[Tw: Discussions of suicide and bullying. There will also be spoilers.]
For those of us who have finished the four available episodes of Life Is Strange, we know that the game touches on a lot of heavy issues. From dealing with loss, coping with depression, and struggling to fit in, the game captures the hardship that a lot of adolescents and young adults face on a daily basis. While playing through Episode 1 and 2 within hours of receiving the game from a friend, I found that bullying (both on and offline) and suicide were major plot points within those episodes.
Kate Marsh was bullied for her religious beliefs and for being an abstinence advocate. After allegedly getting intoxicated at a Vortex Club party, footage of her actions from that night were released without her consent to YouTube and spread through Blackwell Academy (we find out later that she was drugged). There are little warning signs throughout the first two games that give hints as to what Kate is planning. She stopped playing the violin and hanging out with her friends. Victoria and Kate throw crumpled up paper balls at her during class, and the whiteboard outside of her room is defaced. She has a strained relationship with her mother, and feels a tremendous amount of shame and guilt.
For me, I saw a lot of myself in Max Caulfield for a number of reasons. Back when I was 18 and still in high school, I was into my third year of photography. I frequented thrift stores so that I could dress myself differently than my peers and sought out old, vintage cameras to drool over. I even received an instant camera and some film at one point during the school year. There’s a wall dedicated to all of the photos that I’ve taken of my friends and I—very similar to the “Max Caulfield Photo Memorial Wall.” I wasn’t confident in my photographs, and I wasn’t exactly “popular.” I was incredibly shy and doubted myself constantly. Max’s inner dialogue and own insecurities mirrored my own. I sympathized a lot with Kate, but found more of myself in Max.
Even though I related more with Max, I came to realize that I saw myself in Kate after I realized she was being bullied. The graffiti that littered Blackwell upset me, as did the awful comments that Victoria made about Kate in the bathroom. When I entered high school, I remember hearing about how a student’s nudes got leaked and were circulated throughout the entire student body population. Kids were literally pushed aside or told to go “kill themselves” because they were “useless.” This was before Twitter or Facebook became popular platforms for bullying.
I appreciate how Dontnod incorporated cyberbullying into Life Is Strange because it’s still fairly “new” territory for video games. I thought it was interesting how you, as Max, could choose to follow the link to Kate’s video if you wanted to. It mirrors the thought process I’m sure a lot of people have when faced with whether to ignore something inappropriate that breaches someone’s privacy or not. Should I look at it? Or should I leave it alone? That kind of player agency (although it seems trivial) is something that we have to deal with offline as well.
Cyberbullying isn’t being taken as seriously as it should be. In-game, it causes Kate to jump off the top of the girl’s dormitory. In real life, it drives teenagers and adolescents to hurt themselves similarly or self-harm.
Although I was never personally a victim of cyberbullying, I was definitely a recipient of old-fashioned word-of-mouth gossiping. Nowhere as bad as Kate, but playing through Episode 2 made all of those feelings come back with such force that I had to take a break. Watching Kate sitting in her room, alone and in the dark, was really hard to do. Although Kate is a bunch of pixels on a screen, her experiences mirror the reality that many, many people go through.
Depending on your actions in-game and how you choose to speak to Kate, she can walk away from the ledge and won’t go through with her suicide. She’s sent to the hospital to recover and all is well. The students that were previously harassing her are now expressing their condolences on social media and sending her text messages and gifts.
I wasn’t sure how to take that. A part of me felt bitter and mad. Unlike Kate, I don’t think I would have been as forgiving. I think people who abuse others online and in person don’t understand the severity of their actions until a suicide attempt is made. The students of Blackwell certainly didn’t, and that’s what made me upset. With every interaction that I had with Victoria, I found it incredibly hard to be civil and nice to her. Even though she had her own baggage to deal with and was most likely being mean to combat her own struggles, I didn’t care. A life is not something to be toyed with.
There are resources if you’re contemplating self-harm or suicide. If you need support, there are safe places for you to seek it. Please take care of yourself.