The LIFE IS STRANGE games have been incredibly difficult for me to deal with, much less write about. They’re literally manufactured to trigger grief and sadness and re-invoke lived trauma and, while I know the developers meant well, it’s still brutal to confront matters.
I’ve always hated the ascribed name: ‘LIFE IS STRANGE’ because life isn’t strange at all and I feel like the game doesn’t even believe it as it has never invoked that phrase. This is just life. This is just living. Abuse and neglect and abandonment have been normalized, have been for a long time and fundamentally that’s what these games are about, as well as the coping mechanisms surrounding them. We tell ourselves it’s strange to justify the calamity of our lives, of exploitation, of unfairness and inequality, when it doesn’t need to be like this.
It is life. While I may be strange, this is not strange.
However: while these games do make me sob, they help me. There aren’t many games that are intentionally meant as therapeutic means but these are games about people feeling too hard, hurt by life and circumstance, but also about finding ways to mend and reach out. I’m shocked they even exist — because how do you even pitch that? — much less have become an actual franchise. As someone who has lived through a bit too much shit, I’m happy to see a game that portrays working through shit, and portrays people surviving it.
I love reading the YouTube comments for these games — well, 75% of the commenters, the other 25% can go fuck themselves — because they are all beaming and realizing that video games can help and heal in their own way. These games have made me feel like I’m not alone, just like those comments have made me feel like I’m not alone, and just like how I’m writing this: you are not alone.
This game contains details of familial death. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning those details.
If you’ve been following along with the prior posts: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL (FAREWELL, going forward) is a very short prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM, going forward), which is the prequel to LIFE IS STRANGE.
In other words: you get to see Max and Chloe as very early youths, just as Max is about to leave for Seattle and just when Chloe’s life turns to shit.
BEFORE THE STORM was far smaller-scale than LIFE IS STRANGE, and FAREWELL is even more intimate. It details one of Max’s last days with Chloe before she moves to Seattle. She hasn’t told Chloe yet — she’s afraid of ruining the mood and just wants to hang out with her best friend and riff on the good times; all of their pirate games and treasure maps and blowing up shit and languid lounging sleepy days, hanging around Chloe’s room, occasionally popping out for a stack of her mother’s pancakes.
One of the most remarkable features of LIFE IS STRANGE is its indulgence in reminiscing and introspection. Each and every installment features a number of places to sit or lay down on and mull over feelings and revel in memories. For the majority of FAREWELL, it’s Max laying alongside Chloe on her bed as they idly listen to music, the breeze flowing through the windows, as she recounts her feelings about her best friend to herself. The camera cuts to specific areas of Chloe’s room, occasionally glimsping the outside, even after Max has completed her inner monologue.
It’s techniques such as that which makes LIFE IS STRANGE a game instead of an interactive novel. You can exit out of these vignettes at any point in time. Hell, you don’t even need to enact them. However, when you do it enriches the characters and the world that they inhabit.
FAREWELL is quietly brutal, with a gut-punch of an ending but, for a short period of time, you get to live in the idyllic world of their youth and see them simply having fun and enjoying life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself opting out of works that unnecessarily put their characters through unrelenting traumatic circumstances and, while LIFE IS STRANGE most certainly does that — I realize it’s basic narrative necessity — it also finds time and space to give them joyful experiences, and I will miss them.
“Even when we’re apart, we’re still Max and Chloe.”
When dealing with teen-centric dramas, too many works have their point-of-view centered around the naive shy one who is drawn into the orbit of the nefarious, corrupting burr on society. The initial five chapters of LIFE IS STRANGE certainly took that approach; Max is the POV character, a smart, upright, mostly meek and non-rebellious person who just wants to pursue her art but is drawn back into the orbit of her prior best-friend Chloe, a fried drop-out, and calamity ensues, literally brewing a storm that entangles everyone.
Rewind a bit.
LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM (BEFORE THE STORM from here on out) examines the other side of the coin by placing the focus on Chloe and how she (poorly) navigates life after Max moves from Arcadia Bay to Seattle with her family and — in more ways than one — writes Chloe out of her life for five years. In the meantime, Chloe — utterly floundering due to the sudden death of her father and the departure of her best friend — falls apart. She finds herself rudderless during a dark time at Blackwood Academy, Arcadia Bay’s school for gifted burgeoning artists and scientists.
Then Blackwood’s star student, a picture-perfect young woman named Rachel Amber, takes Chloe by her hand, saves her from a terribly shitty situation at a dirtbag club night, and everything changes; they become inseparable. They also get entangled in a lot of shit for, well, being out-spoken and for standing up for themselves, and if you’ve played the initial game you know where that gets them.
However, this game is about shining a spotlight on the time Chloe and Rachel had together, about them finding each other, trusting each other, and figuring out the world and what they want.
While you can play BEFORE THE STORM as straight, that’s not the Chloe I know; my Chloe is queer as hell and gives no shits, so that’s the tact I took, and the game doesn’t disappoint if you go down that route. It feels poignant in the way that few games do.
BEFORE THE STORM is far smaller-scale than the first game in more ways than one. It’s focused on characters and fleshing out the events that lead to the tragedy (or tragedies) of LIFE IS STRANGE. Chloe doesn’t have superpowers; she has barbed quips and a Sharpie. You just spend three episodes living through Chloe’s often-banal life.
Yet, it’s my favorite of the series. (At least, so far.) It’s not a love story per se, but it is a romance of sorts between two people who aren’t exactly good for each other, but they ultimately find themselves drawn to each other, then find the same frequency, and they ride that for as long as they can. Also, Chloe’s general trajectory is something I certainly relate to in many ways. (I was a real shitheel of a teen. Gave my parents a lot of grief. Lived a duplicitous life. Not that anyone asked, but we’re on better terms now.)
BEFORE THE STORM also features my favorite bonus episode — which has become a staple of the series — and rewinds even further back: LIFE IS STRANGE: FAREWELL. However, I’ll table that for tomorrow.
“Don’t be surprised if one day, I’m just out of here.”
This game contains depictions of abduction, abuse, familial death and suicide. To prevent spoilers, I side-step mentioning most of those details, but not all.
LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative-forward videogame from French developer DONTNOD (now known as Don’t Nod). The game will be eight years old around the time of publishing this post. In other words, a tad more than a full teenage generation, which is fitting for a work that focuses so much on the time between being a youth and being considered an adult. It’s a game that zeroes in on how every choice — and the results of your choices — feel amplified, how the choices ripple through your life, and how you may learn to regret or embrace it. It’s also a game about highlighting traumatic incidents you’ve lived through and whether you are willing to confront them or push them aside. Often, the choice is up to you, but also intractable.
LIFE IS STRANGE takes place in the sleepy town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, a fictional burg that was once fine waters for fisherman, at least before an old-money family by the name of the Prescotts strip-mined the area. While doing so, they buy out the long-standing local elite school for gifted artists and scientists: Blackwell Academy. (It’s worth noting that Blackwell is a rather loaded name, given Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE.)
You play as Maxine Caulfield, an aspiring photographer who goes by the shorthand ‘Max’. Max previously lived in Arcadia Bay, spending most of her free time with best friend and science nerd Chloe Price, at least until Max’s family moved to Seattle when Max was was an early teen. Unfortunately, right around the same day Max moved to Seattle, Chloe’s father died in a car accident.
Max attended the funeral, left town, and never contacted Chloe the entire time she lived near the spire.
Five years later, Max is back in Arcadia Bay to attend classes at Blackwell taught by her favorite living photographer: Mark Jefferson. In the meantime, Chloe has dropped out of Blackwell, having become a quintessential burnout punk — all dyed hair and anger issues — but is also desperately in search for one Rachel Amber, a gregarious all-star Blackwell student, and the person that helped prop Chloe up after Max had left. Rachel has been missing for six months and, while her family and police assume she’s just jaunted off to Los Angeles to act or model, Chloe knows better, and plasters the town with MISSING flyers.
Inexplicably, Max becomes imbued with the ability to rewind time, which allows her to save her prior best friend from being shot in a Blackwell bathroom — despite not even recognizing Chloe, thanks to five years of passage, as well as her newly shorn and cyan-colored hair.
Matters escalate in a very neo-noir/VERONICA MARS sort of way that includes all sorts of teen high school drama, drugs, men taking terrible advantage of their positions and power, you have a number of romance options and oh, Arcadia Bay might be totalled by an F6 tornado that only Max can foresee, and very few folks believe her.
In other words, this is perfect teenage fodder: small decisions result in huge consequences, emotions are perpetually heightened, your protagonist is gifted and has superpowers, and everyone is thirsty.
While LIFE IS STRANGE is an interactive narrative work, it manages its gameplay elements better than similar story-first games: the time-rewind feature is perfectly honed for a game where the result of choices ripple, and the interface for newly discovered dialogue branches is far better than anything BioWare has come up with. The visual design is artfully simple while also being striking with its colorful hues and stylized environments — especially notable is how it portrays Oregon, all lush leaves and wind streaked. While it’s not my home state of Vermont, it evokes that same rustic, rural feeling.
However, the real appeal here is in the character work: Max is a shy, restrained nerd and surrounded herself by similar folks. Chloe is a problem in search of a solution, a frustrated youth who lashes out unpredictably and still lives with her mother who works at the local diner. When Max and Chloe reunite, the game crystalizes; if you were lucky enough to have a best-friend as a teen, especially if you two were weirdo misfits, this game will almost certainly hit amazingly close-to-home. If you weren’t, it’s such an earnest and honest and emotional depiction that you’ll still feel their bond, their strife, their push-and-pull.
I know a lot of folks feel like the game cribs from TWIN PEAKS. It’s literally spelled out on Chloe’s license plate, and it mimics a lot of the ‘small town with secrets’ vibe. However — thematically — I don’t feel it, even though it does indulge in abused/dead girl tropes. The game is about survival and confronting circumstances, as opposed to innocence lost, unheard pain and senseless death. Does it dovetail with TWIN PEAKS? Yes. But no one here is actually Laura Palmer, the crux of a town.
I first played LIFE IS STRANGE way back in 2015, as the episodes were slowly doled out. As such, I forgot a lot over time, but certain scenes you do not forget. To be blunt: the ending? Spoiler alert: there is no good ending, although you’re still forced to choose one.
It’s rare that I replay games. I often say it’s a time thing, but more often than not it’s about retaining my initial experience of the game, how I felt about the characters and environments and conflicts and obstacles and victories. Also, most videogames are narratively linear, even if they pretend they aren’t, and most videogame stories suck. Sure, you occasionally have a SILENT HILL 2 that upends everything, but more often than not, it’s just banal. And that’s fine and I find fun in it!
I did replay LIFE IS STRANGE a few weeks ago. (I’ll note that I haven’t played the remastered version.) The entire game came back to me as I advanced chapter-by-chapter, not unlike how memories would unfold for Max. I remembered the choices I made. I remembered the choices I wish I hadn’t been forced to make.
I made a few different choices this time around, but mostly skewed to trying to be a good friend like I did the first time. This time around, I did kiss Chloe, but then felt bad because they’re really only always going to be friends and Max — well, my Max — is pretty straight and it just felt weird and awkward, and the game plays it out that way. This isn’t a story about queer awakening — it’s a story about friendship.
However: that’s exactly why this game, this series exists: it recreates the awkwardness of becoming an young adult, and the culmination of everything and everyone that influences it, as well as everyone who supports — or exploits — you along the way.
Emotionally, it is a lot, and in more than a few ways I don’t love how the game ladles on momentous decisions as it didn’t need to push so hard. However, upon replaying, I slowly and sadly came to realize that this one game is firmly focused on reconciling losing close friendships and ties.
It’s a game I wish I had as a teen, but I’m so happy that it exists now, and so ecstatic to see what it inspires in the generations to come.
Welcome to LIFE IS STRANGE week. If you aren’t familiar with the DONTNOD videogame series, they’re choice-based narrative games where the decisions you make matter more than they ever did in your MASS EFFECTs, and they’re all centered around the traumas endured while navigating one’s tumultuous teen years.
First up will be LIFE IS STRANGE, followed by LIFE IS STRANGE: BEFORE THE STORM, then the ‘demo’ for LIFE IS STRANGE 2 — THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SPIRIT — before diving into LIFE IS STRANGE 2. Then LIFE IS STRANGE: TRUE COLORS, followed by the TRUE COLORS prelude/coda: STEPH’S STORY.
It is worth noting that all of these games deal rather frankly with a range of unsavory and traumatic actions and conditions, such as abduction, abuse, familial death, suicidal thoughts, and more. I’ll be assigning content warnings to each post but, if you’re sensitive to such matters — believe me, I am and I really probably shouldn’t even be playing through these games right now — you may want to skip these entries.
If you want a primer, I’ve created a YouTube playlist:
The first post will be for LIFE IS STRANGE (2015) on Feb 20th! In the meantime, you can take bets on which is my fav.
(Hulu/VOD) One of my favorite activities to attend when the world first re-opened in the summer of 2021 was Joe Swanberg’s Secret Screenings at Chicago’s Davis Theater. If you aren’t familiar with Swanberg, he’s perhaps best known for being a mumblecore pioneer — the low-rent indie film genre that emphasized language and small-scale human drama — but he’s also a prolific actor and producer and he loves Chicago, specifically his neighborhood of Lincoln Square, where the Davis is housed.
His secret screenings are exactly what they sound like: you buy a ticket solely knowing you’ll get to watch a film wouldn’t be possible to see otherwise. (I’ve previously written about a few of his prior screenings, including DETENTION). If you can attend, he has one more secret screening at the Davis on April 9th, and the writer/director will be present for a post-film Q&A. (Swanberg knows how to moderate these things, so it’ll be a quality Q&A!)
His first secret screening of 2022 was of Sundance darling HATCHING, a Finnish coming-of-age horror film from director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rautsi about Tinja (Siiri Solalinna), a gymnast teen with a monstrous social media-obsessed mother (a wicked Sophia Heikkilä), one who would rather break the neck of a raven that literally shatters the trappings of the family home as opposed to letting it free. Tinja later finds the crippled creature, puts it out of its misery, then sees a sole egg from the raven’s nest and decides to tend to it. Matters escalate in a brilliant way that explores puberty and terrible mothers.
Trust me, the less you know about the rest is best, but it’s a thrilling, wild, disgusting, intense ride. It’s a film that would make a great late-night double-feature with GINGER SNAPS.
I’d like to digress a bit from the film though, solely to discuss horror and bodies, as HATCHING — more than any other film I’ve seen in some time — scrutinizes physicality. Horror, perhaps more than any other genre than action, relies on people’s bodies being thrown around, either self-imposed or done by others. As someone who was infatuated with tumbling, bar work, and gymnastics in general as a youth, you’re repeatedly told to trust yourself, to get over your fears, to think of your appendages as tools; you specifically toss yourself around like an object for the amusement — or bemusement — of others. I look back and am shocked at the acts I put my body through, for no goddamn good reason apart from the fact that it felt good and it was expected.
I was not a gifted gymnast and, similarly, HATCHING’s Tinja is not a gifted gymnast, but unlike her, I was never pressured by a desperate mother to pursue it. It was just an extracurricular I latched onto.
I can’t imagine putting myself through those routines now as I’m too old and creaky, but I do miss it. That feeling is much what horror films capture and encapsulate: the thrill of youthfully putting yourself in perilous situations, of exploiting the belief of immortality of the young which is, at least in most horror films, often then cut short; victims of hubris, of launching themselves too high towards the sky and failing to stick the landing.
(As usual, including a trailer, but probably best to stay away if you have any interest in the film.)
(epix/Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) Yep, this is a repeat recommendation! (Here’s the original recommendation.) I often read the source material of a film afterwards, but that’s usually concerning dusty films from the 40s; rarely do I seek out source material for a modern film because many modern literary-to-film adaptations simply aren’t that interesting. (The last great book/film pair I can recall is probably GONE GIRL which was checks notes seven years ago?!)
However, I just finished reading the source material — Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name — and I -love- both versions. To summarize both real quick, just in case: the senior year students in a traditional American high school start spontaneously combusting, BLEAK HOUSE-style. (Sorry, spoilers for a 150-year-old novel.)
The novel is denser and woolier than the film, but the film has a cavalier, high-energy attitude that the book lacks, and it doesn’t get so bogged down with the details. The film feels like a very concise reinterpretation of the novel — vast sections of the last third of the book are dropped or merely given lip-service in the film — the focus here is more on Mara and her end-of-youth relationship with Dylan — who is has far less back-story in the film — but that’s okay because the film is about Mara’s agency and her graduating to adulthood. Yes, writer/director Brian Duffield (writer of the previously recommended UNDERWATER) bumps up Mara’s quirkiness, but in a way that feels organic for Katherine Langford (KNIVES OUT), while still preserving her fuck-up demeanor (although it does significantly ramp down her drug use for some reason).
Sadly, Mara’s best friend Tess (RIVERDALE’s Hayley Law) is significantly dumbed down in the film, which is perhaps the only misstep the film makes, but otherwise it’s an extremely smart, visually inventive and refreshing take on a coming-of-age tale. I’m hoping it’ll find an audience post-COVID, because it has all of the hallmarks of a great cult film. And, if you like the film, pick up a copy of the book.*
I’d like to note that I picked up a used copy of the book, and the previous owner of the book took the effort to use typewriter whiteout tape — not actual whiteout — to obscure not only every swear in the novel (Mara swears approximately every other page, and it’s a 355 page novel) but also any physical sexual moment, including full paragraphs about self-stimulation. I can’t wrap my head around it — Mara’s utterances and the sex is the least disturbing part of the novel — but at least the presumed kid that asked to read the book got to read it?
(Criterion/DVD/BR) Unfortunately it’s currently not available to stream, but Criterion recently released a newly restored edition of SMOOTH TALK, a very dark coming-of-age tale from documentarian/director Joyce Chopra based on Joyce Carol Oates’ short story WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? It’s vintage 80s, very sun-kissed, featuring Laura Dern in one of first roles, plenty of mall shopping, bangles, and teen girl sexuality.
It’s also worth noting that the new Criterion release also contains a copy of Oates’ short, well-worth reading after watching the film, if you haven’t read it already. (Or you can read it here.) I simply love it when Criterion does this sort of thing. For instance, my Criterion copy of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK has a bundled copy of the source material.
(Prime) Tayarisha Poe’s debut SELAH AND THE SPADES can be described as DEAR WHITE PEOPLE meets BRICK and, while I can’t argue with that — it’s full of teens scheming in a neo-noir underworld of their very own making — it’s more than a mashup of those two, partially because it focuses predominantly on girls and power. Also, while it’s Jomo Fray’s first feature as a cinematographer, his experience with short films is wisely executed, providing a strikingly visual film while still keeping a steady hand on SELAH’s framing.
(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) FREAKS & GEEKS is finally available to stream! If you haven’t already purchased the DVD, or have enough grey hair to have watched it when it first aired, Hulu managed to clear all of the music rights and — after a bit of a stumble out of the gait — have the eps properly ordered.
If you’re a product of the 80s — especially if you were a nerd in the 80s — it’ll be a trip down memory lane. If not, given how absurdly recognizable all of the actors and creatives are, it’ll be another sort of nostalgia for you, as it introduced the world to: Judd Apatow, Linda Cardellini, Paul Feig, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Mike White. A laundry list of modern heavy hitters, all of whom cut their teeth on this show.