Sunday, December 27, 2015

Life is Strange


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

Max Caulfield has a super power – time traveling. But more importantly, she 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's the power with which Max reads the minds of the people in Arcadia Bay, but also the power she uses to understand all the possibilities that is herself. It's the power we as players use to understand Max and all the possibilities surrounding the gamespace of Life is Strange. It's 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's 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's 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's 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 people there. A way for us to gain insight into the world and its inhabitants and their relationships to one another. It's a means through which we might come to understand others better in some ways than they do themselves, and it's  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 her perspective and mantle "the role" of Max Caulfield, photography student, teen girl, and a bunch of other descriptors. Max's diary was the picture through which I could frame Max and the choices she made, or I made through her – playing is, after all, 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, a bond beyond death, when they are no longer with us.

In Life is Strange, a photography isn't 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 her powers to gain social leverage – at least I did in my playthrough and that playthrough is my phenomenological reality of Life is Strange and thus the basis for this text. What kind of pictures does Max take? Self-portraits, or "selfies". One might say that Max hides in plain sight, and she 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 she take up the study of it? 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, a girl 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 and the wounds that follow it can be ripped open with a lazy click on 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. No wonder teenagers today are more self-conscious than ever. 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 she wanted to, exploring different timelines as one might explore different clothing styles, making it second nature to appear more savvy than she really was. Chloe (her old-new best friend) on the other hand seemed to live life without regrets, was notoriously reckless and managed to get herself killed in all five episodes, no matter how much Max and I tried to prevent it. Incidentally, Chloe is also a total wreck and doesn't even attend Blackwell High after having been kicked out of there. What of her pictures, then? They are basically just missing posters of Rachel, the Laura Palmer of the story, of whom we learn more as we see pictures of her 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 her and the people who she appears with in said pictures. Like the Prescott family, Rachel seems to tie in with every aspect of the local community, as she 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. Under such circumstances (or indeed all teen circumstances), it might even become an ordeal to be regular and just fit in, or understanding who you are and being yourself. Things get out of hand in Arcadia Bay and Max's world soon enough, and in order for Max to get her happy ending we (think we) are forced to expand the scope of our powers and not just settling for rewinding time 30 seconds in order to get the answer to a question in class right. Eventually Max learns that she can go back years in time by focusing on the polaroids she's taken with her instant camera. Through these we travel to little "time pockets of regret" where Max did something she regrets, but also to scenes which we aren't a party to, share no blame in, but Max now thinks that she with her new-found powers has responsibility to correct anyway, 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, shouldn't, have our perfect ending after all. Not that this stops us in our tracks - our efforts to correct every wrong in life are instead doubled, as are our nosebleeds. We start noticing small cracks in our grand plan, 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". There, we first discovered our powers, rewinded time, and the very first lesson from this very first rewind was that there were consequences even to the smallest of time-travelled changes, and that some things simply couldn't be "fixed". Victorias mind, and her fate, seemed to be fixed - we answered the question correctly and thought we wouldn't be chastised this time around, but we got shit from Victoria anyway, because now Victoria thought we were a know-it-all, and had no qualms telling us so. These cracks exist, because life isn't perfect, it's strange, and its inhabitants are too. And fate, the strangest of them all, seems to have a sense of irony...

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 forecasted to destroy the world. As such, seeing how it's perspective is that of one who has all of creation behind and thus in a way in front of them, it's a place for assuming the bird's eye view, but not only that, but also the best spot for opening the mind's (third) eye and contemplate all that has taken place. It's the site for self-examination and revelation – for brainstorms. It takes a while for Max to reach there, but she does, eventually. On her way there, she 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 at the end of the world. In that vision quest, Max solves puzzles by narrowing data points and focusing on what's important by looking in mirrors. There, Max gets closer to her truth by rummaging through the internalized voices of all the residents of Arcadia Bay, hiding from some of them, and learning from others. Before she reaches the lighthouse, she also gets to see her and Chloe's friendship's defining moments, a reminder of all the good that's been, and all the good she needs to let go of. Before doing what needs to be done – letting her best friend die.


In Life is Strange, there were important decisions concerning Max's coming of age besides the final one at the lighthouse, and other decisions which had nothing to do with the time-traveling that upset the natural order of the universe (as opposed to the mind-traveling which made us grow). It was when we were out of "time-traveling juice" that we talked down Kate from jumping off the school roof. There we managed to save Kate as well as the fabric of the universe, and we did it through non-supernatural means – by knowing when to kick up dust with destiny, and when to accept it. We didn't win the Everyday Hero competition, because we were too busy saving lives, and had to make a choice, and accept the consequences that followed upon it. 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 other people whom we might call friends. Our Max Factor didn't turn out to be the ability to do everything at once, being "outside of time" but communication, the power of having shown a big enough interest in people in our vicinity that we might give solace to them when they needed it, the most important example of this being that we took the time to understand Kate's situation well enough so that we might change her mind concerning suicide.
Speaking of time (do we ever do anything else here?), the pacing of decision-making in Life is Strange is a bit "strange", or "outside of time", which is worth noticing. What I mean by that is that the decision making isn't timed as it is in similar games such as the Telltale ones, because Life is Strange isn't about tension during time, but about deliberation and taking ones time, in the sense of preparing. About laying the groundwork for the future to come. About moments of decision as photographs and echoes of future choices yet, and thus about looking back upon past decisions, revisiting and learning from them. And perhaps we weren't able to rescue everyone that we wanted to, but our bonds with them weren't cut because of that, but instead remained strong, were saved, by our having shared something special together. 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 traces, 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 within themselves, enabling them to search out paths through probability to any desired future, effectively making it a form of “time-traveling”.

At one point in Life is Strange, Max gets a plant from her parents, and it survives to the end only if you water is just enough – not too much, not too little, but manage to strike a balance between the two. 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 her power expands the scope of her vision, and the more she realizes that there are things that she simply can't solve. The more conflicting perspectives she tries to take into account, the less she feels like the master of her own destiny, and the less capable she is of taking good decisions that stem from her own, imperfect self. It's as if power on that kind of Godlike 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 she 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 her Guardian Angel, and Kate is not only our friend but also our Guardian Angel for reminding us that we aren't Gods, nor ever will be, but that we are in it together, for good or worse, and that that is (just) enough.

"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 she 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 her childhood, but never found a way to grow up.
Faced with all of this pain and regret, we did the seemingly responsible thing and tried to make it all up to Chloe, to protect her. But that decision (we realized just in the nick of time) was grounded in the insecurity of the girl that was Max, a decision born from pain, denial, and immaturityl. Again and again we tried saving Chloe, both from destiny and herself. Because we wanted to assuage our guilt. Because we wanted to make things right. Because we suffered from the magical thinking of a child, taking responsibility for everything bad in Chloe's life after we moved out of Arcadia Bay. But growing up, we realize that we can't take responsibility for the actions of others - that doesn't make us masters of our destiny, and in fact makes it harder for us to take responsibility for that which is ours to own up to. The signs concerning Chloes undeniable fate have been everywhere, practically screaming at us, and standing by the lighthouse with Chloe and looking her in the eyes, we know now, at last, what we have to do, which is leave our best friend – again. First we get the chance know them, and when we come to love them, life demands that we let them go. I told you - fate is the strangest of them all...

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 non-corporeal objects in Max's subjectivity, but they are also out of time because the central conceit of Life is Strange - that we can save Chloe if we just play good enough - isn't a possibility, making all of Life is Strange a picture rather than a movie - a memento mori where the challenge lies in letting go, rather than winning, and accepting the passing of Chloe, rather than passing some sort of skill test or trying to "game the system". Nor Chloe's nor Max's quest was ever primarily 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 her best childhood friend. About getting a short moment as almost grown-ups together at the lighthouse, immortalized in them 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 but dust in the wind, there are no illusions of grand gestures left, only the power of friendship, and the reality of both grief, and hope, in the aftermath of death. 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 since we're still technically teenagers - kick up some dust with. We still have our mind traveling which we can visit Chloe with, and that's hella super. It just took us having been gifted with supernatural super powers and then losing them, to make us understand that. Ironic, isn't it?



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." ( Mentalization (psychology): the ability to understand the mental state, of oneself or others, that underlies overt behaviour.


Special thanks to Geek Remix for their wonderful contribution to the Life is Strange community in the form of critical videos filled with astute observations which helped me to better understand and appreciate the artistic merits of Life is Strange.


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