Spoiler Warning: This article is best saved until you have played through all five Episodes of Life Is Strange, as it discusses characters and events from all throughout the game. If you’re curious about the phenomenon but are unlikely to play the games, feel free to read on. Otherwise, please spend a few evenings playing our unequivocal Game of the Year, and come back and read the series when you’re done!
In this first longread article series, launching Dubious Ideas, AJ takes us on a critical commentary deep-dive into Life Is Strange, a five-part, episodic and choice-rich adventure game from Parisian developers DONTNOD.
Having accidentally grown into a 47K book by mistake, we’ll be splitting this into six parts over the next week, to save both bandwidth and sanity.
Each of Life Is Strange‘s two-to-three hour chapters, released on a roughly six-weekly basis across the course of 2015, unspools more of a time-travelling mystery of missing persons, murder, and photographic perversion, while encouraging its players to invest deeply in the personal lives of two reunited childhood friends; aspiring photographer Max and rebellious punker Chloe.
While the warm, soothing tones of Syd Matters’ instrumental soundtrack lull players into a false sense of security, Life Is Strange does more than telegraph the darkness it contains – it embraces it from the start.
As the game begins, we take control of Max as she struggles through a tempestuous storm towards Arcadia Bay’s iconic lighthouse; a scene we will return to across the course of the game, finding new resonance – and ultimately, resolution – with every subtly altered repeat.
While an unnatural tornado swirls around her, Max catches her first glimpse of the ghostly doe, her spirit animal, an apparation that may or may not be the spirit of the missing Rachel Amber, a girl who, like her resinous surname, always felt trapped by Arcadia Bay, and was finally entombed in it.
But the inciting incident for the series, and our first major shock, is witnessing Max’s former best friend Chloe being shot in the gut in a high school bathroom and bleeding to death on the tiles – before Max is granted the power to rewind time and prevent this horrific event from occurring.
That the series then takes extended detours into cute sketches on the school lawn, humorous lab experiments, shooting the shit in Chloe’s bedroom, shooting bottles in a junkyard… It’s all just the developers’ way of lulling players into thinking that the darkness we glimpsed could never come to pass.
By focusing on Max’s ability to rewind time in the short term – and becoming, like the rescued, resurrected Chloe, high on the potential of her powers – we quickly lose sight of an apocalyptic future we’ve already seen occur.
Chloe’s oft-buoyant presence, too, obscures the tragedy to come, even as it prefigures it. But there’s nothing we can do – beyond quitting the game at a personal moment of personalised perfection, at our idealised status quo – to stop the future from coming.
There’s a storm on the way, and terrible things happen in Arcadia when it rains.
Before that storm arrives, of course, we have a sleepy slice of smalltown America to explore, secrets to uncover, murder mysteries to solve, photos to take – and a best friend with which to reacquaint ourselves.
Over the course of the game, Life Is Strange’s characters, born from teen drama archetypes, reveal themselves to be just as three-dimensional as the game’s rendering engine. Each new interaction scrapes away more of the archetype to reveal the conflicted human beneath.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the game’s two leads – Maxine ‘Max’ Caulfield, the polaroid-snapping protagonist and the player’s alter ego, and Chloe Price, the cyan-haired punk best friend that Max hasn’t seen in five years.
Suddenly gifted with the miraculous (and never-explained) ability to rewind time in short bursts and change her actions in the revised past, Max otherwise presents – and sees – herself as an inoffensive wallflower.
When we first drop in on the game, she is being lectured (by the game’s ultimate villain, no less; the sleazily-goateed hipster-teacher Mark Jefferson), sitting in the back of the class – observing, not participating; contributing only when forced.
Similarly, as soon as that class is over, in go the earbuds and up comes the music, in the credits sequence of the first Episode, a tour de force of restraint.
As we direct Max down the school corridor, to the sounds of Syd Matters’ ‘To All of You’, it quickly becomes clear, from Max’s internal commentary on everyone around her, that, though she is shy, she is keenly observant, warm in her criticisms, and invested in the individuals and relationships of those around her, even as she stands at one remove.
“I feel like a groupie when I talk to Chloe about our life experience… she has me so beat. I take pictures, she takes action.”
Her journey through the game, then, is from inaction to agency, from seeing the world through a viewfinder – watching and documenting, but never taking part – to tearing up her most beloved photographs and making the hardest of choices; to get involved, to pick a direction, a future – even a universe.
Max’s personality, and the game’s central mechanic, that of rewinding time, combine to make the perfect adventure game protagonist: someone both at home and ill-at-ease in any and every space. Able to size up anyone and investigate any location without feeling entitled or required to play a part in the drama they contain, Max’s ‘measure twice, cut once’ personality both excuses and encompasses the adventure game trope of interrogating all the objects and people in a given area, taking an unhurried pace at all but the most time-sensitive moments of crisis.
Max’s development towards the finale, becoming more confident in her abilities and choices, even as they are tested in ever-more novel and horrific ways, mirrors our development as players. From people with no knowledge of the game’s world, characters or systems, to players equipped with everything we need to address the game’s final, binary decision, Max’s growing maturity is reflected in our own.
And when it comes to Max’s unique ability: who hasn’t wanted to rehearse or rewind a difficult conversation at some point in our lives? That longing, that universal question, is the formative seed from which the whole game springs; the game’s themes, challenges, characters and setting oscillate around that central desire.
The eternally curious but hesitant Max – and through her, us – is granted a safety net that allows her to try different approaches to the people she wishes to charm or befriend. And, though an element of her subconscious calls her out on the potentially dark and manipulative side of such behaviour in Episode 5, for the most part Max’s desire to befriend and help comes from an honest place.
No-one to whom Max confesses her abilities (and there are only two: Chloe and Warren) questions their existence, or Max’s sanity. While Chloe needs a diner brunch’s worth of evidence, she doesn’t doubt her friend, and – again in the diner, this time at the end of all things – Warren needs even less:
“Whoah-ho-ho, is that all?” – WARREN
Even Max only doubts her sanity for a fraction of the first Episode:
“I did it – I actually did it. I’m a human time machine. I know I’m not dreaming this. It’s real.” – MAX
Part of this is because the rewinding of time is the game’s key mechanic, and requires enough of a suspension of disbelief for players without questioning its legitimacy at the same time as its parameters are being established and learned.
As numerous writers of SF have noted, mass market audiences will accept one big, central, ‘What If?’ that forms the basis of a coherent secondary world, but for each additional ‘big ask’ that deviates from the norm – or that renders the central point of divergence from our universe somewhat ambigious– the more suspension of disbelief is required.
Time travel exists in the world of Life Is Strange, and it’s Max’s response to and use of that ability that forms the backbone of the story – the game is not designed to interrogate her sanity. Her subconscious still has questions, certainly, as we see in the extended hallucinatory sequence in the final Episode, but that sequence is an emotional interrogation that tests Max’s heart and resolve, not a last-minute twist that undermines Max’s mental acuity, or the parameters of her powers as they have been gradually established.
The other part – as we’ll explore in the game’s use of language, and the consistency between Max’s inner and outer voices – is that Max is the eye of the hurricane, around which the game orbits. She is our safe space and solid ground. Even as she becomes emotionally unmoored, the constancy of her character is something to cling to when the world goes mad.
And, of course, we players have quite enough to deal with without worrying about an “It was all a dream!” demolishing five Episodes worth of goodwill.
That’s not to say that Life Is Strange contains no portrayals of mental illness – quite the opposite. It tackles the cultural and human prevalence head-on, in a variety of contexts, and to varying degrees of success.
Chloe is depressed. Kate is suicidal. David Madsen may have PTSD, and is certainly struggling to adjust to civilian life. (It’s never made clear who has been prescribed the Fluoxetine in Chloe’s bathroom cabinet) Nathan needs to be heavily medicated to function. Principal Wells is battling alcoholism. Samuel is definitely on a spectrum somewhere. Jefferson is a psychopath.
If Life Is Strange does anything right, it’s to show that mental illness is all around us, and that, in and of itself, it is not something to be feared or shunned.
Being mentally ill isn’t a shortcut for being ‘evil’, or ‘wrong’, or ‘broken’ in the game, at least not in isolation. Jefferson, certainly, is all of those things, and Nathan’s heavily-medicated self is abused and manipulated most horribly – but by not being the only characters with mental illness, they become individuals, not stereotyped representations of ‘the mentally ill’ as an anonymous, criminal bloc. In fact, the game goes out of its way to show that everybody at Blackwell Academy is dealing with something just below the surface. Even Warren’s barely-repressed rage, expressed in the fight with Nathan, could be counted as an example.
Some of the few ‘deleted scenes’ that still exist in the game code as it was shipped to players are worth mentioning here – in the form of segments of audio that are still recoverable, even without the attendant visuals that would have accompanied them. It appears that at one point, the question of mental illness and its relationship to the oncoming temporal storm would have been much more central than it is in the playable version of the game. This brief snippet, recorded for Nathan in Episode 3, just after he takes the above beating from Warren, is particularly illuminating:
“I saw it… [laughs] I saw it, the storm. Everybody’s waiting for the storm. The storm is coming! Oh, you’re all gonna die! I see you, I see all of you, and you’re all gonna die!”
There are still a few characters in the game as released that suggest they know more – or see more – about what Max is doing, and its effects on Arcadia Bay, than they ‘should’.
We’ll discuss the cryptic-yet-specific utterances of Samuel, and the mutterings of the unnamed Homeless Woman outside the Diner, in due course, but the developers seem to have walked back this specificity – that those with some form of mental illness were able to either glimpse the future, or be aware of the changes that Max was visiting on the timeline – in favour of a more ambiguous and open-to-interpretation stance.
Whether they felt there wasn’t enough time to do the idea justice, that it cheapened the increasingly-nuanced portrayals of mental illness, or felt that the story played better in the minds of players with fewer answers, we don’t yet know.
The latter explanation does follow a pattern that we as media consumers are increasingly aware of – that of expository details being removed at the production (rather than the script) stage of movies, TV shows and games. While shows like The Sopranos end on a scripted moment of ambiguity, films like Prometheus have had scripted explanations hacked out at the editing stage in order to create additional ambiguity, unintended when written, to encourage audience discussion and debate – a choice that arguably backfired on the Prometheus team, though far from its only flaw.
Even Donnie Darko, a movie whose cultural influence is keenly felt on Life Is Strange, stripped back the exposition on its theatrical release, creating a surreal and atmospheric period piece out of what is a superhero origin story as much as it is a time travel tragedy. Whether as a result of budgetary constraints (as demonstrated by the fuller, and yet less satisfying, Director’s Cut) or not, the ambiguity generated much of what was great about the film.
Max herself isn’t suffering from anything in particular, beyond being slightly social awkward and a little too nosy for her own good, but it’s worth unpicking Max’s self-described ‘mousiness’.
“I like Chloe’s new hair colour. She’s the opposite of shy – of me.” – MAX
Max is not just a blank slate for the player to project themselves onto and into, though there’s certainly an element of that to her characterization, as there is for many videogame protagonists. Too nebulous a personality, and players never glom onto their avatar. Too much personality, particularly in a choice-based narrative such as this one, and the player feels squeezed out of the story they’re playing.
Having spoken to a number of writers in the videogames industry, particularly those working in roleplaying or choice-based adventure games, where player choices drive the narrative, and where such choices can be wildly divergent, principal characters must trend towards the mean, to the ‘beige’. If a character’s responses are too extreme, the player can quickly be pulled out of the game by personality whiplash – the feeling that their avatar is oscillating between extremes, even within scenes. For player characters to feel fluid, natural, and coherent, they must be written in such a way that any choice, or combination of choices, feels like an expression and extension of all that has gone before.
Such writing can often result in lead characters who feel less colourful than those around them – but equally, that can be a deliberate choice: to throw the focus onto the characters who can be interrogated and entered into dialogue with. We have the whole game to spend in our avatar’s company; we need compelling reasons to discover more about the characters around her.
For Max, her ‘mousiness’ is just the beginning of her journey, in many ways as much a pose as Chloe’s blue hair and sleeve tattoo; a way of projecting her character and choosing her own position in the world. She’s aware of her look, and what it signifies, and she’s aware that society and her peers think she should be being more adventurous. Even before she arrives at the Academy, she is speculating, as all students do, on using the opportunity to make a clean break with her current self:
“Nobody will know me except for Chloe, and who knows how different we are now. So I can cut my hair, get a tat and some piercings… maybe date a cute foreign exchange artiste from Paris or Rome. I can do anything.” – MAX’S DIARY
That passage doesn’t just foreshadow Chloe’s own makeover, it reveals Max’s current look as a conscious choice: she’s thought about going punk and rejected it. “It’s not exactly Pretty in Pink, but no shits are given. I like my wardrobe,” she tells herself; a later exchange with Chloe forces her to defend her choices out loud:
“Max, you don’t have a style.” – CHLOE
“You suck. I like my shirt and jeans.” – MAX
Just because she chooses to sit towards the back of the class doesn’t mean Max lacks bravery, intelligence, or fire when the moment calls for it. But she’s come to Blackwell Academy to learn. Full self-expression is something she’s only beginning to explore.
That’s not to say she doesn’t wish she was in with the popular set, just that she’s not willing to compromise her essential personality in order to fit in with them. Her rewind powers, when they kick in, offer a way to lubricate the social contract, or to exploit any knowledge she gains for extreme personal gain, but Max’s quintessential reserve keeps wild abuses of her abilities in check.
The game offers Max multiple opportunities to both walk in the shoes of others to develop empathy for their positions – whether it’s as Rachel in reality, or as Victoria in the realm of her nightmares – each offering her a chance to both define herself in opposition to these other young women, and to take elements of their looks and characters as her own.
Though Max protests, “Uh… I’m not big on cosplay,” her outfits are one key to her character. “Maybe I’ll just put on a shirt and jeans,” she notes in Episode 2. “Hey, Einstein had the exact same suit for every day of the week, and he couldn’t even reverse time.” But even the shirt and jeans carry deeper meanings.
At the most simple level, her various t-shirts allow us to calibrate where we are in the timeline – the soft pinks and deer icons of the start of the week progressing to more punky, dark, and skeletally-decorated shirts by its end. Without losing her ‘Maxness’, the developers use progressively darker colours to reflect Max’s mental weariness, and the accumulation of the darkness with which she has had to wrestle in order to succeed.
This ‘Luke Skywalker’ approach to dress code is particularly apparent in the Diner at the End of the World sequence in Episode 5, when torrential rainstorms leave Max’s clothing and hair completely sodden. Even without popping back to her dorm to goth it up, the weather wreathes her wardrobe in sadness.
Coupled with the three-bullet necklace she has the opportunity to rescue from the Dark Room, and Chloe’s extended absence in this part of the timeline, this is the closest Max comes to embodying her friend – and both the internalizing of Chloe and the darkness of her outfit foreshadow the ending in which Max can sacrifice Chloe in exchange for the town’s survival. (The next time we can see Max in black is also the first time we see her in a dress – on the lighthouse clifftop, before Chloe’s funeral, this time with the three bullets swapped out for a necklace of a doe).
It’s not just Chloe that Max internalizes through her clothes – a most notable part of Episode 3 is when she escapes her comfort zone to ‘cosplay’ as Rachel Amber. When her own clothes are too chlorine-soaked to wear, Chloe dresses Max in some left-behind clothes that just-about fit. It’s a sequence as cute (an uncomfortable, “Shaka-bra!”) as it is troubling: Chloe is here subconsciously trying to resurrect her missing friend, conflating Max and Rachel and fully seeing neither.
The cosplay goes beyond the clothes and a few bad jokes, of course – it’s imposture enough to fool Nathan, at least out of the corner of his eye. Chloe’s mother, Joyce, is also startled into a nostalgic reverie by Max’s manner of dress, and David and Frank both have cutting and unflattering comparisons to make:
“Is that your Rachel Amber Halloween costume?” – DAVID
“She looks beautiful in them, and you just look like ass.” – FRANK
Max walks enough in Rachel’s shoes to know she doesn’t belong in them, but gains a newfound confidence in her own sartorial choices – and her place in Chloe’s life. Chloe is also forced to confront the fact that Rachel may be gone forever, and that she cannot mould Max into the friend she has lost.
In the alternate timeline in the Episode that follows, in which Chloe is paralysed, Max has somehow parlayed her way into part of the popular set. In this reality, her wardrobe takes on a bland, cardiganed preppiness that makes her look simultaneously older and even more out of place.
It’s perhaps tiresome to think that a t-shirt with a custom print on it is somehow more ‘individual’ or ‘free’ than a colour-neutral cardigan, but they are markers of age, class, occupation and social status nonetheless. The preppy group dress for the jobs in consultancy, marketing, advertising and banking they will inevitably fall upwards into after graduation. This change in attire suggests Max has had to sacrifice some part of herself in order to fit in.
It’s useful to contrast this brief glimpse of Max’s parallel wardrobe with the flash of accelerated maturity we glimpse at the midpoint of Episode 5. As Max struggles with impostor syndrome in a Seattle photographic gallery, Max’s clothes – a more ‘grown up’ cut in her jacket, a more business-dressy top – demonstrate her aspiration to be taken seriously among the other contest winners and gallery attendees, without compromising her selfhood. Though this timeline is ultimately too ‘good’ to be allowed to exist, both her blossoming self-recognition that she can be – and deserves to be – recognized as an artist, and her confronting the feeling of cosplaying an adult, represent a Max increasingly coming into her own.
“I feel so weird, like I’m a little kid hanging with the adults.” – MAX
“After this week, you are certainly not a little kid anymore. In fact, you’re a noteworthy adult being honoured by your peers. Now you have to start acting like the photographer you want to be.” – PRINCIPAL WELLS
The glimpse is enough to show us both that Max persists, whatever clothes she’s wearing, and that she has grown more confident in the choices she is making over the course of our brief time in her company. There’s an element of triumphantly ‘putting away childish things’ to this cul-de-sac sequence, which makes the inevitable rewind to the beginning even more galling. Still, there’s an awakening fashion sense in Max that mirrors her growing trust in her photographic eye, in her artistic self. It’s tentative and still in many ways undefined, but it’s there.
Max is still wearing a necklace in San Francisco, but rather than Chloe’s three-bullet piece, she is accessorizing with a dream-catcher. Perhaps it’s too much of a stretch to see Max’s new jacket and boots as ‘light side’ variants of Chloe’s own; though their cuts are certainly reminiscent. Just as her walk in Rachel’s shoes gave her more confidence in herself, so all of her experiences with Chloe have augmented Max’s personality in a lasting way.
It also foreshadows one of the two final choices of the game – even if Max chooses to sacrifice Chloe to save Arcadia Bay, we know, just by looking at what she’s wearing, that Max will carry Chloe with her forever.
It is telling, though, that after the costume ball of reused costumes and repeated art assets during Episode 5’s walk down memory lane, Max is back in her iconic t-shirt and jeans for the final decision. Despite all she’s seen, and despite all the people she’s tried to be, if she has to make a final choice between Chloe and Arcadia Bay, Max is going to do it as her essential self.
Max is more than just the sum of her evolving outfits, she’s also the sum of our choices as players. We’ve noted that her personality is most suited for a game in the adventure genre – her quiet judgment of those around her, and rich internal world, makes for a compelling character to spend time with – she is a person who we believe could be as interested as we are in the minutiae of the world around her, and how it functions.
But how has she been crafted to appeal to the largest proportion of players? And, crucially… is she a teenage boy in disguise?
It’s a strange question to ask, but bear with me.
Life Is Strange focuses on a late-teenage girl, her friends, and her relationships with the people around her. DONTNOD, like many videogames companies, is a male-heavy developer, and the writers, directors and project leads are all men. You have to go fifteen places down in the end credits before you reach the first woman in the development team: Gladys Deussner, the game’s Narrative Producer (not to single her out).
Is Max an idealised girlfriend of the kind these game-developing Warrens would have conjured up in their teens, if they’d been able to? The kind of girl whose favourite music, dress sense – even taste in women – aligns with their own? Or is she a genderflipped expy of the teenage lives of her male creators? And would it matter if she were?
In many very obvious ways, Max is clearly written as a teenage girl – this wasn’t a last-stage-of-pre-production choice for additional market appeal. Quite the contrary: DONTNOD have said they signed with SquareENIX precisely because they were the only publisher who didn’t want to change Max’s gender. (That this was also the case when DONTNOD were shopping their previous release – Remember Me – around to publishers, shows how important it is that games like Life Is Strange are finding increasing success, in a market obviously hungry for greater diversity and choice).
Likewise, Max and Chloe have clearly sparked the imaginations of players all across the gender spectrum, given the game’s popularity, sales success and instant blossoming of an enthusiastic online fanbase, managing to create thriving communities on the oft-diametrically opposed Tumblr and Reddit alike.
As a reflection of games development in the mid-2010s, it does matter that no women were directly credited in the writing of these women before their voice actors got into the recording booth. But Max, Chloe, and the women around them are still clearly written with care, relevant research, and with regular reflection on how to both acknowledge and subvert the tropes of the genres the game embodies.
Life Is Strange deals with violence dealt to women, and with predatory men, but with a maturity that often escapes such themes in other mainstream media. Its women carry the game’s story – they are not expository, sexual pit-stops, or throwaway assignations, and both Bechdel-Wallace Test and Sexy Lamp Test are casually smashed with aplomb.
We’ll discuss the nature of the camera, and the game’s exploitation of its own systems to underscore its photographic themes, later, but it’s also important to note that the game’s camera is largely – and deliberately – shorn of the male gaze, despite the fact that the weaponised concept of the male gaze is one of the game’s central preoccupations. We’re in the story with Max, even in its darkest hours. Strapped to a chair in Jefferson’s Dark Room, we’re staring out at Jefferson alongside her. She is framed in a way that reinforces her desperation, not poses her for titillation.
And, as is often pointed out – writing compelling, interesting, realistic women is not an arcane and difficult practice, denied to those with a Y chromosome. Starting by treating them as individuals and people usually helps, as is writing them with complexity and agency, as Max, Chloe, and her co-stars clearly merit.
All of which brings us to Chloe herself.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect, challenging, interesting character to pair with Max – as a “partner in crime/time”, as a friend with historical baggage, and as a potential romantic interest.
Chloe works because she’s more than just a blue-haired punker who says “Hella” way too much; more than just a chain-smoker with an authority problem and a cashflow crisis.
Chloe works because she’s both a new complication to Max’s life, and someone who has been there forever. As Max and Chloe edge closer back towards one another, coming to terms with their collective guilt and resentment over five years apart, it becomes clear how much they shared as children, and how much they still share, despite their very different trajectories since.
She might be Max’s manic pixie dream girl, but she’s not an untethered, fae presence. Chloe and Max have history, a weight that ties them both back to childhood, to vivid memories that they continue to orbit – whether it’s the paralysed, parallel Chloe dreaming of the pair running around the garden as pirates, or Max travelling back to the day Chloe’s father died to relive – and prevent – a key moment in their shared life.
Chloe is also not just a primary-coloured reminder of a simpler time. That childhood happiness is there beneath the surface, of course but the years since have caked on self-protective oxides that obscure her essential self. She’s a force of nature, of freedom, of fun, yes, but she is also quick to anger, selfish, and vituperative. The death of her father, William, clearly knocked her off-kilter – with no-one to blame for the accident that took his life, everyone and everything became her target. The years since have warped her moral compass – to the extent she needs a Max to counteract her worst impulses, like stealing a fund earmarked for disabled access on campus in order to pay off her debts to Frank, or turning to purloined guns to solve her problems.
Chloe could easily have been ‘spunky punk lite’: all counterculture, swearing and sass with nothing underneath. But there’s a genuine, deep well of anger and sadness in her that flashes out at times. She can be needy and demanding of Max – see how she flares up with jealousy if Max ‘dares’ to take a phone call from the depressed Kate in the diner in Episode 2:
“Big whoop – you don’t call me in five years and now you’re all over some beeatch you see every day at school?” – CHLOE
or the aggressive way she corners Max in the car at the end of Episode 3; laying on the guilt until Max feels she has no recourse but to try and time travel back to the day Chloe’s father died.
Max is certainly aware of Chloe’s more manipulative and angry side:
“Chloe still scared the shit out of me, which pissed me off considering what I’ve been going through. Sometimes she’s so damn insensitive to other people’s feelings. She wants all my attention for her and finding Rachel and she gets all butthurt if I don’t have time for her.” – MAX’S DIARY
But much of Max and Chloe’s relationship across the game is the rediscovery of a shared and supportive love, a hesitant mutual archaeology that unearths what each still means to the other after five hurtful years apart.
We – and Max – don’t fall for Chloe just because she fills the appropriate slot in the story: she’s kept off-stage for most of Episodes 1 and 5, and refuses to be neatly pigeonholed thereafter. Rather, what makes Chloe so compelling is the wholeness of her character – the fact that we see her at her cheerful, tweenage, piratical height; that we see her riding high and broken down; that we see her die – whether multiple times across the course of the game proper, or at Max’s own hand, in the alternate timeline. Most importantly, every one of those deaths – rewound or otherwise – carries real weight: she’s not South Park’s Kenny.
It’s worth talking about Chloe’s shifts and transitions in personality. People often talk of the resilience of those who have undergone trials, noting approvingly that they remain undiminished by the tragedies and traumas they have experienced. But what is key to Chloe is that she is diminished – by William’s death, by Max’s leaving for Seattle, by Joyce’s remarriage, by Rachel’s disappearance, and, in the parallel universe, by the car accident that left her paralysed from the neck down.
It’s not just that her youthful cheer and enthusiasm are sucked out of her, it’s that the depression that follows, and the targetless anger, start to undermine and destroy everything in Chloe of which Joyce and William were proud. As we see from her Blackwell transcript, from shortly before she was expelled, she spiralled quickly from a straight-A student to someone failing every class.
“Man, I don’t blame the Principal for expelling Chloe. Bad Chloe.” – MAX
Rachel offered Chloe an escape from her homelife – a way to escape the wallowing pit of her bedroom, to leave behind the house which has ever-present reminders of her father strewn throughout – even on the outside, where William’s blue paintwork remains unfinished to the present day. And it’s that escape valve, as well as Rachel herself, that Chloe is mourning when Max comes back into her life.
The game doesn’t shy away from showing that Chloe has lost significant parts of herself in response to these perceived ‘betrayals’, even if, as Joyce points out, such losses are also elective:
“Chloe – Chloe chose to stay angry.” – JOYCE
While Joyce has chosen to honour William’s memory by living, and not letting herself become fossilised as the person she was when he died, Chloe, by contrast, gives herself no reason to change, surrounding herself with constant reminders of the anger she feels she needs to feel. It’s not only band posters and magazine inserts that paper the walls of her bedroom, but all-caps reminders in her handwriting:
“EVERYBODY LIES: NO EXCEPTIONS”
“THINK LIKE A MAN”
“I’D RATHER HAVE A LIFE OF ‘OH WELLS’ THAN A LIFE OF ‘WHAT IFS’”
“JUST GOTTA LET GO”
“I CAN’T SLEEP”
“ONE DAY YOUR LIFE WILL FLASH BEFORE YOUR EYES”
Even in the photo commemorating Chloe and Rachel’s friendship – the same photo Xeroxed onto a thousand flyers – Chloe is flipping off the camera. And just visible in the background, in-game, a postcard from Rachel with the greeting: “Only stupid people have good relationships.”
Chloe’s bedroom isn’t the only location that exerts a toxic pull, either – though long expelled, the campus of Blackwell Academy is a scab at which she can’t stop picking: whether it’s flyposting Rachel’s MISSING posters everywhere, or arranging a misguided and potentially fatal rendezvous a blackmail with Nathan in the bathroom. Even if she can no longer attend class, it’s still the centre of her outside world, a place of (ironic, inaccurate) safety and, perhaps, pleasant memories.
And then there’s Chloe’s most private public space; the junkyard, where she retreats from the rest of the world when it all gets too much.
But besides being a space shared with Rachel that screams of potential escape routes (the freight railroad runs right past their secret breezeblock bunker, offering a route out of Arcadia Bay for anyone with running legs and a bindle to carry), it’s also a place that surrounds Chloe with death. Unknowingly, in that Rachel’s body is already buried in a shallow grave when Chloe first shows her hiding place to Max, and subconsciously, in that Chloe – whose father died in an auto accident – has chosen to surround herself with dozens of rusted-out wrecks, as Max belatedly notices:
“I wonder if Chloe thinks about her father when she looks at all these smashed-up cars.”
And it’s not just Chloe’s father – the same misfortune was visited on the Price family cat, as Max remembers while exploring Chloe’s back garden and coming across the stone marker:
“Poor Bongo – he never saw that car coming.” – MAX
Clearly the Prices should not be allowed out on the roads.
But perhaps it’s not morbidity that brings Chloe back to the junkyard. After all, this a graveyard for cars – they will not hurt anyone ever again. It’s a place where Chloe can triumph over the machines – whether or not she’s using a gun to lay waste to a car wreck with a Max-assisted trick-shot – rather than the other way around.
The Two Whales Diner, where Joyce works, is a liminal, halfway zone for Chloe, straddling both the comfort of the familiar, and an uncomfortable engagement with the past – and with her mother.
She clearly spends a lot of time there, freeloading breakfasts when she can, but it’s Joyce’s place, not Chloe’s, a place to meet on the way to somewhere else, a place to refuel, but not to linger. Joyce, for her part, is a rock – or the Arcadia Bay shore against which Chloe’s waves continually break. She soaks up Chloe’s misdirected anger, but refuses to be worn down by her daughter – for those glimmering moments of familial love that can occasionally be glimpsed, like rainbows in the spray.
The rest of Arcadia Bay is actively antagonistic to Chloe, or at least is perceived that way by her. While in many early, superficial ways, the town of Arcadia Bay is welcoming and comfortable for Max – there’s nostalgia in the Fall air, for the life her parents took her away from five years prior; there’s an old friend to reconnect with, a seemingly great school to attend, romantic possibilities blossoming to bring her out of her shell – for Chloe, the one left behind, the town has grown to represent everything she hates:
“This shit-pit has taken everyone I’ve ever loved… I’d like to drop a bomb on Arcadia Bay and turn it to fucking glass…”
In many ways, the ending of the game becomes a test of how much you – and by extension, Max – agree with her assessment. But even Chloe knows when to walk back a superlative spat out in anger. She later notes:
“C’mon. I don’t want to see Arcadia Bay burn to the shore. I just say shit like that because I’ve been trying to get out of her since you left.”
Some of Chloe’s anger comes from being caught in a hostile and difficult to navigate home life – in the same house that used to hold such easy love and promise, as we see from the ‘flashbacks’ in Episode 3.
It’s telling that, on each time we visit the Price home, there has been a recent power-cut – note that all the clocks read ‘88:88’, rendering us into a timeless zone where minutes can become hours, or vice versa. (That rendering ’88:88’ is easier on the art team than having all the clocks in the house keep track of actual time is, of course, entirely coincidental)
David Madsen, Chloe’s ‘step-douche’, is not an easy character to love, nor one with clean motivations and wholly admirable qualities. But neither is he the evil man that Chloe – and the game – allow you to paint him as, before the more mitigating elements of his personality are unravelled. When we first meet him, however, he has Chloe’s house under near-military rule – at least in the parts of the house beyond Chloe’s bedroom. The rules cease to apply at her door.
But much of Chloe’s anger is actually at herself. After blaming everyone around her, and raking Max over the coals several times, she finally breaks:
“Chloe, you can’t keep blaming me and everybody for everything wrong in your life.” – MAX
“I gotta blame somebody, otherwise it’s all my fault.” – CHLOE
“So who do you most blame?” – MAX
“My dad.” – CHLOE
“William? Really?” – MAX
“Yes, my dad chose to go out that door and get killed.” – CHLOE
“Chloe, your dad didn’t choose to leave you.” – MAX
“…I know that, Max.” – CHLOE
Chloe has taken the path often taken by those whom tragedy visits more than once – rather than seeing these misfortunes as disconnected, random events intersecting with her life, she has chosen to focus on the only common factor – herself – and erroneously concluded that correlation equals causation.
In the absence of easily-graspable reasons for her pain – an unpredictable auto accident, a friend whose disappearance is tantalisingly unresolved, her case shelved by the police – Chloe has latched onto the only constants in her life – herself, her body, her stepfather, her mother. Like many teenagers, she bounds herself with a space she can control – a room she can tattoo just like her body – and picks fights she knows will lead to familiar, even comforting conclusions (witness her late-game ‘fake’ fighting of Joyce, in order to distract her, that reads more as the regurgitation of well-worn battle lines with less-hurtful intent than it does as spirited improvisation).
Despite her retreat into familiar patterns, and into herself, it’s clear that Chloe doesn’t function well on her own. Without a foil to bounce off of, she becomes insular and inarticulate, falling back to her room to smoke pot and listen to the same albums over and over. In the wake of Max’s five-year flight to San Francisco, and Rachel’s more recent disappearance, Chloe is regretfully resigned to the fact that she will always be the one left behind – when she wishes she was the one doing the leaving:
“Rachel straight-up lied to my face. Why would she do that?” – CHLOE
“Because she knew how you’d react.” – MAX
“Then she wasn’t much of a friend, was she? Just another person who shits all over me. Why does everybody in my life let me down? My dad gets killed, you bail on me for years, my mother gloms onto step-fucker. Now Rachel betrays me.” – CHLOE
“Chloe, Rachel is missing. Nobody betrayed you.” – MAX
“Bullshit. Fuck everybody.” – CHLOE
Max’s return is the catalyst for true catharsis at last. As Chloe says, “How can it be such a shitty week and yet one of the best of my life?” By closing the loop on a childhood hurt – by being the first of the people who left Chloe to return, and to return as a friend, not a tainted memory, Max enables Chloe to start confronting the demons in her past.
But that’s not to say that Chloe’s path is all hearts and flowers – quite the opposite. While her growing friendship and love for Max is true:
“My powers might not last, Chloe.” – MAX
“That’s okay. We will. Forever.” – CHLOE
her barely-buried anger is never far away, and her rampant distrust of the authority figures who have repeatedly failed her – or flunked her – means that, just like her stepfather, she is eager to take everything on herself; to never ask for help doing the most difficult of things.
Chloe’s rage – however understandable, however justified – is what puts her on a path to self-destruction, whether it’s confronting Nathan in the bathroom over his attempting drugging of her, in the same manner of Kate, or in taking on Nathan when she and Max both believe him to be Rachel’s killer:
“Fuck the police. Rachel wanted us to find her. So we can get real justice… and revenge. The Prescotts have had this coming for a hundred years… and nobody is going to get in my way. Who cares? Rachel is still dead. And I want Nathan’s punk ass. Now.” – CHLOE
It’s only thanks to an intervention from another universe – when Max breaks down and confesses what she did in the alternate timeline – that she euthanised a paralysed Chloe, at her own request – that Chloe is snapped out of her vengeful rage and able at last to focus on what really matters: Max, her life, and getting true justice for Rachel, not just the movielike justice of armed revenge:
“I didn’t want you to suffer… in any other timeline or reality. I couldn’t bear the thought of you in any more pain.” – MAX
“The important thing is we’re together again.” – CHLOE
Only after being confronted by the impossible, by evidence from another reality of where her impulsive actions will lead, is Chloe able to adjust to her existence in this one. If Chloe is Scrooge, then Max is all of her ghosts.
Chloe is also caught on the awkward crossroads between late adolescence and adulthood – and whether that expresses itself in a proud display of the things she can control – her appearance – the bright blue hair (which also calls to mind the same-sex relationship at the heart of 2013’s Blue Is The Warmest Colour), the intricately coiled tattoo sleeve around her right arm – or in the ways she acts out – the drugs, the flunking out of school because she feels she has nothing to contribute – she has both grown up fast, and not grown up much at all.
Chloe’s hair colour (and her tattoo) is an outward manifestation of the rebellious spirit she feels, but it’s also a distancing factor between the Chloe Max knew and the Chloe she has become now – a disconnect so severe that Max doesn’t even recognise her former best friend when she sees her again for the first time. (It takes most of the first Episode for Max to connect the young woman getting shot in the school bathroom with Chloe)
It’s poignant to note, then, that after Chloe and Max share a rule-breaking dip in the school pool in Episode 3, the pool’s chlorine starts to leech the colour away – a moment of intense intimacy (followed by a night sharing Chloe’s bed) between the pair that reveals the old Chloe hidden not very far underneath. It’s a chink in her armour that begins to open her up.
From the moment Max returns from the alternate timeline at the beginning of Episode 4, and the truth behind Rachel’s disappearance and death becomes known, Chloe starts to confront the walls she has built up around herself. Even as her fury directs her towards vengeance, thanks to Max, she’s also able to reclaim a vision of the future for herself – something beyond just dead-ending in Arcadia Bay, or even just the vague dreams of escape that drove Chloe and Rachel through their worst days:
“I’m looking forward to the day when we can just go on a road trip to Portland.” – MAX
“Fuck yeah.” – CHLOE
The diary entries and text messages from the ‘perfect’ fake-out ending in the middle of Episode 5 – where Chloe reconciles with David, thanks to his role in stopping Jefferson, and where Chloe succeeds in enrolling in a community college upstate to continue her education – only make the actual ending of the game more heart-wrenching for what Chloe – and Max – stand to lose.
It’s in those final moments – particularly when Chloe begs to be sacrificed to save the lives of everyone she knows – that her true growth from selfish to selfless becomes apparent:
“Max. This is the only way. All that would take is for me to… to…” – CHLOE
“Fuck that. No way. You are my number one priority now. You are all that matters to me.” – MAX
“Even though I don’t deserve it. I’m so selfish. Not like my Mom… Even my step… my stepfather deserves to be alive. There’s so many more people in Arcadia Bay who should live. Way more than me.” – CHLOE
“I won’t trade you.” – MAX
“You’re not trading me. Maybe you’ve just been delaying my real destiny. Look at how many times I’ve almost died – or actually died – around you. I know I’ve been selfish, but I think for once I should accept my fate. Wherever I end up after this, in whatever reality, all those moments between us were real, and they’ll always be ours.” – CHLOE
“Chloe, I can’t make this choice!” – MAX
“No, Max. You’re the only one who can. Max, you finally came back to me this week, and you did nothing but show me your love and friendship. Max, it’s time.” – CHLOE
“Chloe. I’m so so sorry. I don’t wanna do this.” – MAX
“I know, Max. But we have to. We have to save everybody, okay? And you’ll make those fuckers pay for what they did to Rachel. Being together this week – it was the best farewell gift I could have hoped for. You’re my hero, Max. I’ll always love you. Now get out of here, please. Do it before I freak. And Max Caulfield: don’t you forget about me.” – CHLOE
“Never.” – MAX
It’s a beautiful, perfect moment – but one that works almost as well in its silent alternative – the ending in which Max can choose to let the town be swept away, in order to preserve the woman she’s fought so hard to save. There, Chloe’s growth is a signifier that she’s ready to leave everything but Max behind, to finally make the escape she’s spoken her whole life about, with no more looking back.
Chloe is the heart of Life Is Strange: she is its story. Brattish, complex, complicated, intelligent, swinging from mood to mood and feeling everything intently: she sums up the game in a microcosm.