Saturday, July 30, 2016

Why "Life is Strange" Screwed You Up


Edit (8/1/16): I have received some questions regarding contacting me. I offer online therapy to California residents through munn.breakthrough.com.

Well, that was intense. I can only assume you're here because you recently finished this game and are trying to figure out how you're going to pick yourself up out of the puddle of your own tears and move on with you life. Hopefully I can help.

As a psychotherapist, I find all emotions and thoughts fascinating. I always seek to understand why we feel the way we do in any given situation. In my opinion and experience, no feeling is ever invalid or meaningless. Feelings are information. A strong emotional reaction to something tells you something about who you are and potentially what emotional baggage you're carrying.

Sometimes our emotions are triggered by fictional stories and characters. Maybe you had a hard day and a sad car insurance commercial causes you to break out in tears, or perhaps you just finished a long book that you've been reading over the last month and you suddenly feel like something's missing in your life. Regardless of what it is, it's entirely normal for our emotions to be triggered by fictional stories and events. 

Enter Life is Strange, one of the most well-written, well-executed, choose-your-own-adventure style games I've ever played--filled with rich, complex, and lovable characters. I hadn't read anything about this game before playing it, so I went in with zero expectations and zero preparation. I thought it was going to be a lighthearted story with a happy ending. I was wrong.

Upon finishing the game, I felt a sadness that I never felt from any fictional story, let alone a video game. I've played other RPGs in the past with emotional endings, but nothing came close to this. By the end of the game, I felt like I had suffered a significant loss. I initially blamed it on my tiredness (I played late into the night,) but it turned out to be more than that.

Upon waking up the following day, I was amazed at how much of those emotions had stuck with me. I missed the characters and the environment. I was replaying the ending in my head and spent a lot of time listening to the soundtrack of the game throughout the day. I was embarrassed to tell anyone who hadn't played the game (i.e. everyone in my life) how I felt, because nobody who doesn't play video games can understand what a profound art form they are capable of being. So, off to the Internet I went.

Over the next few days, I read a few articles and posted a bit on the subreddit for Life is Strange. I quickly found out that an overwhelming number of people felt very similarly. Many reported feelings of depression, emptiness, and anxiety. Some people even claimed to be emotionally hungover for months after playing the game. At this point I was convinced that there is something different about this game. What about it makes it so impactful on people's lives and emotions? After a lot of thought and discussion, I believe I have a pretty good answer.


Responsibility


When you're watching a movie or TV show, you're passively taking in the story. Whatever happens, happens, and that's all there is to it. You don't get to rewind the show and tell the characters to do things differently. It's completely out of your control, and therefore you have no responsibility for the events that transpire.

In Life is Strange, you're responsible for whether Max eats an omelette or a waffle. Nearly every choice in the game is made by YOU. This creates a feeling of responsibility for the outcome of the story that is simply impossible to reproduce in any other medium. At the end, you have to make what I consider to be the most difficult choice ever presented in a video game. When the choice is made, you sit back and watch the results--the results that YOU caused. And holy cow does it sting.


Identification


Although you are fully aware that the characters in the video game are fictional, there's a part of our psyche that still begins to identify with the person whom you are literally controlling in almost every way. You decide where Max goes, what she looks at, who she speaks to, and what she says. It's hard not to feel like you are Max or at least a part of Max while playing this game.


Character Development and Relationships


The developers of this game stated that there are over 13,000 lines of dialogue in this five episode game. That's five episodes. A typical feature film averages around 1000 lines total. Granted, you don't hear every single line on each playthrough, but that's still a lot of talking and a lot of interaction with the characters.


A great deal of time is spent getting to know these characters and how they relate to each other. The characters are so rich, complex, and well-written that you can't help but start to feel attached to some of them. I remember genuinely adoring Max while playing this game. She's a good-hearted, vulnerable, and honest (unless you choose otherwise) person. Yes, she's fictional, but her qualities are qualities that we value in humans. To see these qualities portrayed so beautifully can create a longing to have them in ourselves or in those we are in relationship with.

The relationship between Max and Chloe was just superbly well done. There were ups and downs, thrills and disappointments, and a profoundly deep connection that you can't help but have an emotional response to witnessing. Regardless of what ending you choose, the end of the game means the end of experiencing that connection, and it's a loss.


Realism



This game touches on some very real issues including suicide, bullying, grief, loss, PTSD, loneliness, violence, you name it. It is not a lighthearted game. Anyone with personal experience around any of these issues is very likely to feel even more of a connection to the game, and thus a stronger emotional reaction to its events. The developers even placed a warning and link at the bottom of the title screen showing players how to find support groups if the content of the game is too triggering.


What Your Reactions Say About You


All of these qualities ultimately turn this game into an incredible tool for reflecting on your own life, which is where I believe the emotional reactions come from. If you are lonely, then it is very possible that witnessing and participating in a relationship as deep and profound as Max and Chloe's will trigger in you a longing for that in your own life.

Perhaps you've been the victim of bullying? If so, it's very possible that watching the horrors that Kate has to endure will trigger some intense feelings in you. Or maybe you've lost someone whom you loved dearly. There is a ton of loss in this game that can very easily bring those feelings bubbling back to the surface of your mind.

Ultimately, the sadness you may be feeling after playing this game is not really about the game. It's about you. What hit you the hardest? What/whom do you miss after finishing? What did you experience in the game that you wish you had in your own life? What did you experience in the game that you wish you didn't have in your own life? These are all important questions to ask. The game is simply a tool that shines a light on potential wounds that need tending to.

But be sure to be realistic about this. This game is realistic, but it's also a fantasy. If, for example, you feel a longing for the kind of relationship Chloe and Max had, I'm sorry to say that that just isn't something that is real, healthy, or sustainable. Their level of connection came in the face of an apocalyptic tornado. Max saved her life six times in a week. That's not exactly realistic.

I think it's perfectly fine and healthy to feel sad or empty for a while after playing this game. It's very immersive, and it's written in a way that creates a very strong attachment to the characters and the environment. That being said, if you're feeling any kind of prolonged depression or sadness due to this game (or for any reason), or you're feeling any urge to harm yourself or isolate, it is always a good idea to seek the help of a professional counselor or psychologist.



5 comments:

Anonymous said...

After reading your article i realised just what a impact LiS has had on me, i felt a profound sense and feelings of remorse that i have only felt once or twice in my life, at first i felt that something was wrong with me but over the last few weeks i have been able to look back on my own life experiences both good and bad with a much clearer eye. there are somethings in the game that hit close to me (personal loss, accepting my sexuality , and permanent disability) and the game certainly made me think what if ? , but also it has helped me realise what good things i have in my life now ( good friends , a loving partner and a brighter future) , how ever it has taken weeks for me to shake the sense of grief and loss i felt playing this game , your article has helped me realise im not insane and these feelings are normal and will fade over time. thank you

lily rhodes

Donald Gunterman said...

I used laughter to cope with this game. Go on youtube and paste this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8W-7UT-UN7w

Anonymous said...

just finished this game a few hours ago..i feel so empty now

Donald Gunterman said...

Watch the video I posted. Humor is a great coping mechanism.

Donald Gunterman said...

I mean I didn't make the video, the link I mean.