Be Kind, You Can’t Rewind: Trauma & Mental Illness in ‘Life Is Strange’

Life Is Strange

[Trigger warning for mentions of ableism, suicide, and parental abuse.]

Quick, off the top of your head: who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder? What kind of person do you think of when I say to describe someone with PTSD? How does it develop? If you described military veterans, particularly veterans from the U.S., you wouldn’t be wrong. Many people who have spent time in combat are diagnosed with PTSD, and our modern understanding of this term is rooted in words like “shell-shocked.” But you’d also be missing entire swaths of people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder every day of their lives and have never so much as glanced at an enlistment form.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes:

“Any life threatening event or event that threatens physical harm can cause PTSD. These events may include:

  • Sexual abuse or violence (does not require threat of harm)
  • Physical abuse
  • Natural or man made disasters, such as fires, hurricanes, or floods
  • Violent crimes such as kidnapping or school shootings
  • Motor vehicle accidents such as automobile and plane crashes”

Elsewhere, they also note that witnessing a friend’s suicide can have the same effect, and that overlapping symptoms between conditions like PTSD and depression, among a score of others, are commonSo let’s talk about what we say when we have a conversation about trauma.

On one hand, I completely understand why the Life Is Strange fandom hyper-focuses on David and his experiences in combat when this game is placed under a lens of examining traumatic experiences. Given that none of us, as fans, actually wrote the game and can flawlessly diagnose characters we didn’t create ourselves, it’s typically simpler to have a baseline experience to draw from; media often links PTSD and living with trauma to military service, so the appeal of David for discussions like these are pretty clear.

With other characters, namely those like Chloe or Nathan, we enter a realm where the only stories of theirs explicitly about mental illness are rooted in the violence those mentally ill characters enact, or Kate, where stories often place depressed and suicidal people as figureheads and martyrs rather than fully-realized people. Both types cause an unsympathetic or overly sympathetic distance from these kids as people.

On the other hand, we don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of a character’s deepest, darkest thoughts, and most trivial backstory details have inclusive, non-ableist conversations about behavior and symptoms present within the text we’re given. It’s with regards to trauma and all of its associated mental illnesses that I think Life Is Strange does something pretty unique: Max, how she talks about it, and how the narrative responds to her talking about it.

She continuously reaches out to Kate and, depending on character choices, can push back a little bit or a lot against the social hierarchy that’s killing her friend. By default, no matter what the player chooses, she puts herself at great physical risk by forcing her powers to work the little bit they can when she has the chance to save Kate. When confronted with decisions to side with either Chloe or David, as a part of the rewind-optional mechanics, Max—ever-aware of both David’s trauma, which Joyce and David himself frequently remind her of, and Chloe’s grief, which Max is inherently attuned to on her own—is never quite sure what the correct path is.

Life Is Strange

Because, for all her best efforts, Max is not any more infallible than anyone else in town. Her exposure to a gradually more and more dangerous environment is wearing on her, and that’s not an effect the player has any choice in. This is doubly true for Chloe, who has no ability to rewind and fix her mistakes like Max does and no ability to step away from the situation like the player can. Both of them are living the best and worst week of their lives in first-person, with Rachel’s disappearance eating at Chloe and a natural disaster hot on Max’s heels.

Chloe and Max’s missteps, understandable as they are, still get highlighted by the narrative for being exactly that: mistakes. When Chloe gets aggravated that Max takes Kate’s phone call, completely unaware of who Kate is, a later episode shows her apologizing and explaining that she felt guilty about her anger. While they both start to seriously unpack the details, Max openly works under the assumption that Nathan is their lone culprit, which gets turned on its head at the end of the same episode.

As human beings who (probably) aren’t time-traveling protagonists, none of us have the benefit of never making a single mistake. We’re all Max on that roof, fumbling through life trying to do the right thing, and making the wrong choice out of ignorance more often than we’d like. So just like I understand Chloe and Max’s willingness to blame Nathan or unawareness that earlier choices are crucial to saving Kate’s life, I can understand why people talk about characters undergoing trauma or experiencing mental illness the way they do.

We all make mistakes.

But when you talk about PTSD or characters who display symptoms that could be marked as any kind of mental illness—Chloe, David, Kate, and Nathan are the four I most frequently see brought up in these conversations—I’d like to issue a permanent reminder that these conditions are not contained within fictional worlds. People with PTSD aren’t, by default, grown men who treat the teenage girls in their lives badly. People with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder aren’t automatically gun-toting teenage boys or teenage girls who are doomed to die. People with depression aren’t metaphors for wilting flowers and ‘stained innocence.’

Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange is one of those few games that pushes back more strongly than most against mass media’s shallow, trope-riddled ideas of mental illness. It’s precisely because every character feels especially human, and so many decisions end up being so important that Arcadia Bay strikes such a strong chord with its fans. Believe it or not, this applies to fans who are teenagers or adults with PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia—this applies to fans who can see all the callous and pessimistic things other fans say about mental illness and realistic responses to traumatic events, just like Kate could see all of the things Blackwell students wrote about her on walls, posters, and bathroom mirrors.

But Kate believes in forgiveness and redemption, and I believe in all of you. I know unlearning bad habits can be a slow process, especially because there are dozens of other things we’re all trying to fix about ourselves, and I’m definitely no exception. So please have more consideration for the fact that, as much as Nathan’s medication or Kate’s suicide might be plot-relevant, real people take those medications and real people attempt suicide. On a Venn diagram, those circles overlap with people who play Life Is Strange, and the demographics of people with PTSD are broader than you’d expect, because the demographics of every mental illness are.

You’ll make mistakes while trying. You’ll screw up. I make mistakes and I screw up every single day of my life. We’re all only human, and we all can’t work miracles. But it’s always worth it to try.

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4 Comments on “Be Kind, You Can’t Rewind: Trauma & Mental Illness in ‘Life Is Strange’

  1. It’d be interesting to see an updated version of this post after the release of Episode 5. It’s clear that Max is suffering from PTSD because of the events in the Dark Room and seeing Chloe die and (possibly) seeing Kate die. And, I think the Nightmare sequence at the end of the game perfectly illustrates Max’s feelings of self-doubt/hatred, her issues surrounding the men in her life, her own personal fear of abandonment (not even touching on Chloe’s). Actually, just an analysis of the Nightmare sequence would be phenomenal.

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  2. I have to say I absolutely loved in Ep. 5 where Max gets Nathan’s voicemail. I felt so bad for Nathan (even in the first episode). Yes he did bad things (killing Rachel, drugging Kate), he was also being manipulated. His obvious need for love and attention he could not get from his family, was exploited. Him hearing voices, being controlled by those voices, his father, Jefferson. He had rage issues to be sure, and “hurt people, hurt people”. Even if he hadn’t actually hurt anyone, by sheer consequence of him (assumedly) having schizophrenia or a shizo-affective disorder, or even just hallucinations made him “easy” to demonize and make the “bad guy”.

    What is so sad is real people get manipulated in these ways and do horrible things they never meant to do or don’t even remember.

    PTSD was a huge theme in this game which I appreciated as someone who has CPTSD. They also really touched on multiple ways it can manifest. From David’s service, to Kate’s assault, Chloe losing her father, Chloe losing Rachel, Chloe after her car accident. Max of course dealing with the acute trauma reaction from being in the dark room. Even Samuel was very upset about all the creatures around the bay dying.

    I agree that the Nightmare sequence would be interesting to analyze/talk about in depth.

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