With the three-part prequel to Life Is Strange dropping soon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the original game and what made it so great. Specifically, I’ve been thinking of all the revolutionary ways that the series portrayed female characters. And look, I’m not saying that Life is Strange was a perfect bastion of diversity and inclusiveness – notably, most of the characters are white and the series manages to throw in the dead lesbians trope. But problems notwithstanding, this game does several fairly radical things when it comes to its portrayal of gender that I would like to see more in games. And it is not just that the main character is a girl – it’s the specific way that female characters and gender are portrayed throughout the game.
With that in mind, here are five revolutionary ways that Life Is Strange portrays female characters.
Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for all five episodes of the original Life Is Strange game.
1. It Doesn’t Depict the Female Characters Through the Male Gaze
Sexualized female characters are especially common in video games when compared against other forms of media. This makes the extent to which Life Is Strange does not sexualize its female characters notable. It does this partly by not dressing the female characters in scanty, unrealistic costumes. It does it partly by not using overtly sexualizing camera angles. It does this partly through not having its female characters thrust their chests and butts in the direction of the camera every three seconds. Finally, it does it by giving the female characters realistic, human proportion in a relative variety of body types.
The characters in Life Is Strange actually dress in ways that fit their personalities. Low key Max usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. Rebellious Chloe dresses comfortably with a slightly punk vibe. Good girl Kate dresses conservatively. The mean but intelligent Victoria dresses a bit fancier than the other characters.
There’s nothing wrong with an occasional female character dressing sexy or owning her sexuality. But female characters in video games are often depicted in sexualized ways regardless of their personalities or the situation. In one memorable scene in Life Is Strange, Max and Chloe strip down to the underwear and go swimming. Yet, despite the fact that we are seeing two teenage girls swim around in their underwear, the scene never feels like it exists for the purpose of a presumed straight male audience. This is because the focus of the scene is on the growing relationship between Chloe and Max and not on their bodies.
2. It Doesn’t Repeatedly Bombard Us With Stereotypical “Girly” Stuff
Often, when a piece of media focuses on girls or women, it will cover itself (sometimes literally) in a lot of bows and pinkness in order to show us that it is TOTALLY FOR GIRLS. This is most obvious in kid-oriented media where the girl-led stuff will often quite literally feature hearts, glitter, bows, and a truly obnoxious amount of pink.
With media that is aimed at more teen girls or women, the feminine coding is a bit more subtle. But there will still often be unnecessary and out-of-the-blue conversations about fashion, make-up, relationships, periods, etc. We will see female characters bonding while getting their hair done or painting fingernails at a slumber party.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with being a “girly” girl and some of the female characters in Life Is Strange are quite feminine. The problem is that creators often seem to believe that a piece of media that revolves around girls or women somehow must include lots of stereotypically girly scenes and images. This allows the focus to be taken away from more important things such as the story, the characters, and the setting.
Life Is Strange utterly avoids this type of problem. The female characters fall all along the spectrum in terms of adhering to traditionally feminine dress and style standards, but the focus is always kept on this great story about a girl with a confusing new power.
3. It Replicates the Creepster Feelings that Women Sometimes Get Around Men
I know this sounds strange on the face of it, but as I was playing Life Is Strange, I kept getting that unsettling, creepy vibe from many of the male characters that I’ve often felt around men I didn’t know very well in real life. The best explanation that I’ve ever seen for this feeling is the idea of “Schrodinger’s Rapist.” Schrondinger’s Rapist is the idea that although most men aren’t rapists, a woman has no way of knowing beforehand whether the strange man she is interacting with is a rapist. Therefore, women must treat all strange men with caution because all strange men are potential rapists.
Life Is Strange replicates this effect by focusing the story around the disappearance of a young, female character and putting the player in the shoes of another young, female character. Because of this dynamic, I found myself constantly questioning the motives of all the characters around me – but especially of the male characters, I think. As was playing this game I knew that a young, attractive woman was missing and possibly dead. Max, the point-of-view character, is new to town and doesn’t know anyone terribly well in the beginning. The causes me to question whether each new character that I come into contact with is the one who kidnapped the missing Amber.
As the game goes on, I began to notice that pretty well all the main male characters gave off an unsettling creepster vibe. This vibe was very obvious with violent bully Nathan and Amber’s former drug dealing boyfriend, Frank. It was almost as obvious in Chloe’s overly zealous stepfather, David Madsen and in the friendly, but odd janitor with his weird obsessions. But as more time passed, it began to manifest even in characters who initially seemed relatively normal – and I began to ask yourself uncomfortable questions about all these characters. Is the shady school principal hiding more than general corruption? Is Max’s favorite teacher, Mr. Jefferson, a little too eager to get chummy with the teenagers that he teaches? Isn’t Max’s friend Warren’s obvious interest in her a little weird?
The thing that gives all this its general creepy vibe, is not that the male characters are all murderous psychopaths (they aren’t), but that you can’t be sure with any of them. Maybe Warren really is just an awkward teenage boy with a crush. Maybe David Madsen really is just a well-meaning, but jerkish dude who doesn’t get teenage girls. Maybe Mr. Jefferson really is just a passionate teacher who likes to connect with his students on a personal level.
Or maybe not.
I can see how this aspect of the game may feel a little too real for some women, but I found it to be a refreshing exploration of the fear and unease that the specter of male violence cultivates in many women. I’ve never played another game that managed to recreate this feeling. Rape and violence against women happens in many other games, but often from the perspective of male love interests or family members or worse — from the perspective of the perpetrators. Even if we see it from a woman’s point of view, the “bad guy” is often cartoonishly evil from the outset. There is no need to wonder if the very nice, but slightly weird guy who is helping you out is really a rapist. Life Is Strange, on the other hand, forces the player to ask him or herself these types of questions.
4. It Presents Selfies as Art
This may seem like an odd thing to talk about in relation to gender, but if you’ve paid any attention to the overblown panic about “selfie culture,” then you know that critiques of selfie-taking is often gendered. The practice of selfie-taking has become heavily associated with young women. Based on some of the critiques of “selfie culture,” you’d think that people taking pictures of themselves was the downfall of civilization as we know it. This way of thinking presents selfie-takers as vain, self-obsessed, shallow, and unconcerned with the world around them.
There’s an element of slut-shaming to all this, since many of the selfies that get critiqued are on the sexy side. But even very non-sexual selfies get criticized and the moral panic over such a harmless practice has always struck me as bizarre. It’s not as if dudes haven’t been making every form of communication all about themselves for thousands of years. A self-portrait, autobiography, or confessional song by a “singer/songwriter” is arguably much more self-obsessed than a picture that your high school friend snapped of herself and stuck on Instagram.
Life Is Strange offers up the ultimate defense of selfies. Max is a female selfie photographer who takes “retro” selfies on an old Polaroid instant camera. She’s positioned as an artist in the narrative – a budding young photographer going to an artsy high school who hopes to be a professional photographer one day. Although Max takes many photographs of the world around her, the type that she is most known for are her selfies. Within the game world, few people seriously questions the idea that Max’s selfies are art.
As the game goes on, we see that selfies are Max’s window into understanding her place in the world. Selfies are a way for Max to look back on her life and make sense of her experiences. This becomes even more obvious as Max’s powers begin to bleed into her photography. Max ultimately wins an award for a selfie which depicts her studying a wall of pictures that she has taken. This positions a selfie of Max trying to understand the world she’s captured and her place in it as both an important piece of art and important to the storyline.
5. It Focuses on Relationships Between Women
I think that this is the simplest, but also the most important thing that Life Is Strange does in relation to its female characters. It gives us female characters who have varied, complex relationships with one another. This shouldn’t be a rare thing, but it is. Heck, if there’s one thing that the Bechdel-Wallace test shows us, it’s that even having female characters speak to one another can be a rare thing.
There are dudes in Life Is Strange. There are actually almost an equal number of important male and female characters. But it is the relationships between the women that provide the emotional core of the story. It is in Max and Chloe awkwardly trying to re-establish an old childhood friendship. It is in Max’s rivalry with “mean girl” Victoria who vacillates between vulnerability and cruelty. It is in Chloe’s love for the missing Amber and Max’s complicated feelings about Chloe and Amber’s relationship. It is in Max befriending (or not) the troubled outcast Kate. It is in Chloe’s complicated relationship with her mother and her feelings about her mother remarrying her jerky stepfather.
But most of all, it is in how Max and Chloe’s bond deepens as Chloe helps Max deal with her new powers and Max helps Chloe deal with the loss of a friend. If they were a girl and a boy then players would immediately understand their relationship to be an epic romance. If they were two boys then players would understand it as an epic bromance. Since they are two girls, their relationship feels like something we’ve never seen before. As I played this game, I was torn between shipping Chloe and Max and wanting them to remain friends because, while same-sex romantic relationships are rare in games, girl friendships that are as deep and well developed as Chloe and Max’s are almost equally as rare.
In the Future …
I hope that Life Is Strange: Before the Storm manages to capture some of greatness that the original possessed in the realms of storytelling and character development. But most of all, I hope it continues to portray its female characters in ways that are thoughtful, original, and complex. I’m a bit wary of prequels, but if the game manages to do that much, then it will have done a lot.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is available here:
For XBox One
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