Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Life is Strange: More Thoughts on Time, Consequence, and Anxiety

[Spoilers for Life is Strange Episodes 1-4]
[TW: references to domestic abuse]

I can’t fucking wait for school to start again. I’m writing this just a few days before I go back to college, and I’m really excited to live with my friends again and take interesting classes. Every day the past few weeks, I’ve been saying to my parents, “I want to go to school,” or, “Can’t I just be at school now?” which is beautifully and horribly ironic considering that just a few years ago, I would say to my parents every day, “I don’t want to go to school,” or, “Can I please just not go today?” (Of course I went every day in high school and got perfect attendance despite the daily grievances.)

In these last few weeks of summer before my sophomore year, I’ve been keeping myself busy playing through Dontnod’s episodic Life is Strange. While I’ve been anticipating a variety of social situations among friends, strangers, and university faculty in the upcoming weeks, I’ve been experiencing both the mundane and spectacular situations that high school senior Max Caulfield finds herself in at her school Blackwell Academy and the surrounding small town of Arcadia Bay. The game revolves around Max’s newfound power to rewind time to redo events, make new choices, and fix mistakes.
Max’s superpower is an excellent premise for a young adult videogame, not only because of games’ history with rewinding time as a mechanic (e.g. Braid and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), but also because most people fantasize about going back in time after saying something they regret or missing out on a opportunity, especially teens with naive wishes for perfect, easy lives in which everybody likes them. I can think of so many situations when I would like to use this power. Like in class when the teacher asks a question I think I know the answer to but am too afraid of answering in case I’m wrong, only to feel salty after another student confirms my guess. Or when I definitely know the answer to something, perhaps with more detail than the teacher, but I don’t want to seem like an obnoxious know-it-all, so instead of answering, the class sits in awkward silence for a minute before the teacher disappointedly continues the lecture. Or the times when I’ve thought of a great joke after the window in which it’d be appropriate to use it. And as a queer person, I’d feel a lot safer flirting with a boy at a party if I could rely on a rewind power if he gets wigged out or becomes threatening. But with my social anxiety, I’d be rewinding most often after I’ve omitted doing something rather than after speaking or acting.

Last December I wrote a post about how Creatures Such As We and Queers in Love at the End of the World use time restraints to create anxiety in the player, inciting her fear of missing out, fear of not being perfect. But with the power of time at her fingertips, Max can eliminate the anxiety of missing out. Life is Strange caters to the player like Mass Effect in that you’re free to walk around the environments, look at objects, and talk to people at your own pace even when the narrative says you should be urgently focused on a task. The Earth is burning, but it’s, like, totally fine that Shepard chills on the Citadel for a few days. An anxious Warren waits for Max in the parking lot, but it’s, like, totally fine that Max talks to everyone on the quad first and even lets Daniel draw a detailed sketch of her. The dissonance takes you out of the experience, but it’s less of a problem than in Mass Effect because it reinforces that since Max has all the time in the world, she’s free to see everything and assess accordingly.

Max’s new power naturally gives her a new sense of confidence, which the game implies during Max’s first confrontation with Juliet in Episode 1. Juliet is confused by Max’s newfound upfrontness, wondering why she would suddenly care enough to approach her about her problems. Totally weirded out by Max pushing into her personal affairs, she says to her, “You never talk, just zone out with your camera.” It’s clear that Max was a socially awkward and shy girl before she got her powers. Before she realizes her powers, she walks the halls of Blackwell with headphones in her ears after Mr. Jefferson’s class, choosing to see but not engage with anybody in the hall. This scene seems a lot closer to my experience of high school than Max walking up to everybody to check in on their lives and intervene during situations after she gets her powers. Max’s rewind ability is a clever means to let you play as an awkward, shy teen without having to deal with the baggage of existence as an awkward shy teen who is unable to talk to anyone ever.

Max’s newfound confidence comes from not having to worry about the finality of her choices right away. Every choice you make that has a consequence later comes with a chime and a flapping butterfly icon on the top left of the screen, signalling you to rewind if you want to consider a different option before moving on. I always rewind in the case of diverging paths, even when I know my first decision is the one I wanted to make, just to see what happens. I want to see the different outcomes of different possibilities to 1) see which actions and dialogue choices work most in my and my friends’ favors and 2) test these against what I feel ethically comfortable doing (more on that later). Because Max can only rewind about a few minutes at a time, you can only see the immediate results of your actions; you can only guess the long term effects. Most decisions have potential negative results, which Max will voice as she asks herself if she should rewind. Though Max has time on her side, my anxiety about the choices is often worse in some cases because even though I now have the power to potentially be “perfect,” I still don’t know the future. Since I have the opportunity to change my choices, the pressure is on to get it right. I see that letting Chloe keep the gun she stole from her stepdad prevents her from feeling betrayed by me, but I don’t know if it’ll get her into trouble or danger later on. Thinking about the possibilities with my expanded control over situations actually heightens anxiety because now I feel even more culpable for the consequences of my actions.  

I’m thorough in my playthrough both because I want to see all that the game offers and because I want to make sure I’m being as perfect as possible. Most of the time I rewind after optional conversations with no effect on the plot just to ensure that I both see everything and I choose the dialogue path that presents more authentically what I would say or what my intentions are to the other characters, regardless of whether or not their reactions are essentially the same either way. When snooping around a person’s room, I rewind so that it was as if I never looked at certain things, even though the game wasn’t going to punish me for snooping in the first place (though it sometimes does). After a classmate didn’t let me fly her drone, I searched her bag and found the model number, rewound time and impressed her with the information I pretended to have already known. But after she let me fly the drone that time, I felt guilty and rewound as if I had never approached her. I became so obsessed with some of my choices that it was hard to progress through the game. Most of the episodes took me 5 or 6 hours rather than 3 as most reviewers say.

I find it hard to feel like I’m ever doing the right thing while playing Life is Strange.

Mari of Geek Remix made an excellent video analyzing the morality of Max’s use of her superpower:


As Mari details, because of her rewind ability, Max never has to take responsibility for any of the short term consequences of her actions. Instead of apologizing for upsetting someone, she can just rewind and comfort them instead. She can use information gleaned from conversations gone south to her advantage after she rewinds. In real life, if people were rude to or made fun of me for not knowing about drones, skateboarding, or obscure photography facts, I would not want to engage with them. But Max doesn’t have to accept the fact that some people don’t like her and can instead manipulate people using time to say the right things and make friends with everybody. Sure, it makes all parties involved feel better about each other, but those Max uses her powers on don’t really know who the real Max is.

Max is able to make several choices all in one scenario, but she can rewind so that she can only be judged for one of the choices she makes. In one scenario, Chloe’s stepdad David gets ready to barge into her room while Max is present. She can choose to face David with Chloe or hide in the closet at Chloe’s request. When David finds weed in Chloe’s room, you can either take the blame, deny your involvement, or stay hidden if that applies. When you refuse to intervene from the closet or take the blame, David ends up slapping Chloe across the face, but not if you make a different choice. I saw all of the different scenarios play out and made my final choice to hide in the closet, then intervene and take the blame for the pot. But I had still witnessed David slap Chloe, which colored my impression of him for the rest of the game. I choose to judge David as an abuser even though he technically didn’t slap Chloe in the universe I chose to move on in. But no one has to judge Max for any of the awful things she does in alternate universes. I want to be clear here - I’m not saying we should give David a free pass, because he did hit Chloe in an alternate universe that does exist. But Max acts horrendously in plenty of alternate universes, but she faces no judgment for those actions. I made fun of Victoria after splashing her with wet paint, let Frank and his dog get killed almost a dozen times, tried to shoot Frank myself, and watched passively when a friend got bullied, but it’s all fine because I rewound time to erase those questionable decisions. It’s unfair that Max can see and judge everyone’s shitty actions that don’t necessarily come to pass, while she can essentially get away with anything and does in some cases. If growing up is about making mistakes, then Max can never grow up as long as she holds on to her superpower.

I did a bad thing last semester. Without going into too much detail, as housing selection for the fall drew near, my friends and I bailed out on another friend, who was under the impression that we were definitely planning to room with him, a week before the housing applications were due. To make matters worse, he found out from someone else we had told. I felt like such a horrible person and cried about it because I thought our decision meant he’d be alone for a whole semester and because I know I would have felt betrayed and devastated if I was in his place. Of course I wanted to rewind the whole week and a) convince my friends to room with him, b) call him earlier to tell him of our plans, or c) make sure the person who spilled the beans keeps their mouth shut. But I don’t have Max’s powers, so instead I apologized. And, yeah, he was mad at me. But he eventually found a new roommate and the whole deal blew over with everyone being okay. But Max never has to process or own up to her mistakes; she only has to rewind and make it seem like things never went out of equilibrium, like when Dana catches her snooping in her room, as highlighted by Mari’s video. Sure, she still feels anxiety over making big decisions with unclear, lasting impacts, but she never has to engage with regret after immediate consequences. 

Tough decisions abound. |
In her video Mari reasons through rewinding time while playing as Max:
“...I want to have a perfect game, a perfect playthrough, a perfect life. I want people to like me, I don’t want my friends to die, I want to get good grades, and I want all of that to come to me easily. I want that so bad that I don’t think about the possible consequences in the future. I’m willing to break the universe, let my body get ruined, and betray all sense of morality in order to be perfect, no matter how many warning signs I get. And isn’t that the entire psyche of a teenager?”
One of the best things about Life is Strange is its characterization of Max is relation to her rewind powers. Clearly, Max has a good heart despite the poor morality of her actions. Max is legitimately trying to be a good person and make things better for both herself and others around her, but in her quest for perfection, she fails to see the benefits of owning up to her mistakes and learning from them. The game even implies that she has a sense of awareness about her actions. When you look in a certain mirror, Max will wonder whether she’s a superhero or a total hypocrite. She feels like a real teenager with all the right intentions just trying to get everyone to like her. She just has to learn that it sucks to be a person and live in a world where you have to deal with your flaws, and if being perfect means having to constantly manipulate the world and deceive other people, maybe it’s just best to be yourself.

So it all comes down to the final episode. Will Max finally have to confront the dubious ethics of her abilities and choose to relinquish them? Will Episode 5 finally explicitly depict queerness, or will the game go down in history as a particularly egregious example of queer baiting? And what exactly happened to Rachel Amber and Kate Marsh, who is responsible, and why? And finally, why did Max receive her powers in the first place?

I’m almost as excited and anxious about the possible answers to these questions as I am about starting my sophomore year and my last eight months of living as a teenager.

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