SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to go in-depth on the plot of the game, “Life is Strange” and I will be spoiling a major plot point
TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide
I don’t play a lot of games and I rarely finish the games that I play, but I played the hell out of “Life Is Strange.” It puts you in the head of a high school student, Max Caulfield, who finds out that she has limited control over time, and can “rewind” the last few minutes that she’s experienced. While she is learning to develop her powers, she also realizes that there’s a mystery going on at her prep school that is far darker than she and the player initially realized.
It’s an amazing bit of world building as you get drawn further and further into Max’s life. Dontnod, the developer behind “Life is Strange,” makes the world of a high school teenager something I wanted to learn more about, rather than sprint away from, which what I did when I was actually a teenager in high school. The player learns more about Max’s life and the school: the cliques, the teachers, the staff, the buildings, the town around it. The player learns about Kate Marsh, one of the few people that Max considers a friend. Kate is being badly bullied and it’s only at the climax of the second chapter of the game that the player finds out that Kate has been pushed to the very brink.
Max finds her standing at the top of the dormitory, preparing to jump. At this point in the game, the player no longer has the ability to rewind time. Every decision Max and the player make is permanent. As the player, I had multiple opportunities to talk Kate away from the ledge, to back down. And I failed. Kate stepped off the ledge. I played out the rest of the chapter, turned off the game and stepped away. I was done with the game.
Three years ago, I was at work late, hanging out with a friend of mine. We often stayed late, usually working until we started drinking. For the last few months my friend had become more abrasive, more meanspirited, harder to be around. That night, he was better, more like he had been, and we talked, but I really just wanted to go home and get out of there. We went downstairs, so he could have one more cigarette break before we called it quits for the night.
He talked about personal problems he was having, issues at home, problems with the job, problems with the balance between the two. I answered the best I could, but I don’t know, now or then, what kind of advice someone gives in that kind of situation. I’m not good at that kind of talk, about that emotional, personal talk where friends ask for advice for problems I would never even admit to having.
I left after saying what I could, left him behind the building smoking a cigarette, as I texted my wife to let her know I had finally broken free and would be home soon.
The next day, I came to work and found out he’d killed himself.
What followed was three years of second guessing, three years of doubts, three years of what I could have done, what I should have done, what I could have said and what I shouldn’t have said. I was one of the last people to talk to him before he died. Was there something I could have done? Anything?
It took almost three years for me to absolve myself of that guilt. I had to face the fact that there was nothing that I would have done differently. That my words and actions that night did not lock him onto that course, that he had been locked onto that course already. It took time. It took therapy. It took support from my wife and family and friends. It eventually left a part of me that was equal parts sadness at losing my friend and rage at what he did, but the guilt was more or less gone.
I got to go through that exact same scenario again with “Life is Strange,” albeit in a more dramatic fashion with thunder and lightning and a slow motion zoom onto Max’s horrified face that must have mirrored my own expression as Kate Bush hit the pavement.
So I had to take a break from the game. It took a week or two, but I did start playing again. I would like to say that I felt some sort of drive to face my fears or that I felt like I owed it to myself, but the truth is that I had sort of agreed to be on a podcast talking about the game and I needed to finish it. And I am very glad that I did.
The next chapter of the game spends a lot of time dealing with the aftermath of Kate’s suicide. Everyone in the game, at least the ones who are friendly toward Max, go out of their way to tell her she did nothing wrong, that there was nothing she could have done differently, that Kate made her own decision in the end. As absurd as it may sound, especially to people who don’t play a lot of games or, at least, a lot of more modern games that explore areas like teenage suicide or the impact of trauma on a family, “Life is Strange” helped me in a way that only a video game could have.
It put me right back in an emotional spot that I thought I had dealt with already, that I thought I had resolved. And because it’s a game, it’s my own action that drives the narrative forward. I have to propel Max through the same emotional arc I pushed myself through and there was something cathartic and healing about having that experience, of having that distance and being able to get through it all in an hour instead of three years.
In the end, by the time I finished the third chapter, I felt better, more…healed, I guess is the only way I can put it. By the very unique nature of a video game, I was able to help myself in a way I wouldn’t have thought was possible. I was safely able to re-examine something I thought I had buried, and buried deep. I could pick apart at Max’s feelings, at how Max was dealing with the situation. It was easy to forgive Max for not saving Kate, to understand that Max was not to blame for Kate’s death and, by forgiving her, I was able to forgive myself.
I’m writing this because maybe someone will stumble across this and find a way to help themselves, too.
Guilt is a hell of a thing to undo and there are ways of doing it. Being one of the people left behind is never easy, it’s not easy, but it can get better.