As a contrast to Chloe, it’s clear that the entitled, ‘Mean Girl’ archetype gives rise to Victoria Chase, with her pixie crop hair, expensive cashmere sweaters, pursed look of disapproval and slew of withering put downs. It’s satisfying, at first, to use Max’s power to pre-empt Victoria’s answers in class, undercutting Victoria’s desire to be as superlative academically as she is socially; a kneejerk response to the way Victoria has behaved towards her before the game’s story begins:
“How could I forget Victoria Chase? Rich, stylish, entitled. I could feel INSTANT JUDGMENT when she looked at my raggedy ass clothes. As if I’m at Blackwell to strike fashion poses. Maybe I’m being extra crispy sensitive, but I think Victoria wants life here to be like her own reality show. Ugh…” – MAX’S DIARY
But, as with the rest of its cast, the developers waste no time in fleshing Victoria out – without compromising her inherent bitchiness or even her innate dislike of Max. (For someone who wants to be in her own reality show, she’s also incredibly dismissive of selfies – but, as with many of Victoria’s public stances, it’s all a pose. Max later finds a whole handful of them in Victoria’s locker.)
By the game’s conclusion – at least in many of the timelines that make up Episode 5 – Victoria becomes an exemplar that not all friendships are forged in a mutual like – they can equally be born of grudging respect and acknowledgement of shared talent:
“Max – I don’t hate you. I actually think you’re one of the coolest people at Blackwell. Weird, but cool.” – VICTORIA
Victoria is also the character who seems most aware of the role she is playing: in Max’s narrative, in her own, and in those of the cliques that make up Blackwell Academy. Her ‘public’ face, either in a full-class situation, or when talking to Max with anybody else present – is a mask that she can be encouraged to let slip.
She is a character aware of her own moral compass, but one who has suppressed her conscience because she believes that’s what she has to do to get ahead. Mirroring her attitude is an option available to those players who wish to shape Max into a more assertive, albeit less caring, character through their dialogue choices – one that, along with Victoria herself – foregrounds the question of exactly how much assertiveness mainstream culture will ‘allow’ a woman to demonstrate before she is labelled ‘bitchy’ or ‘difficult’, in ways that would never be applied to men.
Through our experiences of – and in Max’s fifth Episode hallucination, as – Victoria, the mean girl archetype is exploded. It’s not that Victoria has ‘another side’, or that there’s a happy-go-lucky personality buried within, but that she has made a deal with herself and with society’s expectations of her: this is how she will behave in order to get ahead.
Popularity does not mean likeability, allies don’t mean friends, and success comes from all the hard work you can muster – and the competitors you can leave in your wake. For Victoria, the trade-offs – lack of true intimacy, the gamification of her social life – are a price she’s willing to pay to climb towards her goal. It’s only when she’s given a visceral wake-up call – in Kate Marsh’s suicide attempt – to the potentially-fatal consequences of her deliberately callous methods that she checks herself.
The first opportunity we have to see a more nuanced side to Victoria is after engineering a paint spill in order to get her off the steps of the dorm. That Victoria and Max are both in the wrong in this scenario – Victoria, for bitchily playing gatekeeper, and Max, for, Rube Goldberg-ing a sequence of events in order to cover Victoria in paint – puts them into a situation of unexpected, and temporary, equivalence.
Though the game offers us the opportunity to throw shade and sarcasm at Victoria throughout, or to knock back the hand of friendship when proffered, it’s more rewarding to respond to Victoria’s overtures of peace with the same. That her abrasive, top-dog personality remains even after wearing her down shows that Victoria believes in, at best, temporary allies, rather than lasting friends:
“BTW THANX BUT WERE NOT FRIENDS” – TEXT FROM VICTORIA
As a quick aside, it’s prudent to note that if players do befriend Victoria across the course of the game, and choose to warn her, in Episode 4, that Nathan has marked her as his next target, she ends up captured, and subsequently killed, by Mr. Jefferson:
“I don’t want to die like this. I’m only eighteen.” – VICTORIA
Though that timeline is soon erased, it’s one more illustration that the game does not impose a moral imperative on its universe, or its players – we are encouraged to explore difficult questions within the game’s narrative framework. The collective weight of player decisions – viewable on the percentage screen after each Episode – may guide players in one direction or another, if their consciences haven’t automatically pulled them along with the majority – but the game itself does not reward our playing Max as ‘morally good’ with improved outcomes for its characters.
I’m sure many players, like me, find it difficult to play ‘rogue’ characters – when offered the opportunity to be nice to people, we take it. But unlike in games such as Mass Effect, or Dragon Age, which offer player bonuses, stat improvements and more favourable responses from Non Player Characters for taking a consistent moral high ground, Life Is Strange is keen to show that even the best of intentions can have unexpected results.
But back to Victoria. What makes her the way she is, beyond the confines of her role as the Queen Bee of Blackwell? In a relatively touching heart-to-heart in the middle of the Vortex Club party in Episode 4, as EDM blares from the speakers and Blackwell’s elite dance and sip from Solo cups, Victoria lets slip that she’s only as hard-nosed as she is because her parents are gallery owners.
She’s been brought up in the world in which she wants to make her living, and knows both the unspoken rules and the gatekeepers and tastemakers in her field that she has to outsmart in order to get her undoubted talent seen. She also knows first-hand the costs that await her if she fails. Victoria is not just trying to live up to her parents’ expectations, but to her own – that she’s strong enough, talented enough, to succeed on her own terms, and to still be viewed as a success whenever her family ties come to light.
It’s clear she has just as many doubts and imperfections as Max, but she’s chosen to overrule and ignore them, at least in public. The on-trend outfits, the haircut, the barbed insults, all are conscious decisions made to tamp down her own insecurities:
“Maybe I’m jealous because you don’t give a shit about what anybody thinks – and I do.” – VICTORIA
Victoria’s shifts in attitude towards Max across the course of the story are engineered by more than just Max’s own actions, of course. We start to see her coming up against situations for which her carefully-honed toolkit of a personality is not prepared.
In Episode 3, Max and Chloe stumble across a nocturnal attempt by Victoria to leverage her sexuality against Mr. Jefferson in order to win the Everyday Heroes contest. From lightly-suggestive innuendo to more overt come-ons, Victoria deploys all the weapons in her arsenal in an attempt to get Jefferson to break, but he isn’t having any of it:
“Stick to Mr. Jefferson, Victoria, please.” – JEFFERSON
“As a favour to your future, I’ll also choose to ignore that undisguised threat. This conversation is officially over, Ms. Chase.” – JEFFERSON
It’s not until later that we realise this isn’t because Jefferson is a model teacher, but because he has no sexual interest in his students beyond the parts they play in his twisted photographic tableaux. Yet either way, the failure still hits home.
We also know that Victoria is a central figure in the bullying that drives Kate to the rooftop – whether by her day-to-day treatment of Kate, or in her role in posting the video of the drugged Kate to social media, and spreading the link far and wide. But it’s clear from Victoria’s mile-wide stare in the montage that concludes the second Episode that she never intended her actions to go so far. Not everyone can segment their public and private personae as successfully as, say, Mr. Jefferson, and fewer still can take pleasure in that segmentation at all times.
In the timeline in Episode 5 that Max takes as her chance to get everything right, she collars Victoria early, attempting to cut off future problems with Kate at the root. But Max’s tone is less accusatory than it is an appeal to the best in Victoria – especially as, in the Dark Room timeline she just left, it was Victoria with whom she was sharing her last moments. There’s a recognition born of such shared experiences that there is evil in the world, and Victoria Chase isn’t it. She’s not bad, she’s just rendered that way…
“You’re smart enough to know how easy it is to hurt somebody. You can always make the right choice, Victoria, I know you’ve got a good heart. I’ve seen it.” – MAX
She may have a good heart, but she’s young enough to still see no escape from the role she has created, and finds it impossible to publicly back down.
The final shift we see in Victoria’s persona is towards Nathan – who begins the game as Victoria’s troubled sometimes-date, and certainly one of her closest actual friends. She is aware of his flaws, and his prescriptions, but seems willing to overlook them – and not just for his financial cachet and untouchable social status; there seems to be genuine respect and friendship between the pair, glimpsed all too infrequently as Max rummages through the detritus of their lives.
Whether it’s an excitable email about their Vortex Club outfits from Nathan, or the fact that he’s the one that comes to check on her at the end of Episode 2, it’s clear that it’s not just their shared social status that keeps them close to one another. She will concede, however, that, towards the end of the week, he has been “kind of freaking me out”.
Ironically, as noted above, if Max succeeds in getting Victoria to see the truth about Nathan, she also drives her into the reaching grasp of Mr. Jefferson:
“You warned me about Nathan… and then I went to Jefferson for help, and he was acting so weird.” – VICTORIA
In many ways, Victoria is the most vulnerable character – her desire to live by, and exploit, the codes of social conduct leave her open to those – like Nathan and Jefferson – who would exploit her by taking advantage of the same. For someone who has so much going on beneath the surface, it is still peoples’ surfaces by which Victoria is beguiled.
So let’s turn our attention now to arrogant, trust-fund baby Nathan Prescott, who, it turns out, is not just an entitled, bullying prick in a letterman shirt.
He’s also severely confused and manipulated: suffering from mental illnesses barely kept at bay by a cocktail of prescription and illegal drugs; bearing the brunt of familial expectation while being offered no support from his distant father, beyond money, a phalanx of lawyers, and his name.
And yes, Nathan is a murderer – the key murderer, in fact: whatever Mr. Jefferson’s crimes in the endgame, and they are many, it’s Nathan who pulls the trigger on Chloe at the start, and who gave the fatal overdose to Rachel. From Max and Chloe’s perspective, he is the target they have been seeking all game. That Jefferson was above Nathan, pulling the strings, and that time travel and diminished mental responsibility further muddy the waters, just add further complications to the mystery’s resolution.
But throughout the game, at inopportune times, we feel pangs of sympathy for Nathan, too. His puppyish excitement at seeing Max in Rachel’s clothes, thinking she has genuinely come back to him; his uncharacteristic tenderness towards Victoria;
his confessional voicemail, picked up by Max as she drives to the storm-hit diner.
“Max, It’s… It’s Nathan. I just wanted to say… I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt Kate or Rachel, or… I didn’t want to hurt anybody. Everybody… used me. Mr. Jefferson… is coming for me now. All this shit will be over soon. Watch out, Max… He wants to hurt you next. Sorry.”
We also get our first inklings of his complexity when we first hear of his medication:
“Yes, he takes serious meds, but that’s not his fault. His family treats him like a total freak just because he has little meltdowns.” – VICTORIA
“He’s a pharmacy simulator.” – TAYLOR
Or perhaps the emails and letters from his father:
“I need you calm and quiet while Pan Estates is being developed. I know being a Prescott is a burden and I’ll guide you into this room step by step as did my father. It was hard for me when my dad opened my eyes to our destiny, but you’ll thank me someday. Don’t worry about Blackwell. This shithole town is going to get an enema along with a fresh brand. I want you to be ready to take over when the moment is right.
“Don’t fuck it up, son.
Your Father” – SEAN PRESCOTT
Nathan is no ‘poor little rich boy’, creating problems for himself out of boredom and a lack of challenge in his home life. Neither is he a deadly, motiveless cipher. In many respects, he’s a child, confused and in pain, looking for assistance from the adults in his life and finding instead only people who wish to shape him in their own image.
Whether it’s under his father, who wants to groom him in the family business (which context seems to make far more sinister than it actually is – Sean’s role in the narrative is ultimately as an unseen enactor of exploitative real estate deals, and the leveraging of excessive wealth to influence the politics of a smalltown in favour of the wealthy – a mundane, legal level of nefariousness with which we’re all-too-uncomfortably acquainted), or Mr Jefferson, who sees in him something of a kindred spirit – albeit one to be twisted and torn up and used as a patsy when things go south – Nathan is a teenage pawn of the older generation, and one who rarely knows on which gameboard he is playing:
“I’m so sick of people trying to control me.” – NATHAN
The investigation of Nathan’s bedroom turns up further wrinkles in his personality – we get to see the scripts for some of those medications, for instance, and realise that he’s a lot more troubled than we gave him credit for. But we also find out that the only thing that lets him sleep is:
“Whale songs? Maybe this is the only soothing thing Nathan ever hears.” MAX
Max even finds common ground, acknowledging his taste in music from the only non-monochrome poster on the wall: “Even Nathan has a light side.”
And it’s true: it’s just well-hidden. We see it only in flashes, and often only in retrospect. There is good in him… It’s just buried exceptionally deep, and neither his father nor Jefferson had any qualms about taking advantage of him in any way they could.
Let’s talk, briefly, about one of Jefferson’s most important photos, at once horrendously incriminating, and terribly sad – this pose of Nathan and Rachel together:
Though it’s clear from Nathan’s later confession, and Jefferson’s expansion of the same, that Rachel’s death was the result of an overdose – Nathan trying to match his mentor’s style and methods, both in abduction and photography, and falling even-more-horribly short – this photo suggests that Nathan, too, fell victim to Jefferson’s predations. His pose, as both Chloe and Max note, is ambiguous: is he asleep? Drugged himself? Knowing that Rachel had already overdosed when the picture was taken soon suggests the latter, and then further suggests three even more disturbing possibilities.
One, that Nathan willingly acquiesced to Jefferson’s desires to photograph him with Rachel’s body. Two, that Jefferson drugged Nathan at the scene, and used the opportunity to stage a picture, subject to his own pathological desires. And three, that Rachel’s overdose was not accidental at all –but that it, and Nathan’s drugging, was a calculated effort part to generate further leverage over Nathan, and over the Prescott fortune. By implicating Nathan in Rachel’s death, Jefferson destabilises him mentally, ensures he is the only figure of authority to which Nathan can turn, and makes his hold over the boy permanent.
That’s not to excuse Nathan’s behaviour on any count, nor is it the only viable interpretation of his actions. But there’s a strong case for reading Nathan as just as much of a victim of Jefferson’s predations as Max, Chloe, Rachel or Victoria. Between his illnesses, medications, and Jefferson’s wrought-iron blackmail material against him, Nathan is just as surely trapped in the Dark Room as any one of Jefferson’s victims. He just had a longer window of ‘freedom’ in which to pretend he was in control.
The illusion of control, and what young men will do when they feel they don’t possess it, also provides a good segue into talking about Warren, an archetypal nerdy teen male and Max’s wannabe paramour. Warren is a useful scaffold for discussing how the game examines male teen entitlement, especially as one point of an intense analytic triangle with Nathan and Mr. Jefferson.
Life Is Strange is not a simplistic teen drama in which the male ‘nerds’ offer maturity and social respite from the ‘jocks’, but one in which even the most well-meaning of ‘good guys’ can come on too strong, can act entitled around their female friends, can be easily offended by a lack of attention.
The interaction between Warren and Max is the best lens through which to examine the game’s calculated examination of teen flirting – unsolicited and often conducted with a clanging lack of subtlety as it is – and the way in which it offers an immersive chance for male players to experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such intense male teen interest as a young woman. Warren poses the question of whether being immature, inexperienced and male is the same as being a problematic male character.
Developer Michel Koch has already discussed some of the intent behind Warren’s creation [https://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/first-love-and-awkwardness-inside-the-mind-of-life-is-strange-co-director-michel-koch-423], but let’s unpack some of the many sides of his character in practice.
Warren is the quintessential best-friend-who-wants-to-be-more of teen drama. He’s a good friend and complement to Max – good at science where she excels in art, a little more outgoing, a little more established at the school, even if he’s just as nerdy and “invisible” as she is. It’s clear from Max’s diary entries in the first Episode of the game that he’s one of the best (only?) friends she has at the school:
“To prove I’m not a total loser, I made a new friend in my science class. His name is Warren Graham and he’s a serious geek, plus he’s dark and witty. He comes across as kind of a know-it-all, but it turns out he does kind of know a lot. We talked about photographers, and he actually named a few I’d never heard of. We traded numbers and he’ll be a good study partner (or a good friend).” – MAX’S DIARY
Warren offers a prism through which male players can examine male teen behaviour from a female perspective, offering a rare, welcome and defamiliarising experience for half of the game’s players (and, again, one largely uncatered for in the gaming market).
Warren’s pursuit of Max offers many behaviours that are unreconstructed, from aggressive, entitled texts (“Do u want to meet for coffee after school? I need an excuse to not study. PLEASE”, followed by, “Don’t ignore this message.”), to the occasional (arguable!) lapse in proprietary when it comes to respecting personal space, hugging Max close as an unscheduled eclipse strikes Arcadia Bay:
“You’re glowing! Literally, a human halo. I’m pretty sure you earned your wings today.” – WARREN
Warren has many strengths – he’s willing to throw himself into the line of fire to keep Max safe, as he demonstrates against Nathan in both the parking lot in Episode 1, and the dorms of Episode 4.
But he’s also ‘weak’, in the sense that he can’t resist the attempts to keep up with the popular crowd – he wasn’t able to not watch the Kate party video, despite knowing doing so would disappoint Max. Still, he’s honest about it, when pressed:
“So you watched it?” – MAX
“Just one… and a half times.” – WARREN
Being a teenager of any gender is complicated, and social behaviours and boundaries understood in the abstract need corrections both subtle and firm when explored in practice.
All of which is to say, yes, the onus of understanding consent and comfort is definitely on Warren and his ilk – it’s not up to the Maxes of the world to police what should be self-evident; but it is not a negative for the game and its characterisation that Warren is not a fully-formed paradigm of an enlightened teen male.
He has flaws – the occasionally too-strong pursuit of Max; anger management issues that can explode into a too-long, too-far pummeling of Nathan, the occasional passive-aggressive text when he feels left out of events or entitled to Max’s time.
And yet Max still trusts him, with her life, and with the truth. Warren does know his boundaries, and Max knows that his friendship for her is genuine, whatever else he may want out of the equation:
“I don’t know, I almost went crazy there. Like Nathan.” – WARREN
“You’re not anything like him.” – MAX
That Warren possesses these flaws grants him the same three dimensions as the rest of the game’s leads, balancing out the fact that he’s supportive and unquestioning and really just wants the best for Max… even if the only way he can express that support is with a hard drive of pirated horror films and an invite to a Planet of the Apes marathon the following weekend.
He’s not just a romanceable puppet, a hetero alternative to Chloe that can be won or discarded, depending on the playthrough. When the chips are down, Warren doesn’t interpolate his desire between Max and what she has to do – he gives her one more pep talk before she heads off into the impossible:
“Max, of course I believe you. You’re the most amazing person I know. I have total faith that you’ll do the right thing when the time comes. I’m so proud of you, Max. How could there be a more important moment in history? And I’m right there in the middle of it with you. So thanks for trusting me.” – WARREN
Based on mass-media trends, Warren could have easily been a stalkerish Twi-hard, but instead, he’s the person Max texts when she needs the ingredients for a lock-bursting bomb (“Now pay attention 007, you have to find FOUR objects. 1. SUGAR, 2. A SODA CAN, 3. DUCT TAPE, 4. SODIUM CHLORATE” – itself a telling note of characterization: Warren is a young, white man with anger issues, rejected romantically by his female peers, who knows how to make bombs, thanks to his knowledge of basic chemistry, but who is as far away from the murderous gunplay in Life Is Strange as anyone in the narrative), or who asks no questions when she calls on him for a suddenly-essential photo, one that requires a rainslicked drive through the eye of a hurricane in order to take it from him.
“I can’t believe you drove down here in the middle of a fucking E-6 tornado, just for one photograph! I mean, I know you didn’t come for me.” – WARREN
Well, he might passive-aggressively mewl, but given the circumstances, we can understand and forgive some of his confusion.
In terms of the dissatisfaction some players, keen to focus on the Max/Chloe romance, feel at not being able to just ignore him throughout, there’s only really one moment where Max’s agency is taken away from the player. That the game doesn’t give players the choice of wriggling free of Warren’s hug at the close of Episode 2, as an unnatural snow falls and an unscheduled eclipse transits the sun, is a rare lapse in the choice-based storytelling in favour of a montage-worthy, pre-rendered moment. It is clear, though – especially from the choices subsequently available to Max where her relationship with Warren is concerned – that the gesture can be interpreted as supportive, rather than romantic.
As established by their texts and early interactions, Max and Warren already share a friendship and a history when the game begins. Warren might be the one person at Blackwell Academy to whom Max has opened up, before Chloe careens back into her life. Their relative intimacy doesn’t begin in a vacuum, and neither do the choices available to her where Warren is concerned.
It’s all too easy to say that Max is blind to Warren’s clumsy-but-well-meaning advances, but early contextual clues give way to explicit references in dialogue that show she knows exactly what Warren wants, but isn’t sure what to do about it – or how she feels about him in return:
“I’ll call you later.” – MAX
“You better. I’m feeling pretty alpha now.” – WARREN
“Man, that guy is so fucking in love with you.” – CHLOE
“…I know.” – MAX
She’s far from being as oblivious as she makes out, though Max struggles with how to calibrate her relationship with Warren – and with her changing attitude towards him. As we’ll unpack later, while the game does allow Warren to be a romanceable character, many of Max’s responses to him read just as strongly as statements of friendship and support – at least from her perspective. From that of a lovesick teenage boy, every declaration of heartfelt friendship is an indication of something more:
“I know how to be invisible here.” – WARREN
“Not to me, Warren. Text soon.” – MAX
Before we move on, it’s worth briefly mentioning the unfortunate Brooke. Other than her beloved drone, which she uses to buzz the quads during her free periods, the insular Brooke, forever hiding behind her phone, has only one overriding obsession – Warren.
It’s a shame that we don’t get to know her better but, like many of her peers populating the Academy grounds, Brooke really only exists to add an extra layer of flavour to the school experience, rather than offering the same depth of characterisation as the leading cast. But even with her limited interactivity, she’s a small-scale tragi-comedy in her own right. “Warren should be all over Brooke – they’re perfect for each other,” Max mutters to herself during the opening credits of Episode 1: and she’s right, on paper, the pair perfectly align. But Warren has other ideas, to Brooke’s continuing and passive-aggressive chagrin. “That’s so ironic that Warren asked Max to the drive-in,” she says, loud enough for Max to hear, while refusing to part company with her drone for a second time. Even in the alternate reality brought into being at the end of Episode 3, Max is shocked to see that Warren has hooked up with… Stella, and that Brooke is nowhere to be seen.
Though Brooke is content to gently punish Max at every opportunity for Warren’s continued interest in her, she does soften towards Max in Episode 4, at the Vortex Club party, dropping an unintentional Donnie Darko nod as she pauses in her discussion of Warren and drones to compliment Max on her sudden growth of character:
“You seem so wise and… kind of invincible this week. I think that snow and eclipse gave you super-powers.” – BROOKE
Whatever his suitability as Max’s potential boyfriend or best friend, there’s no doubt that Warren is an intriguingly flawed and often uncomfortably-accurate portrait of a teen boy.
Meanwhile, Kate Marsh’s adoption by the fanbase as a ‘cinnamon roll, too good, too pure’ also belies the more complex and intriguing elements of her character.
“When I saw how much you cared, how hard you were trying…” – KATE
With her deeply religious background and authentically-held beliefs, Kate is an instant challenge to many of the players of the game who – even if religious themselves – will likely see Kate’s ‘purity ring’ goodness and public stance on abstinence before marriage as ‘taking everything a little bit too far’.
Yet most of us quickly warm to Kate nonetheless: whether it’s because she’s genuinely hard done by, the object of a collegiate culture of bullying, or because she and Max share a genuine friendship and rapport, a warmth that goes beyond surface trappings and cultural backgrounds to focus on what each can do for the other.
When we first meet Kate, she’s the quiet one in Max’s photography class, trying to ignore being pelted by wads of crumpled paper, keeping her head down. But we soon discover that she’s our first connection to the mysterious Dark Room, and to the conspiracies wound around the roots of both the photography class and the Vortex Club: her drugged escapades at a recent party have started doing the rounds of the school as a viral video, and Kate is depressed and distraught.
Nowhere is that more keenly illustrated than in the shift between her usual drawing style (“Kate’s art is perfect for a children’s book. Everything looks so fun and colourful and… positive.” – MAX), and the black-crayon daubings showcasing her current mental state.
Kate feels the walls of Blackwell closing in, and that she has nowhere to turn. Her peers are behind the bullying, her teachers – or at least those as insensitive and untrained as Mr. Jefferson – openly voice suspicions that she may have brought it all on herself. And her parents: strict, religious, concerned that they never should have let her go away to college in the first place.
Though Kate has bought a bus ticket out of Arcadia Bay, it’s equally clear that she has no idea where to go. The video’s presence on the internet means that there’s no way of outrunning the shame she feels about its contents, and her lack of memory and evidence about what really happened at the party means that she has – or she feels – she has nothing to take to the police, bar circumstantial evidence incriminating Nathan Prescott. And, as Max points out, Nathan has a long history of escaping justice thanks to the influence of his father.
The bullying builds to a head in the second Episode, when the forces acting on Kate, and her own doubts and fears, grow to such an extent that she walks out on the roof of the dorm and threatens to throw herself to her death. Max manages to rewind her first attempt, and then freeze time long enough to make it to the rooftop – shortly before her powers temporarily fail her, leaving her – and the player – to face this life or death decision with no supernatural assistance or metaphysical takebacks. It’s the first time the game forces us to play for keeps.
In any other scenario, this could feel like a cheat, but the high stakes – and the suggestion that Max’s powers may be psychosomatically linked to her state of mind, as well as her reserves of stamina – help offset this sudden change in the rules of the game. We learn in exactly the same instant as Max that the powers we have spent the whole Episode learning to ‘master’ are capricious and unpredictable, and cannot be relied on.
Worse, in my first playthrough, when I couldn’t recall the correct, comforting Bible passage under pressure that would convince her not to jump, Kate stepped off the rooftop and fell to her death.
All of my help, all of Max’s support, was for nothing when Kate needed it most.
That, or it couldn’t counterbalance the weight she felt, the pressure she was under. Kate fell, and I sat in stunned silence as the following cutscene played out. It was an emotional gutpunch, but, I thought, an unavoidable one.
The developers at DONTNOD wanted to show that there are unintended consequences of every action: that sometimes you can do everything right, jump through all of life’s hoops, and still miss something small that would have proved to be the difference between success and failure. That, despite your best efforts, you can still lose people that you care about. That people aren’t systems to be gamed; that, stripped of the power of foreknowledge, people can refuse to listen to reason and knock away a hand extended in friendship. That other people are entirely out of your control, and to think otherwise is an ego trip of the highest order.
Max’s failure – my failure – weighed heavily over the rest of the Episode, as the emotional fallout coloured both my subsequent choices and the mood in which I approached them.
…and then, after the credits rolled, I saw the percentage screen at the end of the Episode, which lays out how many players chose each potential option, and realised that it was possible to save Kate after all.
(Indeed, people who save Kate are in the majority. 66% of players save Kate on the PC version, at the time of writing)
But discovering that there was a ‘win state’ didn’t diminish my emotional investment or the quality of the storytelling. If anything, it deepened my appreciation for my choices, and my failure.
Even if the elements of gameplay that change depending on whether Kate is absent or present are few (the candlelit shrine that springs up in front of the dormitory if she dies; a reunion both tearful and cheerful in a hospital in Episode 4 that only occurs if Kate makes it through), the emotional fallout from not being able to save her – or the euphoric high of coming to the rescue of a friend in need – shades the subsequent narrative in a truly impactful way.
“I do believe in forgiveness and redemption. I never say this about people, but there’s something… evil about the Prescotts.” – KATE
Kate’s death or salvation also doubles down on one of the central themes of the game, and offers a mid-point throwforward to the final decision you, and Max, have to make. The scene with Kate, with its multiple-choice conversational path, is more gamified than the ‘Chloe or Arcadia Bay’ choice that everything leads up to: it’s a life-or-death test of whether you were paying Kate enough attention, not necessarily a test of how emotionally-connected to her you have become. But the impact – the life or death of a close friend – is the same.
If you know Kate well enough, have shown her enough attention and friendship, have been there for her when it counted, then you can talk her back from the edge of the roof. If you slip up, then you lose her. But despite this quiz-or-die air, it still presages the edge-of-the-seat, no-safety-net test at the end of the game, which relies on an emotive, Sophie’s choice model rather than a test of observation and memory. Do you love Chloe enough to let a whole town die?
But Kate is not just a more wholesome Chloe, a practice run for the ‘real thing’: she’s a winningly dimensional character in her own right – a flawed icon of ‘corrupted innocence’ who – at least in the timeline in which Max saves her from her own worst impulses – is able to throw off that corruption and reclaim her authentic self. In finding the human inside the paragon, and, more importantly, in creating a character who is the antithesis of prevailing trends in videogames, DONTNOD are to be applauded.
In terms of corrupting influences, there is one character who sits high above the rest. It’s time, then, to confront Mr. Mark Jefferson.
If any character leans towards caricature, rather than a three-dimensional subversion of archetype, it’s Jefferson. Perhaps that’s because, unlike the other characters, as we learn more about him, the more simplified he becomes, the more the dimensionality of his cover personality sloughs off, to reveal the arrogant, entitled, selfish and psychotic individual underneath.
The Jefferson we first meet – attractive, easygoing, if a little overly fond of the sound of his own voice – is the three-dimensional artifice, a glowing, bulbous lure to attract prey down to his crushing depths. And attractive, he certainly is. Chloe notes in Episode 4 that she’s, “Hot for teacher!”, and Max’s first impressions of him are just as strong:
“Mr. Jefferson assigned us a ton of reading, but this is exactly what I want to study. Jefferson is supercool and superchill. He doesn’t try to be too hip, he just says what he thinks and expects us to as well. I think he’s a genius. OMG I WANT TO MARRY HIM.” – MAX’S DIARY
If he comes off as a stereotype of a ‘down with the kids’ hipster teacher at first, that’s because it is the image has cultivated as his cover, and for Jefferson, image – and the control of his image – is everything.
“I wonder how it would feel to have false images of yourself shot out all over the world for people to judge? Usually people need something to judge so they never take a good look at themselves.” – JEFFERSON
Clearly obsessed with his own intellect, and his apparent untouchable status, he’s the kind of psychopath who wants everyone to know – or better yet, to suspect without tangible proof – what he has done and what he can do. He wants to hide in plain sight, laughing at his own cleverness, cloaking the truth in innuendoes and generalities, so as to avoid detection for his crimes.
“What if Arbus chose to capture people at the height of their beauty or innocence?” – JEFFERSON
Nowhere is this more apparent than his opening speech, which we revisit multiple times, and with multiple degrees of information about his character, across the course of the game.
“Seriously though, I could frame any one of you in a dark corner, and capture you in a moment of desperation.” – JEFFERSON
He also manages to disguise the extent of his impulses and behaviours behind an ‘acceptable’ amount of public sleaziness. “Don’t trust grown men with goatees,” David notes in Episode 4, even before he knows of Jefferson’s crimes, but he’s right: Jefferson’s public persona is carefully calibrated for maximum effect.
The thick-rimmed glasses, the stylishly-trimmed beard, the product-shaped hair, the luxury car. Jefferson plays with the social expectations of a man of his strata – that he’ll be a rootless womaniser, perhaps, or that he’ll have no qualms about sleeping with his students. These are breaches of the social contract – and possibly, in the case of relations with a student, breaches of his actual contract as well – but, given that all of Max’s year have recently turned eighteen, not illegal.
Especially in a game about secrets hiding behind white picket fences, these kind of transgressions – infidelity, disloyalty – are what we, as the audience, are primed to expect. Both the game, and Jefferson himself, go out of the way to deliberately misdirect us using these well-worn signifiers. He wears the mask of a cad to disguise his true dark side.
Beyond his self-incriminating lectures, of course, there are numerous signs as to Jefferson’s true nature and involvement that slip by on a first playthrough, but that stand out as red flags on a second. Most players will have eavesdropped on his furtive phone conversation in the hallway outside the classroom in Episode 2 and subsequently flag him for further investigation. But at the time, his ambiguously-worded responses sound more like a man dealing with a secret lover than, as he actually is, talking Nathan down after his most recent, murderous, mistake:
“Listen, I do have a class I have to teach, I have to go. […] Because I can’t have this conversation with you right now.” – JEFFERSON
While his refusal to indulge Victoria’s desire to sleep her way into pole position again throws us off his scent, Jefferson’s response to Kate’s viral video causes an immediate reaction of distaste. Rather than acting like the adult in the room, he opines:
“What if Kate brought this on herself? She means well, but maybe she doth protest too much?” – JEFFERSON
It’s not the first sign that he’s not as clean-cut as he appears, but it certainly tips him from ‘sleazy but potentially harmless’ into ‘Men’s Rights Activist in the making’, or certainly, ‘man who needs a refresher course on the meaning of consent’. While we don’t yet know about his “binders full of women”, we instantly know the kind of posts he’d be liking on Facebook, the sort of forums he would frequent.
The surprise in discovering Jefferson’s true nature is as much about the extreme nature of his perversions, and the well-appointed location in which he indulges them, than it is being surprised that Jefferson is a dark and dangerous character, full-stop. He arouses our suspicions throughout, but we don’t expect him to be a prime-time player until the concluding minutes of Episode 4.
While there’s much to say later about how Jefferson uses the lens of a camera as a weapon, following on from Jefferson’s dismissive attitude toward Kate’s ordeal, it’s important to note the extent to which Jefferson, the narrative, and the game’s designers go out of their way to underscore that his photographic predations are emotional, physical and mental assaults, but not sexual.
Given the lack of consent and Jefferson’s interfering with his captives’ bodies in his attempts to capture the ‘perfect’ photographic moment, it’s still assault by any reasonable legal definition, but it’s clear from primary sources in the game that Jefferson’s intent is not penetrative rape – even if the results, from a traumatic perspective, are much the same.
His victims are drugged, posed and, if they’re lucky, spat back out into civilisation disoriented, confused, and unable to find people in positions of authority who will believe them when they talk about what has happened (or who, just as terribly, respond in the same way as the ‘public Jefferson’ and suggest that the victim was in some way ‘asking for it’). But they’re not, by the examples we’re shown, stripped or interfered with sexually.
Some of this is splitting hairs. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to find a game (or TV show, or movie) aimed at mature players, featuring strong women characters, that doesn’t immediately jump to ‘rape’ or as a motivator for character action or development, using the threat of its deployment as shorthand for ‘very bad things’.
But the setup, methodology and results of Jefferson’s transgressions are almost identical to rape, and the targets of both Jefferson and Nathan are all women. This is clearly about deeply troubled, misogynist men exercising their power over women for their own amusement and pleasure. The choice to clearly demarcate Jefferson’s perversions as non-physical could be read as DONTNOD (correctly) judging the tenor of current videogames criticism and social media response and deciding to walk back Jefferson’s rapist tendencies at the outline stage, just as it could be judged to be a facet of his unique and controlling character: the photograph is all Jefferson cares about; the women are just the means to an end. It is enough that his camera transforms them from subject to object; he has already exerted his control.
(Personally, the less character rape is used as a motivating or complicating factor in a narrative – comic, novel, game, film or TV show – not specifically about the topic, the better. Yes, it can be dealt with effectively in a few rare projects; no, nothing should be off the table or censored in fiction; yes, it is horribly prevalent in our society and needs to be confronted rather than buried; no, making rape a part of a female character’s origin story or ascent to ‘empowered womanhood’ is not original, smart, challenging or controversial. It’s largely an exhausted pop-cultural shorthand, and yet still almost every even faintly ‘edgy’ project seems to cling to its inclusion, as if it is a mandatory requirement for certain age brackets or channels. It’s not. We must find other challenges to throw in our character’s paths; our stories will be the better for it. That said, the times when the subject is clearly bound up in the entirety of a narrative – such as in Netflix’s excellent Jessica Jones, thirteen episodes dealing with the aftermath of trauma in depth, and as a central theme – rather than sprinkling it over the top of a series like a seasoning of transgression, are the times when its use is most successful and most narratively justified.)
It’s also possible to argue that Jefferson is somewhat asexual, at least as far as his Dark Room perversions are concerned. Though Stella is keen to spread gossip about Jefferson sleeping with Rachel in Episode 1:
“He’s not going to mess around with a student.” – MAX
“That’s what you think. You have a lot to learn about Blackwell. Rachel Amber absolutely had sex with him.” – STELLA
there’s nothing in Jefferson’s actions or environment that suggest he has any sexual interest in the girls he abducts, nor that he was sleeping with Rachel. The couch in the Dark Room is only colonised for sexual purposes in Max’s nightmare – otherwise the whole bunker is a sterile, medical environment: bland, white and grey. An underground oasis of fresh paint and stainless steel. Jefferson’s “binders full of women” are anthropological studies in the power he can hold over women, not notches on his (non-existent) bedpost.
But – most importantly – Life Is Strange does not minimise the effect that Jefferson’s actions have on the women he abducts. There is no downplaying of the trauma that even a half-remembered photoshoot has on the likes of Rachel, Kate, Victoria and Max. Likewise, there is no victorious banding-together of the wronged women to visit vengeful violence upon him. Even in the ‘best’ endings of the game, Rachel is still dead, and it takes the police – and David – to arrest him. Cartharsis is not as easy as just beating your tormentor up. Life Is Strange is not an exploitation revenge flick.
For Max, her experiences – plural – at the hands of Jefferson cause something of a complete psychic fracture. The visions seen in her temporal hallucinations in Episode 5 show how her torture in the Dark Room have led her to see the dark side in every significant male figure in her life.
On one level, this is Jefferson and his actions ‘poisoning the well’. On another, it speaks to the kind of challenges women of all ages, and especially teen women, still shaping their selves and personalities, face when navigating a world often set in opposition to their equal participation.
Caught under unbearable male scrutiny (literal searchlights beaming from the eyes of a rotating Jefferson statue, and spilling from the handheld flashlights of her male pursuers) and running a gauntlet of demeaning and degrading remarks in a semi-anonymous space, Max’s horrifying journey through the fragments of her mind seems a frighteningly-apt metaphor for being a young woman under assault from unsolicited men on the internet, or in any semi-public venue.
Her nightmare becomes one of evading notice. She is stripped of the power she has previously wielded while awake – that of using the truth to uncover and bring to justice those men who have been preying on her campus – and forced to dodge their attentions – judgmental, sexual, sexist – in order to survive.
The game – and, by extension, Max’s subconscious – gives her no ability to fight back. If caught by one of their torchbeams, she’s done for. All she can do is cling to the shadows and avoid notice – and, if none of the men spots her, get to the other side of the nightmare intact.
“Don’t try to hide, Max – get over here! Let me capture you!” – NIGHTMARE JEFFERSON
“I realise now you’ll never be an artist, much less a photographer.” – NIGHTMARE JEFFERSON
“I’m sorry to announce that one of your classmates, Maxine Caulfield, has died under tragic circumstances… that I promise to investigate after I get my drink on.” – NIGHTMARE PRINCIPAL
“Do you have a scarf I can borrow, Max?” – NIGHTMARE SAMUEL
Even Warren, her closest male friend, is twisted by her subconscious – his puppydog persistence (and buried reserves of frustrated anger) turning into a dark and dangerous obsession:
“Ma-aax? Where are you? Come out to play. Come out to play-ay.”
“Hey babe, babe, who wants to go ape? Go ape go ape go ape!”
“You dig my wheels? Get in, I’ll take you for a ride. GET IN THE CAR!”
“Max – I know you’re in here. You can run, but you can’t hide from your White Knight! GIVE IT UP!”
“What’s up with you and that blue-haired loser? You need an alpha male, baby!”
“Max. Imagine if we were in the darkroom together. I have.”
And his locker – an optional extra that Max must dig especially deep to find – into a horrific shrine:
Max’s mousiness, earlier so dismissed, is weaponised here, and its wallflower invisibility clarified. Sometimes women are forced to become invisible in order to survive.
It’s not just men who populate this nightmare, of course: a manifestation of Chloe is also conjured up shortly after to further twist the psychological knife. But there’s enough truth in the words the men mutter and shout to show that, even when among her friends, Max is, on some level, calculating who will be next to strike.
Even if she and Chloe both survive the ordeal, Jefferson has succeeded in leaving his mental mark on those he terrorised.