As I finish my examination of Life Is Strange, I must again warn you: There are spoilers here, not just spoilers for Life Is Strange, but also for Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, and Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea.
Cargo Cult Creativity
When I wrote about Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea I invoked the term Cargo Cult Creativity. It was the best term I could grab to describe aesthetically excellent but infinitely superficial referential nature of that game’s ‘intelligence.’ It was a game that purported to be about time travel and alternate dimensions and writing and extremism but every idea it had was only the most childish and empty replication of it. The Bioshock series is and has always been a media form primarily focused with seeming smart rather than being smart. This is expressed most perfectly in their DLC which forces open a plot hole so it can close it, and in so doing drags along a host of new plot holes.
This sickness runs throughout the Bioshock franchise, and it creates the illusion of a creator who has heard of smart things, who has met smart people, and is desperately quoting the things he’s heard them say in an effort to be smart.
Doesn’t it make more sense, that way? That Bioshock is just a magic trick to convince you that it’s smart, and you’re smart by inference for playing it? Why else would this game that purports to be about moral choices would present you with kill the little girl for a reward, or don’t kill the little girl for the exact same reward? It mentions Objectivism, it invokes its creator, it tries to create a world that’s built around it, but it doesn’t take a stance on it. It doesn’t say whether the system is good or bad – turning this large idea into a piece of window dressing.
And why would you mention big ideas, like that? Why bring it up, if you can’t talk about it?
Now, of course, as with all things, thousands of different hands and eyes and words were spent in the creation of the Bioshock setting. There is not a lone Ken-Levine-shaped individual at the heart of it all perfectly guiding it to represent his own vision, and in so doing, making himself look, to me, like an utter chore who doesn’t understand the things he invokes. This is a ghost of an author. I am considering this work as if it represents a whole, coherent, singular vision of storytelling, as if there was a fictional person at the center of it all doing things this way.
When you do that, that person you’re left with is a bit of a doofus.
This is the problem of videogame media which worries me more and more as I study media and culture in academia. I already knew that there was no real respect for this sort of journalism – that critique and analysis is a fringe interest in videogame land. I know that game developers who bother to speak up about it don’t have high opinions of academic discourse on media. I mean, someone dropped ‘filmic dissonance’ – a term that originated in the 1970s and which formed the ground for ludonarrative dissonance – and people acted as if he’d made it up. They didn’t look it up, check to see what was going on – they just assumed that someone using such a term had to be making it up.
Meanwhile, my efforts to deconstruct and consider media in ways other than ‘is this good’ or ‘is this bad’ have been routinely stymied by people – friends even – having taken me aside and either privately or publically complained at me. I joked this year that my degree was an excellent way to lose friends.
As a teenager I liked to write media that mentioned every recent thing I’d experienced or read. I wrote this way because, at the time, I wanted to let the reader know I’d seen or read or been interested in that other thing. To me, then, this mention meaninglessly style of storytelling feels very adolescent. It feels aspirational, like someone mentioning the books they plan on reading as if they’ve already read them, because they don’t want to feel stupid or ill-read. It’s something that brings me back to Bible Study where someone would drop a chapter-verse reference and not quote the verse, so they could look around the room and see who recognised what they were saying. It’s language full of shibboleths and code words, invoking to make reference the highest form of wit.
This is something we already see in games trying to be funny. Duke Nukem Forever was lambasted for how its character just mentions things you’re meant to know, and that passes as a joke, or as style. Simply saying this thing exists isn’t funny, in and of itself. In the same way, saying Quantum Physics Exist isn’t being deep or smart.
Then we come back to Life Is Strange.
Life is Strange is jam-packed full of references, and they tend to be of this sort. People will mention books or music or styles and – hell there comes a point where Max is meant to drop a bible verse reference without quoting the verse! And there it’s framed as a puzzle! Like, isn’t this clever, you remember the route to this verse we already pointed out to you!
Weightlessness Of Meaning
I think that’s part of why I never felt the game’s weight. The people who describe the storm as a consequence of Max’s power are Warren and Max, invoking Chaos theory and Quantum Physics while demonstrating they haven’t got the faintest fucking clue what they mean in this context. This cargo-cult creativity means that when characters bring up ideas, ideas they show they don’t really have any appreciation of, that it rings like an adolescent trying to justify their actions.
You put the storm in because you wanted a storm. You forced the story to loop back to the suicide option because you wanted to loop back to the suicide option. You chose this, and now you’re trying to justify it by painting these things you’ve heard of on top of it.
I mean that’s okay? Because at its core, Life is Strange is a very adolescent game. It doesn’t really know much, it doesn’t understand much, but it is throwing its arms wide and trying. Where it is the most real, where it connects the best, is where it tries to deal with very adolescent things, most importantly, how would I handle this rare but very adult situation? I’m not just talking about the murder-death-suicide stuff going on, though those are definite high points that the adolescent author wants to focus on. Those are the places mental effort’s been put, places where this creator-ghost has tried to use the young-adult style and the make heightened, big emotions meaningfully powerful. No, I’m thinking about those small places, those emotional pockets, where the subconscious desires of that ghost come out.
It paints Victoria’s behaviour as unequivocally negative, which makes it easier to take a moral stand against her, which is pretty much the most fantastic of adolescent situations. Imagine if the bad people you knew, the genuinely cruel ones, were so obvious and so cartoonish that opposing them was easy? Imagine if back then, you’d had it in you to both stand up against the bully and magnanimously have power enough to show mercy to her – even when you’re the reason she’s upset. That’s a lot of power – consequence-free vengeance and the power to be merciful. Why would you want that? Is it bad of you to do that? But when you do it, the game gives you a moment of empathy with Victoria. It even lets you take care of her emotionally, later.
Character is where Life is Strange excels. It humanises every villain over time, sort of. Jefferson is sort of the inverted arc of Nathan. Nathan is painted as a violent bully who thinks himself superior, is depicted as totally unreasonable, and then slowly you build some of the structures around him. You see the emotionally distant parent, the manipulative abuse of Jefferson and the deep-seated rage issues his parents were more concerned with hiding than managing. Finally you have this moment of empathy from Nathan as he calls you to apologise just before he’s murdered.
Jefferson on the other hand goes in the opposite arc. He’s affable and nice, and then suddenly, in one massive sweep, he’s dehumanised and alienised to make himself a movie serial killer. That same arc also brings David some humanity, but I have my issues with that, too. An abusive creepy stalker is reframed as just defending Chloe, and therefore, he is okay.
There’s the problem, really. In the truest adolescent way, Life is Strange is good at humanising people but bad at structuring plot. In single moments, when you’re presented with options for how you deal with characters, you’ve got this great, brilliant feeling of care about them, this crafted sensation where they are regarded not as stereotypes but as wholes. It’s when you slip away from moments and start working on continuity you hit the problems.
And this is where we hit the biggest problem…
Time On My Side
So many of the individual moments of Life is Strange, when considered as a moment, are good. But you can make a bad thing out of good parts – and Life is Strange has made a truly terribly construction out of its parts.
The most glaring problem is how Life is Strange begins by introducing a conceit that it has to break repeatedly to make its plot work. At numerous points, the game presents you with are fixed points in time and cannot be reversed. That… that doesn’t make sense. Why these? Why are these the choices that you can’t reverse? You introduced the time travel, why did you then write a story where the time travel has to stop working in order for your story to continue?
The fundamentally inexplicable nature of Max’s powers, coupled with their periodic appearance and disappearance is one of the problems the game has. In addition to the people who try to explain it being clearly totally clueless, they literally only appear and disappear for dramatic effect. Dramatic effect, I might suggest, that often relates to how can we kill Chloe?
Now, the structure of the story isn’t totally awful. For example, the dive-into-pictures idea is introduced, then later expanded on. The stealth section is introduced, then expanded on. That, structurally, is good. Of course, the sections in question are awful, which complicates things.
Just as a minor point of design, in the stealth sections when you’re caught, when you rewind time, you rewind the person who’s pointing their light at you. This can mean that if you step into a beam, and you rewind, the beam doesn’t move and you don’t move. You just sit there, rewinding until you reset the whole puzzle and get teleported elsewhere. This isn’t fun and it isn’t interesting.
There’s the other side of this, when you take Life is Strange in a broader sense: A girl is given mysterious power she can’t explain, she uses it, then learns that using it is terrible and will destroy or kill everything she cares about. This isn’t a new story. In fact, when it comes to young women’s stories, this is kind of the story. It’s fucking odious to me, personally, when this trope gets used. It’s old, it’s tired, I read it dozens of times and it carries with it the undercurrent of you can be the center of a story, girls, provided you accept that death and suffering is your reward. Again, this is very adolescent, as stories go – you’ll find a wealthy genre of girl-centric fanfiction where a character just like the author is introduced to a story, romances the character she loves the most, then dies, because that makes her sudden and confusing presence acceptable.
So you throw that on the heap. You put it alongside Caulfield, a reference to a novel about a boy who blames everyone else for his problems, rather than a girl who feels guilty for not solving everyone’s problems. You put it alongside Stockholm Syndrome, a condition that describes forced company and power dynamics, rather than being friends with someone. You put it next to the recognition that toxic masculinity has injured both Nathan and Warren, but not realise that the solution to that is not Warren being alpha. You put it alongside repeated uses of psychopath and dark scribbled patterns and name-dropping books and scientists and authors and artists whether or not you understand them.
In the end Chloe is the heart of Life is Strange. Confused, lost, adrift amongst structures she doesn’t know enough about to make the long-term decisions that will benefit her. Wrapped up in choices it never made, scrawling the things she’s heard of and remind her of the people she likes all around her. Full of effort and intensity and compassion and care but aimlessly, cluelessly misdirected in how to use it.
It’s fine to be like that.
That’s just what adolescence is like.