Spoilers for Life Is Strange are discussed in depth in this post.
I mentioned in my last post on this game that there’s something more than a little creepy about the song “To All of You” that serves as the music for our introduction to Max’s high school world. It’s sung from the perspective of a guy who’s both fascinated by young women and completely oblivious to his own creepiness on this point (I continue to go back and forth on whether the songwriter is clued in to the speaker’s delusions), and it sets up a major tension that proceeds throughout the game: the player gets to inhabit a world from the perspective of a teenage girl, which is fascinating if you’ve never been a teenage girl (hello, half the gaming population!), but also perhaps a little voyeuristic at the same time (many of the characters in Life Is Strange do suffer pretty extensively, and the majority of them are teenage girls being victimized by boys and men). After I finished the game and began reflecting on it, I had a realization that if you set aside the serial killer aspects of Jefferson, he’s a character that I have a lot in common with demographically speaking (white male high school teacher who has a particularly strong interest in the lives of Life Is Strange‘s characters), and that kind of freaks me out. Given how harshly the male characters get critiqued in the game’s final chapter (there’s a whole section of Max’s dream sequence where the player has to avoid being caught by all the men in the game as they utter universally creepy things to Max), it’s an uncomfortable comparison to make, but probably a necessary one to fully appreciate what Life Is Strange is saying about the experience of teenage girls.
And what Life Is Strange says is that being a teenage girl is really difficult. Max is brand new to her community at Blackwell, and even as someone who seeks to be pretty much as inoffensive as possible, she’s still faced with a lot of social pressure from both her peers and the adults around her. Victoria, who heads the clique of female Vortex Club members, is out to sabotage Max for reasons that she spends most of the game trying to puzzle out; Warren, Max’s only friend before she reunites with Chloe, has a major crush on Max and seems oblivious to all potential signals that she’s not interested; and Principal Wells is convinced that Max is an untrustworthy student regardless of how she tries to interact with him. All of these characters come with preconceived notions about what Max should be like, and it takes a ton of persistence to change their expectations even a little bit by the game’s end.
It’s not just Max who struggles to deal with social pressure either. Victoria, who does nothing but antagonize Max, has multiple moments of vulnerability where the player can see that she’s putting up a front to mask her insecurities about her photography and her place in the social hierarchy. Dana, one of the students at Blackwell who befriends pretty much everyone regardless of clique, is quietly dealing with an accidental pregnancy that her ex-boyfriend has failed to support her through. Kate, who is the most recent victim of Nathan and Jefferson’s abduction plot at the game’s start, is silently suffering through merciless bullying from other students after a video of her drunkenly making out with multiple people at the last Vortex Club party has surfaced online. The girls at Blackwell are all caught up in situations that are exacerbated by the expectations others have placed on them, and in more than one case the potential consequences for failing to meet those expectations are seriously negative. Contrary to Jefferson’s assertion that the photo sessions with his victims capture the moment of transition from innocence to experience, the girls at Blackwell are already very experienced in the ways of being subjected to the violent whims of others; they’ve just been socialized to hide it.
Now, what I think is particularly brilliant about Life Is Strange is how it helps the character inhabit Max’s mind so that it’s easy to make decisions based on her perspective. Dealing with Principal Wells is often motivated by concern about how crossing him will impact Max’s scholastic standing (she’s at Blackwell on scholarship, and her parents presumably can’t afford for her to lose it); before he’s revealed to be the mastermind behind the kidnappings, Jefferson exists in an elevated position among the faculty as someone Max especially doesn’t want to disappoint; even Warren, who’s largely played as a slightly annoying but benign friend who won’t take a hint, exerts influence on how the player chooses to interact with him in subtle ways (the final decision related to Warren is a culmination of Max’s relationship with him throughout the game; the player can choose to completely reject him, kiss him, or give the consolatory friendship hug; I chose to give him a hug, which in retrospect was more than I thought he deserved; I actually let him down easy because I wanted to preserve the feelings of a character that I had romantically rejected at every turn). I was thinking about how I interacted with these characters, and I realized that many of my choices stemmed from recognition that they had the potential to visit violence of one form or another on Max.
This pattern is very apparent with certain male characters in the game, like Nathan, Frank, and David, who are presented up front as untrustworthy people who should be treated with caution, but what’s interesting is how it’s subtly applied to other male characters as well. Principal Wells, Samuel the groundskeeper, and Warren are all relatively benign characters, but they carry implicit threats to Max’s well-being that don’t become fully apparent until we reach the dream sequence that caps off episode five. Jefferson, whose villainy is the big twist of the story, makes the statement most explicitly, as there are small hints throughout that he’s kind of a manipulative teacher who ignores the emotional needs of his students before the reveal that he’s kidnapping girls in order to photograph them while drugged. Being a teenage girl, surrounded by all these demanding male personalities, is at best exhausting and at worst terrifying.
It’s no wonder that in the end I decided that Max was better off letting Arcadia Bay be destroyed so she and Chloe could go have a happy life together somewhere else.