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RPS Chat: Life Is Strange Mid-Season Thoughts

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The problem with trying to review the second episode of Life is Strange [official site], Dontnod’s five-part teen drama, is that it would be largely the same as the first episode review except steeped in spoilers. That’s why our episode 2 coverage is going to be a conversation between Adam and me. Full of spoilers. Like, SWIMMING in spoilers. Hella spoilers. From the start.

The other thing you might need to know is that Life Is Strange deals with strong material. There’s a scene in episode 2 which deals with suicide/attempted suicide as well as a continuance of a plotline which involves issues of consent and potential date rape. There’s a chance you might not want to deal with those right now, or would appreciate the warning that they’re coming up.

Pip: One of the reasons I wanted to do it like this was because I was averse to creating an alternate save where I made different decisions. I thought it might ruin any investment I had in the ones from my “canon” playthrough.

My main attachment is to Chloe. I really like her in a way that I just can’t do with Max. Max really winds me up and I would have unfriended her on Livejournal. That’s why my choices tend to reflect whatever I think is the best option for Chloe or the one which shows her the most affection. I also really like Kate Marsh. She’s the religious girl who ends up caught in this horrible viral video bullying thing after things go too far at a party. The episode goes to some really dark places with her and understandably so, which is partly why I’m itching to ask WHAT HAPPENED IN YOURS?

Adam: Kate is my favourite character. Not WAS my favourite character, IS my favourite character. I think, from what the internet has told me since I finished playing last night (and I was a bit of an emotional mess by the end) that Kate’s fate is the big changing point.

I want to talk about my thoughts on the writing, the teenageness of it all and the setting in a broader sense, since I haven’t written about episode one yet – but let’s cover Kate first. How is she in your game?

Pip: She is unhappy but she still IS. And yeah, I think that’s the big point of difference between people’s playthroughs now. I thought it would be the earlier moment when you have to decide whether to pull the trigger (on an empty gun) on some guy threatening Chloe.

How did you think it was handled?

Adam: The Kate story in particular?

Pip: Yeah. It’s such charged territory and it left me needing some time to collect myself and my thoughts. I think there were a few bits of dialogue which seemed clunky – sort of…simplistic, I guess. But overall it felt like the build up had been there and the relationship I’d tried to build with her had led to a certain amount of trust for when I tried to help.

Adam: I was pretty much broken by Kate as soon as I saw her sitting in her room, hiding from the world at the beginning of the episode. And I think, from there, I expected something terrible to happen. I mean, it already is happening but I was surprised that it seemed to be coming to an endpoint so quickly.

It’s interesting that the aftermath of all of the cruelty and sadness is clearly going to be a focal point. And that could make Kate seem like a plot device, inserted to paint a picture of corruption and this blinkered little society, but she felt like a strongly written character in her own right. I believed in her and even though I tend to be dubious about stories that take a short route to high drama, I think the writing and performances here just about pull it off.

One of the things that strikes me is that for all the pettiness, unkindness and horribleness, it feels like a sympathetic game. It could so easily come across as exploitative – and I’m sure some people will react to it that way – but I feel simultaneously punched in the gut and cuddled by it in a weird sort of way. I think it’s because, in those scenes with Kate, it recognises victim blaming and allows you to see it as a grotesque situation rather than seeking some sort of immediate justice – there’s a revulsion about some of the behaviour that comes very naturally to me but it’s tempered by Max looking for what’s right.

But here’s where we disagree, you see. I think Max is great! You would totally definitely have unfriended me on Livejournal as well.

Pip: I might just unfollow you on Twitter.

I’m concerned about what happens next with Kate. This episode is also very much about expanding on the idea of this conspiracy and something malevolent. What’s happening with Kate in the present is linked to the disappearance of Chloe’s best friend, maybe girlfriend, Rachel. At the end of the episode when they’re teasing for the next one there’s this shelf with girls’ names on folders with Rachel on the far right and then Kate as a creepy work-in-progress on the table.

It could turn out to have an innocent twist on it but I’m also concerned that the slut-shaming and cyber abuse might just end up as part of this wider anomalous creep stuff rather than a real concern.

Adam: Yes. That’s exactly how I feel. And it ties into something wider – one of the things that I think the first two episodes capture really well at times is the heightened intensity of being a teenager. Everything is the best thing ever or the worst thing ever. The end of the world or the start of a new life. Life is strange because it damn well is and that’s that. It’s strange when the nasty crowd actually have their own problems and fucked up lives. It’s strange when your friends kiss you or other people don’t kiss you, and everybody else seems to be getting kissed the whole time. That whole confusion of emotions with these intelligent and interesting characters is strange enough.

But it’s also a game about time manipulation and prescient nightmares, and weird weather anomalies (some of which are practically apocalyptic), and spirit animals (maybe) and conspiracies. So far I’ve enjoyed how the weirder stuff has played on the mundane, everyday highs and lows, but I worry that some of that is going to be lost as the Big Story takes over. And that’s when some of the really strong and quite unexpectedly raw emotional punches might start to seem like plot devices. Necessary dramatic beats on the route to a big finale. I really hope that’s not the case.

Does the game make you angry? I am very angry about some of the things that are happening. I shouted at the screen when I started getting threatening texts from Nathan’s dad. Kids being fucked up and cruel is one thing – but some rich asshole trying to push a teenage girl around? ARGH.

Pip: Actually not. When I was writing about the first episode I compared it to a bunch of teen original fiction I used to read and you’d get a lot of that in those dramas. There were always teachers who would cut the protagonist off when they were trying to share something important, or some rich guy’s dad throwing his weight around or a local cop or parent who thought the secretly awesome teens were Up To No Good so I think it’s something I was expecting.

It’s where I’ve felt most obviously manipulated too, so I actively resist reacting to it. It’s like, if you’re pushing me this hard towards something I’ll start expecting a twist and stop reacting, just let the story play out. Some of the characters will likely be berks, but you might have noticed a shade of that stuff with how the security guard gets treated. In the first episode he’s basically a suspicious gun-loving maniac war veteran, then in the second ep you get context and he seems to care, just be a bit totalitarian in how he approaches that. I was annoyed there wasn’t an option to be more pleasant to him in conversation, actually.

On that note, when you were in the principal’s office at the end of the episode and had a chance to start pinning the blame on someone who did you actually go with?

Adam: I had an argument with my girlfriend about who we should go with. The joy of playing these things cooperatively is that you realise that you can be on different pages for the same reason. Take a guess of the three choices which one NEITHER of us was comfortable with.

Pip: Hmm. The security guard?

Adam: Bingo.

Pip: I was uncomfy with him because he actually seemed like a human being by that point, then the game had made it clear you can’t pick Nathan (the creepy dickhead from your school who’s being positioned as something, if not date-rapey, then on that spectrum) without some kind of irrefutable proof. It left the creepy photography teacher who had basically hinted that maybe Kate was asking for it. I mean, I was going to pick him ANYWAY because he’s a dick but it didn’t really feel like a choice so I’m interested that you and your girlfriend disagreed.

Adam: I was in the Jefferson camp. The issue with Nathan is that Claire (to give my girlfriend her name) is possibly less interested in paying attention to the choices and consequences as part of the game – she’s effectively treating Life is Strange as a TV show that I happen to be interrupting while I scratch my chin every now and again. And she’s incensed that nothing is being done about this guy who certainly appears to be – and I’m fairly sure the game hasn’t used the word (?) – a rapist.

Do you find it odd that it’s so strongly implied but never named? Is that in-character or is it a squeamishness in the script? Or something else entirely. I can’t decide. There’s part of me that suspects there’s a get-out clause in not naming it that allows for the impact of the implication without having to face up to the consequences of it in some ways. I’m not sure how I feel about it. And I’m not particularly good at thinking or feeling about it.

Pip: I’d been wondering something similar. What I’d thought was that Dontnod are being deliberately vague and it might have something to do with how the game plays out. Nathan is certainly painted as this dreadful person who abuses power and his treatment of women fits with that and plays into it – with Kate and, as you learn from a conversation towards the end of the first episode, with Chloe. It’s also there in the closing moments of this episode as he moves towards Victoria in her room.

But at this point I still feel like Dontnod might try to pull a twist out of that. Nothing has been explicitly confirmed and when that’s the case videogames and teen fiction have the habit of pulling out twists or making conspiracies or wrongdoing go to a person one step beyond the villainous characters they put in front of you at first. I don’t trust Nathan not to end up being positioned as a victim of someone else before the game is out.

There’s also another possibility here, in addition to your suggestions. It’s the more mundane and infinitely sadder one. It’s that this stuff is incredibly hard to talk about and a lot of women doubt their own experiences or are made the doubt them. In my version Max advises against Kate going to the cops because she won’t be believed. Mr Jefferson insinuates that Kate might not be as innocent of blame as you think. Rape is a word which carries so much weight and has the capacity to bring so much harm and shame and all manner of other complicated negativity when you mention it that it feels very real to me that the characters involved would be reticent to say the word.

Adam: Yes, that second paragraph is pretty much everything I wanted to say when I said it might “in-character”. Said much better than I could have said it. I had a slightly different experience because I had Max tell Kate to go to the cops – I had the same concerns about lack of evidence, support and belief in her story, as well as being frightened of the consequences from the accused. But I was worried that advising against might suggest that I didn’t think it was a serious situation, or that I didn’t believe it was right for police involvement – in other words, that nothing criminal had occurred.

The problem with that approach – and, again, this may be intentional as part of the portrayal of a very difficult conversation – is that Max backs down quite quickly when Kate asks her to come along with her while she talks to somebody. As well as showing her own fear and uncertainty, it also conveniently allows the Kate story in that episode to play out without too much interference from Max.

Which leads me back to that nagging concern that some of the painful and very real experiences that the game touches on are going to be little more than bumps in the road in a story that is less than the sum of its parts.

But I’m being cautious rather than critical. As it stands, at the moment, I think the game is a powerful and mostly well-tuned piece of work.

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Adam Smith

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