Everything on the table: this was initially going to be a piece on queer identity within Life Is Strange and the way it framed that beautiful transformation when it happens in late adolescence. I’ve spoken about my personal experiences growing up queer in terms of gaming before, both in my struggles with an eating disorder and my first crush, and while Ashley B handled the queer reading of the indomitable Chloe Price with aplomb, I felt like it was time I approached this game from a different angle.
All of this will, admittedly, collate into something a bit more silly in terms of subject matter, but I feel very strongly that queer stories are absolutely integral to the growing pains of games culture. If you haven’t guessed already (spoilers: it’s in the title!), I’ll be discussing the very clear parallels between the Twilight films and Dontnod’s Life Is Strange.
Yes, you actually just read that. I’m not merely referring to the fact that both works of fiction are set in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, or that they deal with the supernatural framed within a high school setting. I could have just as easily tossed Teen Wolf into the mix if that were the case (a show many Twihards have since migrated to, and deservedly so).
I’d like to focus my attention more on the prominent character parallels, issues of supernatural power imbalance and loss of agency, appropriation of Native American culture, and, of course, some good ol’ fashioned queer teenage angst. Still confused? Don’t worry. I’d suggest approaching this piece the same way I did when I finally sat down to type it out. That is, with a sense of humor and just a little bit of a side-eye. If that sounds, like, totally ~amazeballs~ to you, let’s get to the fun part.
Please keep in mind that as of this writing, only three episodes of Life Is Strange have been released, thus, I’ll only be referring to those. I’d also like to note that this will by no means be a Twilight bashfest. For all its flaws, too often the stories marketed toward women — and in particular, teen girls — are dismissed as frivolous and unworthy of celebration. You can slam dunk those tired stereotypes into the trash before you proceed in this space, thank you!
Subverting the Straight YA Romance
At first glance, several immediately obvious comparisons can be made regarding simply Life Is Strange‘s two main characters and their vampy counterparts. Max Caulfield’s parents are living in Washington, functioning as supportive, yet distant authority figures fairly common to YA novels. We only get glimpses of their narrative through text messages and presumed phone calls (more from her mother than father), but they’re still present, just like Edward Cullen’s adopted parents are.
In stark contrast, Chloe Price comes from a broken home. While her parents aren’t divorced like Bella Swan’s are, she does suffer an upset in her environment, much like Bella’s move from Arizona. Chloe has the distinct pleasure of having to deal with her new stepfather’s presence, who she actually refers to as “Officer Dickhead,” a clear parallel to Chief Swan. What’s more, she drives a beaten pickup truck that looks bound for the junkyard, draws attention to herself simply for being perceived as ‘different,’ and chooses who she wants to spend her time with despite the warning of her parents and Max’s worsening reputation at school. Hello, #TeamChloe merchandise!
Still, Chloe makes many assertions that Max takes the starring role in Life Is Strange. “Since you’re the mysterious superhero, I’ll be your faithful chauffeur and companion.” But it’s actually Chloe who jumpstarts the plot into action. Without her, there wouldn’t be any game to play apart from rewinding every class until you earned straight As.
This is a form of deflection that Bella also utilizes, although to a different degree; “I’m absolutely ordinary — well, except for bad things like all the near-death experiences” (210). Chloe doesn’t deny she’s a unique person, but she does deny her worth and place in the narrative, which is a sentiment Bella shares. These are two women at the cusp of adulthood struggling with their agency as well as their identity, which is what makes their stories all the more important to share. Funnily enough, while Bella is a transfer student, Chloe is a drop out. Both their futures will ultimately ride upon the decision to leave what they knew for something else — something new.
Where Bella’s fascination with Edward unravels into a fervid teenage romance, so too is Chloe inexplicably drawn back to Max despite everything. They seem to share an understanding rooted in more than mere kindred spirits: their fates keep crossing, and whether for better or worse, they’ve decided not to fight what’s been pulling them together all along. It’s particularly delightful to have the chance to experience this well-honored tradition through the lens of a queer story in popular culture. All too often, our stories go untold, and while Twilight rocketed to fame for its depiction of a straight romance, Life Is Strange might very well bring much-needed attention to a romance between two women.
Tampering With Time & Loss of Agency
During Edward’s early days as a freshly bitten vampire, he spent much of his time attempting “to attack the worst people of society, thinking that, as long as he was serving justice, it would not matter that he was feeding on humans” (Wiki). Like Edward, Max also has a powerful supernatural ability, one that she actively uses in the pursuit of Nathan Prescott, a fellow Blackwell student she views as a threat. It’s hardly up for debate whether Nathan is utterly revolting or not, but what’s interesting to note here is the drastic power imbalance at play.
Every young person gifted with supernatural powers must at once realize and come to terms with the fact that their incredible abilities do not give them the right to intervene and ultimately alter the natural course of life.
By the time the third episode concludes, you’ve saved Chloe’s life a total of two times. But was she supposed to die? Are you tampering with fate in such a way that will yield nasty consequences? We already know the answer to this after you save her father and fast-forward to the present day. This is an important theme found littered throughout all supernatural lore: the well-trod practice of altering the lives of ‘average’ or ‘normal’ people, which results in strange, often disastrous new possibilities. We see this in Rosalie, who never wanted immortality and must now live with the consequences of Carlisle’s bid to change her on a whim. Max’s choice to trip the fire alarm — much like Edward’s split-second decision to intervene in the parking lot — unravels the fabric of time, and certainty as Arcadia Bay knows it.
And yet, because these are fantastical circumstances rooted in the real world, our angsty teens must find real places of refuge to chill out. There are clear markers in both the films and games for this. In Twilight, the meadow represents a safe space in order to shelter Bella and Edward from the rest of the world. But at the same time, a place of shelter can just as easily serve as a place of danger, given Laurent’s attack in the second film.
The lighthouse in Life Is Strange yields a similar purpose: to shield and to harm, depending on the situation. When our star-crossed queer ladies meet here for the first time in a long while, they’re grasping for each other’s hands as if the other might float away. It’s where Max first confesses her newfound abilities to Chloe. It’s also the spot Chloe escapes to find solitude at the end of the second episode, as well as the eye of the oncoming storm Max has been continuously tormented by from the get-go. Every teen romance needs a safe haven, right? We’ll see just how safe it really is as the story continues.
Native Americans in the YA Pacific Northwest
For all its well-meaning stumble into presenting an actual, playable queer story in a game, Life Is Strange shares much of Twilight‘s problematic depiction of Native Americans. Both works of fiction are glaringly, near-exclusively white, but I’m hardly the first person to say so. I would, however, merely like to point out that at the very least, Dontnod seems to be holding true to the very real inequality many indigenous people are faced with today. We’re told that Blackwell Academy was “founded on land belonging to an unspecified Native American community” and that “the land was then ‘shared’ with the colonizers” peacefully (Wiki). Aside from that, we get little to no realistic picture of what it’s like for indigenous people to live in Arcadia Bay. Does this mean Life Is Strange was attempting to highlight a very real issue in this country? Probably.
Except, as we’ve seen with the rise of the #GamesSoWhite hashtag and subsequent discussions thereafter, “historical accuracy” holds no water when the vast majority of games — and all of popular media, for that matter — exclusively feature the stories of white cis people. Just because Life Is Strange seems to maybe-sort-of be touching on the fact that rich institutions like Blackwell Academy only briefly mention their Native American roots with a passing comment (not to mention that “spirit animal” line, ugh), that’s just not enough anymore.
We need indigenous students attending the school, directly represented in the narrative, or that’s just shitty. Plain and simple. Twilight‘s depiction of Jacob Black has had very real consequences on the Quileute tribe, indigenous people who actually exist despite being featured in a fictional Forks. All too often, Native American cultures are systematically lumped together and even erased entirely from the sprawling Pacific Northwest YA narrative, and that’s just not cool.
I won’t speak to the personal experiences of POC playing Life Is Strange, however, since I’m a white woman. For that, I strongly encourage you to watch Shareef Jackson’s insightful Let’s Play critically analyzing the game’s glaring lack of representation while also highlighting what positive diversity is present. Life Is Strange may be weaving together a good queer story, but they could use a bit of help to bring much-needed color to a pretty washed out scene.
Not feeling it? That’s fine. This piece was mostly just a slice of fun anyway, though I couldn’t resist tossing in a few comparison screen captures below. Did you notice any more parallels? Let me know in the comments!