Life is Strange: The Vortex

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly a year since my original review of Life is StrangeI 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

The Vortex

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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.

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The vortex club is a bigger problem than the tornado.

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.

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Like this old woman, left homeless on the street, Arcadia Bay is dying. Perhaps the tornado was simply finishing what the people in Arcadia Bay started.

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.

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A vortex of ants near a dead bird. She’s not exactly being subtle here!

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?

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From the horse’s mouth.

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.

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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.

 

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Life is a Strange Journey

Life is Strange is an amazing story that I recently got to experience thanks to the generosity of one of my readers, Martin, who gifted me the game on Steam. The only catch? To do a review of it.

Which wasn’t much a catch, because Life is Strange is an amazing story filled with memorable characters and a unique time traveling mechanic that requires you to think outside the box to solve most of the puzzles. It’s also a game that explores important themes and shows you that life is a strange journey for all us, and sometimes we all need a little help to get through it.

Life is Strange:

A Storytelling Review 

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Life is Strange is the story Max Caulfield as she returns to her hometown of Arcadia Bay, Oregon to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. It’s a game that fills its cast with typical trope characters: the bitchy popular girls, the fat loner, the crazy rich kid, and every other character you can think of. It’s beginning is a giant cliche as Max walks down a long hallway filled with students while monologuing about her life to an admittedly great song.

It lures you into making assumptions about characters and let’s you think you know where this story is heading… and then completely challenges all your expectations and turns the tropes on their head. In most adventure games, you have to explore your environment to find the solutions to the puzzles. In Life is Strange you have to explore the characters around you, talk to them, in order to find many of the solutions. It’s a game that rewards you for interacting with its NPCs, something more games need to do. And most importantly, it’s a story that makes you examine yourself just as much as the characters you meet.

I fell in love with this game less than twenty minutes in when we’re introduced to the Blackwell’s groundskeeper, Samuel. Max’s internal monologue states right up front that people find him creepy, and Max tells us that he isn’t stalker creepy, but more X-Files creepy.

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His spirit animal is a squirrel guys… this is seriously the nicest guy in the game.

Yet despite Max’s reassurances, as soon as Samuel spoke I said to myself, “oh yeah, he’s creepy as fuck.” And I hate that that was my gut reaction to him, because it says something horrible about me. It says I’m willing to judge a person based on his appearance and voice, and I don’t like that one bit. I think of myself as a tolerant and nonjudgmental person, but when confronted with someone who doesn’t conform to societal norms… I acted like a total Trump. The groundskeeper ends up being one the kindest and quite possibly wisest character in the game.

That’s when I fell in love with this game, because I think the best stories are the ones that make us look at ourselves and consider how we might act. Games have the unique advantage of actually putting us into those situations and seeing how we act. Life is Strange held a mirror up and I didn’t like what I saw in the reflection, and it made me want to change that about myself. So now when I meet someone in real life that acts or sounds like Samuel, I hope I remember the monster I saw in that reflection and treat them like Max treats Samuel; with dignity and kindness.

Which is really the theme and message of the entire game; treat everyone you meet with dignity, respect, and with the understanding that they’re all facing struggles of their own.

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Shockingly, treating people like crap doesn’t pay off for anybody.

One of the most shocking moments in the game comes when a viral video of Kate Marsh hits the internet. Kate is one of Max’s classmates, and she’s incredibly sweet. She’s a shy girl that keeps to herself, to an even greater extent than Max, and she’s very religious. As a shy person in school myself, I can attest to the fact that often times shyness is taken for arrogance. People assume you don’t hang out with them because you think you’re better than them, when in fact you don’t hang out with them because you’re afraid they don’t want you to. Combined with the fact that Kate is very religious and the rest of the students at Blackwell assume she’s an arrogant, holier-than-thou stuck up bitch.

So when a viral video pops up of Kate making out with several boys at a party, everyone is quick to pile onto the poor girl. Because now they can label Kate a hypocrite, and there’s no worse kind of bullying then self-righteous bullying. People wrote horrible messages on her dorm room panel [Will Fuck 4 Jesus being one that stuck out in my mind as being thoroughly disgusting] and posted links to the viral video everywhere they could. As Max, I did my best to erase these disgusting remarks and links, and helped Kate when I could.

But no… that’s not entirely true. One morning things were clearly coming to a head for poor Kate, she ran crying out of Mark Jefferson’s class after he refused to help her and she was keeping to herself far more than usual. Earlier that day using my time bending powers, I’d explored her room and seen terrible messages from her family about how she had disgraced them and shamed herself. I knew she was in pain, I knew she needed help.

But I was with Chloe at the time, playing with my time powers.

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Her mind went to exactly the same idea mine would if I had time powers…

So when Kate called while I was with Chloe, I chose to ignore it. After all, it’s a video game, what’s the worse that can happen?

Kate Marsh Jumps
OH
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MY
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GOD

 

This is one of the most powerful scenes in the game and an unfortunately accurate portrayal of what leads people to suicide. When Max sees Kate leap off the roof, her sudden burst of emotions freezes time its tracks, giving her enough time to reach the roof and try to talk Kate down.

I tried to reach her, I really did. Unfortunately I tend to get tunnel vision playing through a good game and rush towards resolving the main plot, skipping a lot of the optional stuff so I honestly didn’t know Kate very well when I tried talking her off that ledge. And because of that, I ended up metaphorically pushing her off that ledge. Kate felt utterly alone and because I didn’t know her well enough, I couldn’t provide the human connection she desperately needed.

And she jumped.

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I’m so sorry Kate.

What I absolutely love about this game is that it’s entirely possible to save Kate, and you don’t have to find some secret McGuffin or complete some sidequest to do it. All you have to do is invest a little time into talking with Kate and get to know her, so that when you are on the roof with her, you can show her she’s not alone. Having metaphorically been on that roof a few times in my life, I know that the most important thing in those moments is knowing someone out there cares.

And if you do manage to save Kate you meet her at the hospital, where she’s already feeling much better. Because suicide is always a spontaneous decision (with the exception of end-of-life euthanasia that is) and the reality is, the desire to die never lasts very long. It’s one of the most sensitive and accurate portrayals of suicide I’ve ever seen, and the first one I’ve seen in a video game (at least the first one that didn’t involve a zombie bite.) The game is worth it just for this sequence alone.

I found myself so invested in the characters and their relationships, I actually found the mystery plot surrounding it to be almost dull by comparison. The mystery revolves around the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the Vortex Club, where girls are getting drugged and abused (including poor Kate, which leads to the viral video). Max is also haunted by visions of a massive tornado destroying the entire town of Arcadia Bay. Honestly I think the game should have spent just a little more time on these plots, because they feel almost like afterthoughts compared to experiencing the interpersonal relationships between the characters.

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The big reveal at the end of the mystery is that Mark Jefferson, the famous photographer turned teacher, the reason Max came to Blackwell, is actually the serial killer she’s been hunting. This was a brilliant twist because it makes complete sense in hindsight. Mark Jefferson’s creepy fixation with Max’s entering his contest, the weird photographs he was famous for that were plastered across the campus, and even his personalty: his Ted Bundy like charm designed to make someone lower their guard.

Max manages to stop Mark Jefferson, but only by doing multiple warps through time and space, and by the end time itself begins to unravel. The huge tornado that Max had seen tearing through Arcadia Bay is the result of Max’s continuing use of her powers. Leading to one tragic, but ultimately inevitable decision.

Max has to return to the moment it all started… and let Chloe die, rather than change history.

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Two moons is nature’s way of saying you’ve really fucked something up.

Or you can choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and kill thousands, get a 30 second clip of Chloe and Max driving through town, and roll credits. I honestly have no idea why this ending is in the game, clearly the team didn’t like it since they put no effort into making it emotionally fulfilling or offering any sense of closure. Maybe this was a decision by some soulless corporate suit that wanted to appeal to a wider audience or something, I don’t know. The fact this crappy ending is in the game is almost insulting, and tarnishes an otherwise shining jewel of storytelling.

The confusing thing about Life is Strange‘s two endings is that it really didn’t need it. I hold up the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as one of the finest storytelling experiences in gaming, and it didn’t need two endings. Instead Life is Strange should have done something similar to the Walking  Dead: offer a single ending but with two small but still incredibly emotional choices. The Walking Dead let you choose to let Lee turn into a zombie or have Clementine mercy kill him. Life is Strange should have had the same kind of choice, and I’m honestly surprised they didn’t offer it. It should have offered us the choice of sacrificing Chloe, which they gave us…

Or sacrificing Max.

I was expecting this option to appear and was rather shocked when it didn’t. Nathan was already so keyed up that all Max would really have to do is jump out from behind her cover and scream at him, and he would have shot her on instinct. Yes she would be changing the timeline one last time, but Max would also die, and with her, the power that was destroying time.

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Honestly I think sacrificing Max would have been the more tragic and emotional ending. Not to mention making more sense. After all I don’t think trying to save Chloe was the reason time began unraveling and created a huge tornado. It was Max’s continuing use of her powers and ripping time a new space-hole in the process. And while Chloe was indirectly the cause by forcing Max to continue saving her, Max is the real problem. Even with Chloe dead now, how long until Max uses her power again?

At several points in the storyline, Max uses her power instinctually to protect herself or others. What’s preventing that from happening again?

Still all that said, as long as you pick Sacrifice Chloe as your ending, the final act of Life is Strange is still emotionally satisfying. Would I have preferred something a bit less conventional and less of carbon copy of The Butterfly Effect? Of course. An ending that challenged my expectations just as much as the early chapters did would have made Life is Strange a narrative on par with the Telltale’s The Walking Dead, but as it is, it falls short.

Yet I have to admit that the final scenes of Life is Strange hit all the right emotional notes and provided closure to the series, which is all I really look for from an ending.

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I’ll admit, the appearance of the blue butterfly brought a few tears to my eyes…

The ending isn’t what I would have liked to see, but Life is Strange is still an amazing game filled with memorable characters and a great message we should all take to heart:

Life is a strange journey for all of us and we should all try to help each other through it as best we can. Because one day we’ll all find ourselves staring out into an unstoppable storm and when we do, we should have someone at our side…

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Even if it’s just to hold us until the very end…