Tuesday, September 26, 2017

On Making Life is Strange Into Dark Souls

"People are always ruining things for you."
-Holden Caulfield

This is the tale of how I experienced the indie adventure game Life is Strange.

It started as a dare. A few of us were talking shit about video games, mostly belittling one anothers' abysmal tastes, and a few choice words spiked our collective blood pressure high enough that the Dark Souls / Life is Strange Throwdown of 2017 was set in motion. And executed.


My friend Jon played Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin for a good 14 hours. I commend his efforts, as he was pretty cynical about the whole From Software mystique and I think he's at least started to see why I like the Dark Souls vibe as much as I do. However, the game I recommended was Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, which he has yet to play.

I played Life is Strange for 1 hour, which was 45 minutes longer than I wanted to play. Once I realized the game mechanics were essentially going to be cut scenes and dialogue trees, I became frustratingly bored and the game itself felt like a chore. The bit with the paint bucket and the sprinklers and bitchy Veronica or Victoria or whoever, the girl you can't just fucking walk past and get into the dorms, was the first time I told the game out loud to go fuck itself. I got to the end of Chapter 1 and decided I was done.

For perspective, these are five games (off the top of my head) that I really like, and have played in the last couple years:

Darkest Dungeon
Master of Orion 2
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
The Binding of Isaac

All of which are a million miles away from Life is Strange in terms of theme, mechanics, and ... well, basically everything. Dark Souls, Binding, and Overwatch are all dexterity based, revealing their vague-yet-intriguing worlds through masterful use of context. MOO2 and Darkest Dungeon are not dexterity based, instead requiring the player to build their own world within the game's rules and setting. All have very few cut scenes, very little dialogue, lots of significant choices, lots of variable challenges, and tons of player agency.

Life is Strange, on the other hand...

Ok, before I go off-road into the pseudoscientific quagmire of "what makes a game fun to play," let me abruptly switch gears: I'm not trying to bare my amygdala, or even assert that one type of game is better than another. Merely, I'm offering an explanation for why I found Life is Strange so frustrating to play.

As a game, I can only say two things about it with any sincerity: "I found it horribly dull" and "It's not my kind of game."

That said, I wasn't willing to let my prejudices get in the way of a good experience, and besides, I was still curious about what made people recommend it. The more I consciously dismissed it, the more curious I became in my unguarded moments. I was starting to obsess over it, honestly. I tried watching an 8 hour long video on YouTube which was essentially a Let's Play without any talking, but I found my attention drifting and abandoned it.

Then I found this:

And then I was all, "Ok, let's do this." And I did. And I laughed. And I re-watched critical scenes without Adam's commentary later so I could make up my mind for myself. And you know what? Despite the mountain of odds which were stacked against both myself and the game, I actually really liked Life is Strange.

Adam hated it for predictable reasons (which, I must digress, is one of the reasons I like his movie review channel - even though my tastes diverge from his fairly often, his critical voice is consistent). But I enjoyed the story once it got going. Yes, the game is a pastiche hacked together from a bunch of other, better-executed ideas, but buried somewhere beneath the horrible dialogue and cringey cliches, there's something sort of sublime that's worth experiencing.

Rather than wax on about all the things that were wrong with it, I'm going to discuss what I liked.

The Soundtrack
Whether or not one likes the original score + licensed tracks is a matter of taste, but you've got to admit, the music fits the mood of the game so well. Not really a whole lot else to say about this, other than, "Damn fine job!" Obstacles has been stuck in my head for two days now.

The Dialogue
It's utterly atrocious, but in a way that's so bad it's good. Saying hella is fun. I missed that phase in the mid-2000s because I went to college in the rural Midwest, so it never showed up organically in my dialogue. Now that I'm in my thirties and much too far from cool to care, it's great. Hella great, in fact.

The Architecture
This is it. This is the thing that got to me and won me over. It requires a shift in perception - you can't take the game literally for this to work. You gotta let your right-brain take over, shut off your left-brain logic, and try to enjoy the interplay of symbols and overlapping meanings within the narrative.

Life is Strange (and the story it tells) is a dream-like meditation on the fear of success. Max's desire to be an artist (but her hesitation at handing in her photos in Episode 1) is the narrative-in-brief, or the fugue, or the mantra, which will be repeated over and over and over. The mysterious storm bearing down on Arcadia Bay represents The Unknown - all possible outcomes, good and bad, but mostly the bad ones as far as Max can imagine them, and Chloe represents Max's comfort zone. Max wants to be as close to her comfort zone as possible, but she knows it can't last. Chloe is so much fun but, in the long-term, she will be toxic. She's like drugs, refined sugar, or never leaving home. If Max chooses to stay with her, she commits a kind of suicide - in one sequence, this plays out with Max literally needing to kill Chloe in order to escape from her past. In another, Max is successful and living in San Francisco, but Chloe herself is dead.

Chloe gives Max all kinds of great and memorable experiences, and Max wants to hold on to her forever. But Chloe can't last - She is inevitably slain by Mr. Jefferson (who represents Death in the physical, metaphysical and spiritual sense; he brings the inevitable loss of innocence which Max is hoping to delay forever). Max's battle with Jefferson is telling in that she needs outside assistance in the form of David Madsen in order to defeat him, cooperating with her former (perceived) enemy in order to overcome her real one.

Madsen represents everything Max finds distasteful about the world. War, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, violence, patriarchy, etc. Despite all of Madsen's negative traits, Max knows she must align herself with him, if only for a moment, in order to beat back her true adversary, Death. By choosing to do so, even if it's only to save herself, Max regains a measure of control over the loss of her innocence. The loss still happens. Death is still confronted. But when the struggle is over, Madsen frees her and she can stand again, on her own. The story could very well end here and be a cautionary tale, but Max has magic powers, so why would she want to end her tale in this bleakest of timelines?

She goes to a timeline where everything is great and Chloe is alive and they can be together, only... There's that storm. The Unknown. The Future is coming to take away Max's past, and Max has a choice: She can act to preserve the innocence of others, or she can act to preserve herself. Only, no matter what she does in this moment, she must be selfish. She is creating the world she wants to live in. She is choosing to be the person she will be for the rest of her life. All of this power is now, finally, inescapably, being released via her agency, and she will be responsible for everything that happens next.

Chloe, her comfort zone, tries to convince Max that it's all right to sacrifice her. And that's the beautiful ending, the meaningful ending, the ending that we wish we could choose because it means we're good people and willing to make sacrifices for the greater good. We are worthy of our future. We have chosen to discard our innocence. Our character has been tested and we've come out ahead. We can sleep at night, even though we will always carry a Chloe-shaped scar, and there will be dreams which we kiss our secret lovers even as we know we must, inevitably, wake up, and leave them all over again.

There's also the ending that I chose. The bitter end. The one where Max says, "Fuck this place, fuck your narrative, fuck your apotheosis. I want what I want and I will take it no matter the cost." Because that's how I saw Max, and on some level, that's how I see myself. We both fuck up important things, things which should be clear and unambiguous but which we can't seem to let go of and move beyond. We cling to our comfort zones despite knowing better. We dream, and occasionally even act, but we are weak people and the world pays a cost for our weakness. We think we are acting out of love but, in the dark, at night, alone, we know we are acting for our benefit alone.

This revelation makes us numb and guilty and ruins our lives and the lives of those we care about, but we were weak when it mattered the most, and this is what we have, now. Our reward is ruin, but at least we held on to our beautiful, blue-haired delusions. Comfort is our final bulwark against despair.


Of course, there's a silver lining: This is all just a game. You can always go back and choose the other ending. If being selfless and beautiful has proven to be too much of a burden, you can always choose to put your own happiness first. If ignoring your own failures while you focus inward has begun to lose its luster, you can always choose to be a better person and correct your past mistakes.

Metaphorically, we make Max's "hard choice" every day. If you're past the age of innocence, if you've confronted the reality of your own death, and if that confrontation has led you to make any sort of real decision about your life, then you've already killed and saved Chloe a thousand times. Big decisions - whether to go to college, or move to Rome, or ask out a crush - act as obvious anchor points for this metaphor, but so do the small ones.

On a personal level, in my struggle with weight loss, I destroy Arcadia Bay every time I choose donuts over salad. I fuck up every time I sleep in instead of going for that morning walk. I inevitably pay for it, and will keep paying for it, because my decision can't be undone. But I can choose the right ending the next time. It will never be enjoyable to sacrifice Chloe. My eyes will never light up in sadistic glee as I leave her to die on that windy hilltop. I will never teleport away cackling.

But I can still choose to do it.

It's only through acknowledging her unspoken desires and choosing to act on them, one way or the other, that Max is able to move forward with her life.

Likewise, I really wanted to play more Dark Souls and not some indie game marketed to teenage girls. I needed to turn Life is Strange into a meta version of Dark Souls in order to access it. I needed to find my own path, to fail, to meditate, to try again. I needed to get frustrated and quit. I needed to be miserable with it. Then, and only then, could I approach it with enough emotional jet fuel to blast through it and see what the experience was all about. And really, I'm glad I did, because it showed me a real truth about myself, and despite everything, in the end, it was good.

Hella good, in fact.

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