Life is Strange and Identity
by Sam Z.
ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων / “Character is destiny”
The ending of the latest episode of Life is Strange is remarkable for a number of reasons – to name a few: the sheer daring of its twist, the way in which it continues to develop its time-travel mechanic, and the way the new timeline uses a minimum of details to infer volumes – but foremost among these elements is the way the twist serves the game’s focus on the uneasy contingency of identity. That this unease is explored at the moment of late adolescence – just when, after the wasteland of our teenage years, our identity is beginning to coalesce – is further evidence of just such an emphasis. In the same vein, the player’s sudden thrust into a brave new timeline becomes the next step in the game’s exploration of questions of identity.
Though the game’s central mechanic is time travel, the point of the chronological play is not primarily to reorder plot – latest episode aside, for now – but merely to pose questions to the player: how do you respond to quotidian situations like a conversation with a principal, whether to answer a simple phone call, or whether to accept an invitation to a movie Friday night? Max’s time-travelling abilities allow the player the ability to explore divergent consequences, but the immediate results of these decisions are the labels that accompany each: answering Kate’s call makes Max a ‘good friend,’ just as dodging the principal’s enquiries has Max labeled a ‘troublemaker.’ Whether or not you save Kate in episode two brings about its own labels (savior, for example). As an aside, Max’s repeated saving of lives (Chloe, possibly Kate, and Chloe’s father William) makes for the game’s strongest connection to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: like Holden Caulfield, Max Caulfield is a figurative catcher in the rye, saving kids from falling off, falling away. Ultimately, the consequence of each decision not only has an outward effect (on the plot, on other characters, and so on), but an inward, definitional effect. Put another way, in Life is Strange choice creates identity.
The game then adds new, anxious layers to the simple question of “Am I making the right choice?” as the question becomes “Am I doing the right thing, for others and for myself?” Again, by situating the game at the point where the protean confusion of adolescence begins to crystallize into a fixed identity (there are problems with this portrayal, but they are tangential to my point) the game explores what this crystallization entails. Episode three’s kissing scene is exemplary in this regard. The opportunity to kiss Chloe is not merely a moment of fun, but is rather an opportunity to raise questions of identity: was it an experiment? An expression of her actual sexuality? Or is it just a moment of impetuous silliness? At the same time, it mirrors the subplot of Warren’s movie night – though its implications have yet to be fully explored, the acceptance or rejection of his invitation evoke the same kinds of questions of identity raised by Chloe’s kiss. But the point here is not to try and pin down her sexual identity. Rather, it is simply to note the way in which the player’s decisions serve as much to define just who Max is as much as they further the ends of the plot.
The breakdown between Max and Chloe near the end of episode three represents the dark side of this performative identity – a term familiar to those of you who have read, say, Judith Butler – neatly illustrating the reality that we all make bad decisions. When the pair retreat to Chloe’s car after learning about Rachel (whose status as Frank’s lover is another one of those interactions where choice implies identity – her decision to be involved romantically with Frank tells more about Rachel than Chloe’s enthusiasm has), Max says, “Chloe, you can’t keep blaming me and everybody for everything wrong in your life.” In response, Chloe divests herself of agency because to accept her own responsibility is unpalatable: “I gotta blame somebody. Otherwise it’s all my fault. Fuck that.” But she is not free from the decision-as-identity pattern. This is, after all, the same girl who started a fight with her mother to provide Max cover to search her step-father’s garage, and while it gave the space for a surreptitious search it also represents her willingness to add further strain to an already strained relationship. That her life is a mess is obvious – she was expelled from school, she is in debt to a drug dealer, she constantly fights with her mother and step-father, and so on – but the idea that this mess is, in part, her fault is anathema.
From this perspective, Max and Chloe are at opposite poles: the former is still forming her identity, and the player’s decisions go towards making concrete whatever this identity could be; the latter is trapped in an undesirable life that she has, in part, made for herself, and seeks to escape it all. For proof, we need look no further than Max’s diary entry for Chloe: “She’s all grown up now, but it doesn’t seem like she’s only one year older than me.” Visual cues reinforce this: she has dyed her natural blond into brilliant blue, and her arm is marked by a colorful series of tattoos. Chloe is, in essence, a thematic foil to Max’s tabula rasa.
But the twist deliciously inverts this dynamic, transitioning the game’s emphasis from that of choice to that of contingency and its power to shape our lives. By saving Chloe’s father, Max alters not only Chloe’s history, but her own as well: after altering the past, we find her hanging out with the detested Vortex Club and an implied familiarity with casual drug use. We play the Max we know, but in the place of some unknown and unsettling doppelganger akin to Chloe: a person who is the culmination of decisions utterly foreign to us, a fixed identity in contrast to the blank slate we were given in episode one. Similarly, we meet a Chloe fundamentally different from the colorful, impassioned, incandescent rebel we have known thus far: in contrast to her visual liveliness, we have only a barely mobile, blond analogue. But the horror of the moment lies not in a suddenly quadriplegic Chloe – hopefully the next episode will not descend into the ableist trope of defining a handicapped person solely by their handicap – but, immediately, in the vast gulf between our familiar Chloe and a dramatically different one, and, thematically, in the sudden reveal that our choices are not as grounded or substantial as the game has led us to believe.
The game’s exploration of how our choices define us then turns into unease at the entire apparatus of choice. Presumably, Chloe’s angry screed in the car has been proven right. Complete with her father, her life is no longer the same flavor of fucked up: presumably, she is not in debt to a drug dealer and the paranoid David is not married to her mother. But whether her life is unsatisfactory on some other level has yet to be made clear. The only obvious point is that, in a game concerned with human agency, the turn demonstrates how fragile that agency’s power truly is; life is as much what is done to us as it is what we do with it, possessing both passive and active voices.
Here we get to the epigraph: character is fate. Erich Auerbach, in his work Dante: Poet of the Secular World, uses this epigraph in order to introduce the idea that the characters of Homer and Dante are not merely re-presentations or echoes of characters we might find in real life, but singular figures defined by a cohesive identity – wrathful Achilles, cunning Ulysses. In Auerbach’s words,
In the poet’s inventive mind an act revealing a man’s nature . . . unfolded naturally and inevitably into the sum and sequence of that man’s kindred acts, into a life that would take a certain direction and be caught up in the skein of events which add up to a man’s character as well as his fate.
Put another way, the first conception of a character guides how that character operates in the work of art, so that everything that happens in the narrative fits that character: “the natural truth or mimesis of a Homeric scene such as the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa is not based on sharp observation of daily events, but on an a priori conception of the nature and essence of both figures and the fate appropriate to them.” Character is fate because the latter is the inevitable outpouring of the former, the way a flower’s is to bloom; when Patroclus dies in The Iliad, the end of Achilles is preordained because he is who he is.
But such a conception of character presupposes a unified, complete work, where the ending is already written. In a way, works of fiction have their own kind of ersatz eternity: the book, movie, or game is always in a sense complete, and it is only our experience of that work that succumbs to the flow of time. When we open The Iliad, Hector is already dead. But we experience Life is Strange from the perspective of a character in the middle of working out her fate, and the fact that the game is yet unfinished means that the conclusion is still unknown. And, given that we play as Maxwell Caulfield by making decisions for her (continually defining her as, perhaps, a good friend, or a figurative catcher in the rye, or heterosexual, a lesbian, a photographer, careful, careless, pragmatic, principled, and so on) we are brought closer to our own lived experience than any other game might presuppose. Like Max, we are perpetually working out our own identity and simultaneously creating our own fate.
By fundamentally altering the game’s timeline, episode three subverts the promise of fate: a game about the contingency of choice becomes that much more contingent. There never were any right choices to begin with, but by dipping players into an alternate world the very basis for these choices – a whole and cohesive identity expressed through decision – has been undone. We could have played a very different Max in the same way that we all could have been very different people given different situations and different answers to past decisions. Indeed, the whole point of the twist might have been just as well expressed had the game reversed your initial choices and diverted you down a different path than the one you chose over three episodes.
In its focus on the uneasy contingency of choice and identity, Life is Strange remains a fascinating and novel work – not because of its presentation (which is well-pioneered by Telltale Games at this point) but because of the seriousness with which it pursues its presentation of questions of identity. But its story remains, like ours, unfinished – and it is perhaps this personal connection between the work and our lives that gives the former such pathos. Character is fate, but it remains to be seen whether the hand that writes the story does so well.