Sunday, December 27, 2015

Life Is Strange

Music.
 
"Do you read minds as well, or did you travel back through time and know I stole the chair?"
"It's the power of best friendship. I know how you roll."


Max Caulfield has a super power – time traveling. But more importantly, zie has another super power – mind traveling (mentalization/theory of mind/vibratory telepathy1). This power is the power which makes us all potential "Everyday Heroes", potentially "super", potentially to the max. It is the power with which Max reads the minds of the people in Arcadia Bay, but also the power zie uses to understand all the possibilities that is hirself. It is the power we as players use to understand Max and all the possibilities surrounding the gamespace of Life Is Strange – the power the developers utilized when they filled the world of Arcadia with clues as to what the focal point of the story, a scene, or an exchange should be. It is the power of imagination, introspection, prediction, questioning, of what-ifs, maybies, chance, compassion, empathy, and with it we travel both through space and time. It is the power that enables Max and us to reach out to others, the power which enables Max and us to treasure and value friendship and love and ultimately to form bonds that go beyond death itself. This power is an ability that, like family, binds both ways, and it is what allows my existential tethering to the strange lives of Max and Chloe, and enables your traveling here, dear reader.

At the destination that is Life Is Strange, photography has a prominent and multifaceted role. There, people use photography as a means of expression, and it's a means for us as players to understand the characters, gain insight into the world and its inhabitants and their relationships to one another. It is a means through which we might come to understand others better in some ways than they do themselves, and it is a way through which people express things which they otherwise would not be able to or know how to express. Max's diary was filled with drawings, pictures and words which helped me to take hir perspective and mantle the role of Max Caulfield, photography student. It was the painting through which I could frame Max and the choices zie made, or I made through hir – playing is a two-way mirror. Through me, Max's introspection changed both the (meaning of the) past and the future.
 
Through photography we find out different sides to people, see them in a new angle, or just in hindsight see something which we missed the first time around, making us go "I should have fucking suspected there was something wrong with that guy, just look at his photographs", but then realizing that we didn't in fact blink twice because that shit's just the way things are – both in the world of Life Is Strange and ours.
Photographs are also something which we might remember people by.

In Life Is Strange, the photography is not only something which is looked upon, but something which is used for understanding and presenting oneself, a way of conceptualizing and framing oneself in a broader, social context. Max is shy, insecure, and uses hir powers to gain social leverage – at least I did in my playthrough and that playthrough is my phenomenological reality of Life Is Strange. What kind of pictures does Max take? Self-portraits, or "selfies". One might say that Max hides in plain sight, and zie certainly isn't the only one, being a teenager and all. Max is the typical overly socially conscious high-school kid who knows very well the potential of photography and how it might be used for an array of means – why else would zie take up the study of photography? That pictures can be used for both good and evil is an especially poignant point in the context of what happened in Episode 2 of Life Is Strange to Kate who was drugged and filmed for the whole world to see on the internet, girls-gone-wild-style. In a world where that kind of social stigma can be resurrected with a lazy click of a received link it becomes all the more important to at all times be prepared for the flash, and never forgetting to strike a pose. Then again, if one has the power to turn back time, one might have other ways to deal with embarrassment and a different way of grounding it in ones personal and social narratives.
For my Max it was very important for things to go just the way zie wanted to, exploring different timelines as one might explore different clothing styles, making it second nature to appear more savvy than zie really was. Chloe (hir old-new best friend) on the other hand seemed to live life without regrets, was notoriously reckless and managed to get hirself killed in all five episodes. Incidentally, Chloe is also a total wreck and doesn't even attend Blackwell High after having been kicked out of there. What of hir pictures? They are basically just missing posters of Rachel, the Laura Palmer of the story, of whom we learn more as we see pictures of hir with the most varied of people in contexts we couldn't imagine when starting out, forcing us to constantly re-frame what we think of hir and the people who zie appears with in pictures. Like the Prescott family, Rachel seems to tie in with every aspect of the local community, as zie does with the other events which Life Is Strange centers around and seem to be collapsing upon – The Vortex Club and the End of the World Party, Max's time traveling powers (symbolized by a spiral), the viral video of a drugged Kate gone-wild on the web, the visions of a tornado which destroys Arcadia Bay (the actual end of the world?), and the Everyday Hero Photography contest (its promotional poster has a clear sky in it).
Being a (super) hero is no easy task with all of these things superimposed on top of each-other. It might even become an ordeal to be regular and fit in, or just recognizing and being oneself at all. Things get out of hand soon enough, and in order for Max to get hir happy ending we are forced to expand the scope of our powers and not just settling for rewinding time 30 seconds or so. Eventually Max learns that zie can go back years in time by focusing on the polaroids zie's taken with hir instant camera. Through these we travel to little time pockets of regret, but also to scenes where we share no blame but Max now thinks zie with hir new-found powers has responsibility to correct, such as the case of Chloe's dad dying in a car crash. Accompanying our mastery of time-traveling are more frequent nosebleeds and more intrusive visions of the end of the world, and so we start to suspect that perhaps we can't have our perfect ending after all. We start noticing small cracks that go back to the very first scene in Episode 1 where we are chastised by the popular girl Victoria for not being able to answer a question put forth by the teacher about "the derregiere process". We discover our powers, rewind time, and the very first lesson from this very first rewind is that we get shit anyway, because this time around Victoria thinks we're a know-it-all and has no qualms saying so. Because Life isn't perfect, it's strange, and its inhabitants are too. Even fate seems to have a sense of irony...
 
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There is a lighthouse at the end of the world. It stands erect on a hill overlooking all of Arcadia Bay, in the eye of the tornado which is prognosticated to destroy the world. As such, it is the scene for the bird's eye view, but also the position for the mind's (third) eye. It is the site for self-examination and revelation – for brainstorms. It takes a while for Max to reach there, but zie does. On hir way there, zie goes through a nightmarish vision quest full of different scenarios that are all about assembling data and courage for the gathering storm and the final sacrifice that must be made there. In that vision quest, Max solves puzzles by narrowing data points and focusing on what's important by looking in mirrors, rummaging through the internalized voices of all the residents of Arcadia Bay, hiding from some of them, and getting to see hir and Chloe's friendship's defining moments. Before doing what needs to be done – letting hir best friend die.

Important decisions concerning Max's coming of age besides the final one. It is when out of time-traveling juice that we talk down Kate from jumping off the school roof. And we do. We manage to save Kate as well as the fabric of the universe through non-supernatural means – by knowing when to kick up dust with destiny, and when not to. We didn't win the Everyday Hero competition, in fact we were too busy saving lives. We were too busy doing everyday good deeds for Kate (such as erasing the link to “Kate's video” written on the mirror in the girls bathroom) and others, in a way preparing for the potential tragedy of Kate taking hir own life. Our Max Factor was communication, the power of having shown a big enough interest in people in our vicinity so that we might give solace to them when they need it.
 
The pacing of decision-making in Life Is Strange is out of time as well, and not timed as in similar games, because it's all about deliberation and taking ones time in the sense of preparing. About laying the groundwork. About moments of decision as photographs and echoes of future choices. And perhaps we weren't able to rescue everyone that we wanted to, but our bonds with them were saved by our having shared something special. And through our super powers of mind traveling, we might even ask ourselves just what those we didn't save might be saying to us right now if they were here. We just might even have photographs, or psychometric traces2, of those special moments which we can go back to in time and remember them by. Because the Psychometric Tracer can not only leave impressions of emotions, history and knowledge, the user of this ability contains a smaller, imperfect echo of the entire universe, enabling them to search out paths through probability to any desired future, effectively making it a form of “time-traveling”.

Max gets a plant from hir parents, and it survives to the end only if you water is just enough – not too much, not too little. Some things you can't save no matter how much you water them, and your watering just becomes fuel for a storm of some kind. Sometimes you never even get to see the consequences of your actions, as with Alyssa, the kid you save from incoming projectiles of different kinds in every episode. And that's part of life as well. The more Max time-travels, the more hir power expands the scope of hir vision, the more zie realizes that there are things that zie can't solve. The more real and imagined conflicting perspectives zie tries to take into account, the less zie feels like the master of hir own destiny. It's like power on that kind of a level seems to be constant, and no matter how great your ambition or scope, it all comes back to the lowest level of actions – those in the present. We use our capabilities of prediction to understand others, but there are no certainties as to what the outcome may be. In some time-lines and playthroughs, Kate didn't even survive and what I would have taken away from Life Is Strange would be quite different. But in my world Kate did survive, and afterward zie acknowledges us being both not perfect and good: "You're such a good person, Max. Even if you're full of crap. But I'll come with you... You're my friend." In a way, we are not only Kate's friend but also hir guardian Angel, and Kate is not only our friend but also our guardian Angel for reminding us of this wisdom.
 

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"Goodbye to the children we'll never meet, and the children we left behind".
 
Chloe is the driving force behind the main quest in the Life Is Strange. Max has the powers, but always uses them to protect Chloe and further Chloe's goals. Who gave Max powers? Rachel? The Prescotts? Some old Gods? Arcadia Bay itself? It doesn't matter, all that intellectualizing draws our attention away from the heart of the matter and what really hurts – the fact that we left our best friend and came back to find out that zie had had a really tough time while we were gone. The fact that we promised each-other that we'd always be there for each-other yet weren't. The fact that in our absence Chloe had somehow managed to lose hir childhood but never found out how to grow up.
 
Faced with all of this pain, we did the seemingly responsible thing and tried to make it all up to Chloe, to protect hir. But that decision in the end was grounded in the immature spectrum of emotions, born from pain, as a symptom of denial. Again and again we tried saving Chloe, both from destiny and hirself. Because we wanted to assuage our guilt, because we wanted to make things right. Because we suffered the magical thinking of a child, taking responsibility for everything bad in Chloe's life after we moved out of Arcadia Bay. But we can't take responsibility for the actions of others, that doesn't make us masters of our own destiny. The signs have been everywhere, practically screaming at us, and we know now that we have to leave our best friend – again.
 
In Life Is Strange, people are always-already diary entries – approaching them, they become objects of interaction with their becoming outlined in the style of our notepad sketches. All of the world is already out of time as they are objects in Max's subjectivity, but they are also out of time because everything that takes place has already taken place, making all of Life Is Strange a memento mori. Nor Chloe's nor Max's quest was about saving lives, but about saying goodbyes. For Max, it was about having one final, awesome week as authority-defying teenagers flying in the face of fate itself with our best childhood friend. About getting a short moment as grown-ups together at the lighthouse, immortalized in our being brave in the face of death and inevitability. And in the end when the storm has blown over and our time traveling capabilities are dust in the wind, there are no illusions of grand gestures left, only of the power of friendship, and the reality of both grief and hope in the aftermath of acceptance. And though we've lost something precious to us, we still have the world and all of the people there who we can travel to and with. We still have our mind traveling, and that's hella super.
 
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1Vibratory Telepathy: "By transmitting invisible vibrations through the very air itself, two users of this ability can share thoughts. As a result, Vibratory Telepaths can form emotional bonds much deeper than those possible to other primates." (http://lesswrong.com/lw/ve/mundane_magic/) Mentalization (psychology): the ability to understand the mental state, of oneself or others, that underlies overt behaviour.
2http://lesswrong.com/lw/ve/mundane_magic/

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