Life is Strange: Butterfly Affect (Spoilery thoughts about Episode 5)

I’ll probably talk about Life is Strange Episode 5, and the whole series, in more detail at some point, but for now, I thought I’d jot down a few quick notes. Spoilers after the break.

  1. This is the big one: I don’t want to force anyone else’s reading, but in mine–Max is gay (or at least bi, given her comments about skater boys in the first episode). And definitely into Chloe that way, though Chloe herself might feel differently. The game leaves it open-ended enough for either interpretation if you absolutely want to go that way, but when part of Max’s descent into her subconscious includes a nightmare scene where Chloe makes out with everyone *but* her, subtext pretty much just becomes text. It also explains one of the game’s major lacunas, that Max never offers any explanation as to why she so thoroughly cut communication with Chloe after moving away; latent sexual feelings she wasn’t prepared to deal with seems like a pretty good fit.

But that reading also leaves me with an uncomfortable question: why didn’t I see it that way before? Well, the interpretation most generous to me would be that by leaving it vaguely ambiguous, Dontnod is edging towards queer-baiting, and I refused to be baited. Less generous is that I’m resisting queer readings unless I’m hit over the head with them. I’m not sure either way, but to me, that’s the mark of a really good game (or any fiction), that it positions me to rethink my own prejudices and preconceptions.

Time travel in fiction is often a metaphor for something else; in the CBC comedy drama Being Erica, for example, it was a metaphor for going through therapy. Here, I’d say there’s room to argue that time travel is a metaphor for self-exploration of queer identity as a teen; Max’s time travel skills orient themselves around a girl she’s really into in ways she doesn’t entirely understand, they give her the ability to explore things and talk to people in ways she wouldn’t have been brave enough to do before, and the game’s big confrontation originally appears to be forcing off a patriarchal figure obsessed with controlling her “innocence” (and it is about that) but is ultimately about deciding what person she’s going to be.

2) I can’t entirely decide whether the decision in episode 4 regarding Chloe is clever foreshadowing  and inversion about the game’s final decision, or makes it lose resonance, since you’ve already chosen on something very similar. Both present slightly different takes on the rhetoric of choice, at least.

3) As someone who’s written academically about the integration of books and writing into menu systems, I very, very much enjoyed what Episode 5 did to play with Max’s journal; it wasn’t quite a Nier-level of journal menu subversion, but it was close. I’ll definitely be writing about that in more detail.

4) On a personal level, this episode was really marred by tech issues for me. There was one sequence I had to replay a half dozen times because the window of action was too small until I ran the game in safe mode; near the very end, the game froze entirely, and it took me a few hours of searching online forums to come up with a fix. That detracts from play in a lot of ways. I ran through most of the final scenes, for example, because I was afraid the game was going to crash again if I lingered.

5) On a related note, the stealth sequences in Max’s subconscious also didn’t work great for me; it was too tonally different from the rest of the game, and was made a lot more frustrating by the lag problems I was having that didn’t resolve themselves until the fix mentioned above.

6) In terms of endings for games that play heavily on “your choices matter,” the gold standard for me is still Fallout 1 and 2; they do a good job of flagging the main consequences of your actions without being entirely predictable. Life is Strange’s team obviously was very deliberate in flagging one choice above all others in its ending (at least, in the ending I saw, where you choose to put one above many), and I can understand how that choice fits with the other creative design elements, but I would have preferred more on why other actions I did mattered. But–it was really, really nice to see a videogame ending where the main focus wasn’t a fight with some baddie, but an emotionally wrought choice.

7) This is pretty much the first time I can think of off the top of my head where I’ve finished a “current” game. I imagine that’s going to change how I think of it, on a game culture level. Should be interesting, I hope.

Fun game. Will play again.

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