Life is Strange @ Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS and Android
Emoji summary: ⏳🤦🏻♀️📸
TW: Critique of ableism in the game relating to euthanasia
I have to begin this week’s review in fog but please keep moving through the text anyway. Let water droplets land on your temples or your glasses or the backs of your hands as you read. That can be the mood of this review for now - vaguely damp and sad. I’m sorry. These details aren’t all mine to share but I still want to write about how they have imprinted on my body for the sake of what I am going to go on to say. Just, so much has happened over the past few months but below the grand historical drama that ties us all together, my life has been a bit ridiculous. Really, as if there wasn’t enough going on. It’s like I have been living in the world’s longest episode of (scouse) Eastenders. It was fine at times (even when living with my Nan was a lot, it was still loving to help look after her) but the rest of the household was trying, a little criminal. It was all so long and difficult. Living in the same house as somebody with their own issues is hard enough but we were in lockdown together, no end in sight, and so these problems just… existed. Reminded me of my own mild form of water torture, where a stream falls down on the victim’s head and they’re strapped down, unable to turn away. I withdrew so far into bedroom life that I genuinely forgot I could leave of my own accord, that I was a whole adult. I proposed to my boyfriend at the end of June when he came to visit for his birthday - a story for a different time - and after that, I saw another timeline ahead of me. I moved out. I am typing this to you now from a couch across from tall windows that overlook a park in bloom. I keep zoning out between sentences as I write to look at the trees or listen to the white noise that buzzes when the wind rolls through them. I’m pretty exhausted even in this new rented dream; I could fall asleep at any moment, and the thing is, I can if I want to - it is quiet enough here to do the kind of resting where you wake up okay, un-tired. It’s so nice to sit here and type, process everything that’s happened, look at how I’m faring now. It is the first time I have ever lived alone, and writing this feels like closing an umbrella in torrential rain and letting myself be imminent in something new; I am soaked through and at peace in the wet-to-body clothing now that I can see my own shape again. I have myself back, I have my back. And I don’t have all my energy yet but I know it will come when I’m ready.
A dramatic start! But that’s where I was at, and that’s the fog that is still lifting off me now. I can guess at how much worse my head would be if I hadn’t had video games to keep me company when my world shrunk down to one room from fear and stress. I feel very grateful that I had games to play and I want weight there when I say that they helped a lot. Today’s review is actually the last game I finished before I moved out: ‘Life is Strange’ by Dontnod Entertainment. This semi-historical review written in a different house and mood can be my own soft exorcism and some therapy out-loud as a treat, as many texts have been for me in the past.
Life is Strange was released in 5 episodes throughout 2015 and it is a graphic adventure, like a live YA novel you push through as a player. The protagonist Max Caulfield is a hipster high school student who loooves photography and realises at the beginning of the game that she can reverse time. She accidentally witnesses someone get shot and ends up back a few minutes before the event, and so it goes that as a player you have to try and navigate the pressing countdown in a way that means the shooting does not happen again. The girl you save ends up being a childhood friend who looks a lot different now that she’s got blue hair and an attitude; and over the course of the story, you team up to prove to everybody that the shooter, another student at the school, is a bad guy (harder now without that initial shooting happening as proof because… you stopped that). Max also has these premonitions where she’s standing on a cliff overlooking the whole town as it’s about to be eaten by a hurricane; she reckons this must be the near future, and maybe with her new power she can figure out how to stop the storm happening as well. This story packed in a lot though: bullying, suicide, kidnapping, domestic abuse and murder. But… I also thought it was a bit crap.
I enjoyed the time travel mechanic and how it forced little puzzles where you had to speak or act carefully to get what you wanted from a situation. I was also glad to discover that every decision you made changed the direction of the story, and at the end of each chapter you were shown the results of your decisions compared to others players as a whole. But… that was it for me. I did not enjoy spending time in the game’s aesthetic. Not the characters, landscape, story, sound, anything. It was not the one for me. I thought the art style was a bit miserable - like jarg Sims, toned down palette, and bad outfits below plasticine faces. The camera placement over to the right of the character’s shoulder made the whole thing feel janky too, really threw me off. There was a lot of inconsistency with mouths moving when speaking which was distracting. I also found nothing to like about Max herself, she was pretty irritating. And the writing did not help her case: cheesy American slang used in a way that felt random, stark, like the words had been chosen by someone who was definitely not a teenager. Some of the very high intensity moments were undermined, in my opinion, by writing that seemed to be pulled again and again from an English language phrasebook because it was so consistently plain. On top of all that, there was a plot line that really made me wince. Remember that childhood friend, Chloe, well her dad was killed in a road traffic accident years ago and the loss is still something she’s dealing with (badly). Max manages to time travel back and save her dad, but the result of that time-meddling is that Chloe ends up in an accident instead and is made paraplegic. Chloe then quickly asks you, Max, to end her life because she isn’t happy. The player can choose whether or not to hit euthanise. This, as other writers have identified, totally plays into a negative trope wherein non-disabled people assume disabled people would be better off dead, and they can’t believe disabled people might actually want to live. No nuance here whatsoever, it was disappointing and totally unnecessary shock value in a story that is already pretty far out there. That Aston Kutcher film The Butterfly Effect did almost the exact same thing way back when, and the game’s writers have copied their homework without an update on sensitivity, nuance, or agency. Bad move imo.
So no, I did not love this game, and yet I played it anyway from start to finish. I saw a tweet by @pillowfort this morning that read, ‘i didn’t get really into dota 2 in my early 20s because I wanted to play it, I just had a hole in my life which dota 2 could comfortably fill.’ And that’s what this was too. In that house, I was half-heartedly lapping up content and letting it spill down the sides of my mouth so I wasn’t just lying there looking at the ceiling - I was so determined to not become depressed. Even a shitty story that constantly pulled me out of its own fiction because of the writing or art was enough to keep me sane. But I can tell now how I already have more headspace to play and think about games as a form, as gameplay and narrative design, writing, acting, art, and all these things together. I’m about to be in my own new era where I can play and review games with a relatively mental clean slate. Crazy. I wonder sometimes about the chicken and the egg swing between cause and effect, like am I a writer because so much happens in my life for me to wrap words around, or am I always in ‘a situation’ because I attract and manifest it as someone who is looking for things to write about? If there is nothing going on, if I’m happy and healthy, loved, safe, well-fed and rested, what will my writing look like? My health bar is getting back to the green so we’re about to find out.