What Button Do I Press To Be Happy?
On Life Is Strange Episode 5 and Queer Representation in Videogames
This article includes spoilers for the finale of Life is Strange. It also contains mentions of suicide, mental illness, transmisogyny, and trauma. As always, this is just my own personal view and experience of Life is Strange. Despite the position I take in this article, it’s a very good game and deserves nuance, so if you’d like to play it, please do! Take care of yourselves!
If you don’t mind spoiling the ending of Life is Strange, keep reading past this sleepy puppy!
It was 4 in the morning. Tears streamed down my face as Chloe made her final plea to Max Caulfield. “No… no c’mon, not again. Fuck you,” I muttered as I lay my head in my hands, defeat finally setting in.
I had work the next morning, but I had been waiting for months to see how this game ends. A little sleep deprivation seemed like a small price to pay for powering through one of my favorite narrative-driven series to date. In retrospect, I really should have played this game with a clearer head, and maybe on a sunnier day.
“How can you expect me to make a choice like this?” I stammered, looking back up to see that the final choice was indeed between saving Arcadia Bay from destruction and keeping Chloe alive. An impossible choice, but one I already knew the answer to.
And I chose the wrong answer.
To explain a little more clearly, Life is Strange has two endings. Both endings are predicated on Max’s time traveling powers, and how traveling through time so often may have caused a catastrophically huge natural disaster to ravage all of Arcadia Bay (to reinstate balance??? Who even knows). The events of the last episode cause her to make large leaps forward and backward in time to try and find the perfect timeline, where Mr. Jefferson doesn’t kill Max, where Max’s friends don’t die, and most importantly, where Chloe survives every attempt on her life.
The two endings revolve around the knowledge that Chloe is somehow destined to die, as she is killed in every single timeline you play through up til this point. You can either continue the timeline with the Vortex Bent On Destroying Arcadia Bay, or you can reset everything and let Chloe die back when Nathan first shot her in part 1. (Nevermind that such a large leap back in time would just fuck up the fabric of time even more and cause an even bigger Vortex to destroy Arcadia Bay)
The first ending — the one where you “save” Chloe — is ostensibly the wrong answer: not only is the town destroyed, but the game is reluctant to even play out that scenario at all, which is weird considering it’s a game about time travel and alternate realities. It shows a short clip of Chloe and Max driving through the wreckage of Arcadia Bay, knowing that everyone they loved in that town is now dead. Only they survived, and one can only imagine the trauma of knowing You Could Have Fucking Stopped This.
The second ending — the one where you sacrifice Chloe to save Arcadia Bay — is the correct answer. Max cries as the argument plays out just like before. Chloe is shot dead, without any knowledge of Max, their recent adventures, or their relationship throughout Life is Strange. Chloe’s death is the loneliest one can imagine: abrupt, without friends and lovers, in a grimy bathroom of the high school she dropped out of.
There’s a tear-jerky funeral scene where Max realizes the true meaning of death, how empty and awful it is, and how this should reflect on the player’s want to control every situation. The creators seem to be saying, “You cannot control everything, death comes for us all, etc.”
The endings have definitely had a polarizing effect on Life is Strange’s players. Some folks think that the endings reinforce the idea that games can and should be a space where you challenge player control, a la Spec Ops: The Line. Others are justifiably angry that the game succumbs to the Bury Your Gays trope in a game that caters to queer people. Neither approach is wrong, mind!
Now, rewind. 4 am again. Defeated.
The only thing I could think of when I went back and played the True Ending of Life is Strange was, “I want someone to please tell me that I’m going to live. Someone please tell me this isn’t how we all die. Someone please tell me we can be happy.
Someone tell me I deserve to live.”
I’ve been suicidal for a very long time. Mental illness makes it very difficult for me to function neurotypically on most days. I’m a trans woman, and living against a transmisogynistic society is hell. Traumatic experiences in my past make it hard for me to be romantically involved with people.
And let me tell you, it’s not subversive or new to be told that I can’t have control over my own life.
In almost all media, we see these stories that try to tackle being gay and trans and queer. And it’s almost never the whole story, or even the most interesting parts. To them, we have these tumultuous existences permeated by hurt and hatred. They’re not completely wrong, but laser focusing on this part of our experiences without having any grasp of what makes us so mundane creates a negative feedback loop where we only see the bad stuff. And then we internalize the bad stuff, and reproduce it. We take what we can get, but sometimes we don’t realize that what we get is what we’ve always gotten.
Happy Endings happen in games like Gone Home or Undertale, and while I’m eternally grateful to the altgames and indie creators that do their best to tell their own stories, this continues to happen in the AAA sphere. This is probably because most AAA teams don’t even consider hiring on a narrative consultant who has these experiences (and even if they do, taking that consultant seriously is another beast entirely).
Life is Strange not only expects that you’ll play gay, but leans into it so much in part 5 that it’s almost impossible to see it any other way. Max Caulfield acts as the player’s desire to keep Chloe alive, even if it’s only delaying a foregone conclusion. All the men you’ve met along the way turn into the worst versions of themselves in a diorama-like structure filled with junked cars and pool lockers from previous episodes. Chloe is built up in a shrine of your own making in a similar fashion, with set-pieces of all your adventures spotlit as you pass them on your way back to reality. Is it queerbaiting if it’s so explicitly shown? (It can be)
Personally, I identify more with Chloe than Max. Not because of her situation (or the teal hair and tattoos), but because of how the narrative treats her. She’s not just a damsel, she’s The Damsel, Our Lady of Punk Rock, Chloe Price. She’s flashy, she’s sharp-tongued, she’s empathetic where it counts. She’s your childhood crush you didn’t know you were allowed to crush on. She also has no agency.
No matter what Chloe does or says, the narrative has it out for her. She’s too queer to live. Sometimes, that’s what it feels like to live as a trans woman: to feel like your very existence is challenging someone each and every day. To feel like at any moment, the narrator will pass to someone new, someone that wants to make you into another tragic deceased trans woman. Killed before her time. Tragic.
So, is it so much to ask for a conclusion that doesn’t necessitate death or traumatic experiences to queer and queercoded characters?
During the correct ending of Life is Strange, Chloe kisses Max.
Rewind. She pulls you in as the squall threatens to drag you off your feet. You kiss, and the tears won’t stop now. Her presence drowns out the lashing wind and the pouring rain. It’s the last time you’ll be able to hold her like this. It’s not satisfying, it’s not romantic, it’s Goodbye, Sorry It Had To Be This Way, I’ll Miss You Too.
The morning after, I feel sick and wrong. A feeling settles into the pit of my stomach, something I can only describe as You Don’t Know You’re Panicking Yet. I check my watch, and I’m late. I crawl back into bed, and start to lose it. You can’t be happy, my brain repeats over and over. You can’t be happy.
It feels wrong to want to be happy.
Life is Strange taunts you with its dying breath. It gives you a budding, healthy queer relationship in the middle of an actual, honest-to-gods shitstorm and asks you how much you’d be willing to sacrifice to save the woman you love. It wants you to want to win.
But tonight, I don’t care about winning. Please just let me be happy.
What button do I press to be happy?