The Hypocrisy of Life is Strange - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
5Apr/160

The Hypocrisy of Life is Strange

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

We'll be enough for now, but not alwaysAlex Robinson is, for my money, one of the greatest graphic novel artists of the 21st century.  There's no bad place to start, but the most relevant of his works to this essay is the opening story to one of his issues of Box Office PoisonBOP is a soap opera of sorts, prone to breaking the fourth wall by having its characters answer questions like, "What would you ask God?" and taking detours into the character's histories.  The history that opens this particular issue of BOP (and I'd like to give you the number, but my collection's still packed away) has the cartoonist Jane Pekar address her high school self.  Instead of telling her past self things like, "You're going to be a massive success," or, "Everything will be ok," the elder Jane opts for the truth.  She tells her younger self that things are going to be hard, and she won't always fit in, but if young Jane continues to work through her pain and awkwardness she'll find success on her own level and meet the man of her dreams.

These are painful truths, that even though Jane recognizes as an adult that her teenaged self was a good person, Jane will have to weather more pain before she gets to the good stuff.  Life is Strange (LiS), developed by Dontnod Entertainment, focuses on the pain of being a teenager and still trying to figure out what your place is in the world.  There are clumsy aspects to this, especially as LiS hits its last chapter, but the focus on being a weird teenager ostracized from what you think is "normal" is always the focus of the game.

The brilliant aspect of LiS comes from its central mechanic.  Max, your player character, has the opportunity to rewind time and replay events in her life as they unfold.  This is a play on one of the most common desires of those entering middle-age or going through a rough college era patch - that you could go back in time and tell your high school self everything they'd need to approach life with more confidence.  But LiS, like high school, isn't so simply arranged in a, "Do this and now things'll be swell," mindset.  Instead, LiS constantly reminds the player, through the events of Max's life, that no matter how many "do-overs" you have, life is going to continue on - for better or worse - without you.InterfaceIt's an interesting inversion to the idea of lives in normal video games.  Play enough games of Super Mario Bros., you can memorize each field, and eventually speedrun the game without seeing a decrease in Mario's life count.  But in LiS, you don't have the luxury of knowing in advance how each "field" is going to play out as you can only rewind so far.  Each episode of LiS has points of no return, helpfully illustrated by a butterfly, that set the fates of each character on a set path.   Unless you're playing with a guide open in the next screen (and what's the fun in that?), you're going to end each episode with certain decisions set in code and they'll play out in the subsequent episodes.  It's chaos theory writ small, the flapping of a butterfly's wings in one episode may lead to a football hurting a friend in the next.

Now, with your rewind power, you have the ability to replay the big choices as many times as you want.  But, in another great storytelling move by Dontnod Entertainment, whatever choice you make will be greeted with suspicion by Max.  On the one hand, it's sometimes frustrating that the developers to remind the player that their actions will have consequences.  But for the high school setting, it's a way to remind the player how indecisive and emotionally fraught those times are.  Maybe you're a person who moved through high school with confidence and left with no regrets.  Me?  I was a quiet guy who listened to Incubus and The Poster Children  behind the elevator and mostly wanted to be left alone.

This storytelling and gameplay technique reaches its peak early in the game with the climax to episode 2.  One of your classmates, the falsely slut-shamed Christian sweetheart Kate, stands on the edge of the roof and is about to kill herself.  You aren't able to use your power at this point and the factor that determines whether she jumps or lives stems from your previous actions.  In life and death there are no do-overs, and even with your power you may have created a situation where Kate decides that the long fall to her death is preferable to life with a well-meaning, but potentially inconsequential, friend in her life.  There are other moments where your decision-making affects the plot, but none exemplify the hateful bile of high school gossip like this moment.  I might be alone in thinking this, but two of my best friends committed suicide by the time I was 20.  After their deaths I kept thinking about what I could have done to make their lives more bearable, that living here would be preferable to rolling the dice on what lie beyond.  Maybe it's because of those experiences I was able to intuitively understand the warning signs of Kate's behavior and made the choices which led to her choosing life.Choices choices choicesWhat takes away from that moment is the "powergaming" aspect.  Video games have matured as an art form in leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, but many players don't want to feel bad or consider how unresolved plot-lines express the theme of what they're playing.  If I wanted to, I could have looked up a guide to choose the options which would have led to Kate's survival.  For those looking to "powergame", they could just look up a gameplay guide and see what choices they need to make to avoid having Kate's suicide on their hard-drive.  There might have been ways for Dontnod Entertainment to anticipate this aspect of the player - such as pushing Kate toward death if the big conversations carried with them a long pause from player input to indicate the player is more interested in the "optimal outcome" then they are for Kate's survival.  I didn't know what awaited Kate, and I'm grateful I made the choices I did, but this one moment where your previous choices affect an outcome you can't change prepared me for making other choices in the episodes ahead.

I was aware, consciously at this point, that all of my choices might have an affect down the road.  So I use my rewind power extensively to make sure a confrontation in episode 4 did not end violently.  This undercut the thematic relevance of Max's rewind power because instead of questioning what my choices meant for the moment, like a fidgety teenager might, I feared what my choices would lead to down the road.  In this example I only had one more episode left to play, but this thinking colored each of my choices in the episodes passed 2.  Once I was aware of the effect my actions could have, I was too hesitant to proceed without following what I thought would be the "ideal" route.  After I finished LiS, I looked up a guide, and it seems my caution did lead to the "ideal" route.  I wasn't living life with Max anymore, I was micromanaging, and what appealed to me most - this idea that I'm guiding a teenager at a critical time in their time - was reduced to a series of gameplay choices instead of life-altering decisions.

So what about the aspects of Max's life I couldn't micromanage, the aesthetic elements of LiS?  Those are all sublime.  The photography focus of LiS bleeds into the graphical presentation in a lovely way.  Instead of perfectly rounded polygons, we're treated to a version of the Unreal engine that bleeds shape and color into each other like film photographed with long-exposure.  I was pleased to find out that Jean-Maxime Moris, the creative director of LiS, was inspired by Impressionists for the art style.  The presentation lends itself to Max's viewpoint nicely, as the various inhabitants of Arcadia Bay, from best friend Chloe to her despicable (at first) stepfather David, all have a tinge of softness to them.  Max likes to try to see the good in everyone and the visuals reflect this as well.ScrapbookingMy favorite visual element of LiS is built into the gameplay.  Each episode of LiS has a number of photo opportunities that you can take advantage of to fill into a scrapbook.  This is another powergaming aspect as each of the photographs earns the player another achievement and a filled in spot in the scrapbook.  But this is also a great way tie the game back into the, "What would you tell your high school self?" theme.  Each of the photography opportunities is presented in a sketchy outline, like the rough outline of a memory you have of high school, only to be filled in with a photograph that sort of looks like the sketch.  Put a different way - each of Max's memories looks better as she remembers them, not as they actually were.

While I feel most audiovisual art, cinema in particular, leans more on the visual than the audio I have to admit that the auditory aspects of LiS outshine the visuals.  Again, this is going to be some of my personal bias seeping through, but the soundtrack for LiS perfectly suits someone like Max.  There's just a tinge of electronica with the many acoustic tracks which litter the soundtrack, and they take me back to other high school musical loves Kings of Convenience and Badly Drawn Boy more often than not.  I also loved how the kids were written with their own slang.  Even if, "Go fuck your selfie," isn't exactly the pinnacle of catchphrase writing, it is the sort of awkward expression I would expect adolescents to try out as they develop their voice.

The voice-acting is similarly superb.  I know there might be some folks out there who think Max's performer, Hannah Telle, might sound a bit too world-weary for someone barely into her teens.  To that I say - many adolescents have lived a lifetime you haven't, and if video games are akin to any other art then they present the opportunity to glimpse a bit of ourselves in someone else's shoes.  Speaking as someone who lost their first friend to suicide by the time I was 14, Telle sounds just like someone who has had just enough of life's lessons to hurt her.  The same goes for Dayeanne Hutton's work as Kate, who speaks with a soft lisp and lets her words trail off at the end of each sentence.  With all due respect to Max and Chloe, the duo which formed the true painful core of LiS was Max and Kate.You're not enoughThat brings me to the hypocrisy at the core of the storytelling.  LiS is at its best when guiding Max through typical teenage situations.  The genesis of the hypocrisy is a moment of questionable violence at the end of episode 4, which leads into the nightmare of episode 5, and the conclusion of whether to save the town or your best friend.  The fact that the choice exists at all is a betrayal of sorts to the emotional growth Max goes through in each of the 5 chapters.

Even if you play her as a flighty, or scared, teenager she forms her own identity through her powers instead of being the shy wallflower her schoolmates imagine her to be.  In plot development terms, this means she may lead Kate and other schoolmates to survive the events of LiS, and for gameplay it means that Max's powers extend beyond the immediate past and allow her to take a long-view glance at what effect her meddling has.  So when you're asked to choose whether Max's best friend Chloe lives or dies, it made the story more about what Chloe is letting go than what Max is.  My play through, in particular, already ended with me choosing to kill Chloe as a mercy to her instead of as a sacrificial lamb to the town, so this final choice felt like a lap around familiar ground instead of a pivotal moment in a developing teenager's life.

In fairness, it's the sort of impossible and painfully sentimental decision a teenager might imagine themselves having to make.  But LiS is the expression of adults through the eyes of teenagers, and the growth Max is written to exhibit is undercut by this final choice.  It's a problem many adventure games have in this post-Telltale world.  Morality too often gets reduced to a binary, either you did this thing correctly or you didn't, and your characters are rewarded or suffer accordingly.

Life is strange, but it's not that simple.  Your older self can tell you what you'd gain as you grow older, but you wouldn't be you without the pain along the way.  LiS ends on the fantasy of a girl who gets to choose what way she wants the story to end, and none of us are that lucky.

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Posted by Andrew

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