Life Is Strange was conceived primarily as a game about
teenage struggles. Though there is a fantasy element, involving
main character Max’s ability to rewind time and correct past
mistakes, this is meant to serve only as a backdrop to the everyday
trials and tribulations for Max and her fellow students at
Blackwell Academy. After witnessing a horrifying incident, Max
discovers her powers, and from then on uses these powers to help
herself and those around her.
Depression and suicide is still relatively new ground for games,
and few games have tackled these issues as head-on as Life is Strange
Max's world is filled with teenagers based on various Hollywood
high school archetypes. The developers, Dontnod Entertainment,
intended the game to unflinchingly tackle real issues teenagers
would face, and so they end up covering difficult subjects such as
cyber-bullying, mental illness, and suicide.
As the player, you control Max, navigating
her through everyday environments such as classrooms, dormitories,
and family homes. You can inspect items in these environments, like
a detective of ordinary life, and speak to the characters that
inhabit this world. At times the game poses you with difficult
choices, which will profoundly affect the course of future events.
Do you let your friend be scolded by her father for having weed in
her room, or do you take the blame instead? When a school bully
gets a taste of her own medicine, do you humiliate her further, or
show her compassion? There are no “perfect” answers, so you are
free to act however you feel is appropriate. The game does not shy
away from dealing with serious issues and throws tougher dilemmas
at the player later on; decisions that some players spend minutes
Psychiatric themes lace the plot of
Life is Strange, and a few
characters are shown, either explicitly or implicitly, to be
experiencing mental illness.
One of the game’s more challenging series
of scenes focuses on the character of Kate, a student at Blackwell
who is mercilessly bullied, both at school and online. Kate is a
kind-hearted, strictly religious, reserved person. If you explore
her room, you will see evidence of her strong faith, and her highly
judgemental family. Sadly for Kate, somebody drugs her at a student
party, and soon a compromising video of her is posted online.
Incessant bullying and teasing ensues. She finds little support;
you can view a letter from her parents, in which her mother writes:
“We hope you haven’t brought shame upon you or our family.”
For Kate, this experience sadly leads her
to severe depression. Evidence of this is found as you explore her
room. Her mirror is covered up so she doesn’t have to look at
herself. Her room is kept dark. Observing her violin shows she
hasn’t played it in weeks. She has stopped tidying her room, when
usually her room is immaculate. Overall, it paints an impression of
the low mood, lack of energy, and loss of enjoyment which come with
depression. Kate feels helpless and hopeless, saying “I’m in a
nightmare and I can’t wake up… unless I put myself to sleep.”
Throughout the first act of the game, you
are presented with opportunities to be supportive to Kate, be it
having a friendly chat with her, helping to remove insulting
graffiti about her, or by being available on the phone for her.
Unfortunately it’s clear that you alone cannot cure her of her
depression. Eventually, Kate, feeling alone and abandoned, ends up
on the roof of a school building with the intention of ending her
Here the game presents you with an
opportunity to talk her down to safety. If you have paid attention
to her story so far, and have been a good friend to her, there is a
good chance that you can convince her to stay strong in the face of
bullying, and remind her that she has family members who would be
devastated if she were to die.
This of course is sensitive subject matter
for a game: if you don’t say the right things in this scene, and if
you haven’t built a strong relationship with Kate, there’s a chance
that things could go horribly wrong. The developers were mindful
that this was essentially “gamifying” a suicide attempt, and had to
take care not to trivialise the issue. One important step they took
was removing Max’s powers during this scene, so that the player
would deal with it strictly on a human level.
The developers made sure that this was a
scene that continued to matter throughout the course of the game,
as it would belittle the moment if it was quickly forgotten. Max
continues to dwell on the moment as the game progresses, as do
other characters. If Kate survives, you will continue to converse
with her over text messages, and eventually visit her in hospital,
where she is shown to be recovering. This hospital scene provides a
strong sense of hope and closure, indicating people with
depression can find help and can get better.
The developers were also aware of the impact such scenes may
have on players, and produced a web resource for those affected by
issues in the game
The developers have gone to great lengths in trying to tackle the
subject matter sensitively, including researching about bullying,
reviewing suicide prevention materials, and speaking to mental
health professionals about how best to speak to people who are
having thoughts of suicide. They were also aware of the impact such
scenes may have on players, and produced a web resource for those
affected by issues in the game.
What makes Life is Strange so
impactful is that, despite the fantasy element, it essentially
takes place in our own ordinary world, and stars believable
characters not unlike people we already know. As you grow attached
to characters like Kate (just one of a wide and fascinating cast,
all with their own issues to deal with), it makes the overarching
story of time manipulation all the more compelling. I’ve neglected
to mention the key plot element: the story of a teenage girl who
has disappeared from the community. As the game progresses, you
will learn the dark secret at the heart of this small town, but
much like the television series Twin Peaks was about so much more
than the murder of Laura Palmer, this game is about so much more
than the core mystery.
This game can be played at a leisurely
pace, allowing you to become lost in its fully realised, detailed
world. It is rich in character, and features a warm acoustic
soundtrack, for a late-2000’s indie-film feel. It is widely
regarded as one of the best games of 2015 and is a must for anyone
who enjoys strongly narrative-driven interactive experiences.
Depression and suicide is still relatively
new ground for games, and few games have tackled these issues as
head-on as Life is Strange.
Playing the game I get the feeling that developers are still
finding their feet on the best way to deal with such subject
matter, but I certainly admire the bravery with which they explored
it, and their attempts to remain respectful.
You can find more information on the
emotional cost of bullying
Life is Strange is available across
multiple platforms including PC and Mac via Steam or Humble Bundle,
as well as on Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
Authored by Sachin Shah
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