Gaming on Low Volume: ‘Life Is Strange’ and Youth
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8 min read
Gaming on low volume is a celebration of positivity, low key games, experiences that value quiet moments and character stories that make profound statements. It’s a love letter for the experiences that help make gaming a unique storytelling medium. We take a real world and personal stance on experiences and create original pixel art to accompany our thoughts. Grab a coffee, needle a slow record and remind yourself why we continue to invest in a ever maturing industry. [Contains open spoilers for all of Life Is Strange]
t’s an idyllic scene; the sun bleaching out all the cares of the day, birds chirp as the smell of cut grass wafts through the heavy air, guitar strings are inelegantly strung to the soundtrack of summers. It’s a scene of youth, It’s a memory of human nostalgia, it’s everything that Life Is Strange represents. Life is Strange is a hard game to talk about; it’s an experience that means a lot for a diverse range of people for different reasons. Dontnod are risk takers, as their name suggests they don’t follow trends, they mark their own path and tell unexpected stories. Risks come with a high chance of failure, their previous effort: Remember Me, didn’t set the world alight. Life Is Strange however hit a chord with an audience who rarely find experiences that speak to them, enduring games filled with heroic bald men wielding muscles the size of battleships, usually driven by a big stick… and a weapon to boot.
Life Is Strange dared to say something, sure it didn’t always get it right but it spoke of depression, of suicide and of finding ones self. In turn it spoke to an audience that looked back on their teenage years as a wistful eyed lesson of maturity, to an audience still struggling in their youth and to people who haven’t found a place in the world. To talk about a game in such terms was unheard of, IS unheard of; the lesson of maturity had started to show on the industry. Life is Strange is unique in its ability as an interactive form of fiction, perhaps films and shows have done it a dozen times over but you were never THERE, to be placed in the feet of a character and not just be a spectator on a journey, but go on it with them. It’s the quietest moments that mark LIS as a profound experience, there’s something undeniably real about the games mundaneness that evokes emotions akin to traveling back to the years of a teenager, to the years spent finding who we are.
Defining ‘quiet’ is a subjective task, to some it just means the lack of noise but it can also encompass a tone, a feeling of contentment. Relative to the plethora of games dedicated to simplifying human interactions to a bullet to the head, Life Is Strange is a whisper; a breath of fresh air in a market over-saturated with needless chest-puffing and oneupmanship. The game has its loud moments that punctuate the narrative, but they always have character motivations behind them, between them the game flirts with the very literal definition of ‘the calm before the storm’. A storm may be coming but it’s easy to forget when Max and Chloe dance awkwardly to punk music in a smoke filled dark room, in real life metaphorical storms exist around every corner, anxiety that our lives could fall apart at any moment. The thing about storms is that they often leave behind a dawn, a new beginning, change; as do the ones that bookend Life is Strange. The game begins and ends at its loudest, a hurricane that threatens to rip apart the lives of Acadia Bay, more than that they represent monumental changes to Max’s life.
Dontnod show an intense understanding of how important downtime and intimate character moments are to creating powerful human stories, a reason for investment. It’s a trap so many games fall into, the idea that people should care because you tell them to, in lieu of dedicating the necessary running time building those moments, those relationships. It’s a tough sell but the result when done right is one where your ensemble cast exude personality, where each of them can captivate your attention and can evoke emotions in you through an inflection of a word. It’s a trait TV shows excel at but it’s rarely found in interactive forms of entertainment. Life is Strange features a range of eclectic personalities that stand out because they feel real — they’re flawed characters, every one of them. Throughout media history the most popular cult icons have always been the renegades, the no nonsense rogues, the flawed; they mirror humanity and ourselves.
There are no heroes in Life Is Strange, there’s nothing quite so black and white. What could be considered the game’s icon: Chloe, is so far removed from hero status: at times she’s resentful, bitter and often selfish but there’s something undeniably lovable about her resilience and attitude to life. Max and Chloe are opposites of the same coin, they represent how events transform and govern who we grow up to be. The game centers around their relationship, formed over innocent, impulse kisses and a playful sexual tension that is reminiscent of every high school crush. Max is the introverted shyness mirrored within ourselves. Many will identify with her the minute she places headphones in her ears to block out the world outside – I know I did. Chloe echoes the inner desire to rebel, to express oneself without care for the consequences, yet there’s a quiet beauty in her eyes. I find myself drifting from the traits of Max and closer to Chloe as I get older – though I still refuse beanies as a fashion item. The rest of the cast are equally affable, even when they are initially presented as insufferable: Victoria is a bully we all knew in school but is quickly humanized, making her one of the strongest cast members. The evilly-portrayed Nathan turns out to be a tragic figure, being taken advantage by everyone around him, the heel turn after his revealed death shows the compassion he was capable of, an amazingly heartbreaking show of guilt for a character who clearly suffered from multiple mental disabilities. Who, given help, could have been a talented photographer.
The question of lost youth is one that is synonymous with people of a certain age, the idea that we wasted our youth or we didn’t make the most of the time are common concerns. It leads to the often cited ‘these are the best years of your life, make the most of it now’ remarks adults throw at teenagers. It’s nonsense of course, as most people in their twenties will corroborate. Teenage years are often filled with uncertainty, depression, sexual frustration and isolation, yet we so easily assign a nostalgic sun kissed value to our time in school, there’s no ‘lost youth’ there’s only a gain from coming out the other side.
Thematically Life Is Strange is all about youth and goes about representing everything that means, including those nostalgic memories we cherry pick; there’s value in them. One of the game’s best design decisions is the inclusion of scenes where Max sits down somewhere, introspectively evaluating where she emotionally is. The game lets you linger in these fleeting moments as long as you wish, wallow in the serenity of the moment around you before having to move on, just like a memory. These are snapshots of life, the washed out visuals bringing bittersweet hope to the dark themes the game stuggles with. Sitting under a tree as the sun drowns behind the horizon, taking stock of an empty room, of a life that was never lived, these quiet interpersonal interactions drip with provocative imagery.
An idea that LIS returns to again and again like a well worn record is one of time, more specifically of the past. It’s a fascination shared amongst society, the concept of going back and rectifying a mistake, the guilt over something we said or something we failed to do. Life Is Strange gives Max the power to do just that, but it’s a word of warning, it delivers a message of why lingering on the past is an obsession that can consume a life. With the power to change the past, should we? In turn changing who we are, the experiences that brought us to where we are? A love of the past lies underneath the modern culture of LIS; the Polaroid photos, the stream of pop culture references and the ’80s influences, the past and present collide like two freight trains on the same track. The message the game delivers is clear, mistakes are a part of growth, Max’s power is a curse, not a blessing; we just have to accept that everything isn’t going to go right. Scribbled on Chloe’s wall; ‘let her go’, foreshadowing the culmination of relationship that we wanted to do anything but let go of, but we did. We had to.
A good soundtrack has the power to create memories, tied so distinctly to events of an experience that a mere plucking of a few strings can conjure up a flood of emotions, can take you right back to the scene that bore them. Similarly in real life, how certain songs stain a period of your life, can capture a time so perfectly that listening to that piece takes you back to those emotions; it’s what makes music a personal medium –even with how vacuous the industry has gotten. Good music in gaming shares this connection, how many tunes can you hum from your gaming childhood? Life is Strange however doesn’t need 10 years to gestate its musical nostalgia; its use of licensed songs and the original score is so imperative to the emotions it evokes. We start up the game’s soundtrack and experience the events of the game like an album set to someone’s life; the guitar strings of ‘to all of you’ start up and remind us of being introduced to the introverted Max, ‘Mt. Washington’s’ haunting melody waters our eyes thinking of Kate and when ‘Spanish Sahara’ builds to a crescendo we remember the pain of letting go. It’s just about one of the best soundtracks in its ability to encapsulate everything the game stands for. The soundtrack ends on the most beautiful track; simply titled Max And Chloe.
The soundtrack is important in a more personal way too. We’ve been talking in somewhat broad terms about what makes LIS an experience worth celebrating, but personal attachment is part of what drives our motives when talking about anything. Games like Life Is Strange matter an inordinate amount more to some people than others, this applies to us, to me. I recently started playing Persona 5, a game people might agree shares several themes with Life Is Strange. Several hours in I came across a scene that sent a flash of LIS through my head. I found myself in tears, not because of Persona 5 and not even because of LIS to an extent. The scene in Persona was one of suicide, and the flash was of Kate’s suicide attempt.
Life Is Strange came at a time when I was – for lack of any better words – depressed. Safe to say the events of Kate’s depression had a deep affect on me. Now I’m not gonna sit here and hyperbolically claim that Life Is Strange helped change my life or enrich it. Depression is a much more complicated issue, and I’m not squatting on a pile of money – after all I’m here writing about video games – but it did speak to me, probably in a way no other game has. It made me glad this experience existed, that this existed for other people, that there was a game out there handling these topics. I remember when the games credits rolled, while being intensely sad, I was gripped with appreciation, appreciation of life. I walked away glad to be alive. When I spoke of ‘finding oneself’, well, maybe we’re all still on that journey to find our identity, in that regard, life, life surely is strange.