So I know I’m late to the party on this one, but I just finished the episodic decision-based game Life is Strange on Steam (the first of five episodes is now free!), and I have a burning urge to talk about it. The following paragraphs will contain massive spoilers, so please stop reading here if you’d like to experience the game for yourself unspoiled.
High school drama is funny when you’re out of high school, right? NOPE NOPE NOPE
Going into the game, I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing about the plot aside from the fact that you make decisions, so the deeply personal connection I developed with it was a startling, disturbing, and ultimately cathartic experience that I simply must discuss via the lens of a hyper-analytic English major who experienced various kinds of abuse. (That’s what happens when you have 6 months of nothing between undergrad and grad school…part of me actually misses writing essays??? Who would’ve thought?)
While Life is Strange addresses many controversial and provoking issues, the overarching theme of male violence prominently and honestly expresses itself throughout the game–and as a survivor of emotional and sexual abuse, the signs flashed loud and clear in my mind. The player is presented with this theme within the first few minutes of the game as we witness Nathan’s meltdown in the bathroom and him physically harming and shooting Chloe.*
It’s clear from this scene that Nathan is established as a Bad Guy™, so as we discover more and more about his unstable condition, his expression of violence is scary, but predictable. He’s a Bad Guy™, so of course he is violent because violence is a Bad Thing™.
Now, we’ve seen this narrative before in many fictional pieces. Male on female violence is disturbingly common in all forms of media, and it’s often assigned to a mentally unstable “evil” character to remove all responsibility from society to ever address it.
I say Life is Strange honestly depicts male violence, however, because it actually distributes it between both “good” and “evil” characters. Just like Nathan, Warren the Good Guy™ also expresses male violence. When he physically assaults Nathan way past the point of self-defense and good intentions, Max is deeply disturbed by his outburst because it contradicts what many forms of media tell women–that Good Guys™ like Warren are never violent, only Bad Guys™ like Nathan. (And do I really need to mention Mr. Jefferson? He is as strictly 100% evil as a Scooby-Doo villain, which some argue is a flaw of the game.)
Similarly, another challenge to this cultural assumption is David hitting Chloe. At this point in the game, David seems like a Bad Guy™, but he ultimately gives Max an out to her death in the Dark Room. We learn that David was trying to solve the mystery of Blackwell just like us, but likely suffers from PTSD as a veteran. This does not excuse his violence, however; it merely serves to highlight the fact that male violence is not an issue solely apparent in “evil” characters. By distributing acts of male violence between both “good” and “bad” characters, Life is Strange successfully draws attention to the universal issue of male violence in an honest manner and discourages us to think of people as strictly “good” and “evil.”
The murky nature of male violence in Life is Strange illuminates how frightening it can be to simply exist as a young girl navigating her life in society. Max is surrounded by and subjected to misogynistic, hurtful graffiti and language constantly throughout the game regardless of her location, and almost every young female character is indirectly or directly called a whore, bitch, slut, etc.; all gendered insults intended to harm women.
The omnipresence of male violence physically manifests itself for the player to truly feel what this weight can be like for young women during the labyrinth scene of Max’s nightmare in episode 5. The player is trapped in a metaphor emphasizing that, no matter where she is and no matter who finds Max in the maze (it is particularly important to note that Warren is also searching for her with sinister intentions), women must evaluate the potential for male violence constantly throughout their lives, and that it is both terrifying and exhausting.
A small portion of the labyrinth in Max’s nightmare. Note how she is in her school, which should be a safe place–yet she is still in a defensive stance hiding from violent male presences in her life.
While it’s undeniable that Life is Strange highlights male on female violence, it continues to dismantle longstanding societal perceptions of this theme via Daniel’s bullying (thanks to my friend for reminding me of this point!). Max witnesses Daniel being pushed into lockers at school at the hands of the Vortex Club jocks, which is an image ingrained into American culture that is easily dismissed by the infuriating saying “boys will be boys” or “man up.” Btw, it’s fantastic that Max and Daniel are able to defeat this manifestation of male violence later in the game WITHOUT retaliating with their own violence, something else that is encouraged in society when men are victims of violence themselves.
ANYWAY, I could legit go on and on about this topic because Max’s experiences with it really resonate with me, but I’d like to share how Life is Strange helped me process a troubling memory I have regarding my abuse.
Guns are heavily connected with death and violence in the game, and Max witnesses many of her loved ones brutally shot either on accident or purposely. There’s something absolutely terrifying and sickening to the core about seeing a person immediately slump and die after being shot, and I felt the memory resurface violently and with a hopeless finality that I hadn’t really had the chance to fully process.
It felt like lifetimes ago–two schools ago, actually–either junior or sophomore year of high school (what do you know, Life is Strange also occurs in high school. Stay classy with that gun control problem, America.) It’s okay though, this wasn’t a “real” gun, it was a BB gun–but don’t think it looked friendly and kooky and cartoony like a nerf gun or super soaker, it was still solid black and sparse and efficient.
Here’s an example of a BB gun. To a teen who flinches at loud noises and has literally never seen a gun up close before, it looked real enough.
I was hanging out in some of my best friends’ basement one summer with my abusive ex. At this point, we had been dating for about 3 years, and there were many blatant and subtle examples of abuse and manipulation already in our history that teenage me was confused but ignorant about. The basement was small and cozy, fully finished and comfortable, a place I had always felt safe over the years. Just like Max in the labyrinth, I was in a space where I was supposed to feel protected in, but shit still happens.
My friends had invited us over to see their new BB guns they had gotten as a present, and shitty little targets were set up in the basement as a makeshift shooting range. While I trusted my friends, I knew absolutely nothing about any kind of gun, so I chose to skittishly watch a few feet behind them as everyone eventually fired the little metal pellets into the wall.
It was loud, louder than I thought, and I insisted that I was a little too nervous to try firing one off. Everyone was having a good time, so I tried to keep the nerves out of my voice. My ex fired a couple shots at the wall, and I stood behind him, watching anxiously.
He suddenly whipped around, put the gun to my forehead, and pulled the trigger.
My gasp tangled itself with the impossibly loud, plastic-y snap of the gun firing against my head as my entire body froze. It took me a second to process the fact that it actually wasn’t loaded, hence the absence of a metal pellet lodged into my skull, but the damage done was more than physical.
While time stopped for me, I don’t think my friends noticed what happened.** I don’t even think my ex really noticed what was happening either as my hands flew to my face in shame, hiding the tears that welled in my eyes from pure shock.
I really, honestly thought he shot me in the head.
I silently begged the tears to stop, standing there completely still in the middle of the basement covering my eyes. Everyone was having a fun time but me, and now I ruined it by crying like a big baby and embarrassing my ex.
Yes, instead of being fucking pissed off and horrified that he thought putting a gun (remember, he said absolutely nothing to me beforehand warning me that he was kidding and that the gun wasn’t loaded) to my forehead and pulling the trigger was a funny joke and a completely okay thing to do, I worried about upsetting him because I “overreacted.” My thought process was already this warped 3 years into the relationship, and I’d stay with him for 2 and a half more. I’m still trying to fight thoughts like this today, almost every day.
Every so often I’d think about this memory over the years, but the male violence depicted in Life is Strange locked me into a flashback as I tried to sleep. I kept replaying the memory of that awful snapping sound and my gasp over and over again in my head, and as I tossed and turned in my bed, I realized it wasn’t going to stop until I went through some good ol’ fashioned processing.
In Max’s nightmare, she deeply questioned herself and all of her past actions until she freed herself–and I feel like I did the same.
The thing is, I could’ve forgiven it eventually if he was actually sorry, but he warped things so they were always my fault, I was never right. The apology I got when he actually realized how upset I was ONLY after my friends noticed, was something like “I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d get so upset.”
So, he wasn’t sorry for pretending to shoot me, his fucking girlfriend, in the fucking head, just that I got “so upset” about it.
And really, what is there not to laugh about, right? Get it, it’s like he could kill me any time so easily if he wanted to, but he didn’t! Lol! What a good joke, right? Just like how he said he could break my fingers if he wanted to because my hands were so delicate. Or, how he said if he got really mad, he could punch a window and cut up his hands or punch a hole in the wall and break his knuckles.
All these if’s surrounding male violence, all these hypothetical, vague breaking points that I had no control over, just “if he wanted to,” they would happen–I lived in fear of these veiled threats for 5 and a half years. I still have nightmares about being attacked by strangers, and my anxiety about it requires some reminders by my current wonderful and amazing boyfriend that he won’t suddenly snap one day and beat the shit out of me, because I unknowingly did something that made him “want to.”
That is what I realized in my flashback, what the threat of violence does to someone. It makes you question your safety and actions at all times, because you never knew what would be the one thing that would finally make him “want to” break your fingers or “want to” shoot you. You never knew when the emotional abuse would turn physical, so you’d keep your head low and your self esteem down, your opinions to yourself, and your voice quiet. To protect yourself.
So, navigating that maze as Max (who is probably the same age as I was when this happened to me) with her shoulders hunched and footsteps quiet, ducking and hiding from the threat of male violence in her life–I just want to give her a giant hug and tell her I know the feeling.
*Note: Regardless of whether or not Nathan meant to kill Chloe, as I have seen the fandom discuss, the fact that he uses a gun as a threat does not dismiss this scene from being an example of male violence. Pulling the trigger and killing Chloe may have been an accident (it is unclear as there is an escalating skirmish) but it is vital that we remember the game designers are the ones with agency, and their narrative choices all have an intention. In this case, their intention was to introduce male violence as a reoccurring theme to the player.
I wanted to talk about agency because I read a ridiculous post claiming that all of Jefferson’s victims just happened to be female, that there was no significance behind this fact–which is just plain wrong. Someone was clearly not paying attention in English class–we have to look at every choice game designers, authors, directors, and any creator of media make when creating because, unlike real life, agency and chance do not exist in fiction.
**Don’t worry, my friends got upset about the event for me. I don’t remember exact conversations, but they definitely gave him more shit than I could muster giving at the time.