How ‘Life Is Strange’ Built a Video-Game Romance for the Tumblr Era

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When I was a kid, the single epic romance in video games was the never-consumated love between hero Cloud Strife and flower seller Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII. It was emotionally powerful (if you were a middle-schooler), but when Aerith died at the hands of Sephiroth, the game’s nemesis, that was it. Not a lot of room for maneuvering in the inevitable fan fiction.

These days, the best romance in video games is Chloe and Max, the stars of Life Is Strange. Theirs is no less emotional a relationship, but it is a lot more realistic. And it’s also more ambiguous, both as a relationship and as a narrative — meaning it’s built for the Tumblr era of fandom, in which a game’s ability to be the foundation of emotional investment and fan fiction is as important as its gameplay. The best part? Life is Strange’s gameplay doesn’t suffer at all. 

The plot is fairly simply: The protagonist, hipster photographer Maxine Caulfield, or Max, has to find out what’s going on with sudden disappearances and suicide threats at her Pacific Northwest boarding school in a town called Arcadia Bay, and in the process falls into an ambiguous semi-romance with her best friend, the blue-haired punk Chloe Price.

As should be expected in the age of Tumblr and Livejournal, the game’s fandom has run with the intentional ambiguity, naming the (relation)ship “Pricefield” and creating mash-note fan art of the pair. This kind of fandom creativity is already common, of course — see One Direction. But in Life Is Strange, online shipping and debate about which characters belong together is a priority for the game. It moves toward the precedence of shipping over the game’s actual story, and I’m not looking back. 

The creators of Life Is Strange, Dontnod, have encouraged fandom rather than limiting it, or relegating the community to an afterthought. Part of that choice reveals itself in the structure of the game. It just so happens that Max can travel back in time by looking at the photographs she takes, allowing players to explore different narrative paths and correct actions that they don’t want to figure in their final game. The writing of Max’s internal monologue also makes room for ambiguity. That her character is sympathetic but not particularly deep turns her into a blank slate for players of any age, though I suspect teenagers aged similarly to the characters will find it the most potent (it’s a video-game YA novel).  

As ridiculous as Life Is Strange can sound, it’s a masterpiece of ambient storytelling. There’s one moment when, after Max and Chloe break into the school late at night and end up swimming in the pool (in my play-through, at least), the two wake up at Chloe’s house in the morning and a period-perfect Bright Eyes song starts playing. At this point, the player doesn’t have to do anything — the camera angle cuts around like a Sofia Coppola movie and the song continues to its end, a perfect slice of life and an idealized version of a high-school memory. 

Moments like these make the Chloe-Max ship catnip for Tumblr. Games’ stories are ever more open for players to bring to them what they will, no matter the creators’ intentions. Life Is Strange is smart in anticipating that desire and, like a great novel, making room for it.

Life Is Strange comes to a head as players realize that Max’s time-traveling is actually exacerbating the problems around her rather than solving them. (In case you’re planning on playing, you should be aware that spoilers follow.) During the climax, Max must make a choice: Save Chloe, or let the semi-symbolic hurricane destroy all of Arcadia Bay and everyone in it. This choice has been rendered in the fandom as “Bae or Bay?” Choose bae, Chloe and Max escape. Decide to save humanity, and Max and Chloe kiss as the hurricane swirls, before Max turns back the clock and allows Chloe to die instead. It’s not quite straight-up romance, but it’s slightly more than high-school BFF, hence the fandom’s fervor. 

While the game itself stays admirably far away from “fan service,” players have done with the characters what they will, which as usual includes explicit fan fiction, among more mundane examples. Searching “Chloe x Max” on Tumblr reveals a world of shippers who cosplay as Chloe, sketch the two making out, and capture GIFs from the game itself. 

Players are still debating which choice was “right.” Saving the whole town yields a longer, more developed ending, but why abandon true love? Others whine that Warren, the wan male love interest who has a crush on Max, gets short shrift on attention from the girls, perhaps just like the players themselves did. Talk about sympathetic storytelling. I first chose to save Arcadia Bay, but of course, once I knew the ending, I went back and played through the other option.

It’s this flexibility that makes Life Is Strange something special and new, like a TV show that we actively participate in, not just comment on on Twitter. Unlike the case of Final Fantasy VII (Aeris is never coming back from the dead, sorry), the game widens the possibilities of its story rather than limiting them, letting players complete the experience on their own. Is there any other way to tell a story in the era of social media?