings the other realm nearer. From this standpoint, it is much easier to understand the bittersweet poignancy of the bond between Max and Chloe. It represents the most profound and mysterious relationship in human life, the relationship to what has been there before and what remains thereafter. By coming together as one in this bond, they overcome that “doing apart” associated with time and the separation of the living from the dead.

Remarkably, their relationship can take an expressly romantic turn only if Max chooses to let Chloe go in the end. She returns to the world of the living and must process what has happened on its terms – and so the whole thing becomes a love affair to her, even if one that’s not meant to be. But if Max turns to the other realm, there is no such thing as fickle and flawed erotic love. To Hannah Telle, the actress who lent her voice to Max and found a bit of her own voice with her, “Their relationship is bigger than that. Bigger than love. Bigger than romantic.” [Telle 2018] But this leads us beyond the possibility of representation to the province of religion rather than art or philosophy.

The other ending brings us back to the scene of Chloe’s death, but in a new capacity. I would call it a meaningful witness: unlike at the beginning of the game, we can now view the scene with full awareness of its significance. This is not a trifle nor a piece of sophistry. Indeed, it happens so often in life that very important things take us unawares, completely unprepared for them. They pass in a moment, but we are left to wonder for years to come what it could have been if we knew, back then, how to handle it. Even if we cannot do anything about what is going to happen, just knowing what exactly is happening makes a great difference. It applies to partings in particular: they would have a sense of closure to them far more often if we could always know it when we see someone for the last time. 

So Max, in this ending, has come to know who Chloe really is, what Chloe means to her, and what she means to Chloe. She has had a chance to say goodbye, and to make up for all the things she felt guilty about. Life is finite, and the moment of parting is inevitable – but this, at least, is a parting at the conclusion, not by interruption of the story. Unlike the mythical tragedy of Rachel Amber, it gives a thoroughly human meaning to the tragedy of Chloe Price. Ashly Burch, who channeled a personal experience of loss through her voiceover portrayal of Chloe, suggested a similar interpretation. [Burch 2016]

Life Is Strange Remastered Collection does not offer new perspectives on this story. It is neither an extension nor an overhaul and only updates the visuals. But like a new printing of a book, it indicates that the story lives on and still matters.

Works Cited

Barbet, Raoul and Koch, Michel. Interview for ‘Life Is Strange’ Director Commentary. YouTube. 2016   Accessed 2 February 2022.

Burch, Ashly. The Boy in the Well. 2017. Accessed 2 February 2022.

Burch, Ashly. Interview for Blackwell Podcast Episode 20. YouTube. 2016.  Accessed 2 February 2022.

Foot, Philippa. Virtues and Vices: and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Claredon Press. 2002

Lien, Tracey. “‘Remember Me‘ creator’s next game looks like ‘Gone Home’ with time travel.” Polygon 2014. l  Accessed February 2, 2022

Okakura, Kakuzō. The Book of Tea. The Project Gutenberg EBook 2008.   Accessed 2 February 2022.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Über den Gebrauch des Chors in der Tragödie in Sämtliche Werke”. Band 2. 1962. Accessed 2 February 2022.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Zürich 1977:,+Arthur/Die+Welt+als+Wille+und+Vorstellung  Accessed 6 December 2021.

Schopenhauer, Arthur. Zur Lehre von der Unzerstörbarkeit unseres wahren Wesens durch den Tod in Parerga und Paralipomena, zweiter Band. Leipzig 1877

Telle, Hannah. “Discussion during a Hailey Hayes Twitch stream (fragment)”. YouTube. 2018.  Accessed 6 December 2021

Wilkins, Calvert, rev. ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. 2 ed. 2000.

Winkler, J.J. and Zeitlin, F., eds. Nothing to Do With Dionysus?: Athenian Drama in Its Social Context. Princeton University Press. 1992