[TW: This post contains discussion of suicide]
This playthrough we managed to do it. I played with my sister at my side and some extra knowledge in tow, and we climbed one of the greatest emotional mountains Life Is Strange threw at me: we convinced Kate Marsh to step down and not kill herself. And it was emotional as all hell, on a very real level, the same way failing to save her the first time was.
I’ll admit that though it’s piled with so many of them it almost feels a little crowded at times, one of the things this game does well is play with huge, relevant issues facing adolescents in modern society, without being condescending or overtly moral about it. There’s Kate’s crushing distress as she’s bullied mercilessly over a compromising video, Chloe’s isolation and rebellion in the wake of her father’s death and loss of her best friend, dorm-mate Dana was pregnant, Taylor evolved from a two-dimensional mean girl pawn when she revealed her mother was currently hospitalised, Nathan is struggling with mental illness and the desire to be respected by his peers after being rejected by his family… it’s a mess. A very real mess.
I’ve seen innumerable people talk about how important this game was to them because it connected with them on some deep level, and for many the reason is that they recognised what main characters Max and/or Chloe was going through. I can see it too—Max is a great heroine in that she stands alone as her own defined character as opposed to being a player self-insert, but her coming-of-age experience is such that it’s easy to slip into her skin and relate with her. I’ve been a quiet unsure artsy kid who wants to be appreciated but doesn’t want to make a scene, I’ve suffered the poisonous silliness of high school girl cliques, I’ve been confused and curious about my sexuality, I’ve had a relationship with my friends’ parents like Max has with Joyce. I’ve talked a loved one down from the brink like Max talked to Kate.
I understand Max and what Max is going through, and through that, I feel like Max would understand me, and as a player/audience member/person taking this piece of fiction to heart, I feel like in that I’ve found a little safe corner of the world. I was also profoundly affected by the roof scene with Kate, especially since the first time I failed and she died. That scene is terrifically done in terms of suspense and tension because Max’s time travel powers are gone, and all that she—and the player—is left with is herself, and what she can say. If you mess up, you can’t rewind. The stakes are raised, this is suddenly not a fantastical teen romp anymore: it’s like real life.
I still don’t know if Kate’s storyline was handled with perfect grace (but is anything, ever?) and I can also see why it was controversial. My main issue remains that it’s not really Kate’s story and she’s effectively a marker to move the mystery forward as well as hit Max (and the player) with cold hard reality and remind you not to take things for granted now that you control time. Kate’s also one of the characters in the game who doesn’t grow beyond her initial archetype, and remains a perfect innocent cinnamon roll victimised to show that awful people are awful.
If she lives, she’s out of the story and healing offscreen, apparently flooded with apologies and adoration from the student body. I would have liked to see more of her recovery, more of her side of the story, more of her complicated relationship with her family and faith in the wake of this. If she dies, it’s a tragedy, but if she lives, based on the usual stigma around self-harmers, she’ll be something of a freak. Or has everyone truly realised the error of their ways? Either way, there’s no doubt she’ll be haunted for the rest of her life by the fact that she was drugged, recorded then thrown into a personal Hell of slander and harassment all without her consent or knowledge. You don’t just bounce back from that, and I hate to see her gift-wrapped in a happy glow.
Then again, this is not Kate’s story. It’s Max’s story, and as much as I’d like to be able to flesh out every character to perfect closure-inducing complexity, the narrative unfortunately needs to focus on what she means to Max, and what saving her or not being able to save her means to Max. Whether she lives or dies, Kate’s storyline and the way you interact with it teach Max and you a valuable lesson about consequences. In fact, I’d say this arc does a hell of a lot better a job answering the “this action will have consequences” warning than the finale, but that’s another discussion. Basically everything you do over the course of two episodes impacts Kate’s decision to step down or not, even seemingly random and innocuous things—did you answer your phone when she called? Did you wipe the gross message off her board? Did you notice that she seemed happy with her sisters and antagonised by her mother when you looked at photos and letters around her room?
Playing through a second time knowing what was coming, of course, we took extra care, and could interpret the clues that we may not have the first time round. It all comes together, both past decisions and gathered information, to form a valuable real-world lesson: you do not know what people are going through. You have no right to make assumptions and join in laughing at them or dismiss their feelings. When kids end up on rooves, metaphorical or literal, people are always so quick to gasp “oh, but they always seemed fine! I had no idea!” Well, the message here is that you need to be more aware that the perfectly wholesome fun-loving people around you may be suffering, even if you just think what you’re doing is harmless petty fun.
You can’t know, and you can’t know what effect your actions will have, maybe until it’s too late. So for heaven’s sake, don’t be an asshole. Be there for your friends. Don’t spread inflammatory crap and gossip at someone else’s expense. Reach out and offer a smile or a compliment or a word of support, because even if how you act doesn’t seem significant to you, it could be a final invisible straw that makes or breaks someone’s whole emotional state.
And in that, yes: Kate serves her martyr’s purpose, because God damn does this message come across effectively. It felt true to life, piloting Max through that conversation on the roof. I practically melted with relief when we were successful and Kate collapsed into Max’s arms instead of tumbling into space. I would still love for Kate’s story to be told in a better way, so that all the people who have been Kate can find themselves, but for someone who has been Max, the whole thing was an emotional rollercoaster that lodged itself somewhere between my ribs and remained there for days after I first experienced it.
And for people who have never been in that position, well, now with the power of the immersion brought on by interactive media, they kind of have been, and perhaps they’ve gained a new understanding. Or at least, in their involvement with the game, have opened up crucial dialogue about suicide and bullying that might not have been there before. Maybe in that dialogue people have come forward saying yes, I was Kate once, but now I’m okay, and people who currently feel like Kate have looked to them as a beacon and felt a little reassured that they are not alone and it can get better.
(As for people who identify strongly with Chloe, unfortunately apparently they’re doomed no matter what decisions the Max in their life makes, and that poses more of a problem from a narrative-audience-interaction side of things, but that is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish for a whole ‘nother post.)
If you’re one of the Kate Marshes of the base, please, remember to be strong, that it will be okay, that you are not alone and you can seek help. To the Maxes, do your best, you are strong and wonderful too, and I hope you use your power wisely and well.