Life is Strange, Episodic Video Games, and Tension

Delay is an inevitable part of episodic video games. The difficulty of this kind of delay, as opposed to that of TV shows, is that it is irregular, has not yet been standardised. It has now been more than a year since the last episode of ‘Kentucky Route Zero’. ‘Life is Strange’, thankfully, has been relatively punctual with its releases with at most a few months separating each episode, but it still has not been consistent. Even the regular week gap between episodes of ‘True Detective’ is long enough for me to begin to forget what has happened in the last episode, and so with a gap of a month or longer I have forgotten most of the particulars of the story. Every episode then begins with a period of remembering and of re-familiarisation. The difference in this process between a TV show and a game is much like the difference between taking a week off of running and taking two months off; it takes longer to get back to where you were. Delay, of course, is not only utilised inter-episode but is used in the episodes themselves. Episode 4 of ‘Life is Strange’ uses delays to create tension in a rather muddled way.

In ‘Mimesis’, Erich Auerbach contrasts the creation of tension in Homer’s’ The Odyssey’ and the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. In ‘The Odyssey’ there is a lessening of tension through the frequent digressions which take over the reader’s attention. There remains an element of waiting, of suspense, but the reader is directed away from the soon to be announced reveal, the catharsis, to another story, and so this delay no longer feels like a delay, like waiting, but is rather an active moment. In contrast, there is not easing of tension in the story of Abraham and Isaac until the very end, the absolute moment of catharsis. Auerbach suggests that this difference is due to the different effects that each text is hoping to deploy; Homer aiming to comfort the reader with entertainment, while the Old Testament with its ideological aims wishes to convince the reader of its truth, and so tension is used for rhetorical ends.

In episode 4 of ‘Life is Strange’, there is confusion between a lessening of tension and increasing it, particularly in the end of the world party event. This moment follows the seemingly revelatory discoveries of the ‘dark room’ and of Rachel Amber’s body, with Nathan Prescott the suggested murderer. Max and Chloe consequently go to the party in search of Nathan, Chloe’s intention, it seems, being to murder him. The end of the world party is then heavily juxtaposed in tone to what has come immediately before and what may be still to come. The party partially offers a sort of Homeric relief of tension. The reoccurring gag of Max saving Alyssa from getting hit returns here, as one can rewind time to stop her getting knocked into the swimming pool. It is a familiar moment that serves to comfort, to offer comedic relief and an escape into a time before Rachel Amber’s body was found, a time of possibility and greater hope. The party itself, moreover, offers humorous aid from the grave tension. As with almost all video game representations of parties, this party is an absurd caricature of flailing limbs, grotesque contortions, solo shufflers and empty spaces. It is a great example of one of my personal grievances with the game; none of the A.I characters seem to be aware of each other. They are either set dressing or simply waiting there for Max to come and address them, but she can only ever talk to one person at a time, anyone else around Max’s conversational partner remain resolutely silent. Perhaps they are just shy.

Yet, throughout this scene the relief that the comedy allows is never able to settle, to last. In near enough every conversation Max is told that she looks serious –there is not enough nuance in her model to convey this and so we must be told – and so we are reminded what has come before, why she is serious. Every conversation offers the option of asking about Nathan Prescott and so the goal, the anticipated confrontation, lingers on the periphery, waiting. Yet, once we overcome the blockade and enter into the VIP area, where it is assumed that Nathan must be, it is quickly apparent that he is not there. Will he come? There are more people to talk to. You can warn Victoria about Nathan, if you wish to. Nathan isn’t there. You must leave, there’s nothing else to do. The game stalls, pauses. Mr Jefferson is announcing the winner of the everyday hero’s competition. Max and Chloe wait, Max wants to see who won. Mr Jefferson asks for a drum roll, the clichéd symbol of anticipation, but as he makes the announcement that Victoria has won he undoes any idea of there every being any tension by commenting that the result is no surprise, everyone knew Victoria was going to win. This appears as a self-reflexive comment on the nature of tension or suspense: it is only worthwhile if the result at the end is unexpected.

From here Max and Chloe return to the junkyard, to Amber’s corpse, to Nathan they believe. You follow Chloe –Max uses her phone as a flashlight, a nice touch—she goes right to the body, they both face it, something moves behind them, Max is injected with something, is dazed, Chloe exclaims something in shock, she is shot, is dead, it is Mr Jefferson, the end, black, next time, Max is in the Dark Room, trapped by Mr Jefferson, the end. It is a breathless last five minutes to the episode. In the junkyard there is no pause, no jokes; only taut tension, and the shock of an unexpected reveal. The tension does not end, however, we are left wondering what is next for Max; Chloe can’t be dead, surely? Now there is only waiting, a month or more. I feel a great sense of excitement as to what will come because I do not know, too many threads are loose, but this will only last a few days more. I will forget, will become hazy of the details, and when the next episode arrives will have to be reminded, reacquainted. This is why I write. To get something solid down, some approximation of my feelings in the immediate wake. This writing eases my own tension, satisfies that which the game has not yet satisfied, controls and lessens the unknown.

Now to forget.