It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since my original review of Life is Strange. I want to first apologize to everyone for letting my blog sit idle for so long, and secondly I’d like to thank everyone who’s contributed to my Patreon despite the fact I’ve been totally falling down on the job. And I’d like to extend a personal apology to Martin, who gifted me Life is Strange and then waited patiently for a follow-up I never provided.
Well the wait is over, Martin. Here’s the first of several follow up articles on Life is Strange.
Life is Strange
On my first playthrough of Life is Strange, I was so impressed with the characters that I didn’t pay attention to the symbolism present in the game. Fortunately my second time through the game, I took the time to fully appreciate the imagery and symbolism that you’d never even notice if you didn’t take the time to look.
I’ll talk about some of the more subtle symbolism in another article, but for now I want to focus on the one symbol that dominated the game: the Vortex. From the tornado to the Vortex club, vortex’s are the most obvious and most important symbol in the game. Destructive yet strangely beautiful, the supernatural tornado that almost destroys Arcadia bay is the harbinger of death that sets the stakes of the game’s story.
At first I’d just assumed that the giant tornado was a representation of nature reacting to the changes in the timeline, and perhaps it really is that simple. But if you’d care to follow me down the rabbit hole, subsequent playthroughs have suggested that maybe the vortex isn’t just nature attempting to right itself. Perhaps it’s something deeper, and far more disturbing.
After the tornado itself, the Vortex club represents the biggest symbolic enemy in the game. Though Mark Jefferson is the story’s antagonist, the Vortex club is what allows him to operate with impunity and, worse yet, are representative of much bigger problems. They’re a microcosm of Arcadia Bay itself, outwardly beautiful and welcoming but harboring darkness and ugliness beneath.
The Vortex Club represents everything that Max hates about Blackwell: the elitism, the bullying, their casual cruelty. Their name is never really explained as far I could tell, but Vortex club? That can’t be a coincidence.
What if the Vortex is the physical manifestation of her frustration and rage? Let’s face it, on her long journey through the game’s story, Max finds far more wrong with this little town than she finds right. Drug dealers, violence, corruption, and the cruel dispassionate way it grinds the life out of the people living in it. There’s a ton not to like about this small town. Admittedly it doesn’t differ all that much from pretty much every other city in the world, but for Max? She’s seeing her hometown for what it is, for the first time in her life without the benefit of a child’s sense of optimism.
Arcadia Bay has destroyed Max’s best friend’s hopes and dreams, trapped Chloe under a mountain of debt and crippling hopelessness. Arcadia Bay stood by quietly while Kate was ruthlessly bullied to the point of suicide, and it wasn’t until she was standing on the rooftop that anyone gave a damn. Nearly every member of the Arcadia Bay community that we meet is in some kind of pain, emotional, physical, or financial. The only exception being Samuel, the groundskeeper.
Perhaps the Vortex is Max’s subconscious wish to see this town washed from the face of the Earth. Which would suggest she’s far more powerful than she knows. Moments of extreme emotion allow her to stop time, but subtle frustrations and indignities can be just as powerful. Getting angry might cause you yell at someone, but living life in a constant state of frustration and fear can lead you to doing things far more destructive. With Max’s powers, she might very well be summoning this tornado without even realizing it.
And in true Max fashion, she even tries to warn people of the impending destruction, and true to that nature of most people, they ignore the obvious.
Birds die en mass, a snow storm in 60 degree weather, whales beach themselves, and an eclipse comes out of nowhere. It’s as if the entire world is warning Arcadia Bay to get the hell out of dodge, but no one is listening. Which is the problem that continually plagues Max throughout the game.
Principal Wells doesn’t listen when she tells him about Nathan’s gun. Victoria doesn’t listen when Max warns her that Kate is being driven to the edge. Chloe sure as hell doesn’t listen whenever Max tries to warn her off from doing something stupid.
Even with the power of time travel at her command, even Max can’t force someone to listen if they don’t want to hear. Hell, even with the ability to manipulate time, Max struggles to make even one person’s life better in this hellhole of a town. So is it really surprising that deep down inside, she might want to destroy it?
The vortex is symbolic of time and time travel of course, with every event in time spiraling outward to affect everything else around it. But if you dive deeper you’ll find it’s also symbolic of life, a rather poignant observation of our lives in this existence.The vortex is symbolic of frustration as well, but only in so much as life is frustrating.
If you were to stand in the center of a vortex and looked out, all you would see is a whirling mass of air, debris and mist. You wouldn’t be able to see outward or move in any direction other than where the vortex was already heading. You would essentially be trapped inside.
In a way we’re all in the center of our own personal vortexes, we just can’t see them. It’s easy to begin to feel trapped just as Max and Chloe do in their lives. We’re trapped on the inside of this swirling maelstrom of life, at the mercy of random circumstance and the inertia of events that were set in motion long before we existed. The honest truth of the matter is that we have very little control over our lives, and all we can really do is to create our calm little center in the middle of the vortex.
And if we’re lucky, we find someone to share that center with us.
Whether my theory about the tornado’s origins is correct or not, unraveling the symbolism behind many of Life is Strange‘s recurring images has been a wonderful challenge. I’m looking forward to continuing my exploration of the game’s themes and imagery, so stay tuned for more articles.