To bring us briefly back into the light before we plunge into the secondary tier of the cast, it’s diverting to examine the nominative determinism of the leads’ surnames – some almost thuddingly obvious in retrospect.
Of course Chloe must pay the ‘Price’ at the game’s close, or Arcadia Bay will. Some names offering a deep seam of delights for the idling miner (perhaps one tilling in a ‘Caulfield’, though that name is an acknowledged nod to the teenage narrator of The Catcher in the Rye). Rachel ‘Amber’, of course, is preserved forever in photographs, memories, and a shallow grave: an unmet presence whose history hangs heavy over the course of the story. Victoria ‘Chase’, the object of Mark Jefferson’s pursuit and of his perverse courtship.
‘Jefferson’ applies the weight of a founding father to push Mark beyond suspicion – though it’s also a surname with specific resonance for game’s setting, due to intermittent calls for regional secession from Oregon and California to create a new State of Jefferson.
Talk of the State of Jefferson prefigures the creation of Oregon in the 19th century, and movements still occasionally gather traction – though no serious signs of success – today. [Wiki Link]
Then there’s Kate ‘Marsh’, mired in her depression and unable to see her way out of the bullying culture that imprisons her; Frank ‘Bowers’, a man with a rarely-seen, surprising oasis of calm, who always speaks without veneer; and David ‘Madsen’, rarely not furious.
Of those latter pair, we’ll discuss Frank Bowers when we talk about Rachel Amber, but first let’s take a further look at one of the more challenging and nuanced men in the cast: David Madsen.
“There are a lot of dark places in Arcadia Bay,” David tells Max in Episode 4, and he should know – he’s surveilled most of them.
Step-father. Moustachioed red-herring. Asshole. Unexpectedly deep. David is a keen example of how different playthroughs – or one small action – can cause a player’s perception of a character to totally shift. He is also another character who benefits from his actions in the endgame on a second playthrough, when we are forced to reassess his actions from the start.
We first meet David in the halls of Blackwell Academy, when he’s pulling his full jobsworth-stormtrooper routine, barking orders from beneath his moustache.
For much of that Episode, he does his level best to paint himself in a bad light – whether it’s cornering the quailingly-innocent Kate outside the dorms, playing the heavy with his step-daughter, or revealing himself to have disturbingly-detailed files on many of Blackwell’s young women in his garage workshop.
But David’s role in the mid-game provides one of the most interesting choice-based deviations. Depending on whether Max chooses to take the fall for Chloe’s pot-smoking in her bedroom, David either turns against Max, though the repercussions are low, or strikes Chloe in the face, and can be subsequently chased out of the Price household as a result.
“We all make decisions we regret.” – DAVID
David’s story in either case is one of penance for an overreaction, one that he doesn’t try to defend, but does want to make amends for. As we’ll discuss later, Life Is Strange is powerful because of the way it invites you to feel sympathy for characters whose actions would be deemed unredeemable in many other media – even after they behave in often abhorrent ways towards our favourite characters.
It may be hard to forgive David for his actions towards Chloe – and indeed, it’s not our place to do so – but he is a character of many facets. Few players will peg this schoolyard Nazi and surveillance-obsessed security guard as their saviour in a time of need, but that’s precisely what he becomes for Max.
He is also one of the few adult characters who demonstrates real growth, remorse and development, from his fractured opening up about what his relationship with Joyce and Chloe means to him, to his realisation that he was among the forces that drove Kate to make an attempt on her life:
“I treated Kate Marsh like shit. I know she’s a good person, and I’m not. I hope I get to tell her that soon.” – DAVID
He’s a man who tries to be self-sufficient, to take on the world’s hurts so nobody else has to – but who doesn’t have the strength or the insight to solve Arcadia Bay’s problems on his own. He’s private about his tours of service, though they still weigh heavily on him:
“I try not to use my service as an excuse. But it’s hard to come home after war.” – DAVID
David’s character also embodies the dissociative state with which America views its soldiers and veterans: heroes to be applauded at football games while active, welfare claimants to be abandoned on their return home.
It also becomes clear that David was trying to help Nathan out, one PTSD sufferer to another. “’David M always asks what’s going on in my head. David M always helps me follow who he follows.’” “Pretty cryptic,” Chloe notes about this clue, found in the Principal’s office, but it’s another ambiguously-worded red herring. We’re supposed to infer that David and Nathan are in cahoots, that David has been training Nathan in his stalkerish ways, but the truth is probably closer to the motivation for his actions David tells Max about on their second corridor meeting. David used to tear things up as a kid – and now he’s trying to stop Chloe, and her peers, from making the same mistakes.
“She’s better than that, all you kids are.” – DAVID
Everyone on campus knows that Nathan is troubled – but few are willing to do anything proactive to help him: either because they fear his father, or they think Nathan himself is a little shit and want nothing to do with him. But David has a thicker skin, and has brought more home with him from war than he wanted to, and there’s a suggestion he’s looking to share some of the PTSD coping mechanisms he’s developed since mustering out of the army.
In many ways, David is the embodiment of red-blooded America – a walking bundle of First and Second Amendment rights – with his garage space of guns, enough shelves of tinned goods to ride out the apocalypse, and a hobby of restoring beat-up muscle cars (which, in tandem with Chloe’s obsession with her father’s death by car wreck and her favourite hangout spot among the shells of ruined vehicles, we can see a metaphor for David’s repair of his relationship with his step-daughter in the manner in which the car in the garage is restored over the course of several Episodes).
We’ll return to his obsession with surveillance in a later section covering the game’s use of photography, but in David we clearly see an exploration of the many sides of the public debate about a government’s powers of surveillance, and their effectiveness in stopping terrorist threats, versus quashing individual liberties. A one-man NSA, for all that David did have useful surveillance at his fingertips, it’s also buried in a landfill of meaningless noise. And for all the cameras mounted in Blackwell, not one of them would have caught Jefferson or stopped Kate. To have access to all the relevant information is not the same as knowing what to do with it.
Before we move on, it’s also worth exploring the two spookily oracular characters in the game in a little more detail. Much like David, they have information, but lack the context in which to deploy it. They are Samuel, the savant-like caretaker, whose cryptic, creepy-but-ultimately-harmless pronouncements hint at a greater knowledge of what is going on than he lets on, and the homeless woman outside the diner – whose presence I managed to miss completely in my first playthrough, only encountering her dead in Episode 5. She claims to be a thousand years old (albeit in a voice that suggests dry wit and long-suffering, rather than a literal interpretation), and possessed of deep knowledge about Arcadia Bay.
Samuel, with his halting, singsong speech, habit of referring to himself in the third person, and owlish stare, is clearly designed to fit halfway between an undiscovered pervert and Of Mice and Men’s Lenny. But since Max treats him as odd but harmless, we are encouraged to do so, too. Our senses of suspicion heightened to David-Madsen-like levels, there are several things about Samuel that set Max’s Spider Senses tingling, though they all ultimately end up as red herrings. He certainly had an obsession with Rachel Amber, though in discussion with the Blackwell Academy students and staff, it seems there were few at the school who didn’t.
“She’ll always be alive in our hearts. Sometimes that’s all we have left. Max – all I can tell you is to stay on your path and you’ll find what you’re looking for. Rachel Amber is waiting, too.” – SAMUEL
There’s also an implication, yes, that Samuel may be collecting trinkets of young women he likes, after Max discovers a scarf in his shed – not to mention a box full of out-of-place, high-fashion magazines:
“I know Samuel doesn’t wear silky scarves. So… who does?” – MAX
But equally, Samuel could have found the scarf on the ground while raking leaves, and be keeping it in his shed until he can drop it off at Lost Property. Just because he’s creepy, doesn’t make him a creeper, as Max is also keen to point out in her monologues.
His behaviour also makes us, as players, wonder if Samuel has more knowledge of Max’s actions and abilities than he lets on. Certainly a lot of his dialogue suggests that he has knowledge of Max’s ability to time travel, from his on-the-nose hints of how to bypass Victoria, in Episode 1:
“After I sweep, I paint.”
(In which the grammatical tense is important)
To his more abstract musings on the life, the universe, the environment, and the nature of casuality:
“Arcadia Bay is scared, too – look at the weather and the animals. Feels like the sky wants to yell at us.” – SAMUEL
“How can you know?” – MAX
“You just have to open your eyes. That’s how I can sense that something bigger is coming to Arcadia Bay, and Max – I don’t like it at all.” – SAMUEL
He’s much sharper than his delivery and demeanour would suggest – he’s not above cutting Max when she pushes him to hard, as with: “Sorry to pry, she says, while prying.”
Samuel is a spiritual man, though one set in counterpoint to the more Biblical Kate Marsh. When Max professes curiosity about the spectral doe she witnessed the previous day, he rattles off, with some authority: “Oh, that’s your spirit animal. Nothing weird there, except you saw yours. Maybe it’s a sign about your destiny. But what do I know – my spirit animal is a squirrel.”
When Max questions him: “Samuel, do you think we each have a destiny?”, he responds: “Yes, I do. In many different lifetimes, of course. Kate Marsh believed in something different, so that’s her destiny,” which is worth quickly unpicking.
There’s the implicit suggestion, of course, the Samuel is aware of the alternate realities that Max is creating, even before she becomes fully aware of them. “Many different lifetimes” could mean multiple universes running in parallel, of course, or it could equally be a poetic way to describe life itself. No choice or destiny is truly more important than any other – we will all, at some point in our lives, ponder the roads not taken. Equally, as we can all attest, the person we are at 18 is not the person we are at 21, 30, 40, or beyond. Every life is the sum of multiple lives lived.
“Kate Marsh believed in something different” is intriguing – on one level, it’s a slam on her Christianity: believing in what she does was not enough to stop her from trying to jump off the roof of the dorm. On another, it’s a telling description of her depression – Kate had gotten to such a dark spot that she could only see one path, one destiny, that led out of it: permanently.
It’s just as equally possible that Samuel has Buddhist leanings, and that this is an expression of his faith in reincarnation. From there, it’s not much of a stretch to see the twin spirit animals of the cyan butterfly and the deer as the reincarnated forms of Chloe and Rachel, respectively. Of course, the butterfly makes an argument in favour of achronological reincarnation – that the spirit of Chloe travels back from the ending in which Max is forced to sacrifice her (where it is seen alighting on her casket, in the game’s final shot), to bear witness to her own death: and to temporarily negate its occurrence, so that she and Max can get to know one another before she dies. In a game about time travel and spirit animals, there’s no reason that the circle of reincarnation could not move in reverse… In this case, too, Kate’s Christian faith would obviously preclude the possibility of reincarnation – her belief is just a statement of fact.
Like Max, Samuel looks at the world in a different way. He may be ‘touched’, different, but as he himself admits, “I just look at everything from a different angle.” That doesn’t necessarily mean he knows the tornado is coming, of course, nor that he is aware of Max’s adventures in time and her abrasive effects on reality. It’s left up to the player to decide for themselves how much credence to give to his off-kilter, New Age-y pronouncements… however accurate they prove in the endgame.
The homeless woman who makes her shelter in the parking lot behind the Two Whales Diner also looks at the world in a different way – but from a position of social invisibility, rather than metaphysical understanding.
“I’m probably a bigger snoop than you. People pretend to not see me, so I see everybody and every thing.” – HOMELESS WOMAN
In many respects – including her drawling, southern-tinged delivery – the homeless woman (“I never even asked her name,” Max berates herself, in the final Episode) plays the part of a street-level oracle and, as with Samuel, we’re left to debate whether she is being literal or poetic in the following exchange:
“How long have you lived in Arcadia Bay?” – MAX
“A thousand years. I’ve gone through the same changes as the town. Ones it takes a lifetime to see. There’s a lot of beauty here, but darkness, too. Greedy bastards that ruin this town, put people out of work.” – HOMELESS WOMAN
Whether that thousand years is the careworn sigh of a woman worn down by circumstance, or the genuine utterance of Arcadia Bay’s down-on-her-luck immortal, is up to the player to parse. While some of the community speculated she was an aged version of Max who’d gone astray in the past, on a mission to find Rachel, the intent behind her character is probably more prosaic – the developers wanted someone to embody the quotidian evil inflicted on the town by the Prescotts, and their desires to socially cleanse and rebrand Arcadia Bay through real estate deals.
Having said all that, the woman takes Max at her word, should you choose to warn her about the incoming tornado (“Bad mojo in the air this week.”) and will be gone when you return to the Diner in Episode 5 – she clearly has no trouble believing that Max has foreknowledge of the future.
Two other characters who do their best to influence Max’s future are the staff of Blackwell Academy with whom she has the most interaction: Principal Ray Wells, and principled science teacher Michelle Grant.
Wells’ arc is the most developed of the pair – in most respects Ms. Grant vanishes from the narrative after Max chats with her about theories of time travel in the third Episode – her function as a scientific sounding board exhausted – but Wells continues to dog Max’s steps throughout the story.
But Ms. Grant has a number of interesting functions – from a purely plot-based level, her campaign against David Madsen’s level of campus surveillance, including a petition against the deployment of additional security cameras, does much to set Max against David from the start. Ms. Grant is warm, welcoming, and clearly intelligent, and her opposition to David’s plans, and eloquent denunciation of casual mass surveillance, quickly puts us on her side of the argument.
In many ways, her role in the narrative is to add plurality to the staff voices at Blackwell, to lend credence to the idea that not everybody there is out to exploit, disbelieve, or screw over the students in some way.
“Time is like a thread, Max. One tug and it can all unravel.” – MS GRANT
On a level of character and theme, Ms. Grant is the champion of rationality and science – she has the look and delivery of an ‘earth mother’ stereotype, but quickly subverts it. As Max challenges her on the concept of time travel, on the bizarre weather patterns wreathing the Bay, Ms. Grant refuses to allow sentimentality into her worldview:
“Nothing is beyond science, except for our lack of knowledge. We may never know why, but that doesn’t change reality.” – MS GRANT
But that lack of sentimentality doesn’t mean a lack of interest in other worldviews. Just as with the best of Blackwell, Ms. Grant is a fusion of the sciences and arts.
In the field of literature, she notably draws attention to Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder – the book that popularised the concept of chaos theory, and what the flapping of a butterfly’s wings may do to time and space, though it did not originate either concept. Ironically, of course, it’s a famous Bradbury story that’s not included in the horror anthology that Kate and Max have been passing back and forth. Perhaps it’s included in the French edition!
In terms of local and historical knowledge, she professes an obsession with the Native American culture of Arcadia Bay – potentially embodied in the Tobanga carving that sits outside the dorm rooms, but just as equally an immutable part of the landscape. The writers don’t lean heavily on, “It’s Native American magic” as an option for Max’s powers – in fact, the closest it comes to being raised directly is in our two brief discussions with Ms. Grant. Offsetting possible accusations of cultural imperialism, or just subverting expectations of genre, may be the most obvious explanations for why it is not interrogated further by the game.
“Max, you know how fascinated I am by Arcadia Bay legends. But I haven’t found any apocalyptic signs yet.” – MS GRANT
As for Principal Wells, there’s a whiff of the black desk sergeant cliché when first we meet him, a sense that at any moment he may snarl for Max’s gun and badge, before throwing her off the force for being a maverick.
Wells, too, reveals his depths as the game develops. While his first role is to be an obstruction in Max’s quest for justice – refusing to believe her allegations against Nathan, perhaps because he secretly suspects that they’re true – he subsequently grows into a figure of support – at least in one, partially-abortive timeline in the fifth Episode.
Perhaps the most telling part of the San Francisco sequence, wherein Wells accompanies Max to her first-ever gallery showing, in lieu of the now-imprisoned Jefferson, is the figure of freedom that Wells strikes, even as he demonstrates his exhaustion. Freed – by chance, from his perspective – of the burden of Nathan, by his murder, of Sean Prescott, by the school’s lack of complicity in Nathan’s death, and of Jefferson, by the photographer’s imprisonment, Wells is suddenly able to embrace the role of mentor and eater-of-canapes that his younger self dreamed he would one day become.
In the present, Wells is cowed by the spectre of the Prescotts – not just in the psychological hold they have over him through repeated abuses of power, but by the fact that the school, and even the town, are largely owned and controlled by the Prescott estate.
He’s a man overwhelmed by circumstance, who has attained his desire and found it poisonous. We discover, when he becomes Max’s chaperone in the alternate Seattle Gallery timeline, that Wells dreamed – actually dreamed – of being a school administrator as a child. Either he’s an exceptionally smooth teller of deadpan jokes, or he reached the position that he worked for all his life – and found his own skills lacking.
As Max says: “I’d drink, too, if I was the Principal of Blackwell.”
Given Wells’ intermittent appearances in the story, we learn almost as much from breaking into his office in Episode 3 as we do from Max’s conversations with him. We discover – to Chloe’s loud disgust – that the Principal of a progressive arts academy has very traditional tastes – his study a blend of overpoweringly dark wooden walls and terrible art. A brass eagle acts as a paperweight on his desk, but tellingly this bird of infamous eyesight has its gaze trained on the Principal’s chair, and not on those he may wish to intimidate.
Unlike David, who would be happiest at the centre of a surveillance web of his own making, Wells clearly feels the discomfort of being at the centre of a community panopticon, yet is unwilling to cut himself any slack, even in private.
Now seems as appropriate a time as any to touch on Life Is Strange’s approach to racial and ethnic diversity among its cast.
“Blackwell Academy seems more exotic to me than any other place in the world. There will be cool diverse students from everywhere.” – MAX’S DIARY
Max is largely correct, although the bench of secondary characters and students at the Academy is wide, but shallow, in the context of the game itself. Characters such as Brooke, Evan, Stella, Trevor and Hayden exist largely to populate the campus and offer flavour to Max’s story – contributing unique viewpoints and large-brushstrokes characterisation, without being actively engaged in the central mystery. They are the back-up singers to Max and Chloe’s duet.
It’s clear from even a summary glance at the game’s cast that the lead roles in Life Is Strange are all white. In many ways Michelle Grant falls under the same aegis as the background students – she exists to add (if you’ll excuse the pun) colour to the narrative, without unduly influencing it. Principal Wells plays a much more active role in the story from the off, with his arc intersecting with Max’s at numerous points throughout the story – whether it’s in disbelieving her report of Nathan’s gun-wielding in the first Episode, investigating Kate’s suicide attempt in the second, or accompanying Max to San Francisco in the final part.
It’s intriguing to consider in what ways Wells is a conscious subversion of the ‘black man in authority’ character mentioned above. Is his rapidly-revealed alcoholism a pushback against the straightlaced police chiefs and Presidents and Starfleet Commanders of decades past and present, that elevate black characters to positions of power in ways that nonetheless remove them from the main thread of a narrative and much of their running time? Do his venality and cowardice in the face of Sean Prescott’s chequebook add dimension to his straightlaced position – or simply measure how much he has had to compromise to achieve his childhood dream, and how much bias and prejudice from rich, entitled men like Prescott he has had to endure along the way? And similarly, is Ms. Grant’s deeply-held trust in science a pushback against pop culture’s predominant use of middle-aged black women as folksy, religious bearers of expository dialogue and protagonist support? The characterisation of both addresses symptomatic and systematic stereotyping – but without moving characters of colour from the fringes to the centre of the narrative.
While it’s dangerous to wheel out real-world statistics in any discussion of race in pop culture – no story is formed from statistics alone, free of authorial intent: every character’s race is an elective choice on the part of the creators, and there is no onus to reflect reality with 100% accuracy in a work of fiction – it is worth noting that the Oregonian smalltown of Arcadia Bay roughly reflects the reality of race in that state.
Oregon has a relatively low African-American population compared to the US average, and a higher density of White residents. At the time of the 2010 census, Oregon was 78.5% White, compared to 63.7% in the rest of the US, with a population 1.7% African-American (compared to 12.2% nationally), 4.0% Asian (compared to 4.8% nationally) and 11.7% Hispanic (compared to 16.3% nationally). Asian or Pacific Islanders form the largest minority racial group in Oregon. [Read more]
Though Oregon remains one of the least diverse states in America, rates of diversity in Oregon are currently accelerating at rates well ahead of the national average, especially among African-American and Hispanic groups.
It was still DONTNOD’s decision to set the game in Oregon in the first place, of course, which perhaps speaks to one of the pitfalls of stories that homage tales from other, older media: those media are often predominantly white, and an easy visual shortcut to the nostalgia inherent in those stories is to create casts and settings that mirror those of the homaged media. It can take a deliberate and conscious step to break with formula, and tradition – think adding John Boyega as a lead to Star Wars – to begin filling in the non-diverse canvas of stories from previous generations.
With all that in mind, it’s important to note that DONTNOD’s previous game, Remember Me, was no slouch when it came to depicting racially-diverse characters on the streets of its future Paris, with a mixed-race woman, Nilin, as the lead.
It also sold considerably fewer copies, and failed to set the internet alight in quite the same fashion – whether that was a limitation of the market, or of a game whose combat-heavy engine and control scheme put off those intrigued by its memory-manipulating central conceit, is harder to quantify.
While past behaviour is no indicator of present form, it does speak to a desire on the part of the developers to craft characters outside of publisher expectations and the nebulous concept of what ‘the market’ will support. Even if Life Is Strange’s minority characters are often shortchanged by the narrative’s tight focus on its lead pair, Max and Chloe are still a step forward for videogames in their own right.
In an AAA videogames market driven by armoured space marines and first-person war simulators, turning around the oil tanker of cultural expectations is still a herculean task. While it’s very much worth considering what a greater diversity among its leads would and could have brought to the game, it’s still notable that Life Is Strange is twitching the tanker onto a new heading at all.
No single game can be all things to all people, and games like Life Is Strange, with their relatable women leads, stylised and unique art palette, and experimental, emotional approach, are very much a step in the right direction: that of a broader canvas for all videogames. Now that Life Is Strange 2 has been officially announced, perhaps it will offer a broader and more diverse set of protagonists and story leads.
As the last of our character studies, we finally come to Rachel Amber.
For a character we never meet, Rachel is utterly central to the narrative of the game: Arcadia Bay’s own Laura Palmer. It’s a sign of how much DONTNOD believe in the strength of their characters, and story, that the game never feels the need to show us footage of Rachel, or involve her in a flashback or time travel Episode of some sort. (It would be interesting to know if there was ever such a scene floated in the early story planning stages, or if she was cut out of the game from the start.) In many ways, giving us a chance to get to know Rachel on her own terms would undo much of the power and intrigue inherent in the way she is presented – both to Max and the player – as a patchwork, with new facets revealed with each passing Episode.
A patchwork composite is an appropriate way to describe Rachel – it becomes obvious from Max and Chloe’s investigations that she aspired to be all things to all people, or at least presented herself as such. There was no-one in Arcadia Bay who got to see all of Rachel Amber – not even Chloe, who is as surprised by the revelation that Rachel had been sleeping with Frank as Max.
“It makes me ill that Rachel posed like this for Frank, or wrote him love letters. Rachel straight-up lied to my face. Why would she do that?” – CHLOE
Instead, as we learn early on, from our turn around the quad in Episode 1, Rachel was adept at putting everyone else at their ease, a social butterfly with aspirations to be an actor, who, as Samuel says, “gave out headshots like squirrels chasing food.” But her desire to be seen, and her desire to be desired, hid the troubles of a young woman who was desperate to escape Arcadia Bay by any means necessary.
“[Rachel] was able to blend in with anybody. Even the people I hated.” – CHLOE
Just as with Laura Palmer, Rachel becomes a prism through which the other characters can be viewed.
“How can you know a prism? You just stare in awe.” – SAMUEL
In Episode 1, we find a girl who touched everyone, but lightly. Everyone at Blackwell has something positive to say about her, and how she added some form of meaning to their lives, but whether it was posing for a sketch or attending a party, Rachel’s characteristics beyond her physical appearance are hard to discern. She made people feel better about themselves, while keeping her true self guarded all the while.
Rachel offers us a good opportunity to talk about the lure of ‘The Muse’, both as a concept, and as an aspiration for people, particularly for young, good-looking, popular women with an interest in the arts. We see from the reactions and reminiscences of the Blackwell Academy students that Rachel made herself available to them in this way, as a spark for their own creativity, with little asked for in return. But we also come to understand that she began to find this attention stifling, a drain on her own creative desires. She still wanted a modelling or acting career, but more than anything, she wanted out of Arcadia Bay.
Heartbreakingly for Chloe, but understandably from our perspective, her closest ally in this plan was Frank – a man seemingly content to have Rachel in his life for as long as he could, knowing that their arrangement would not be a permanent one, and yet unwilling to stand in her way:
“I would never have stopped her from following her dreams.” – FRANK
It’s clear that Rachel gravitated towards Frank because he asked little of her beyond her company. As David Madsen’s prying surveillance reports note, “Rachel has been cutting class all week?? Rachel avoids her dormitory”. Frank’s shitty RV is a place where she can choose to pose for photos, or not. A place where she can be something resembling an authentic self that she fears she has lost along the way. A place where she can make Frank take “a weird blood oath” for her protection.
Frank Bowers himself merits a short sidebar here – for a character with whom we don’t spend much quality time, he and his dog, Pompidou, subtly insinuate themselves into the narrative throughout. His battered RV is in the Academy car park in the very first part, and he makes wordless appearances in the montages that end most of the Episodes. A neck-tattooed drug dealer of hidden depths, he buries a good heart deep: very deep.
“Frank has issues, but he’s not creepy.” – CHLOE
Frank is no stranger to flashes of anger or violence – when Max first meets him, he pulls a switchblade on Chloe, then absconds with Chloe’s stolen gun, and a subsequent meeting at his trailer at the beach can go all kinds of violently wrong, largely at his hands.
Though the majority of players avoid inflicting lasting damage upon him, he and Pompidou can meet with almost as many untimely deaths as Chloe – from winging him in the junkyard, to outright killing him in Episode 4. Poor Pompidou, too, can be encouraged to chase traffic or eat a bullet by the most callous of players.
Again, while we can feel sympathy for Frank, he’s not a ‘good’ man by any stretch of the imagination. His remorse when we see him for the final time, in the Two Whales Diner as the storm bears down on the Bay, is genuine – but then Max has just told him that it was his drugs that were responsible for Rachel’s fatal overdose.
“I… killed my lioness.” – FRANK
If he survives the storm, it’s a long walk to redemption, if such a thing is possible. It’s clear that the relationship between Frank and Rachel, while loving, was certainly turbulent, as outlined in two handwritten notes from Rachel uncovered in Frank’s RV:
Hope you read this first thing in the morning. Sorry about last night. I was being a monstrous bitch and took it out on you. And poor Pompidou. There’s a lot of weird shit going on in my life and sometimes I feel like I’m nevr going to get out of Arcadia Bay. Thank god for you. You’re one of the best things I have here and I smile when I think of us together. Let’s just drive out of here forever.
Love u always – RA-”
That was not cool what you did. And don’t blame the drugs. You actually scared me and I thought you’d never chill out. I’ve never seen you act that way and the next time will be the last. I’m a Leo and we don’t look back. I care about you, us, so maybe we need to break our routine.
– XO RA –”
If ‘what he did’ is anything akin to the violent grab for Chloe’s throat he makes at the beach, it’s likely Rachel bore the brunt of his oft-irrational temper – not to mention, there’s a suggestion in David’s surveillance notes that Rachel was smuggling drugs for Frank into Blackwell.
Even if, as Nathan suggests, “Rachel just wanted his stash. She let him take pictures,” the accretion disc of evidence around Rachel and Frank points to a young woman going in with eyes open and finding more than she expected, for better and for worse.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about Frank’s role in the narrative is that – like Nathan – his role as a red herring and potential murderer of Rachel is later revealed to be true. While he is not ‘the Jefferson’ of the story, it’s still his drug supply that allowed Jefferson to abduct and ‘pacify’ his targets, and his stash that is responsible for Rachel’s overdose.
Life Is Strange doesn’t deal in Scooby-Doo absolutes: in a sense, everyone in Arcadia Bay is to some degree complicit in Rachel’s death, and those of the other young women transformed from subject into object by Jefferson’s lens.
To return to Rachel, what of her relationship with Chloe? It’s unclear if it was sexual, though it was clearly intense. If nothing else, Rachel proved to be the one inhabitant of Arcadia Bay resistant to Chloe’s changing moods:
“Chloe could piss anybody off, but her. They were so close they were almost joined at the head.” – JOYCE
Perhaps what hurts Chloe the most when Rachel’s connections to Frank are revealed is the idea that she had been treating Rachel as an object, a muse, rather than the best friend she saw her as. A beautiful crutch with which to face the pain of losing her father, and her original best friend. As much of a must-have rebellious punk accessory as the blue hair and tattoos.
Or perhaps Rachel was just a troubled young woman adept at compartmentalising the many different aspects of her life. As Samuel notes:
“Even sunlight can cast shadows. Rachel did both, you know. She was like a battery. Positive and negative.”
Comparisons with Rachel – both internal and external – form a lot of Max’s drive over the course of the Episodes.
“These photos are great, and Rachel Amber’s face is… mesmerising.” – MAX, about Evan’s photos.
Rachel first provides the conduit through which we are drawn to Chloe – discussion of Rachel with the rest of the Academy drops dialogue clues about Rachel’s ‘blue-haired friend’, and we learn, later and without surprise, that Chloe is responsible for flypapering the campus with the omnipresent MISSING posters.
There’s a sadness, a futility, to Max’s pursuit of Rachel, especially the more we learn of Rachel’s ultimate fate, but Max also uses this measuring of the distance from her to Rachel as a way to regain her old closeness to Chloe:
“Do you think Rachel and I would have been friends?” – MAX
“You’re not that different. She had – has – a great eye for images and for art. Plus, she’s a smartass like you. We would all be hella best friends forever.” – CHLOE
Max enters into the same social spaces Rachel used to fill in campus life, but as the wallflower who is forcing herself to talk to everybody, as opposed to the butterfly who skipped lightly between the cliques.
After Max voices reservations that she can measure up to Rachel in any way, Daniel assures her, “No way, you’re a good substitute muse,” shortly before sketching her in the Academy grounds. It’s clear Max still carries this idea of second-best substitution into her first, fumbling reconciliations with Chloe.
Rachel was Max’s near-immediate replacement as Chloe’s closest confidante, after Max left for Seattle, and Max can’t help but compare and contrast. Even after she and Chloe bury the hatchet , Max finds herself in a competitive feedback loop with Rachel’s memory, whether it’s feeling guilty about checking the background on Chloe’s cell-phone:
“I thought Chloe might put up a pic of me, instead. Can’t compete with Rachel.”
Or discussing her nascent jealousy with Joyce:
“Max Caulfield! Are you actually jealous of Rachel?”
Even her cosplay in Episode 3 seems primed to invite these comparisons:
“Oh, look. Max Amber! Nice outfit.” – NATHAN
It could be argued that Max deliberately courts a negative comparison between herself and Rachel, in order to distance herself – and differentiate herself – from the woman who replaced her in Chloe’s affections. Across the course of the Episodes, we see both her and Chloe cleave to the similarities between Max and the missing girl and then – from the midpoint, during which Max wears Rachel’s clothing – she begins to slough off the shadow of Rachel and regains her individuality.
It is in this way, in its multifaceted deconstruction of tropes and careful assemblage of messy, contradictory and yet satisfyingly complete individuals, that Life Is Strange offers players the chance to look below the surface of all of its characters. Whether it’s through knowing them long enough to dig a little deeper than our first impressions, or by using Max’s rewind ability to chip away at their social defences by choosing leading questions that get them to open up, every archetype has its moments of inversion, every heroic friend shows a moment of darkness, every angelic muse shows their feet of clay and essential humanity.
We are also ‘allowed’ to, through Max, bestow understanding and forgiveness on flawed, even offputting characters – from ‘knowing’ that Samuel is mostly harmless, despite the potentially incriminating selection of women’s paraphernalia in his walk-in closet; to being able to look David in the eye and forgive him, should we follow the story branch that has him strike Chloe in a moment of anger.
There’s a scale of relative morality at play in the game, especially with Jefferson throwing all of his weight towards the ‘evil’ end of the scale. While the narrative never lets characters like David off the hook for their actions, the game does offer more nuanced ways to address and actually heal the fallout of such actions than a witchhunt followed by social stigmatisation, or simple retributory violence.
“Fuck the police,” Chloe says in Episode 4, after finally finding Rachel’s body, “Rachel wanted us to find her. So we can get real justice… and revenge.” But Life Is Strange is not that kind of story. Max and Chloe aren’t time-empowered urban vigilantes, using her powers to bring the crushing hammer of justice down upon the unworthy.
All of their efforts to subvert due process end up as horrifying defeats – Chloe dead, Max captured, or worse. In many ways, the game is an outright rejection of the exploitation genre patterning of abuse + trauma + time + revenge = healing. Instead, it is a game in which a hand extended in friendship or forgiveness – if deployed at the right time – can be more powerful than a martial arts training montage or a black market Magnum.
Even more tellingly, Life Is Strange’s developers don’t skimp on the complexities of the situations in which Max and Chloe are entangled. Life is rarely a succession of uncomplicated Paragon choices, but that doesn’t mean that cycles of distrust and violence need to be perpetuated.
As Max, you are able to both stand up and support Chloe, getting an abusive stepfather out of her home, and recognise that David is a broken man, poorly integrated into civilian life after tours of duty with the military, one who can’t properly express the love he feels for the family he doesn’t know how to hold together.
That you’re able to get David to agree to therapy is just one of the many tiny victories Max can achieve along the way. Choosing not to escalate situations to violence – such as the two stand-offs against Frank – also subtly illustrate that non-violence and even backing down can be more productive than needlessly standing one’s ground or reaching for the trigger at the smallest slight.
(It has to be noted that all of Max’s victories in this regard are Pyrrhic – depending on the player’s choice at the end of the game, either everyone Max has met and interacted with across the course of the game is wiped out by the tornado, if the town is sacrificed for Chloe, or the timeline is shunted onto a different path and these interactions never happened, if Max chooses to sacrifice Chloe and save Arcadia Bay.)
It’s fascinating to see DONTNOD’s writers take on these character-specific challenges, pushing beyond easy writing solutions and ensuring that none of the main characters can be reduced down to a haircut or a single character trait.
The main question among the writers seems to have been, “How can we elicit player sympathy and understanding for this flawed and/or antagonistic character?”
How can we make the player feel sorry for an entitled piece of shit who accidentally murdered the only girl he actually cared about? How can we make them warm to the gun-toting, tattooed trailer trash who traffics drugs to the town, and was likewise responsible for Rachel’s overdose? How can we make them at least understand the perspective of the stepfather who laid a hand on Chloe? And, perhaps most interestingly of all, how can we make a bullied, suicidal, super-religious character a fan-favourite?
We may not feel this sympathy and understanding at every point, but there are spikes where we most certainly do. DONTNOD’s characterisation starts where many other games would stop, and its well-rounded, controversial and surprising humans are more than just the sum of their designs, animations and voice-acted dialogue.
Jefferson stands in contrast with the rest of the supporting cast for this very reason. We can’t get inside his head. There’s no rationale we can use to excuse his actions. Instead, Jefferson is ‘forced’ to explain his rationale to us – not that his self-satisfied pomposity needs the encouragement to ride high on an extended monologue. His actions make ‘sense’ – in that his self-rationalisations fit with what we’ve seen in the game and gathered from our investigations – but not sense, in that even in our most forgiving moments, we cannot forgive him.