I turned 18 in 2013, so did Life is Strange's Max Caulfield.
Max Caulfield and I are the same age. When you first check Max’s phone in Life is Strange, you can read texts from her parents wishing her a happy 18th birthday. A quick glance at Max’s journal and you notice the year is 2013.
I turned 18 in 2013. I legally became an adult, gained the right to vote, and started my senior year of high school. So did Max. It’s a strange sensation to be peers with a video game character, especially in a game full of references to real-life movies, books, and music. Max and I both watched Primer (and were confused out of our minds), read Ray Bradbury, and listened to Alt-J. I started wondering what else we had in common.
One thing, I guess, is that we both had vague memories of 9/11. We can’t remember a time when airports didn’t have security checks. We watched Obama’s inauguration live in an eighth grade classroom, our teachers emphasizing how historic the moment was.
Since the release of its first episode last January, Life is Strange has elicited some strong emotional reactions from its players. Seriously, just a take a look at this subreddit if you want an example of a fervent, borderline obsessive fanbase. The game is filled with emotionally trying set pieces, though none of those moments would land if Max Caulfield wasn’t a believable, well-rounded protagonist. For me, Life is Strange captures interiority better than any other game that I’ve played. Over the course of five episodes, I was inside someone else’s head.
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A quick recap. Budding photographer Max attends a prestigious art school in Oregon, where one day she inexplicably gains the ability to rewind time after witnessing a girl’s murder in the school bathroom, saving the girl’s life in the process. That girl turns out to be her former best friend, Chloe, and the majority of the game follows the course of their rekindled friendship (and possible romance, if you choose to go that route).
If you’ve played a Telltale adventure game in the past few years -- the kind in which you interact primarily through dialogue choices and every so often make a big, story-changing decision -- then you’ve basically played Life is Strange. That is except for one crucial distinction: after every decision, you can rewind and choose the other options. It’s basically save-scumming, except built right into the game.
There’s the occasional puzzle to solve, but otherwise, Life is Strange primarily focuses on its story and characters. Reception of the game’s writing quality has been decidedly mixed. A common complaint is that the game’s teenage slang often feels forced -- too many “hellas” and “are you cereal” and what have you. One review for The Mary Sue noted that “in the game’s worst moments, it becomes glaringly obvious that a group of older white men wrote this game” (Maddy Meyers, “Review: Life Is Strange Episode 4 — On Soap Operas, Glurge, and Unreal Stakes“, The Mary Sue, 20 August 2015). As it turns out, the script was originally written in French (the developers, Dontnod Entertainment, are based in Paris), and then translated into English by an American named Christian Divine.
So yes, there are plenty of moments where the writing perhaps leans too heavily on “teen ‘tude,” which is an actual phrase that a character actually says in the game. Yet, Max still felt real to me. She’s a bit quiet, maybe too quiet for her own good. She tries to do the right thing, yet doesn’t always know what that looks like. She doesn’t want to hurt people, but ends up hurting people anyway. In other words, she’s an 18-year-old.
One analysis that I read claims that Max “has to act as a cipher for the player so pretty much all prickly personality traits get sanded off in favor of a more broad character arc,” though I’d disagree (Chris Franklin, “Life is Strange (Spoilers)”, Errant Signal, 19 January 2016). Sure, you get to make decisions for Max, but she still possesses a degree of agency. For example, consider how texting works in the game. The player selects a contact, and Max automatically composes the responses independent of the player.
Max also has the ability to assert herself even when the player decides for her. In Episode 2, Max’s friend Warren asks if she wants to go the movies with him. Warren has a very obvious crush on Max, a crush that she doesn’t entirely reciprocate. I decided to say yes anyway. Later on, I checked Max’s journal, where she expressed trepidation about “her” decision and called Warren her “supercool geek brother.”
But even though I didn’t completely control Max, I still identified with her, simply due to the sheer quantity of writing in the game from Max’s point of view. After every major event, Max will update her journal, recapping and commenting on the sequence that you just played. Her journal is over 70 pages long by the end of the game. Then there are Max’s texts, all her dialogue options, and most of all, her internal monologue.
I’m not the first person to compare Life is Strange to Gone Home -- one article called the game “Gone Home with time travel” (Tracey Lien, “Remember Me Creator's Next Game Looks Like Gone Home with Time Travel“, Polygon, 14 August 2014) -- as you spend a lot of time picking up and looking at objects. But in Life is Strange, you can look at pretty much anything: people, animals, posters, pregnancy tests, whatever, and accompanying each item that you look at is a bit of commentary from Max. Sometimes she makes a witty (or not so witty) quip, and sometimes she reflects on recent events. Whatever it is that she observes, you end up learning something about Max when you look at something else. She’s the kind of person who prefers to observe from a distance. She spends a lot of time in her head.
* * *
Max is 21 now. She graduated from high school a few years ago, but I bet it feels longer than it actually is. Sometimes I wonder what she’d be doing now. Maybe she’s a successful photographer or maybe she’s still trying to break in. Maybe she’s in college -- some sort of art school, perhaps -- or maybe she moved back home, or moved as far away from home as she could.
I wonder if she still keeps a journal. I wonder if she’s still traumatized as a result of everything that’s happened to her.
I wish her the best.