The coming of age narrative is very popular among audiences, and for good reason. Most, if not all, people will experience the transition from childhood to adulthood and the loss of innocence that comes with that. Often times the coming of age story is intertwined with the schoolboy narrative, where young boys are shipped off to boarding school as playful adolescents and complete their education as respectable men. Throughout their contained school experience they will be victims of violence and also perpetrators, in service of achieving “true masculinity”. We see this in a plethora of stories from literary classics such as A Separate Peace by John Knowles to films such as Dead Poets Society. Those are only two examples out of the plethora that exists within the literary canon and popular media. Clearly the genre is still resonant since its origins in the Victorian era of strict morals and “Christian” virtue. But something severely lacking are the stories that place girls at the forefront of school, coming of age dramas.
Few stories that take place at a boarding school place girls in a position beyond being the side character or motivational prop. Female characters are typically used as objects to fuel the male protagonists sexual awakening and feature little real character development. Stories within the popular public consciousness in which girls come of age, bond, and are allowed room to do so, just as boys are, are also very limited. If they do exist, they are often labeled chick-flicks and/or marketed exclusively to girls. Little Women may be taught in schools but you will not see it given to boys to read outside academic institutions, and certainly won’t see Rainbow Rowell books or the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants given to boys even though girls are consistently exposed to the coming of age stories of their male counterparts. Male stories are considered the default, while women are not allowed to share that same space, and certainly not in the same school setting. This makes it seem like these types of stories belong only to men and cannot take on a different identity outside of this bubble.
Then there is Life is Strange, a game that challenges these rules as well as plays by them. The game was released to wide critical acclaim, called “one of the most interesting games in years” by Aoife Wilson of Eurogamer 2 while Phil Savage of PCGamer said the game was one of his favorites of 2015. 3 Allegra Frank of Polygon marked it as her #7 pick for game of the year saying, “Life is Strange affected me so, so deeply…Female friendship is so powerful, and it’s something I want to see played out more in all media.” 4 The game clearly had an effect on the game industry at large, telling a familiar story with a twist.
Life is Strange tells the coming of age story in a school setting but from the perspective of a young woman, Max Caulfield. The story focuses on female friendship, as Allegra Frank pointed out, and growing up amidst the turmoils of high school. In fact, Dontnod had to fight to keep Max and Chloe female characters as many publishers wanted to make them men. Square Enix was the only publisher to not want to change the protagonist’s gender. 5
Max does not have a romantic subplot with the boy she goes to school beyond undertones which the player can encourage or discourage. Rather, she is more interested in her friendship with her recently reunited best friend, Chloe. Some even read their relationship as romantic and it would be remiss not to mention the queer subtext going on throughout the game. Instead of the traditional high school plot points girls in fiction usually go through such as prom, break ups, and talking about cute boys (it should be noted, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with these experiences, but they occur so often in stories about adolescent women that it can feel stifling to girls who don’t want or do these things), Max and Chloe are more concerned with solving mysteries with Max’s new time travel powers. What is Max’s storm dream all about? How can they use Max’s newfound time travel powers to their advantage? And who is behind all of the sick events going on at Blackwell Academy?
The game affords Max the autonomy to make choices that are unrestricted by the barriers usually set in place for girls’ stories in media. In particular, it removes the masculine presence from the story which is traditionally defined by it.
Following the Tropes
Life is Strange follows the form fairly well when it comes to tackling coming of age. Max is a teenager disenchanted by the adults around her and trying to make sense of things. She makes her way through high school by attempting to stay out of trouble while at the same time defying authority when she feels necessary. She begins the story as an unsure teenager and by the end is expected to have the emotional maturity to make the difficult final, albeit unfair, decision.
Max is an obvious homage to Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. Though the novel takes place primarily away from school, it deals heavily with the politics of school and Holden is consistently referring back to his experiences there. While Max is in all manner of speaking nothing like Holden, there are homages to the book in several places in the game. At one point when Max is snooping in the principal’s office, she spots a hunter’s hat and notes, “Only a total ‘phony’ would wear a creepy hat like that,” using the classic “phony” line that Holden says over and over in Catcher. Max also has a poster in her dorm room that is an exact replica of Catcher’s cover artwork with a title change. Although the comparison is not one to one, Max and Holden both defy authority in their own ways.
Like the coming of age stories before it, Life is Strange likes to play with dialogue and challenge traditional language. While it is entirely clear that the dialogue in the game was written by middle age white men completely distant from teenage girl speak, this does not discredit what is happening on screen. Characters experiment with different words of dialogue that are not prominent in the linguistic consciousness, saying things such as “hella,” “are you cereal?,” or the classic “go fuck your selfie.” Although the cringe factor is real, it is worthwhile to address the reality that high school students say dumb things and experiment with language in their modern context. Like many coming of age stories, these teenagers are trying to figure out their place in the adult world and establishing themselves through language. Victoria, the insecure bully, may have the worst line of the game, but it speaks to her character’s insecurity that she would turn a fairly neutral word into a lame insult. It is also worth noting that Mr. Jefferson, who we later learn is an antagonist of the game, openly dislikes the word “selfie,” subtly queuing us into his villainy. Although he seems like an easy going person, his aversion to the younger generations use of language is very telling, in a genre that pushes adolescents to challenge the rules set in place by generations before them and figure things out on their own, new terms.
Many coming of age stories position the protagonist in a state of in between. They are not yet adults and no longer children. This can often lead to a sense of powerlessness. Max is constantly in a balancing act, not only in accordance with her age but also in terms of the people she associates. Reuniting with Chloe returns her to childhood and reflecting on her memories of being a kid. Yet neither she nor Chloe can return to those days, and they are constantly reminded of this. Even Chloe’s mom, Joyce, repeatedly comments on how she has to remember that Chloe and Max are no longer children. Yet most adults treat them as such.
Challenging the Narrative Rules
The game is consistently questioning authority, whether it be in the classroom or the town of Arcadia Bay, and this authority is usually male. Instead of maleness, Life is Strange is much more interested in exploring the female school experience and the threat of men in women’s daily lives.
Men are constantly framed as immoral or bad people, and sometimes are outright bad people, including Principal Wells, Nathan, David, and Mr. Jefferson. Nathan texts Max and calls her a feminazi when he believes she is trying to “dethrone” him from Arcadia Bay, a comment that is all too relevant in our current climate. David refers to the students as “metrosexuals” and “libtards,” obvious jabs at the left leaning, open minded student body, and complains about PC culture. The game clearly has something to say about toxic masculinity and how it impacts women’s lives.
Beyond toxic masculinity, the game positions itself behind the various different experiences of women. Although their experiences vary, Max, Chloe, Rachel, Kate, and Victoria all fall victim to men forcing themselves on them, some paying more dire consequences than others. The story pushes against traditional coming of age narratives made for men and designs one for women and the experiences of women.
Challenging the Combat Rules
Life is Strange introduces a sci-fi/fantasy spin to its narrative by giving Max the power to rewind time. This power consumes the entire game, allowing Max to maneuver her space in unique and nontraditional ways. The power to reverse time is the only form of “combat” in the game. As previously discussed in Issue 2 of Level Story talking about Firewatch, there is a term called feminized gameplay which is when a game uses traditional female attributes as a means to progress through the game. It does not equate to the game having a female lead character.
For example, the Tomb Raider games would not be an example of feminized gameplay as Lara is actively violent in order to progress through the game. Likewise, feminized gameplay can be used in games where the main character is male such as Phoenix Wright. Feminized gameplay can include dialogue choice mechanics or cooking simulators. Life is Strange solves its problems through communication rather than shooting a gun or using violence. It places itself in a boarding school setting traditionally found in schoolboy, coming of age stories. Yet right away it is distinctly female based on the mechanics of the game.
Another unique mechanic of play in the game is the ability to take as long as possible when making a choice. Unlike Telltale’s choice system that gives you a timer and forces you to make a decision within the time limit, Life is Strange removes the fast paced mechanic in place of slower gameplay. Matt Knutson writes in his essay “Backtrack, Pause, Rewind, Reset: Queering Chrononormativity in Gaming”, “While many games feature time manipulation, Life is Strange focuses on decision-making rather than adept performance, while emphasizes interpersonal relationship management…” 6 Knutson’s essay is directly commenting on the queer aspect of Life is Strange through how it manages time in contrast to how games traditionally handle the concept. Like many coming of age narratives, the game not only challenges culture but challenges the form itself.
Life is Strange Can’t Follow Through
Despite the solid setup that happens in the first few episodes of the game, the gears suddenly shift from coming of age to a time jumping adventure trying to take down the apparently psycho Mr. Jefferson. The heightened tension seems to shift the focus at the expense of the coming of age narrative that had been set up fairly nicely in all honesty.
The game seems to let its walls down as it goes along, losing confidence in the ideas it had been working toward at the start. What was initially presented as a foil to the traditionally masculine formula is shifted and the game becomes a story about fate, rather than a nuanced take on the tropes of the coming of age genre. Max’s relationship with Chloe is boiled down to a grossly unfair choice that the game believes to be her moment of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Rather than ending their game with a thematically distant choice that hinges on being unfair, they could have allowed their themes and ideas to grow organically.
Although thematically inconsistent throughout, Life is Strange is very interested in overcoming the traditionally male centered themes of coming of age narratives. Men exercising their masculinity is not empowering but threatening, not only to women but to men themselves. This is most evident in Nathan who is pressured by his family and ends up trying to prove himself, only to harm himself in the process.
Through challenging narrative and gameplay conventions, the game is able to present audiences with a familiar yet brand new type of story. Coming of age stories do not just belong to boys and young men, and Life is Strange shows that women are more than capable of leading these sorts of narratives. The game reframes the narrative to revolve around the experiences of young women, changing the context in which we view these types of stories. By following tropes while also challenging them, Life is Strange ends up presenting us with a new way to experience growing up stories through a medium that is already infiltrated with tales of masculinity, even if the game fails to maintain these ideas all the way through.
- Don’t Nod. Life is Strange. Square Enix. Switch/PS4/Xbox One/Windows/Google Stadia. 2015.
- Wilson, Aoife. 2015. “Life Is Strange Review.” Eurogamer.net. Eurogamer.net. October 23, 2015. https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-10-22-life-is-strange.
- Savage, Phil. 2015. “Life Is Strange Review.” Pcgamer. October 22, 2015. https://www.pcgamer.com/life-is-strange-review/.
- Frank, Allegra. 2015. “Polygon’s 2015 Games of the Year #7: Life Is Strange.” Polygon.com. 2015. https://www.polygon.com/a/game-of-the-year-2015/life-is-strange-game-of-the-year-2015-polygon.
- Rougeau, Mike. 2015. “Publishers Wanted To Change Life Is Strange’s Protagonists Into Men.” Kotaku. Kotaku. January 11, 2015. https://kotaku.com/publishers-wanted-to-change-life-is-stranges-protagonis-1678811522.
- Knutson, Matt. 2018. “Backtrack, Pause, Rewind, Reset: Queering Chrononormativity in Gaming.” Game Studies 18 (3). http://gamestudies.org/1803/articles/knutson.