Life is Strange

A game by DontnoD

If you’ve read my review of DAR, you know that I get super angry when people like things that I hate. Ever since Life is Strange released its fifth and final chapter on October 20, I’ve been suffering an increasing number of people praising it – for its story, for its characters, and even for its “deep” “meaningful” ending. Needless to say, I’m… a tad irritated.

(I know I know, I said I wasn’t going to review this game, but I scrapped my planned review for today in favor of ranting about LiS on tumblr, and my rant started running long, so I figured I might as well post it on the site. Sometimes you gotta follow your heart.)

When I first saw promotional material for Life is Strange (like, two years ago at this point?) I was immediately like “This seems rly gay.” TBH I was sold then and there. It was a long time before I was able to play the first two chapters, but when I finally did, I was convinced that the gay vibes were deliberate, a slow burn leading up to a genuinely queer endgame for protagonist Max. I was hooked.

I was also lined, and sinkered.

No homo lol
No homo lol

Life is Strange is one of the most infuriating queerbaits I’ve ever seen, mostly because it’s also the most purposeful and dedicated. The subtext is heavy, giving you scenes where you sleep in the same bed as your friend Chloe and then “playfully” kiss her “on a dare”, or break into the school pool to swim with her in your underwear, shit like that. Repeatedly you have to use your time travel powers to save her life, and Max is really serious about how important she is to her. There’s no mistake here: the writers (all dudes, btw) know Max and Chloe are homos; they just don’t want to admit it to you.

This is only confirmed by the ending of Chapter 5, which I’m going to spoil for you out of mercy. You ultimately have the choice between two endings: go back in time and undo ALL the changes you made to the timeline, including saving Chloe’s life; or allow the tornado that you (?) created (??) somehow (???) destroy the town, presumably killing many people.

And guess which ending is the only one where you can kiss Chloe for real?

That’s right! If you sacrifice the town to save your girlfriend, you get a “just good friends” ending. The only way this game allows queer love to happen is via the Tragic Lesbians trope!! LITERALLY, THEY WEREN’T EVEN SUBTLE ABOUT IT.

(This is something of a mirror for the scene where you and Chloe find Rachel Amber’s body; only when it’s clear she’s dead does the game let Chloe admit that she “loved her so much.”)

Listen. No one younger than 20 has seen the Blair Witch Project, let alone casually references it.
Listen. No one younger than 20 has seen the Blair Witch Project, let alone casually references it.

So it’s a queerbait. That’s bad enough. But the fact that I was so invested in it getting gay led to me overlooking its copious faults. The dialogue is a big one, of course – these teen girls sound like they were written by middle-aged men, which, they were, lmao. And there are no non-white characters in the main cast, which, like, wow dudes. Meanwhile the plot appropriates from various Native American cultures with abandon, even giving Max a fucking “spirit animal” that guides you at various points. At this point I’m already giving the game an F, but it gets worse, because the misogyny and ableism in this game are downright aggressive.

How tragic amirite???
How tragic amirite???

The apparent central villain of the game, Max’s classmate Nathan, is constantly referred to by Max and Chloe as a “psychopath”, a “lunatic”, “crazy and dangerous”, etc. when his actual problem is that he’s a rich misogynist drug dealer who can get away with anything because of his parents. The writers clearly have no qualms about portraying people with mental illness as terrifying, unpredictable murderers, and probably believe those things themselves. But worse, they also believe that being physically disabled is a fate worse than death! In Chapter 4, when you use your abilities to go back years and save Chloe’s dad’s life, you inadvertently create a timeline where Chloe is paralyzed in a car accident. When visiting her at her house, Chloe talks at length about what a drain she is on her family, emotionally and financially, and then begs you to kill her. And you can. And the writers force you to play through the entire conversation even though you’re about to go back and fix the timeline anyway, because, pathos? Or something? Don’t fucking ask me.

As soon as the game tried to pass this guy off as cool I was like "he's a sexual predator."
As soon as the game tried to pass this guy off as cool I was like “he’s a sexual predator.”

There’s also a strong theme of sexual violence in this game, from the disappearance of Rachel to the drugging, kidnapping and public humiliation of Kate, and this only ramps up in the final chapter when Max is kidnapped herself. Using time travel, you can escape – only to fall into a nightmare where you’re victimized by every male character the game, including your kidnapper (repeatedly). It’s extremely exploitative and voyeuristic, and feels very much like at least one person on the writing staff was getting off on the concept of misogynist violence. And at the end, even though you have literal time travel powers and can go back to prevent basically anything, in theory, you’re never presented with the option to save Rachel’s life, or prevent Kate’s trauma. Even in a story about changing the past to get the best possible present, violence against women is presumed and inevitable.

And ultimately they choose to portray Max as… idk, greedy? selfish? for wanting to fix anything, or use her powers at all, for any reason. The final choice of the game makes it clear that the Right and Moral decision is to sacrifice Chloe and never time travel again, even though in the same scene Chloe insists that Max was given those powers for “a reason”. Even beyond how offensive it is, it’s awful writing, lazily refusing to answer any questions or tie up any loose ends, making basically everything you did over the course of 5 episodes totally pointless. How rewarding.

This isn’t a game for queers, or women, or disabled people, or mentally ill people, or people of color. It’s a game for straight dudes who want to jerk it to lesbian suffering. That’s it, that’s my review.

Final verdict: If you want to play this game for the cute girlships, for the love of the gods pirate it or something. Don’t give the developers your money, I’m begging you. It sucks, it’s a trick, don’t fall for it.

2 comments on “Life is Strange

  1. I’ll have to admit, when I saw your opinion on LiS yesterday in the mailbag, I was honestly confused. I knew at that point that the ending was disappointing (I had not seen the ending in which Max chooses to sacrifice Chloe yet), and I knew that the writing, albeit interesting at some points, was definitely sloppy towards the end. However, I thought the game had some good points, and was genuinely confused on why you hated it so much.

    I have learned that I should be more critical about the things that I think I enjoy.

    After reading your review, I’ve realized that every single point you touched upon was something I already hated about the game and yet I somehow didn’t think that I disliked much.
    I knew I hated the queerbaiting. Throughout the whole game, it is completely obvious that Max and Chloe have feelings for eachother, and also that Chloe was/is in love with Rachel. At first I was skeptical, thinking that “Maybe they’re all just really stupid and honestly don’t know how gay this seems, or maybe I’m just reading into it waayy too much.”, but this was disproved time and time again, if not by the pool scene or the kiss scene, by the time Max has a nightmare about Chloe being with every single other character in the game it’s practically screaming “THESE CHARACTERS ARE GAY BUT WE’RE GOING TO TEAR YOUR HEART OUT ANYWAY.”
    Not to mention I’ve realized how terribly sloppy the writing is. None of the loose ends are tied up and half of the plot elements don’t even make sense, for example why does Jefferson kill Nathan if his whole plan was to set Nathan up to take the fall?

    I’m not sure whether or not to thank you for this review. Although it has certainly provided closure on my feelings about the game, I am now left with a bitter taste in my mouth and an anger at how I was made to grow so attached to these characters and story lines and be so deceived. I am torn between being grateful that I have realized how terrible this game was, or wishing that I had stayed blissfully ignorant and not angry at having wasted my emotions on something that would never have any satisfying payoff.

    Either way, great review, as always, I’m looking forward to the next one.

  2. They can never just be gay. They can never just be gay, and live till the end of the story. They can never just be gay and not have the story be ‘about’ how they’re gay, or at least be about it in a compelling way. If there was the intent to have this game be out of touch and offensive in every way imaginable for the sake of, well, the writers’ ugly fantasies, so be it. But the alternative to that notion is that they thought this was actually a decent portrayal of homosexuality, or even humanity, for that matter. And to think someone is that out of touch is frightening.

    I guess some people may be unaware of the tropes surrounding gay people in fiction, like the Tragic Lesbian cliché. But, if you’re that unfamiliar with the type of person you’re writing, and haven’t taken the time to even fake accuracy, you shouldn’t be writing about characters within that demographic. Honestly, by what? 2016? This should be common sense, so there’s no real excuse for this kind of storytelling. Never mind all the other basic decencies this story manages to offend or brutalize.

    To paraphrase Leon Thomas from the YouTube channel Renegade Cut, the only ‘real’ thing about a work of fiction is the message it makes, or intends to make. So, what message is Life is Strange out to make? What message have we taken away from it that warrants the kind of praise it’s received? Is there one at all?

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