Games as Art: Life is Strange (SPOILERS)

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This is the first in a new series of videos/essays I’ll be creating called Games as Art, where I’ll be breaking down and analyzing various games that I argue contain just as much artistic integrity as work from any other artform out there, if not more. These essays are by no means reviews, and as such I won’t be discussing pros and cons or where I thought these games might have fallen short. I’ll instead spend these essays analyzing the artistic merit of the chosen games so as to answer the question of what makes them great examples of games as an artform. First up is an episodic 2015 adventure game called Life is Strange, and it’s this game that inspired me to start this series because of just how emotionally impactful I found its approach to narrative delivery to be. Like the greatest story-driven games out there, Life is Strange isn’t just a story that could be told successfully through any medium, it’s a story that’s only so impactful because it takes full advantage of its chosen medium’s biggest strength, and for games that is player identity. Now choice-driven games that draw on the player’s morality and allow a personal connection to the protagonist to emerge aren’t exactly new, but Life is Strange takes the concept of player identity to a level I didn’t realize games had to offer. It’s a tragic, hopeful coming of age story that turns a harsh mirror on the player to draw out intense feelings of loss, adolescence, retrospection and guilt. It does this with such abstract, artistic style that Life is Strange stands out as one of the most memorable and thought-provoking experiences I’ve had not only through video games, but through any medium. And yes, before we go any further, you should know that this video is gonna contain “hella” spoilers. You have been warned.

Back to School

At first glance Life is Strange seems to be your run-of-the-mill decision-based adventure game, in the vein of recent Telltale games like The Walking Dead. You play the role of a high school girl named Max Caulfield, and a lot of the game has you playing through various mundane tasks that a high school girl normally would, such as doodling in class or washing your face in the bathroom. Pretty average stuff for what at first appears to be the videogame equivalent of Degrassi for the Tumblr generation. But after just a few minutes the care put into this game starts to really show through. After exiting your class Max puts in some earbuds and turns on some relaxing indie music, and the game then allows you to wander the halls of the high school where you can examine party posters, talk to classmates, check your locker, or just bask in the pure ambiance of it all. What you quickly realize is that Life is Strange nails the feeling of being an adolescent in high school, and it’s this aspect that dominates the experience of the game as a whole and supplies the gut-wrenching revelations to come with the strong foundation they need to create the most impact. While the true artistic meat of Life is Strange shows through in how its soon-to-be-revealed time travel mechanics fit in with the game’s later chapters, the pervasive nature of the overall high school drama subject matter may be the game’s most obvious artistic achievement.

The strength of the indie film-inspired high school setting and adolescent tone is in large part thanks to how perfectly fitting the music choices and placement feel, but also in the care that the artists put into every aspect of the game, with the exception of some low budget facial animation. Max attends this boarding school so that she can become a photographer, and the motif of photography pervades the story and visuals in many ways, both subtle and obvious. The visual style, for one, at first looks like an emulation of the Telltale style, but upon further inspection reveals how appropriate the art direction in Life is Strange truly is. Edges of the frame feature a subtle-but-effective use of chromatic aberration, depth of field is used to great effect and some truly beautiful uses of light are featured in key dramatic scenes. All of this not only enhances the emotional beats of the story but provides a visual through-line for the game that allows it to feel grounded as a cohesive whole.

“…the pervasive nature of the overall high school drama subject matter may be the game’s most obvious artistic achievement.”

Beyond the ambiance and tone, the big crux of what makes this game such an interesting portal into adolescence is how you interact with the various students at the high school, in addition to various characters outside of the school. You’ll encounter bullies, potential love interests of both genders, abusive parents and depressed friends, among others. Some very heavy topics are tackled through the encounters you personally navigate in this game, such as watching a school react to suicide or talking to a crippled friend who desperately wants to be euthanized, and I was constantly surprised with how maturely these topics were handled, and how personally torn the player is made to feel when confronted with these issues themselves. This whole high school situation was even more impactful to me, as an adult male who’s never had to inhabit the personality of a teenage girl and react to advances from horny teenage boys or confront the bossy cheerleader clique. And along these lines of broadening horizons, Life is Strange also succeeds at shining an empathetic light on the lives of teenage girls in general, a type of people easily dismissed as juvenile and annoying by many. Another part of all of this comes from simply choosing to not interact with certain people, since as Max, you can make this high school experience what you want. If a character is treating you like shit, you can just ignore them from then on unless they instigate something. It’s your coming of age story and you can play it how you like. In short, the interactions with the characters in Life is Strange sell the presence of the player in the game world in a transportive way that I did not expect going in.

Narrative-Driven Mechanics

But to be clear, delivering a compelling high school experience isn’t why I see Life is Strange as a more successful decision-based game than those in recent memory. Rather, it’s because of the way in which the motivation to make this game decision-based plays into the artistic goal of crafting a coming of age story where the players themselves have to ultimately make the decision to accept responsibility for their actions in order to come of age interactively and from the first person perspective, but more on that when we get to the game’s ending. At the start of this journey you’re just a girl who discovers she has time travel powers, a seemingly clever gameplay mechanic that sidesteps the player’s desire to reset the game every time they make a bad call by allowing you to rewind at any time. However, this is where the art side of the game starts to get really interesting. The artistic meat and ingenuity of Life is Strange stems from how the dramatic high school experiences meld into this time travel mechanic in a way that builds and builds until the player’s desires and flaws begin to mirror Max’s desires and flaws.

So let’s back up a bit here. After Max finishes wandering the halls of her school, she enters the girls’ restroom and witnesses her childhood friend Chloe get shot and killed by the school bully. Watching these traumatic events unfold in front of her causes Max’s dormant time-travel powers to awaken, as time is immediately rewound to the classroom scene, where Max and the player begin to grasp the time travel mechanics, which allow rewinding a few minutes of time to change any choices the player may have made and to remedy mistakes, as well as to use knowledge of the future to manipulate conversations to play out in your favor. In other words, the game plays into the power fantasies that so many games offer, and allows you to play God and manipulate the world in your favor. Max of course uses this power to prevent Chloe from dying, which, as you can imagine, is the first flap of the butterfly’s wing towards this reality spiraling out of control. Having saved Chloe allows Chloe to become the second-most important character in the game, and the majority of the story focuses on her relationship with Max, as she is the only one Max tells about her abilities.

Moving past the bathroom incident, the time travel mechanic becomes second nature rather quickly and before you realize it, you find yourself in the habit of relying on this crutch to allow your obsession with crafting perfect outcomes to grow and dominate your experience with the game. If something sad happens, you don’t have to deal with it because you can just rewind time and fix it, and this ties into the core theme of Max’s emotional arc in Life is Strange, which is learning to accept that growing up means sometimes dealing with tragedy instead of relying on a crutch to sidestep the unpleasantness, and in this case that crutch is time travel. What a visionary idea for a game: to tell a coming of age story through a game mechanic that allows the player to fall into the pattern of avoiding the tough things in life at every turn, as a way to force the player to mirror the protagonist who desperately needs to grow up and let go of control. The time travel isn’t just an arbitrary game mechanic to provide the player with a fun time, it’s an artistically-motivated decision that melds player identity and gameplay in a way more seamless than the vast majority of existing games of any genre, and it’s this concept that causes me to view Life is Strange as an impactful work of art that almost never suffers from narrative dissonance, especially as the game’s story begins to come to a close.

Mirrors

Throughout the story Max has been receiving visions of the near future where a gigantic tornado is on collision course with the town the game takes place in. It starts to become fairly obvious towards the end of the game that this tornado is a result of the chaos that Max and the player manipulating time has caused. The first big indication that your time meddling causes serious repercussions occurs when you travel really far back in time to prevent Chloe’s father from dying, and wind up changing almost everything in the town, including turning Chloe into a paraplegic. An incredibly tragic and moving scene takes place where a crippled Chloe begs you to put her out of her misery by turning up her morphine drip, and whether you choose to follow through on this impossibly gut-wrenching decision, Max resets this new timeline to fix these new problems she’s caused and this is the point where the parallels of Max and the player start to become readily apparent.

“…the player’s desires and flaws begin to mirror Max’s desires and flaws.

As we move into the final chapters of the game Max, reality and the player start to become unhinged. Still emotionally shaken from the encounter with a crippled Chloe, Max’s motivation is stepped up a notch after this scene, and, as I’ve said way too many times at this point, the player mirrors this change in character. Having grown attached to Chloe over the course of the game, coming so close to losing her causes you to focus all of your efforts on keeping her alive and preventing your time travel missteps from affecting her, and so the next time she dies, your mental state goes to shit alongside Max. You’ve still got your time travel powers, but you did screw up enough that you’re not sure if you can fix it this time, which causes a lot of stress, and since it’s a game that changes scene-to-scene outcomes based on player choice, you’re even more stressed out from the pressure of hoping you don’t make a mistake or a bad call.

Though you do manage to save Chloe yet again, the fear of your failures continues to permeate the game as you continue forward. This mental breakdown is conveyed through a series of interactive abstract nightmares where Max faces the guilt she’s feeling over the pain she’s caused people. Disturbing elements are used here that really play on the player’s guilt, such as receiving text messages that insult you for decisions you made in timelines you thought you erased. Because in my game I chose to euthanize Chloe, I received a text message from her mom saying that she knows where I am and is gonna make me pay, and I found that incredibly unsettling. Of course, this nightmare does come to an end. As the game enters its climax and the tornado is about to destroy the town, you emerge from the nightmare in one piece, more motivated than ever to use your time travel mastery to the best of your ability to make sure everything turns out perfectly for these characters that you’ve come to know and love over the past 15 hours, especially when it comes to Chloe.

The Eye of the Storm

And that brings us to the ending; the moment in Life is Strange where all the artistic decisions that went into the creation of the game combine with the role that the player has inhabited in one critical moment that absolutely floored me. When you reach the end of the game, Max and the player are presented with one final decision that determines which of two possible endings will be presented. Before the choice it’s revealed that, big surprise, Max’s time travel meddling is what has caused the eco-chaos currently threatening the town with destruction. And while this twist may seem obvious, it’s the deeper levels of player identity that fill this moment with depth. The choice you have to make, specifically, is whether to go back in time to the moment where this all started and refuse to take that first step that began the butterfly effect of the entire story, and that means letting Chloe get shot in the bathroom. The alternate choice is to do nothing so that Chloe survives; to sit there and sacrifice the town and everybody in it. In the binary terms presented by the game, you either sacrifice Chloe or you sacrifice the town. After 15 hours of both the player and Max trying so, so desperately to manipulate every moment to avoid any possible sadness or discomfort — saving Chloe, saving your friends — you’re told that you have to make a massive sacrifice; one that could possibly undo every decision you have made in the entire game. Because of this one-or-the-other choice, many players have expressed a lot of disappointment with the presented endings of this game, but I personally see a lot of these complaints as very surface level and arbitrary when you think about them in the context of what the artistic goal of this game has always been.

Now when I was first presented with this choice I said out loud “Fuck you, game!” I then put my controller down and paced around the room for about 3 minutes. During those 3 minutes I went from thinking that this was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in a game to realizing that there really was only one possible answer. I mentioned that my love for the endings of this game stem from how I feel that they are entirely appropriate for what the artistic goal of Life is Strange has always been, and that is to show the player what it’s like to have access as an adolescent to a crutch that allows you to stay a child and avoid discomfort and tragedy, and then to give you a hard dose of reality where you realize for yourself that it’s time to grow up. That is the real twist of Life is Strange. In more basic terms, I was played. The time travel mechanic was dangled in front of me and I fell for it hook, line and sinker. I saw the opportunity to craft the story into one that was devoid of discomfort, and I took it. The game then slowly drove me insane as I began to lose grasp on my control over it until this climactic moment where it hit me: It’s all my fault for relying on this crutch for happiness and there’s only one solution, and that’s to grow up and learn to deal with tragedy. And so I chose to come of age. I chose to accept responsibility and sacrifice Chloe. Max then travels back in time to the moment where it all started. She sits in the bathroom corner and does nothing while her best friend is killed and it is agonizing, but Max had learned a lot and getting through this tragedy is what she needs to do in order to makes things right and to move on. It was one of the most gutwrenchingly poignant scenes I’ve ever experienced in a videogame, and the funeral scenes that close the game soon afterwards felt beautifully hopeful and equally appropriate to the journey Max went through.

“[The game gives] you a hard dose of reality where you realize for yourself that it’s time to grow up.”

But what about the other possible ending? When I say I love the ending to Life is Strange I don’t mean I love both of them. That’s not to say I think the other ending is bad, rather I think it’s a disappointing ending by design and that the way both endings coexist provides a compelling whole that wouldn’t exist if only one ending was possible. The creators have said multiple times in interviews that neither ending is right or wrong and that they didn’t preference one over the other, and in a way that’s true, but only to a point. While both endings represent an appropriate outcome based on the player’s choice and is more or less canon to the player, I’d argue that one ending works as a reward for the player slash Max learning their lesson, while the other is more or less a punishment for refusing to come of age in this coming of age story. The simplest way to sum up the final choice is I think to say that the player has to choose to either continue to be selfish as they have been for the whole game or to admit fault. The logical conclusion to Max’s coming of age story is to admit fault, or rather to come of age and grow up. This act of growing up is what gives Max her redemption and hopefulness, and by extension, the player’s redemption and hopefulness. If you choose the selfish ending, which sacrifices an entire town and everyone you know and love, the ending will be appropriately guilt-ridden and unsettling. Max now has to live with the guilt of essentially murdering thousands of people so that she could save one friend/lover. That’s not a life where Max is going to feel anything but guilt and disappointment, and likewise, the player will not either. Rewarding the player for making the selfish decision would go completely against the statement the game is trying to make. It’s not a happy ending for anyone, and while this may sound insulting, choosing this ending is proof that you as the player did not learn anything from your abuse of the time travel crutch if you truly thought this ending was going to be anything but disappointing. Or maybe you just said “fuck it, it’s just a game and I’m gonna be selfish for once” but as it turns out, the game held itself to a higher standard than you did, not to mention that if the game actively rewarded you for an act of mass murder, that would be a different subject entirely.

“…the way both endings coexist provides a compelling whole that wouldn’t exist if only one ending was possible.”

Life is Strange is not a game that throws in multiple endings for the sake of filling arbitrary consumer-driven checklists. The creators picked two endings: one that logically shows the outcome of what happens when someone learns their lessons and comes of age, and one that shows what happens when they do not, in a way that essentially punishes the player for refusing to allow Max to complete her journey, and I think that is a powerful statement. Taking it a step further, I could even argue that the satisfying nature of the “sacrifice Chloe” ending sheds a bit of cynical light on these decision-based branching-path games as whole, since the game essentially tries to convince you in a landscape of games all about meaningful choices that your choices actually don’t matter and that the way to grow up is to give up ownership of them. I don’t actually think this was the intent here, especially since Max’s decisions did matter, if not to anyone but herself, but I think it’s an interesting thought, nonetheless.

A Dirty Trick

In a landscape of games trying so desperately to emulate film to the point of ignoring the strengths of their own medium, Life is Strange elevates itself above the crowd through its use of so cleverly mirroring the protagonist’s weaknesses and desires with that of the player’s. It’s a unique usage of manipulation; a game that tries and succeeds at convincing the player to influence the game world, only to tell you that by taking advantage of this power, you are the problem. It’s a dirty trick, for sure, but I’d be lying if I said it was anything but effective. Bolstered by the raw emotion of the relationships created through a breathing world, this slight of hand on the creators’ part transforms what could have been a straight-forward high school drama into something truly special. This game affected me down to my core in ways that no other medium has come close to doing in years, and the fact that it could affect anybody like that I think alone makes it stand out as a great example of why select games should be respected as an art form as valid as any other.

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