Needs More Gay: Life is Strange’s Troubling Relationship with Queer Representation
There are two things that were readily apparent, based on internet conversation, about Life is Strange when it was being released: It was a gay romance and it had time travel. The premise is appealing, particularly since queer representation in video games isn’t all that prevalent. Certainly queer people are given much more positive representation today than in previous years, but it still is scarce when looking at the bigger picture.
On my first playthrough, I imagined there was a side of this game where the romance did not exist, so I intended for Max to have a strong relationship with Chloe in order to allow the relationship to blossom. My method of play was to constantly appeal to Chloe’s desires and to see these two become girlfriends. I chose to ignore Kate’s phone call, I kissed Chloe, and I denied going with Warren to the drive-in. When it came time to make the final choice at the end of the game, I hesitantly chose Chloe.
What I ended up getting was a game that constantly teased as the premise of a queer romance but never actually followed through. There certainly was subtext littered throughout the game like a candy trail. For those of you who are familiar with the tale of Hansel and Gretel, their candy trail only led to peril. The same can be said of Life is Strange. The game teased something great while providing something quite opposite, and this is a real problem for queer representation in media.
“Queer theory” is a framework for examining art that removes the default, masculine heterosexual, gaze and instead inserts a different, queer, gaze in which to view the art. 4
Throughout the game, Max and Chloe form a strong bond with one another. They spend a lot of intimate time together – listening to music in Chloe’s bedroom, hanging out at Chloe’s secret spot by the railroad tracks, and swimming in the pool in their undergarments in the dead of night. This inherently suggests something more going on beneath the surface.
What also adds to this notion is that Chloe herself presents as a gay woman. It is clear that her relationship with Rachel Amber was romantic, with Chloe saying that she was the love of her life and being obsessed with finding her. Chloe’s blue hair can also que us into her queerness in her defiance of traditional social norms. Not only is Chloe a queer woman but she also presents as queer in the abstract sense.
Despite all of this, the story is strangely absent of a romance between Max and Chloe. Though there constantly feels like something is brewing, nothing ever truly comes it.
Max and Chloe’s relationship is very reminiscent of a trope in media known as queerbaiting. The term is used when a creator/creators market a story that hints at same-sex romance but doesn’t actually depict it. Doing this “baits” queer audiences while avoiding the reprecutions of alienating audiences. The problem with queerbaiting is that it teases a queer audience without providing actual representation.
Examples of queerbaiting in other media includes Emma and Regina from ABC’s Once Upon a Time, Sherlock and Watson in BBC’s Sherlock, and even Finn and Poe from the rebooted Star Wars trilogy. Possibly the biggest perpetrator of queerbaiting comes from MTV’s Teen Wolf. After realizing fans shipped characters Stiles and Derek together, the creators decided to promote the show with a TV spot having the two men sitting close together on a literal ship. The characters never get together in the show’s canon. The show will acknowledge the ship without actually allowing it to happen. 2
Life is Strange is no exception. Max and Chloe are clearly marketed as a couple. The game has queer subtext amidst intimate moments that only add up to close friendship. Max’s choice to kiss Chloe is played off for friendly laughs. It does not lead to a realization or something more between them. Sure the two share an intimate moment in the pool, but nothing comes of it. Their relationship remains purely platonic amidst the romantic implications.
Bury Your Gays
This all culminates at the end of the game when Max must choose between saving Chloe or saving the thousands of people of Arcadia Bay. If Max chooses to save the town and sacrifice Chloe, the scene that follows is Max and Chloe embracing to make-out. Following this is a scene of Max letting Chloe die in the bathroom at the start of the game and Chloe’s funeral. If Max chooses to save Chloe and let the town endure the destruction, the two drive off together without saying any words.
Hopefully it is already clear that there are serious issues with how this story plays out. Max’s moral quandary does not bode well for queer romance. It is yet another trend that makes queer people the casualties of straight narratives. Chloe’s life becomes expendable because of fate.
“I don’t have to remind readers how many ‘tragic lesbian’ tropes this plays into…” writes Eleanor Amaranth Lockhart, “the idea that girls who love girls have to die is overplayed and has an actively harmful effect on the psyches of non-straight women who have to be exposed to the tropes, over and over and over again. But, unlike in films where lesbians just die, in [Life is Strange], [Chloe] can survive – over the blood of thousands…” 3
If the player wants to see themselves represented in media, as I did on my first playthrough, then they might choose Chloe and bear the weight of that decision, as if choosing queer love must have dire consequences. Or they can sacrifice her and Chloe can end up as another cliche along with the other queer women killed off in media.
It is saying a lot that when the game finally allows these characters to truly be together in a romantic context, it can only truly occur if one dies. If Max chooses to save Chloe, there is no make-out session or anything cementing their relationship as anything beyond friends. In essence, the only choice that allows some sort of confirmation of their relationship is if Chloe dies.
The Cycle Continues
What this all amounts to is a very dismal portrayal of queer relationships. Life is Strange certainly allows player choice to influence how they view the story, but there is no question as to whether the text supports certain ideas. Although the game itself presents queer themes, it fails to depict a true queer relationship, merely hinting at it before killing it off.
Watching queer relationships only hinted at for marketing purposes and watching queer characters die in the name of deep storytelling is a tiresome trope. Life is Strange is yet another story that adds to the pile of these problematic stories when it had every opportunity to be above this nonsense.
- Don’t Nod. Life is Strange. Square Enix. Switch/PS4/Xbox One/Windows/Google Stadia. 2015.
- tct255. 2014. “The Dangers of ‘Teen Wolf’ through ‘Queer Baiting’.” QIPC 2014. March 23, 2014. https://qipc2014.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/the-dangers-of-teen-wolf-through-queer-baiting/.
- Lockhart, Eleanor Amaranth. 2015. “Life Is Strange, Mass Effect, Gal Pals, and Why Video Games Aren’t Quite as Gay as You Think.” Medium. Medium. December 5, 2015. https://medium.com/@BootlegGirl/life-is-strange-mass-effect-gal-pals-and-why-video-games-aren-t-quite-as-gay-as-you-think-82abb7cddc52.
- “Queer Theory in 80’s and 90’s Action Movies | Renegade Cut” YouTube video, 0:26. “Renegade Cut,” 2019. https://youtu.be/7wsHjT8sPi4.