Okay, folks. So before I start, this post is CHOCK FULL of spoilers for Life is Strange. Episode 5, the final episode, has been out since last October, so I figured that now would be a good time to finish playing and write about the experience, but if you haven’t finished Life is Strange yet, or if you haven’t played it but intend to, I’m going to emphatically recommend not reading this until after you’ve played it. Normally I’m pretty spoiler-agnostic, but the twist at the end of Chapter 4 is one of the most genuinely surprising and unsettling twists I’ve encountered in a game and I would really hate to ruin that for anyone invested in playing.
Also, it’s important to note that this post comes with a trigger warning for descriptions of unsettling depictions of gendered violence, harassment, and graphic rape metaphors.
So, now that that’s been said…
Here there are only spoilers for Chapters 1-3:
I’ve written about Life is Strange previously; last year I binged Chapters 1-3 in rapid succession and wrote about the experience here. What drew me into the series was the complex portrayal of a wide variety of female characters – all of whom have complex motivations and characterizations, and the explicit centering of women’s stories.
What I came to appreciate after playing the first three chapters, however, was how the writers very purposefully led the audience through a narrative that builds a very clear picture of the lived emotional reality of being a woman who has to live in a patriarchal society and the awful choices that can happen as a result. Further, while a lot of media can include depictions of online harassment or sexual violence in the name of being “topical” or “edgy”, the developers at DONTNOD impressively manage to make both harassment and sexual violence central plot points in such a way that doesn’t cheapen the narrative or demean the characters who suffer from this violence. The gendered nature of both the harassment and the sexual violence is made very clear, and while the player is given a choice in how to respond when stories of violence are recounted, choosing to respond in ways that blame the victim results in having those responses thrown back at you in ways that highlight the injustice and horror of blaming women for their own victimization.
Importantly, as the player begins to uncover more detail about the strange and terrible things happening at Blackwell, a situation is set up where all of the possible villains are men with status and power. At the end of Chapter 3, Max finds herself in an office with all of them as she is being pressured to point fingers and assign blame.
And each of the men is, in his own way, a different toxic manifestation of internalized male privilege:
- David Madsen, the chief of Blackwell security, is the male representative of authority who takes it upon himself to govern the women around him in the name of law and order.
- Nathan Prescott is the platonic ideal of violent toxic masculinity, who threatens violence freely against women who get in his way and who serially drugs and sexually victimizes women without ever showing remorse for his actions.
- Principal Wells is the institutional authority who recognizes Nathan for the violent sociopath he is, and yet continues to cover up his actions to protect both the institution he serves and to materially benefit himself and his personal finances, allowing Nathan free reign to continue victimizing women as he sees fit.
- And Mark Jefferson, the enlightened mentor figure who has so many positive things to say about encouraging women to step forward and take risks, is the disappointing ally – the man who you thought Got It until he revealed the extent of his internalized misogyny by blaming Kate Marsh for what happened to her and escalating an already untenable situation.
All of this is left implicit, however, in the first three chapters. In Chapter 4, however…
Commence spoilers for Chapters 4 and 5!
Chapter 4 is when the gloves come off, when the developers make it explicitly clear that HEY – IN CASE YOU HADN’T NOTICED, THE VILLAIN IS PATRIARCHY.
First, there is Nathan. If you choose to blame Nathan for what happened to Kate Marsh, he continues to escalate his sexist abuse – which began as just calling Max things like “dyke” and “bitch”, but graduates to “feminazi” in Chapter 4 – a slur that you hear a few times from this point on. Perhaps the most chilling of which is when you receive an “anonymous” text from what you already know to be Nathan’s phone saying only “feminazis will be exterminated”.
Chapter 4 is also when Nathan is revealed for the entitled, misogynistic monster that he is – an unapologetic sexual predator who is a danger to any woman around him. Through Max and Chloe’s investigation, it becomes clear that Nathan is, if not a serial rapist, then definitely someone who has serially sexually assaulted women – there is the video of him with a drugged Kate Marsh, in which he encourages people to take advantage of someone too drugged to consent to sexual activity. There is also Chloe’s story of Nathan’s attempt to drug her with similar intent. Both of these events actually occur after Nathan killed and secretly buried Rachel Amber, resulting in her disappearance two months before the events of the game take place.
[Sidebar: Relative to Nathan, for all the fact that he is an unstable, paranoid, borderline psychotic sexual predator, I actually really appreciate what happens if you attempt to warn Victoria to stay away from Nathan during the Vortex Club party in Chapter 4. Victoria reacts with disbelief and anger, accusing Max of saying that Nathan is dangerous out of jealousy or other personal motivations. She defends Nathan as being her best friend, and that she couldn’t possibly believe that he could be both her best friend and a predator to be avoided.
Which. Oof. This was such a powerful and true-to-life portrayal of conversations that actually happen – the danger that keeps women from attempting to warn other women about “missing stairs“, because there is always the risk that your warnings will not only not be received, but that you will be punished socially for it.]
But Nathan, as it turns out isn’t the real villain after all. The villain behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance, the drugging of Kate Marsh, and the whole sordid mess going on at Blackwell turns out not to be David Madsen – who has been established up to this point as a creepy, borderline domestic-abusing, teenage-fetishizing weirdo, or Principal Wells – who has explicitly used his institutional authority to protect a sexual predator. In what is one of the most genuinely shocking and upsetting twists I have ever encountered in a video game, it turns out to be Mr. Jefferson – the trusted authority and mentor figure who up until the reveal at the end of Chapter 4 has been an entirely sympathetic character.
[TW: If you want to skip discussion of rape metaphor, skip to where I tag the end of the trigger warning]
The reveal of Mr. Jefferson at the end of Chapter 4 is harrowing, but the opening of Chapter 5 takes that horror to an entirely new level when Max wakes up in a secret bunker that she discovers with Chloe in Chapter 4, but had assumed to be Nathan’s, as it is on old property belonging to Nathan’s family. Jefferson has drugged Max, just as he did with Kate, so that he can photograph her while unconscious – without that inconvenient free will and personhood that would only screw up his photographs.
The dialogue that he gives while photographing Max, as he enthuses about how pure, beautiful, and “innocent” she is in her unconscious/semiconscious state, is chilling, as is the rage that he shows when Max – who is groggy as she wakes up from the drugs – attempts to move and “ruins” his shots. It is at this point that Mark Jefferson becomes the literal embodiment of patriarchy.
The way that he crouches over Max as he photographs her, at times even straddling her for the sake of a shot… Let’s just say that obvious rape metaphor is obvious. The camera angles that the developer chooses, the ways in which Jefferson defines the space around Max and physically moves her in the space, the things that he says as he is waxing rhapsodic about her special qualities — it a horrifying violation.
The level of remove that the writers provide by writing the scene as “obvious rape metaphor is obvious”, however, is deftly done in that it evokes feelings of terror and threat without being a portrayal that would be triggering for most survivors with trauma surrounding real-life assault. But critically, it also provides an additional layer of critical commentary about the attitudes about women that make Jefferson’s monstrous behavior possible.
Mark Jefferson LITERALLY objectifies women for the purposes of subjecting them to his male gaze. By drugging women he finds sexually appealing, he turns them into objects incapable of asserting their agency or desires, so that he can photograph them the way that HE WANTS TO SEE THEM.
The level of meta-narrative happening is deafening, even as it manages to do what I have literally never seen any other video game do – tell a story about sexual violence against women in ways that centers the survivor of that violence, without being done in such a way that it comes across as being done for easy “shock” value or to make the story “edgy”.
That, in and of itself, is an impressive achievement in game writing. As is the scene where David rescues Max from Jefferson, or rather, assists Max in rescuing herself, and the conversation that follows – in which it becomes clear that David has been trying to be an ally all along, although he has been going about it in the dumbest, most wrong-headed fashion possible. And he acknowledges his failings without flinching from the fact that he failed, and that he acted in ways that were inappropriate, and would need to try make amends for his behavior.
But the nail in the coffin, the final layer of “HEY, BTW, THE VILLAIN IS TOTES PATRIARCHY” is the nightmare level where all of Max’s cumulative changes warp reality and trap her in a combination of alternate dimensions that she has to find her way out of. As reality continues falling apart around her, Max finds herself trapped in a maze in which all of the major male characters become villains – monsters that she has to hide from in order to survive. That in itself is unnerving, but the things that the men shout out as they patrol, looking for Max, hammers home the gendered nature of the threat they represent.
Nathan hurls gendered insults like “feminazi” and promises violence when he finds Max. Principal Wells makes threats about how he will use his power to punish Max, blaming her for everything that has happened. David similarly hurls insults and promises retribution. And Jefferson maintains the level of imminent threat by trying to convince her of the merits of his artistic vision, even as he says some truly vile things like, “Max, Rachel not only gave great headshots, she gave great head”. Just as frightening, however, is the fact that men who are actual allies also stalk the maze. Frank – who can become either an ally or an enemy in Chapter 4 (I made him an ally), is there – blaming Max for what happened to Rachel and promising retribution. Samuel, who is only ever gentle and kind, is there too. And Warren, who is only ever sweet and earnest and eager to help Max stand up to Nathan, alternately pleads for and demands Max’s attention.
In the end, Max escapes and what leads her back to reality and sanity are her memories of Chloe and the moments of real happiness and female companionship that they’ve shared in the last week – which is what makes the final choice at the end so agonizing. But for all that I sobbed my way through the ending after choosing to sacrifice Chloe, that wasn’t the part that has been sticking with me since finishing the game.
I keep finding myself on the power and resonance of the nightmare maze, because I have never played a game that so accurately reflected the experiences that I have had since starting my blog that have led to me being afraid of men as a class of human being. Despite the fact that some of my closest, deepest, most intimate ties are with men, spaces that are heavily marked as male are spaces that I am not able to feel safe in. And this game, THIS FUCKING GAME, made by (from what I have been able to gather) a team of mostly-white-dudes, is the first time in my whole goddamn life that I have seen a game FUCKING NAIL my emotional truth.
Which, you know, given that I’ve been playing video games since I was about 6, it’s about fucking time.