'Life is Strange' and the Postmodern Condition

In a rare aspirational literary flourish in the midst of the typically dour prose of a thesis, I wrote the following:

"[T]he fractured post-modern self is comprised of shards blending production and consumption; the aesthetic and the industrial; fantasy and material life; childhood and adulthood…[Each has become an] increasingly unstable categor[y], threatening to melt before our eyes and disintegrate into a series of fragmentary, contested and uncertain moments in space and time.” 

I was writing about children’s toys and their connection to our present culture, but I may as well have been writing about the recent episodic video game Life is Strange. In the mystery-time-travel-mash-up, gamers are presented head on with the twin pillars of postmodernity - authenticity and nostalgia - and forced to watch them crumble through the time-warped camera lens of a 17-year-old-girl.

First, it is important to note that calling out nostalgia and authenticity as the pillars of postmodernity is not a particularly ground-breaking statement. Indeed, Hutcheon and Valdez  have highlighted the significance of irony and nostalgia to postmodernity. Similarly, Goulding has hit on the importance of nostalgia and authenticity to postmodern capitalism and identity. In more concrete terms, we need look no further than the remix culture that dominates Hollywood cinema. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain paraphernalia abound in high schools. Forget the age of mechanical reproduction; we inhabbit the world of digital reproduction whose speed and pervasiveness defies even Banjamin's most wild predictions. What is old, is (almost) new again. It is the age of the reboot. Video games are acutely dominated by these forces, as games are re-re-released and kick-starters abound for IPs long forgotten by the mainstream. A reskin of Call of Duty is released on a yearly basis for the cadres of unimaginative, escapist gamers. So it is perhaps not surprising that it is a video game that has launched one of the most effective interventions on this topic.

For those unfamilair with the game, players are asked to take on the role of Maxine “ Max” Caulfield as they try to unravel the theads connecting Max’s manifesting time travel ability with the disappearance of a student from the elite Blackwell Academy, and the increasingly unnatural weather. Each of these threats offers up a metaphysical or physical challenge to the peaceful and idyllic vaneer of the fictional sea-side town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon.

The premise is clever. In contrast, the stylistic and functional aspects of the game are aggressively mediocre. The dialogue is clunky in too many places. The character models move like drawing mannequins with joint deficiencies. And the female lead characters sound and act like they were written by a middle-aged white man with a voyeuristic lesbian fetish and a limited understanding of contemporary youth culture.

Despite its numerous and conspicuous faults, Life is Strange is one of those creations in the video game world where it’s whole is much greater than the sum of it’s parts. There is a deep river of narrative meaning beneathe the barren rock of it’s banal aesthetic and technical execution. Life is Strange effectively maps more compelling and fertile intellectual landscape when we consider it as an allegory for contemporary life. It is at this level that the game functions most effectively as a criticism of the postmodern condition.

In particular, it is the camera and photography that showcase the greatest faults of post-modernity. The trope of a teenaged girl with a photography hobby is a well worn cliche. Max runs around her world snapping photos of people, places, flora and fauna on an old polaroid camera, ostensibly, for a competition she will never enter. The love that Max expresses for her old polaroid, hand written letters and other obsolete technologies shows nostalgia for what it is: a yearning for a permanence that never existed. The act of photography in particular offers the illusion of capturing and freezing time. However, when the photos allow the character to shift through time and reality, the promise of nostalgia is turned on its head. Especially ironic is when Max’s carefully currated collection of nostalgia is burnt by the games antagonist, leaving her little choice but to rely on a digital selfie on a friends' cell phone to undue the most recent turn of unpleasant events. In the world of Arcadia Bay, the ability to change the past through a photograph or rewind time and make decisions again without having to re-load a save is more than a clever game mechanic; it lets the player see experiences as ephemeral along with our attempts to capture them. It works as a subtle criticism of those who surround us in contemporary culture who are too busy instagramming their food, or watching concerts through their smartphone screen to actually experience life. More and more we find people who act like archivists of their own narrow and silly lives. Life is Strange shines a light on these behaviours and undermines them by detabilizing the moments which are captured, rather than the ones which are fully lived. 

Additionally, the time travel mechanic brings into question the pursuit of authenticity which characterizes the postmodern malaise. As Max experiences different timelines, moving forward and backward, deleting and re-writing, the player and the protagonist begin to question what is authentic about Max or those around her. Indeed, Max is not the only photographer interested in “capturing” authenticity. Her photography teacher and the games’ principal antagonist, Mr. Jefferson, is in the habbit of drugging and forcibly photographing teenage girls in order to “capture” their authentic purity and innocence right before it is stripped away. Who Max is, or who anyone is that Max admires, is thrown into serious doubt throughout the game. Unlike similar story and decision based adventure games like those from Telltale Games, players are not so much asked to define a character through choice, but to play with choice as a means to slowly help the protagonist unravel into an uncertain heap of compromises and imperfect options. Indeed, the only characters which actually are authentic are frequently damaged, scared, or trapped by the circumstances of their life. The PTSD-suffering formed soldier and head of Blackwell security David Marsh jumps immediately to mind. We leave Life is Strange with not so much a sense of the inautheticity of everyone, but the sheer impossibility of authenticity and the terrifying outcomes that result from an over-emphasis on finding the authentic.

In short, if you are the kind of gamer with the right kind of eyes, Life is Strange is more than an interesting detective story layered atop mediocre technical and aesthetic execution. It is a potent and thoughtful narrative about the postmodern condition and the impossibility of our escape from it. The game is no manifesto - offerring an attractive alternative to our present state. Instead, it is a kind of survival manual about the importance of irony for self-awareness under conditions such as these. Like Max at the end of the game, we have no more photographs. Only a single moment that means nothing and everything.  


© Braden Hutchinson 2014