Looking back on 2015, it’s easy to see that it was a good year for video games. However, was it a good year for the LGBT gamers who played them? In this series of articles, I’ll be reexamining some of the games that came out last year featuring LGBT characters and themes, reviewing how well they were executed and the effects they could have on future games.
Life is Strange is a game I had high hopes for. After it first started back in January, each new episode seemed to outdo the last. It centered on a relationship between two teen girls and their problems. It did this in a story about time travel, a genre that almost always centers around guys. It examined issues that other games either failed to touch on appropriately or avoided broaching entirely. Sure, the writing wasn’t perfect, but it stood out from its peers in important ways.
Max and Chloe start out as childhood best friends. Unfortunately, Max ends up moving soon after the death of Chloe’s father, leaving Chloe with no real support during this difficult time. When Max returns five years later, Chloe has become distant and rebellious, though the two quickly begin to rekindle their friendship. Every possible path in the game ends up bringing them closer together, though just how close can vary depending on the player’s choices. Not every piece of dialogue works, but on the whole the game does a good job presenting these two friends grow closer through shared hardships.
I only had two real concerns as Life is Strange went on. My first concern was whether it would deliver on the heavily coded romance between main characters Max and Chloe, or if it would stick to the “safety” of queerbaiting. After all, the last thing I needed was another piece of media where all the straight fans won’t shut up about how gay-coded characters are “obviously straight,” and that anyone saying otherwise is just a shipping-obsessed weirdo who’s projecting too hard. My second concern was whether it would end tragically for one or both of the girls if the game actually did deliver on the romance, falling into the narrative trap of the Tragic Lesbians trope. My life is tragic enough already; I don’t need video games reminding me. Much to my surprise, the ending of episode 5 somehow managed to validate both of these concerns at the same time.
In the game’s final “twist,” it turns out messing with the time stream caused a time-hurricane to form over the town of Arcadia Bay. However, thanks to a literal photo of a butterfly that was taken before she started messing with time, Max has the option to go back and stop herself from ever using time travel in the first place. Of course, this also means that she won’t be able to save Chloe, her best friend and implied love interest, from dying in an earlier episode. The player is presented with two choices: go back in time and let Chloe die to save the town and everyone in it, or do nothing and let the town be destroyed so that Chloe gets to live.
The two options Life is Strange gives you can both be seen as valid within the game’s narrative and the development of Max as a character. While there are going to be differences in how each person plays through the game, the idea that she would be unable to give up Chloe regardless of the cost after falling in love with her and working so hard to keep saving her is just as valid of a character arc as her giving up the person she loves the most to save everyone else. The game, however, thinks otherwise. It clearly wants you to choose saving the town, even having Chloe herself tell you to sacrifice her to save everyone else. This is further shown when actually comparing the two endings.
If you go down what the game tells you is the ‘selfish’ route, you’ll get the fairly barebones “bad” ending where the town is torn apart by the time-nado. You get some hand-holding and a sad hug between the two girls with almost no dialogue as they watch Arcadia Bay get torn apart. Then they hop in a truck and drive off into the sunset while some indie song plays them out. Apparently Chloe stopped caring about her mom or anyone else getting killed and is okay with their deaths. If you go down the ‘selfless’ route the game wants you to take and get the “good” ending, Chloe and Max finally share a real kiss after the dare-kiss tease in Episode 3. Then Max uses the photo to go back in time, forcing her to reexperience Chloe’s first death. The game then has you look at some pictures while they transform, showing the new timeline created by Max using her future-knowledge. It then ends with Max attending Chloe’s funeral while some indie song plays them out.
The “good” ending fulfills what the subtext promised, but by killing one of the two characters involved. It only delivers on the romance between Max and Chloe in the context of a Tragic Lesbian ending. I’m so tired of seeing this trope pop up continually in nearly every piece of media with non-cishet characters in it. If both endings had Max and Chloe kiss or show concrete signs of romantic affection, then this wouldn’t be nearly as big of a problem. By contextualizing the idea of two girls loving each other romantically as only happening in conjunction with tragedy, the game’s writers have failed queer people just as much as they would have if neither ending had them kiss.
The “bad” ending, being the one that clearly had much less effort put into it, chooses to pass over the lesbian subtext and any other dangling threads of narrative entirely. Apparently sacrificing everything for the sake of the girl you love isn’t romantic enough of a gesture to warrant anything beyond some hand-holding and a quiet drive. The lesbian subtext between is never fulfilled if this is the ending you got, meaning the game has been queerbaiting the player the entire time. Sure, they could go through again and choose the other option, but why would someone put in the effort to get the other ending after the one they got was so disappointing? Without the context of the other ending, this one is completely narratively unsatisfying. Though I suppose the apparent death of Warren, who won our coveted “Most Annoying Character” award during GOTY 2015, is narratively satisfying in its own special way.
Life is Strange is still important despite its flaws, and I hope it inspires more games that center around relationships between girls to get made. Unfortunately, its failure to stick the landing and confusing case of Schrodinger’s Lesbians drags the entire thing down. Some people might be able to overlook a bad ending and still enjoy the experience. For me, the game’s inability to properly deliver on its subtextual promises make it hard to enjoy the rest of it or recommend it to others.