Queering of Age: Max Caulfield’s Transition & Mine

Life Is Strange

The idea of “coming of age” is one I always find interesting because of how often it springs up in fiction, and how it’s not nearly the same in the real world. In real cultures, you have celebrations like bar/bat mitzvahs and quinceañeras, as well as countless other cultures across the world that have parties or celebrations for a young man or woman at a certain age when they’re deemed to be an adult. This is far different from an RPG where a player is thrust upon the world when handed their first sword, or when a Padawan becomes a Jedi in Star Wars.

Now, let me make this clear: I’m white and have lived in a relatively non-religious family. For the first 22 years of my life, I lived as a fairly bland white guy. My experiences with the whole idea of coming of age thing are probably going to be vastly different than those who may come from other cultures than me. 

In relation to me living the first 22 (closer to 22 and a half, really) years of my life as a bland white guy, I’m trans. Coming of age has meant absolutely nothing to me, and then within the past year—when I’ve started to make real, substantial changes to my life in terms of transitioning—the phrase, and the idea of “coming of age,” has started to mean everything to me. Now more than ever, I feel like I’ve attained this coming of age ideal that I never had before, that’s never really meant anything to me besides narrative devices used in video games, movies, and television shows.

It’s why I grew attached to characters I hadn’t before. Before, I used characters as vehicles to shield myself, whereas now I identified stronger with these characters. People like Usagi Tsukino and Rise Kujikawa were characters I saw myself in, rather than vessels to inhabit and turn my personality towards as a defense mechanism. And this year came probably one of the biggest inspirations to me: DONTNOD’s Max Caulfield from Life Is Strange.

Max Caulfield was someone I could instantly see myself in upon taking control of her in the game. Just your average girl who dabbles in a lot of different pop culture and video games, movies, television shows, music, books, etc., and doesn’t necessarily fit in many places. An average young woman in almost every way possible: average grades (a 2.9 GPA as shown in Episode 3), not really fitting into many groups, as noted by the characters she floats between like Warren, Alyssa, Dana, and Kate. Average clothes and a love for analog photography, selfies, and little references all form a huge basis for Max’s character, alongside the adjective “hipster,” which is placed upon her at every turn.

Even after she gets her powers to rewind time, she’s still a very average young woman. It’s something that really stuck out to me, because here is this average young woman, not too different from me, who’s making these incredibly tough decisions, whether positive or negative, and learning more about herself throughout the game. Her powers allow her to do extraordinary things—to save lives, to help others—but at the same time, she is still a young woman in the world who is struggling to figure out her role in life and what everything means.

It’s something that I’ve learned to face these past few months while pushing to start being who I am. Suddenly being faced with something new that is monumentally changing your life is but one part of coming of age. It’s what follows after that really makes the difference in who you are, that process, like a typical “hero’s journey.” The other thing that strikes out significantly to me about Max Caulfield and her coming of age is how queer-coded it is at times. Two of the big parts that make me think about this are the sudden discovery of her powers, as well as the reintroduction of Chloe Price back into her life.

Life Is Strange

The powers aspect feels almost self-explanatory, in a way. It’s the start of her metaphorical coming of age. Her ability to rewind time forces her to figure out the mystery behind Rachel Amber’s disappearance and what’s happening in the quiet coastal town of Arcadia Bay. No longer just an 18-year-old at a private arts school, she has to go out of her comfort zone far more than she ever had in order to solve real, big problems. No more playing pirate, and while she may take selfies on a frequent basis, finding the best one is no longer her biggest concern. Solving these mysteries, figuring out her powers (who she is, who she has become), and balancing all of that with being an upstanding person and surviving the school week become these real, looming dangers throughout the game.

Then, of course, there’s one Chloe Price. Chloe helps thrust Max into adulthood, albeit at first unwittingly and unknowingly. From her “death” being the catalyst of Max’s powers, to Max quickly experimenting with those powers and figuring out the mysteries she has to, Chloe is the one who brings Max up to speed on what the harsh realities are of being an adult. Chloe is also where the queerness of Max’s coming of age comes into play.

Early on, we hear Max talking about how she’s crushing on Mr. Jefferson, the dreamy young hipster photography teacher she came all the way back to Arcadia Bay for, or how she likes skater boys, but they don’t like her. Yet most of this seems to vanish when Chloe comes back into her life, with most mentions of it from there on out being Chloe teasing her about her crush on her teacher. Despite this, Max is constantly tripping over her friend’s radical new makeover, thinking about a new style for herself, but deciding against it. As each episode goes on, Chloe teases Max more and more, which becomes part of their dynamic, up until the third episode where Chloe teases Max to kiss her, and she does, because, let’s be real, that’s totally a canonical moment in the series.

It feels like at that moment, Max realizes her queerness. That she maybe does realize that she can be in love with a woman. A woman who also happens to be her best friend. It’s from around this point that Max takes a sharp turn in her growth as a person; becoming the “force of nature” that Chloe tells her she’s becoming, and truly shining as an adult. One who has these amazing powers, who is starting to realize what they can accomplish, as well as what they’ve already have accomplished. There’s also being an adult who may have a budding attraction to Chloe.

Life Is Strange

It’s similar growth to what I’ve started to experience in coming out as a trans woman in numerous online circles. They’re realizations of who you are, of having to grow up quickly and start making your way in your world, of growing attached to the people around you, the people who show you kindness and help you figure out who you are even when things are unknown and make you feel uneasy. Granted, there’s a vast difference between people who may not be cis or heterosexual compared to those who may have time powers like Max, but there’s a similar idea of the sudden necessity to grow up, even when you aren’t ready to. To have tough conversations, to face tough decisions and choices, to find out who really cares about you, who you can lean on, and discovering more and more of yourself as a person—how you treat others, how you interact, your thought processes. For me, at least, I grew twofold when I started to figure out who I was back in 2013, and far, far more since then.

Throughout each episode, we’ve seen this type of growth with Max and then some. Mastering her powers has been one thing—rewinding time, to stopping it, to diving into old photos—but what’s been an even bigger indicator of her evolving as a person has been in the ways she sees the world. How her thoughts have evolved, how she’s gone from interacting with people from the first episode to now, and the types of choices she’s had to make, as well as facing the fallout of those choices. Chloe goes from being the friend that Max is struggling to reunite with and please in the first few episodes, to being Max’s everything, even across timelines. We see a point where Max has to make a tough decision regarding her life, even if it is short-lived, and the promise of protection that comes from it, the renewed vigor when she becomes dedicated time and time again to finding Chloe’s friend, to helping her out at any cost—and all of this is in the face of suspension or even criminal charges.

There’s only one episode left of the first season of Life Is Strange. With the stakes being incredibly high from where the cliffhanger of Episode 4 left off, it’ll be interesting to see where Max goes from here and what she’ll have to do. This last episode will presumably be the end of Max’s journey, where she’ll hopefully be able to have some peace in her life. It’ll be the culmination of the past week she’s had to face and the struggles she’s had to overcome as she’s been forced into growing up and taking on tough challenges that have shaped who she’s become. The end of her coming of age “party,” so to speak. And, hopefully, with her final foray into adulthood, we’ll see where Max lands not only as a person, but also with her feelings towards Chloe.

Want to read more from me? Let’s chat!

Twitter: @sloanerisette & Tumblr: @idol–games

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One Comment on “Queering of Age: Max Caulfield’s Transition & Mine

  1. Pingback: This Week in Video Game Criticism: Against 'flow' designGamedev FM | Gamedev FM

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