A Depressed Person Reviews: "Life is Strange"
The Basics of the Game
Life is Strange is a game where you play as Max, 18-year-old photography student at Blackwell Academy. If you're not clear whether this is a high school or a college, it seems like neither are the game's developers. Blackwell has features of both. The lockers, a single, all-subject classroom building, a pool that looks very high school-ish, the yellow bus, and the cafeteria say "high school". The dorms are pretty much the only thing that makes it seem like a college. There's also a curfew, which usually cannot legally be imposed on persons over the age of 18. I get the feeling that they initially developed this as taking place in a high school, and later hastily made the characters over 18, probably for Steam censorship reasons. There's no obvious nudity here, but there are sexual references and (many) drug references. Having the characters be 18 or older probably "cleaned it up" enough for potential censors.
Life is Strange was developed by French indie developer Dontnod Entertainment, and for them it was a success following their more disappointing earlier game, Remember Me, a game about amnesia and recovering lost memory.
What's interesting is that Life is Strange is published by Square Enix, Japanese company of Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts fame. It feels very different from anything Square Enix has ever done. It's a game that feels as adult, and bitter, as a cup of black coffee. The game was an emotionally intense ride, and I had to pause for a few days after playing certain scenes, to avoid being triggered by the content. This game warns players that it might be a problem for people with photo-sensitive epilepsy. That's due to the rave scene near the end of the game. But, I kind of wish they had a content warning as well for the potentially upsetting or triggering content in this game. This includes rape, drugs, drinking, gun violence, witness intimidation, murder, and perhaps what it's best known for is depicting an attempted suicide. In that scene, the player character "talks down" a person who is on the roof of her dorm, on the verge of killing herself due to cyber bullying. In addition to all that stuff going on, the world is dying around you. Nature itself is going haywire.
So yeah, very intense game. But what balances the intensity of a lot of the content is the relaxed nature of the gameplay. Most puzzles involve searching a location for clues (no time limit), or repeating conversations, using the character's ability to rewind time, to get the right information or outcome. You can rewind time to undo your most recent action, which is handy for many situations. It's a mystery solving game. The core plot revolves around your character, Max, Scooby Doo-ing it up with her best friend Chloe, trying to find Rachel, Chloe's friend who went missing. Rachel went to the school you go to, Blackwell. So you know there might be suspicious people at your school who know something about what happened to Rachel. I really liked the extent to which the game focuses on female friendship, bonding, and mutual emotional support.
Review of the Game
Life is Strange is story-driven, and I like that kind of game. It's a serious game, infused with artistic and spiritual themes, symbols, and motifs. It often feels like a movie you take part in. It explores time travel in many fictional iterations. The best strength of the game are the main characters, Chloe and Max, and their way of overcoming insurmountable obstacles together. Their relationship is the heart of the game.
Given that, one thing I dislike about the game is some of the other characters who end up feeling like a distraction. There's Warren, a generic, geeky, nice-guy. Some of the other students who are interesting to talk to in the first chapter, but who are not important later. People may also not like the dissonance between the intensity of the story and the relaxed nature of the gameplay. Though some of the challenges are as emotionally intense as the narrative itself, frequently the task of finding clues in rooms is actually respite from that intensity. Which I liked, but I can see how it might put some people off.
Overall, I liked this game. Max is a good person, and having her time rewinding ability makes the player feel like they are less powerless against all the crummy things that can happen to people in life. People often feel overwhelmed and hopeless in the face of things like bullying and violence. But Life is Strange empowers the player, through Max, to take a stand for what's right.
The Game and Mental Illness
There are a few errors this game makes when it comes to how I would prefer mental illness to be represented in fiction. For one, none of the characters are mentally ill, save for the villain. This person being revealed to be on psychiatric medication is considered proof that he's twisted and crazy, which is obvious pill-shaming. Second, it shows suicide as an understandable reaction to severe bullying, rather than a result of mental illness, which is also a problem I had with 13 Reasons Why (don't worry, I'll go there soon in a different post). The reason I have a problem with this depiction of suicide is because it tells bullies that they have the power to make people kill themselves, and I was the victim of people who tried to get me to kill myself. When popular fiction suggests that you can make someone "go away" by hounding and harassing them until they kill themselves, it becomes a sport for some people, they want to try to do that for the thrill of it. It gives them a feeling of power.
It's also important to be aware that mental illness is responsible for most suicides, specifically, depression that goes undiagnosed and/or without treatment from a licensed professional. Medication and therapy do help, and yet in fiction-land, there are no therapists. Or psychiatrists. Unless they're too busy diagnosing bad guys with "crazy evil dude" syndrome. I would really like to see more positive, and accurate, depictions of contemporary therapy and medication treatments for mental illness.
In the game, the suicidal girl, Kate, is obviously sad because of being the victim of bullying online, and in real life, caused by a leaked, embarrassing viral video. But she doesn't have depression in a clinical sense, so this game isn't truly a depiction of depression. Depression and suicidality are two different things. Suicidal thoughts and self-harming behaviors are symptoms of suicide, but not everyone who commits suicide has clinical depression. And, not everyone with depression will have suicidal thoughts or feelings. So, I can't say if this is a good depiction of depression, because it's not really a depiction of depression. And I think that can make it a problematic depiction of suicide, because it makes suicide out to be rational, with an obvious cause. I would prefer instead media that show that suicide is not rational, and that there are other ways to respond to being bullied or harassed. Also, depression and suicide can be caused by brain chemistry problems that have nothing to do with a person's external reality. In short, suicide, like many unhealthy behaviors, is the product of an unhealthy, irrational mind. But, in many instances of suicide in fiction, it is depicted as the product of a rational decision to end one's life in the face of adversity. I wonder if that might not be dangerous. And while it feels good when you are able to "talk down" Kate in the game, the fact is, you barely know her, she's more of a classmate than a true friend. And, friends should not have to be expected to intervene and "save" suicidal people. That kind of thinking creates guilt in people whose friends commit suicide. They tell themselves things like "I should have been there for her." But I don't think people should blame themselves. In real life, we can't rewind time, and intervention doesn't always work, even if you do your best.
The depiction falls short on many of the National Action Alliance's guidelines for suicide prevention, including:
- Convey that suicide is complex and often caused by a range of factors, rather than by a single event.
- Show that help is available.
- Portray characters with suicidal thoughts who do not go on to die by suicide. (Kate technically doesn't go through with it, when you rewind time to save her, but in no case are there any other characters who express suicidal thoughts and do not attempt or complete suicide.)
- Avoid showing or describing the details about suicide methods. (They show Kate jumping off the roof, you rewind time to get to talk to her before she jumps.)
I mean, it's not the worst depiction of suicide. One of the best things it does is not using judgmental language, which is one of those guidelines they do follow. The story never implies that Kate is wrong, weak, or the cause of her own problem. It shows a remarkable sense of sensitivity and compassion for Kate as a victim.
But what makes Kate's suicide feel weird is, this is a murder mystery game. And, a teen drama game. Kate is only tied to the main plot loosely. She was victimized by people Chloe and Max suspect had something to do with the disappearance of Rachel. So, even though I got into this game because I'd heard (in a YouTube video) it was about suicide, it's really not about suicide. Not centrally. That's just one dramatic incident in a long succession of them.
It's a very mixed bag, but what carries the game is its heart, its focus on women standing up for each other and female bonding.