Hella, Is It Me You’re Speaking For?
It’s interesting to touch briefly on the game’s use of language: its spoken dialogue, its diary entries, and Max’s externalised monologue.
The first chapters of Life Is Strange were stigmatised in some quarters for their ‘awkward’ use of language, and their stilted or unnatural dialogue. While there is some currency in that opinion – a game plotted and written in one language, then scripted, polished and spoken in another is always going to be slightly less fluid than one written from scratch in one language (though of course everything in Life Is Strange was rewritten from the ground up in English by LA-based writer Christian Divine, long before any recording took place) – but we should also consider the extent to which we have been culturally ‘spoiled’ on teenspeak by the hyper-verbose, neologism-coining repartee of Diablo Cody, Joss Whedon and Amy Sherman-Palladino.
Max and Chloe can speak with faux-naive earnestness, be awkwardly ill-phrased, and make the occasional lapse into cliché because they’re eighteen/nineteen year-olds, and for once, they’re written as age-appropriate – not thirty year-old literature graduates given a 13 Going On 30 second chance to impress the popular set.
There’s also the first chapter’s perceived over-reliance on “Hella” – a San Francisco / Northern California contraction of “hell of a lot of”, now used as a generic superlative. Some reviewers were keen to point out how few real people would use it as often as Chloe does: cue dozens of Pacific Northwesterners chiming in on subsequent threads to point out that, no, the locals really do overuse the word!
Sometimes, what seems a lapse in writing can just be the result of hyperlocal research – a flaw in some ways, in that, if it’s taking players out of the moment with its frequency, because they are unused to hearing it used as spoken punctuation, then the writing isn’t doing its job – but a ringing endorsement in others: that it’s been researched well enough to sound authentic to locals.
That it was accurate didn’t mean the game’s creators were above a self-deprecating moment at the opening of Episode 4, when the paralysed Chloe of the alternate timeline tells Max, “’Hella?’ I hate that word. No offence.”
It’s a wry joke that both acknowledges fan and reviewer feedback and speaks volumes as to how the car accident has affected the alternate Chloe – and one that is given additional poignancy by Chloe’s declaration in Episode 3: “Did you actually just say, ‘Hella’? I think I’m a good bad influence on you.”
So many lines in Life Is Strange, particularly towards the end of the series, manage to juggle narrative, emotional and self-referential weight without becoming bogged down. However ‘clunky’ the dialogue may be – this is still very good writing.
It’s writing that extends beyond the spoken, too.
Text messages, especially, prove to be an important part of the relationships built between the characters. If nothing else, Life Is Strange proves that it is possible to tell a small town horror story with characters who have full use of their phones and the mobile internet.
There’s no running out of signal at an inopportune time, and text messages prove to be a running stream of additional character development (particularly with Warren, Chloe and Kate), as well as a lynchpin of the plot (‘Nathan’s’ confession-by-phone proves to be all the lure Jefferson needs to bring Max and Chloe to Rachel’s graveside).
The lengths to which the characters are individualised extends to their text messaging styles: the blunt, capslocked trolling of Victoria (“BTW THANX BUT WERE NOT FRIENDS”); the horrifically violent horrors of Nathan, the living Twitter egg account (“Keep your mouth shut about everything. Or I’m coming for your ass. I know where you sleep.”) that progressively degenerate, along with his composure (“get reddy to fukin DIEEE BISHES” – he’s a troll who still types by hand rather than submit to the tyranny of autocorrect); the lowercase practiced minimalism of Chloe (“max/food/two whales/c u there”), which only rises to capslock pseudo-rage when Max brings out her emoji (“NO EMOJI”) and on to, as we’ve discussed earlier, the occasionally plaintive wheedling of Warren as he tries (and fails) to play it cool.
Life Is Strange may be nostalgic, but it’s also set in the now (or the ‘now’ of late 2013 – another smart move was to make the game a period piece, not a near-future piece of speculative fiction. Nostalgia can grow in the gap between one hour and the next, so shifting the game even two years into the past contributes to its autumnal, nostalgic haze).
It treats its characters as fully-connected, smartphone-using teenagers who have grown up with that level of intimate, technological conversation. The internet is neutral in the story that follows, agnostic to its use as a platform for either research – as Chloe and Max pull together their clues and augment their discoveries with digital legwork – or for bullying, as with the circulated video and forum abuse that leads to Kate’s suicide attempt.
(It also manages to subvert the usual tropes surrounding cellphone use in modern horror fiction – though Max can’t get a signal through to Warren when she’s in the bunker underground, as soon as she breaches the surface, she has no trouble getting in touch with him, despite the E-6 tornado bearing down on the town. Similarly, in the ‘San Francisco gallery’ timeline, only the fact Max has politely put her phone on silent has stopped her from receiving calls from Chloe. Whoever Max’s provider is [“Vaireezon”], it seems you can rely on them for service when the world is ending.)
For this generation, the internet is just a thing, like water or air, that is expected to be there. To see it deployed consistently and correctly in a game is a pleasure in and of itself.
It’s also ‘neat’ to see it twisted for reasons of psychological horror (rather than the crawling, ‘burn all humanity’ misogyny and one-upmanship of the average internet comments section). Max’s nightmare reality doesn’t just twist her perceptions and her world, but alters the contents of her phone as well. Few things are as unsettling as receiving a text from Chloe’s dead father, William:
“Hey Max, would you say hi to Chloe and Joyce? Don’t forget to remind them that you let me die.”
Or Rachel’s equally creepy comment,
“Hi Max. Rachel Amber here. Just wanted to introduce myself. I’ll be seeing you soon. Real soon.”
On a more upbeat side, just as with Max’s diary, there are whole extra elements of the story hidden in Max’s SMS folder. In the mid-Episode 5 fake-out ‘ending’, where Max believes she’s found a way to fix events to create the best of all possible timelines, trawling through Max’s phone reveals the differences in this new reality – small and large – caused by her early disruption of Jefferson’s plans.
(That such niceties – Chloe making up with David, finding out the truth about Rachel and starting to find ways to put it behind her, not to mention applying for college in the city; Max winning the photo contest; Warren finally asking Max out; Kate’s radiant mood – just as quickly become a memory when the timeline resets, adds another layer of melancholy to the scenes that follow.)
Beyond the digital and into the physical, the locational, situational writing, which sets the scene through our exploratory readings of posters, flyers, notices, textbooks, blackboards, emails and more, is especially strong: trim and to the point, while still effortlessly in character. Informational without being expositional – especially the emails Max occasionally gets the chance to spy through, which rarely feel like a character has just cut and pasted a journal entry into gmail before we sat down to read, and yet remain appropriately revelatory, thematic and, yes, occasionally, banal.
“Max, thanks for your email and copy of Jefferson’s class notes.
Now I shall never stop sending you messages of gratitude. I also have a rather eclectic collection of TV, cult, classic and fucked-up films on a phat flash drive if you ever want to check them out. Thanks again for the help. I’m a scientist more than an artist.
Now can you quickly explain to me how a camera works?” – EMAIL FROM WARREN TO MAX
“Kate, Your father and I just received a rather disturbing call from Principal Wells about you and some party video. Our concerns about sending you to Blackwell seem justified.
Please call us after your classes this evening so we can fully discuss this matter. We hope you haven’t brought shame on you or our family.
We’ll pray for you and expect you to pray for forgiveness.
Your mother.” – EMAIL FROM KATE’S MOM
They can also be sources of chilling dramatic irony, such as the ‘GUN-FREE ZONE’ poster positioned prominently across from the Ladies bathroom in which Chloe takes a bullet in the gut.
Max’s journal isn’t just useful to catch up on events in parallel timelines, of course, it’s updated all the way through her adventure, tucked away in the menu screen. Her responses to the way events unfold and characters present themselves offer more than just a bookmark keeping track of her decisions – they offer us Max’s emotional responses after she’s had some time to digest events, and often, as with this note about Chloe, occasionally offer us new perspectives, too:
“I’ve never been so glad to see Chloe in my life. The second I saw her blue hair and that beautiful pissed off face I wanted to kiss her again.”
Which, depending on whether the player chose to have Max kiss Chloe in Episode 3, can also appear as:
“I’ve never been so glad to see Chloe in my life. The second I saw her blue hair and that beautiful pissed off face, I kind of regretted not kissing her when she double dared me. Maybe if she had double dog dared me…”
This is Max’s most unrestricted self, but one that reveals itself to us only when we go looking. There are no in-game prompts telling us when the diary has been updated (only when a new achievement-rendering photo has been taken, or when a new text message arrives), and in moments of high drama, it can go unnoticed, as players race from one scene to the next. As with the game’s hidden photographic achievements, or the characters and items that can be missed if the player isn’t looking out for them, Max’s diary entries are an additional level of story deployed for the exhaustively curious.
But Max does not restrict her most intimate thoughts to her diary. Max’s internal spoken narration, with its earnest tone and occasional drift into cute references or bad jokes, works on a level beyond just telling the player what is going on in the world around her. Her responses to our requests to read a flyer, poke around on someone’s laptop, or examine her own work show, most essentially, that Max is not dissembling to us, her unseen guardians, or the world around her.
The Max she presents to the world is the same Max she presents to herself, from her interior monologue to her digested diary. That’s not to say she is without depth, but she is without artifice. While we are ‘allowed’ to dissemble as Max in the course of the game, we know that she is not lying to us. The voice and words with which she narrates her discoveries and the world around her are one more clue to the player that the issues we need to focus on and resolve are outside of Max – at least until the final chapter.
It’s possible to argue that the whole game is a classroom daydream, of course – any piece of fiction that features perceived lapses of consciousness and unnatural occurrences can lend itself to that kind of reading – but the game goes out of its way to underscore, through moments both subtle and opaque, that this is really happening; that we can trust Max as our avatar in the world of the game, and that our focus should be on the change we can make in the world of the game, not in what we can do to change Max. Her consistency and continuity of voice make an important contribution to that perception.
The Illusion of Unity – Sexuality and Choice
But consistency and continuity do not necessarily mean unity of character, especially in a game that prides itself on accommodating the choices of players and incorporating their lasting effects. Max is a malleable hero in many ways – but her character remains broadly the same even while her choices bring her to vastly different endings, different worlds – or different potential partners.
It’s especially interesting to consider whether ‘Max’ as an entity has a fixed sexuality or preference, or whether her sexuality – both future and past – is entirely determined by the player in the course of the game.
This question is one that has played out to varying degrees in the fandom since day one, as various parties march into battle under the banner of their preferred ‘ship’. These fandoms encompass those endorsed by the text (Max/Chloe, Max/Warren), those just-about-accommodated by it (Max/Kate), and those seemingly completely at odds with it (Max/Nathan, Max/Victoria). Adding fuel to the fire in the final hours, many of those ship pairings are nightmarishly lampshaded by the developers during Max’s halluncinatory sequence, to devastating emotional effect, as we’ll discuss later.
Much digital blood has been spilled over which relationship or potential relationship is the ‘right’ or ‘true’ one.
But there is no ‘true’ or ‘essential’ version of Max that persists across every player’s game, and, equally, no true version of her sexual or relationship preferences, only degrees of variation within the parameters laid down by her programmers – and preferences suggested as dominant by the writers, which can yet be countermanded through player choice.
There are limits to Max’s selfhood and characterisation, of course – the parameters of the game don’t allow her to be a completely clean slate; the choices made by the player are those made within the confines of the story crafted by the developers. But it’s important to note that, while the percentile breakdown of choices at the close of each Episode shows there is always a majority of players standing behind each multiple-choice decision, each Max is still an accumulation of each player’s individual choices, and her selfhood, history and future are shaped by that player’s time with her.
Max can be straight, gay, bisexual and many other points on the sexuality spectrum, depending on how she is played. Lead Warren on or ignore him, kiss Chloe or spurn her offers, indulge both and see where things end up; the game goes out of its way to accommodate the full spectrum all the way through to the end.
In fact, ‘bisexual’, or ‘sexually fluid’, might be the best way to describe both Max and Chloe, both within the parameters of the story and within the context of the player’s choices. It’s clear from evidence and dialogue that Chloe has had male partners in the past (she has two condoms, of different brands, in her wallet, for a start, much to Max’s amusement/disgust. There’s also the suggestion of mutual – though unfulfilled – interest between her and Justin – “I can tell that Justin is really into Chloe,” says Max – though Chloe is equally keen to shut down any question that she slept with Frank: they just hung out). For her part, Max notes cute boys around campus a number of times:
“He’s cute. I like skater boys. Too bad they don’t like me.” – MAX
“I feel bad for the twee hipster who lost this beret. I bet he’s cute.” – MAX
Though she also bemoans her own lack of action back in San Francisco in the establishing pages of her diary: “I never really found a groove with my classmates. (Or boys…)”.
And disturbingly, of course, Chloe remarks on Mr. Jefferson’s attractiveness in Episode 4, with a yelled, “Hot for teacher!” – though that attraction evaporates once the extent of his crimes is uncovered.
It’s true that the writers seem to favour the Max/Chloe romance track, but the game is constructed in a way that it doesn’t discount or close off any of the alternates above. And of course, it’s true that Max and Chloe may ‘usually’ like boys, but, if we choose to direct Max down that path, they fall for each other because they love who they love.
Though some dialogues obviously only open up if Max expresses interest in Chloe, others – like Chloe’s playful, teasing flirtation, or Max’s confused but exploratory diary entries – are there in all playthroughs.
“This isn’t a toy, Chloe.” – MAX
“Of course it’s a toy! You can bang anyone, no strings attached, then BOOM!, rewind, and it’s like it never happened.” – CHLOE
“Grow up.” – MAX
“Maybe you made a move on me and I would never know!” – CHLOE
“I’ll be Max’s date.” – CHLOE
There are also optional dialogues that either Chloe or the player can choose to read in multiple ways, such as this exchange in the swimming pool, when Chloe offers Max a choice of locker rooms:
“Boys or girls?” – CHLOE
“Girls, of course.” – MAX
“Girls? Ooh la la.” – CHLOE
There are also entirely innocent utterances that beg for dirtier readings on a second playthrough:
“Okay, Girl Wonder. Show me the way to Chloe’s cave.” – MAX
Just as the game doesn’t stand in the way of those who want to make it a five-part sexual awakening between Max and Chloe; it also does not disavow a more heteronormative story played by those who nudge Max towards Warren, or those who chose to keep Max’s options open to focus on uncovering a murderer.
Players can even choose Warren and Chloe, or at least choose to kiss them both: the world is ending, so what the hell. DONTNOD allows Max to be as flexible as the player.
Choice-based games, especially those with a playerbase in the millions, play havoc with the very human way in which we have been trained to approach fiction and fictional characters – i.e. that there is a fixed text from which we, the readers, viewers or players, can draw inference and interpretation – but which does not change in response to those inputs.
The best novels can provoke hundreds of hours and thousands of words in eloquent discussion, but the primary text does not change – anyone engaging with it in the same language is engaging with the same artefact and finding new readings within it. Secondary readings accrete around a text and can change the public and academic perception of it, but the words of the text remain the same.
More than perhaps any other form of storytelling, our experience of a choice-based game is immediately placed at odds with discussion of that game as a community.
With a game like Life Is Strange, while each player experiences a majority of the same art assets, locations, story seeds and situational set-ups, the resulting combination of choices and moment-by-moment decisions produces an experience that is largely ours and ours alone. Even if the final choice of the game is a binary one shared by all players, each player reaches that fateful decision having created a unique version of Max.
On interacting with the fandom, that unique bundle of character and plot decisions becomes a superposition of Max, an aggregate of often wildly-differing decisions that cannot all be mutually true. Unlike a novel, comic book, TV series or movie, in a game like Life Is Strange, we are simultaneously choosing the future and the past by our actions in the present, and nowhere is that more apparent than in any choice to do with Max’s sexuality.
Flirt with Warren and end up with Chloe, and Max is bisexual, or discovering her sexuality. Keep Warren at bay, and our Max has held a torch for Chloe since she left. Playfully flirt with both and yet keep things at the level of friends, and Max has more important things to worry about right now.
Each of these choices can be read with as much or as little hormonal complexity as the player desires, without diminishing their emotional impact. While the majority of players will find the tentative romance between Max and Chloe too sweet to resist pursuing, it is just as equally as valid to play through the five Episodes as a story of the rediscovery of a great and lasting friendship.
No playthrough, as accommodated by the developers, is rendered more legitimate than the other – though there are late indications in Max’s diary of a growing attraction to Chloe, as noted earlier, Max’s bisexual or lesbian traits are not being ‘suppressed’ by a ‘friendship’ playthrough, as some fans would have it: her responses in-game, and our own choices as players, are paramount.
There’s also the tall order that teenage characters should have perfect knowledge of themselves, especially when writing in their journals for an audience of no-one. Even the most self-aware characters can be blindsided by something that has been obvious to other characters for years – and even the most emotionally open of characters can lie to themselves for their own protection.
No teenager is fully formed, especially when it comes to sexuality and romantic interest, so the notion that, because Max treats Warren as just a good friend in her early diary entries, or shies away from the notion of anything more complicated than friendship with Chloe in the same, they prevent later exploration of those feelings in different contexts – or that the lack of clearly-flagged romantic interest from the first chapter constitutes poor writing – seems reductive at best.
Even if ‘Max’ is the one doing the writing, her diary entries are not the final word on her own emotional state – especially when her stances and perceptions change over the course of the game, as these excerpts from a Warren-centric playthrough show:
“Hope he doesn’t make a lame move on me… (Not that he would, egomaniac.) Warren and I do have a lot in common, but he’s like a supercool geek brother…”
“He’s such a sweetheart, he kept telling me how proud he was that I stopped Kate from jumping.”
“Considering how insane my life has been this week, kissing Warren in the middle of a deadly storm didn’t seem to be that strange. It felt like we were flipping off the cruel universe… and if I was going to die, I wanted one kiss from a boy I cared about.”
DONTNOD tread a very fine line in keeping the focus on Chloe and Max while keeping options open for their players. There may be occasions – like the sudden eclipse and the stretch-and-yawn arm around the shoulder from Warren at the close of Episode 2, as we’ve talked about above – where players may feel railroaded into being more affectionate with Warren than he merits, but that equally ties into his characterisation as a well-meaning but unformed teenage boy who occasionally oversteps his bounds.
As for Chloe, it’s clear from the way in which the various options play out that the writers are behind a Max/Chloe love story all the way – but it’s only through comparing and contrasting the diary entries and the way the two different final cutscenes play out that you can measure their emotional investment in terms of actual investment – in writing time, programming time, voice acting time. More resources are devoted to a Max/Chloe pairing than any other.
“Chloe is more than my best friend, but who knows how she really sees me? She did dare me to kiss her, but she seemed surprised that I actually did. I am too, but I don’t regret it for a second. Maybe that’s why I hated watching Chloe being so cruel in the nightmare, calling me names and flirting with all those people… I was surprised that it was like a physical pain in my heart. Is that the power of friendship… or love? I believe you’re about to find out, Max Caulfield.”
From a gameplay perspective, there is no ideal, true Max. There are only the routes that the story allows her to take, and the sum total of the choices of the player.
Beyond the characters and their interactions, it’s worth shifting focus to examine the setting – the beautiful, yet claustrophobic Arcadia Bay, a place trapped between the future and the past.
The ‘Arcadia’ of Arcadia Bay suggests the untouched, bucolic utopia reclaimed by poets and artists of the Renaissance, from Thomas Cole to Sir Philip Sidney’s The Duchess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.
(‘Arcadia’ also echoes one of the earliest names for the Pacific Northwest, Cascadia, after the mountain range that winds from Portland up through Seattle and into Vancouver. Just as ‘Jefferson’ was and is the name of a proposed breakaway state in the region, so ‘Cascadia’ is the proposed name of an independent country formed from both US and Canadian sides of the Pacific Northwest.)
In many ways, though, Arcadia is the nostalgic, regressive form of Utopia. While Utopian literature looks towards the world as it could be, or as it should be, speculating in ways that may be applied to real living, ‘Arcadia’ is a form of longing for a better world that never was (and one that does not require humanity). Its only lesson is that that world is no longer with us.
In that longing for a pastoral idyll, abandoned in the headlong rush towards civilisation, the literary Arcadia is as much an admonishment to ‘fallen’ men and women as it is a portrait of something to return to. In Arcadia, blissful shepherds live in harmony with nature, tending their flocks, living off the land, in a state of grace removed from the ‘unnatural’ hustle and din of the city – and with no pretensions for culture beyond appreciation for the natural world.
That longing for the innocent past fits neatly into Life Is Strange’s central themes of wishing to turn back time, to find permanent ways to recapture lost moments and lost people, and with Jefferson’s perverse preoccupation with capturing the very moment innocence dies.
In many ways, the literary Arcadia represents an embroidery and expansion of the Biblical Fall, though one preoccupied with original sin or virginal purity on a societal level, rather than a personal one.
All cultures and countries create myths of a past where they were richer, resources were more plentiful, crime was low, everyone knew your name, and the pace of life was a little slower and more forgiving. The USA is no different, and its Arcadia is the vanished or vanishing world of the small town, where folks just got along, and you could leave your front porch unlocked all night without a care in the world. That the myth is built layer by layer – from prairie farms to frontier communities to 50s sitcoms and Norman Rockwell – on shaky and exclusionary foundations does not diminish its cultural or patriotic strength.
Life Is Strange draws cleverly on these pervasive cultural myths in much the same way it subverts the archetypes of teen dramas to darker ends. The game’s locations are drawn from the deep well of American longing and imbued with additional resonance as a result.
The Oregon coast: the far western limits of American adventurism, the boundary where the Old West rolls into the sea, where the Oregon Trail and all its dysentery and white water rafting came to an end, and where American Alexanders wept.
The coastal town of indeterminate size, where everyone knows everyone but the suburbs stretch for miles.
The high school/college, with its classrooms and its dorm rooms, capturing both sides of the American pop cultural ascent to maturity.
The yellow school buses, tourist-iconic.
The Two Whales diner, with its slow pace and friendly cops, eating donuts on their break.
The backwoods hideaway, filled with the detritus of civilisation, as yet undeveloped into condos.
The romance of the train tracks, one bindlestaff away from adventure.
The abandoned barn, simultaneously a symbol of America’s breadbasket and the present-day struggles of the rural economy.
Each a discreet location, linked by montages rather than roads, by a dreamy soundtrack and a fade to black. Snapshots of a living township that make it feel smaller, more intimate, more classically American as a result.
If there is a mall in Arcadia Bay, it is unexplored – that’s not part of the mythical Americana being dissected here.
Anyone who has ever watched, read or immersed themselves in American pop culture will recognise the additional levels of nostalgia layered into the mix.
Though their small towns were more often filmed in Vancouver than Oregon, there’s a quality to the tree-lined roads and atmospheric diners in shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files and American Gothic – even the films of the Twilight franchise – that give Arcadia Bay the feeling of coming home, even as things get weird and start spiralling out of control.
For any generation coming of age in the shadow of those cultural titans, part of the charm of the American small town is that it does contain shadows, and secrets, and twitching curtains, and murderous monsters, and all kinds of strange and inexplicable things that would wilt in the heat of the big city.
For modern viewers, the nostalgic dream of the small town is less that it is a place of safety and the All-American Ideal, and more that it is the place where the Strange can still exist, where that lengthy period of credulous, Millennial belief, where everything was possible and yet many things remained apparently undocumented, continued into the smartphone generation. Even in the age of the internet, the small town still offers sanctuary for the unnatural and the bizarre – at least in fiction. From Buffy’s Sunnydale to the eponymous Gravity Falls, there is often something conversely welcoming about a location bizarre, remote, and pocked with danger.
The name Arcadia nods towards Max’s battles with the elements and the natural order, too; her micro appreciation for the photogenic animals she documents giving way to her macro conflict against the hurricane.
One interpretation would be to view the hurricane as the agent of change, of maturity. If Max allows Chloe to die, and Arcadia to be preserved – essentially enacting a pact of nonaggression with the natural order, the tornado is internalised: “Max’s grief grew three sizes that day.”
Whereas if Max asserts her dominance over Time and saves Chloe, Arcadia – and all its redundant nostalgia for a smalltown America that never was – is washed away.
Viewed through that lens, it is also possible to make the case that the final choice is between conservatism and conformity, and being messily progressive and inclusive. Arcadia Bay ties Max into the role of the passive observer, the ‘good little girl’ who dresses to blend in and would rather not say anything at all than volunteer an erroneous opinion. A town where almost everyone is corrupt, but where the corruption wears a series of bland, normal, relatable faces. A place where (and again, this is only one interpretation) Max ends up with Warren because it is what society expects of her.
Wiping it off the map grants Max the opportunity to escape, to explore and travel to somewhere entirely new, in the company of her blue-haired, punk-rock, possibly-probably-actually girlfriend Chloe. Saving Chloe allows Max to wash the reductive nostalgia away.
Perhaps the destruction of Arcadia is the only way in which her Utopia can be found.
A Worldbuilding Crescendo: The Emotion of Mixtapes
“I wonder if Chloe would ever make me a mixtape.” – MAX
If there is a Utopia to be found in the game, it’s in the soundtrack, whose soothing instrumentals balm the souls of players scraped raw by the events of the game, and whose aptly-chosen songs offer haunting embellishment to both characters and scenes. Just like Max, when the world gets too complicated, we can retreat for a few minutes to the space inside our headphones.
While the rest of our lives – and our experiences with music in film and television – may be filled with non-instrumental, non-orchestral music, there’s still something shocking about coming across an actual song in a game, never mind a mix-tape or soundtrack album’s worth.
As DONTNOD’s co-founder, Jean-Maxime Moris, has said, music forms, “50% of the experience” of Life Is Strange, so it bears fruit to comment on the specific use of music and its effects.
From GLADOS’s song (‘Still Alive’ by Jonathan Coulton) that closes out the original Portal, to Faunts’ ‘M4 Part II’ that wraps the original Mass Effect, songs with lyrics in video games tend to be saved for non-diegetic use over the end credits, if used at all.
Both the Fallout series, with its use of licensed 50s songs to populate its Wasteland radio stations, and the Grand Theft Auto games, with their wider selection of tunes to flip between while driving, offer a radio experience, but there, the diegetic music offers us a sense of the world, and doesn’t expand our understanding of our in-game avatar beyond which radio station we prefer to listen to while playing.
But from the moment that Max inserts her earbuds and Syd Matters’ ‘To All of You’ begins to play, Life Is Strange sets itself apart, both with its carefully curated mix of in-universe, diegetic music from the CD players, iPods and mixtapes of Chloe and Max, and with the addictive, straight-to-Spotify-to-listen-to-them-again choice of officially-licensed tracks that wouldn’t be out of place in a top-notch teen drama.
What’s more, the soothing strums and plucked cadences of Jonathan Morali’s (frontman of Syd Matters) instrumental themes take on a different character depending on where and how we encounter them during the story. On booting up the game, we can stay in the safe space of the opening loop of the title screen for as long as we like – gathering strength for what lies ahead, whether we’re returning to the game, speculating on what’s to come, or just basking in its pared-back warmth.
Just like the in-game moments in which we’re invited to sit and contemplate for a second [http://www.themarysue.com/life-is-strange-empty-spaces/], the music that greets us is not Zimmerlike bombast that propels us into action; it is restrained, personal, characterful, and allows us to move forward at our pace, not one dictated by the loading screen.
But it is also – just as with the game’s nostalgic evocation of a smalltown golden age, and a recovered childhood friendship – a deliberately broken promise. A spit in the eye of that comfort and nostalgia.
There is nothing gentle about the shape of Life Is Strange once the story starts to unspool: all of the kindnesses held within are moments stolen in the face of inevitable death, of maturity earned through tragedy, of a friendship – of love – grown in a bottle universe, and quickly dashed against the prow of reality.
The circular waves of the title music speak of a gentle, golden movement into adulthood. Its autumnal shades, notes cascading like the falling leaves that decorate the game’s locations, speak to a story of growth and triumph, of leaving the summer of late adolescence for the fall of maturity.
That gentleness is a beautifully gilded trap. “Fall in love,” it dares the player, before taking it all away.
In this, the music follows the same trajectory as the characterisation we discussed earlier – beginning in one easily understood, archetypal mode, and then both shifting the style of music (shifting from the plucks and strums Max can conjure from the acoustic guitar in her bedroom to the fizzing, blurry electronica of her travels in time) and its impact, by reframing the context of the themes we have already heard, transposing familiar themes into new situations. The atmosphere in the quad changes if Max fails to save Kate, though the music is the same. While the .mp3 files are identical, Kate’s loss colours them, gives them an ironic, lost-innocence hue.
The pre-existing songs of Syd Matters, around which the soundtrack – and game – crystallised and took shape, have much to offer those looking beyond the hiring of Morali as soundtrack curator and instrumental composer.
Previously heard onscreen in The OC S03E23, ‘To All Of You’ contains a few choice notes of darkness slipped beneath its surface sheen of across-the-sea longing, a plaintive, if sarcastic plea for unchallenging artificiality:
“American girls, like dollies / With shiny smiles and plastic bodies”
The song is a pushback against love that is too real, too physical, too painful. The singer retreats from real interactions with women of three dimensions, in favour of the widescreen gloss of imported TV shows.
The developers latched onto this song very early in development, and it – along with ‘Obstacles’, the second Syd Matters track, used in the trailer for Episode 1, but not deployed in-game until the ‘Save Chloe’ ending of Episode 5, became totemic parts of both the soundtrack and the game’s development as a whole.
Quite aside from hiring Morali, which had an extensive level of influence over the feel of the game, with his instrumentals permeating every scene, the lyrics of ‘To All of You’ provide an archetype which is deconstructed in the course of the game. “I wish I had / an American / girlfriend” the song continues – and both Max and Chloe, as we’ve just discussed, could be seen as the digitally-rendered culmination of that wish, to say nothing of Max’s all-girl dorm and its further parade of those “plastic bodies” – were it not for the fact that every single one of those secondary or background characters is given a multidimensional, complex past, from their responses in conversation to the situational stories told by how their rooms are decorated and used. None of them are just their bodies.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t play with those bodies, or our perceptions of them, to underscore its themes.
Episode 2 begins with Max lying on her bed, in just a t-shirt and panties, throw thrown off, sun beaming through the open window. For Max, it’s a moment of comfort, of thought, of putting off getting started with the day until she’s good and ready. As a player, it’s the moment where I suddenly became aware of the camera, and my position as an entity external to Max, observing her. The game allows you to let Max stay where she is as long as she wants. In my first playthrough, I had her up and at ‘em almost as soon as could press the space bar, unable to leave her in a place that, in my mind, had transitioned from ‘comfortable’ to ‘vulnerable’ just from the addition of my gaze. (Again, we’ll return to the game’s subtle and overt reinforcement of its camera as a theme later on.)
That the game then encourages Max to take a shower made me worry that the developers had decided to throw in a bit of gratuitous fan-service – a worry that went thankfully unfulfilled: the shower scene that follows is no more explicit than you’d find in a shot-from-the-shoulders daytime soap, and justifies its inclusion with a site-specific furthering of the plot.
But those feelings of discomfort reemerged in the scene where Max and Chloe break into the school pool in Episode 3 and take a late-night dip; the developers know how to play with the dials of comfort and intimacy. I’d be fascinated to hear from a variety of gamers of all genders as to how they responded to such scenes. Were you fully immersed (no pun intended) in these scenes? Or did you become more aware of yourself as a digital voyeur as the characters disrobed? The game – for all its adult language, violence and disturbing disturbances of the boundaries of consent – treats its women throughout as characters, not bodies to be won for achievements and, for male players at least, subtly draws attention to that difference in presentation where appropriate.
Even for the bikini-clad dancers in the Vortex Club party in Episode 4, the camera and its eyeline are relatively neutral. Unlike the cameras of, say, Mass Effect or Metal Gear Solid, which swoop and tilt to capture as many boob and butt shots as they can within a given dialogue scene, the camera of Life Is Strange is interested in its female characters as complete entities, rather than walking collections of secondary sexual characteristics.
Returning to the lyrics, it’s also possible to take the reference to “plastic bodies” as a self-deprecating nod to the limitations of the game’s animation system, which for budgetary reasons forces Life Is Strange to rely on automated lip-syncing, offering a more circumscribed set of emotions than games with extensive motion and facial capture (such as The Last of Us, LA Noire or the recent Until Dawn).
That it has so successfully engaged so many players and fans worldwide, despite those limitations, is a testament to the power of its characters and writing – to say nothing of the handpainted beauty of its textures, motion-capture body language, and adeptly-sculpted character models.
(The day Life Is Strange makes the jump to action figures or plastic collectibles will add a further level of metatextual resonance to the sensation of participating in a beautifully-curated, painted world, of course!)
The song’s feeling of watching a world from the outside also perfectly reflects the game’s conception and development. While the Arcadia Bay is a fictional locale, it’s still in America, while the creative team are based out of Paris, France.
No matter that the production designers spent time in representative Pacific Northwest towns, no matter that they immersed themselves in local newspapers, Google StreetView explorations, or drilldown jaunts through reference materials – the song perfectly encapsulates the feeling of looking in on a culture from far away; becoming an ‘expert’ in it through cultural exchange, while remaining at a significant remove. Life Is Strange, but everyone is a stranger.
It’s also of interest to compare Life Is Strange’s use of music to that in a game operating in a similar space – the indie hit Gone Home.
In Gone Home, players take on the role of a young woman returning to her family home from college, and discovering it empty. Though devoid of interactions with her family, by exploring the home in a first person perspective, and piecing together documents, recordings and diary entries, you can work out what has happened to your mother, father and, most importantly, sister, who has taken the chance of running away from home with her girlfriend. Artificial and limited as it might be as a game, as an emotive experience, Gone Home is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours.
For a game focused on a pair of female leads, it’s fascinating to note that the Life Is Strange soundtrack has only two songs with lead female vocalists (Amanda Palmer’s ‘In My Mind’ and Julia Stone on ‘Santa Monica Dream’), whereas Gone Home leans very deliberately into the Riot Grrrl aesthetic, with officially-licensed period tracks from female-fronted garage bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, as well as a handful of specially-composed and recorded songs by The Youngins, playing the role of ‘Girlscout’, a band created for the story of the game.
That’s not to say it’s odd for teenage girls to listen to indie music with male leads, quite the opposite, but it’s of value to look into how each game’s soundtrack is constructed, and whether it is prioritising the effect on the player (Life Is Strange), or its commitment to wholistic character-building (Gone Home).
There’s an argument to be made that Gone Home built its soundtrack from the inside-out, focusing on songs that its characters would have chosen to listen to, whereas Life Is Strange builds its soundtrack from the outside in, with Morali and the game’s creative team choosing evocative songs to fit the narrative, and then making either Max or Chloe a fan.
In the internet age of ‘everything, everywhere, available forever’, there’s no expiry date on good music, of course, but perhaps the release dates of 2005 (‘To All of You’, ‘Lua’), 2004 (‘The Sense of Me’) 2003 (‘Crosses’, ‘Kids Will Be Skeletons’), 2001 (‘Piano Fire’) and so on speak more to the tastes of the soundtrack’s compiler than the character – as Max was born in 1995, and would have been between 6-10 years old at the time most of these tracks were being released. ‘Spanish Sahara’ (2010), ‘In My Mind’ (2011), ‘Something Good’ and ‘Mountains’ (2012), ‘Hummingbird’ (2013), ‘Got Well Soon’ (2013) perhaps mark the point at which a teenage Max’s tastes kick in – although ‘Got Well Soon’ scoots in just under the timeline wire, having been released just before the week in October 2013 when the game takes place.
(Although, check out the cover of the Breton album containing that song! I’d be fascinated to find out if it was included solely because of the presence of the butterfly.)
This discussion all ties back into the ruminations above – does it matter that the tastes of two fictional teenage girls were curated by middle-aged men? And, with the still-entrenched position of middle-aged AOR men in the upper echelons of the music industry, is that a more accurate reflection of reality than we would perhaps like to admit?
Life Is Strange still has a bloody great soundtrack, though, and one that fits the game like a glove.