'Life Is Strange' Presents Broken Parents as Full People, Not Villains

Over and over, the melodramatic series has returned to a surprising theme about parents who have second thoughts about becoming parents at all.

Sep 28 2021, 1:00pm

Warning: This article will completely spoil Life Is Strange: True Colors.

There is a moment towards the very end of Life Is Strange: True Colors where the game's central character, Alex Chen, can publicly grant a character forgiveness or condemn them, moments after a devastation revelation. Jed Luncan, a JK Simmons-lookalike and father-esque figure you've spent hours warming to because of how kindly they've treated Alex since arriving in the mountain town of Haven Springs, is unambiguously a monster. 

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It turns out they've been knowingly lying to you and your brother, the person who drew you to Haven Springs and who dies in True Colors' opening act, the entire time. Jed helped run the town mine, and when an accident prompted the cave to flood, Jed was a coward and left your father, among others, to slowly await death by drowning. Worse, he acted like the incident was a hero's story, and leading folks out of the mine then became local legend.

"The truth hurts," says Alex in this moment. "Sometimes it's so awful you think you're gonna break. But when you come out the other side and you're whole and free and still alive, then you'll finally know how strong you really are. I see the truth about you. You hate yourself. You hate what you did in the past. You hate what you've done to keep it secret. And the more you deny that hatred, the worse it grows. I know who you are, I've seen the worst parts of you."

And then there's your two options presented: "But I forgive you" or "And I condemn you."

On paper, the choice is obvious: he's a bad person. But one of the core emotions running through me when I play a Life Is Strange game is that I just want everyone to be happy. If I make the right choices at the right time, maybe things can turn out okay. What the definition of "okay" is, however, is in the hands and heart of the player, because part of what's darkly appealing about these games is that tragedy is common, and there really aren't clean and happy endings. (This is a series where in one ending, the two main characters ended up together but their town was destroyed, and in another, two brothers are separated and living different lives.) All the characters shoulder burdens. In Life Is Strange, you just keep living, while a twee indie song plays over sweeping camera shots and your eyes start to leak.

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Crucially, the central theme of True Colors is empathy. It's even tied up with the goofy and ill-defined power Alex has, allowing her to peer into the emotions of others and experience the world from their perspective. (It's cooler in theory than in execution.) But empathy is an ethos that's driven Life Is Strange from the start. It's not a series about saving the world, it's stories about understanding the interiority of others and reacting accordingly, which in many situations involves understanding how frequently others are victims worthy of grace, too.

Which is why I got swept up in the moment, swept up in the Life Is Strange-ness of it all, and forgave Jed. It immediately felt hollow, and I went to sleep restless, knowing it was the wrong call for me, for Alex—for Jed, even. The next day, I turned on the game and tried to pull a Max Caulfield and rewind time, but obviously, the game had already saved my progress. I'm not alone in having made this choice, either; the game's stat tracking shows the vast majority of people chose to forgive Jed, too. A story built around empathizing with the pain of others is naturally going to lead people in the direction of forgiving the pain they've inflicted, as well.

"What possibly could have moved you to decide to forgive him?" wrote critic Stacey Henley for TheGamer earlier this month. "Is it just that Alex seems like a nice person and forgiveness is nice? There’s nice and then there’s goddamn doormat, and Alex is far too good a character for you lot to let everyone walk all over her."

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You're not wrong.

I have an explanation, I think, but it requires revisiting 2018's underrated Life Is Strange 2.  There's a moment towards the back half that's gone largely unremarked, probably because Life Is Strange 2 itself has gone largely unremarked, despite being a strong entry that bravely left behind the original's characters in favor of a different but also good story

In Life Is Strange 2, two brothers go on the run after an incident with the police results in the death of their father and a police officer getting injured. One of the brothers has superpowers, but as with the rest of Life Is Strange, the supernatural is a means to a storytelling end. Because for my money, the most powerful moment in Life Is Strange 2 comes when the older brother, Sean, confronts their mother, Karen, in a motel room. 

Karen left her family—her husband, her two sons—when they were younger. The word I wanted to use there was "abandoned," because the intensity of my reaction to this is fueled by my own parenthood. I have two daughters. Life can be hard, and while I love both my kids, I don't always like them. But that's the nature of raising children, and that burden is its own blessing. But it's also true that my instinct to use the word "abandoned," despite Karen's sons otherwise growing up happily with their father, is because society shuns and shames any parent who expresses second thoughts about their children after they're born, because we associate parenthood with the erasure of the parent. Now, it's only the child that matters.

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The conversation between Sean and Karen is a deep and nuanced conversation between a mother who loved her family but wanted a life without them and a son who, understandably, harbors anger over that decision. It gives Sean space to express that long held anxiety and point it directly at the person responsible for it, and gives room for Karen to explain herself. 

I recommend you just watch this entire back and forth, and keep in mind that Sean's attitude and level of empathy towards his mother hinges on some of the choices the player makes:

Karen: Making your own choices doesn't mean you can never fool yourself, Sean. After I had Daniel, you were about eight and Esteban's garage was getting busy. There was so much going around me yet somehow I just felt that my own life was just slipping away. Felt like an empty wheel. Sean, it was the hardest decision I ever made. I knew I might never see you all again, but I took that responsibility.
Sean: So you just dumped us so you could be "free"?
Karen: Yes, that's exactly what I did.
Sean: You're just so fucking selfish.
Karen: I didn't have a choice, Sean. We only have one life, and I didn't want mine to be spent in regrets. For years I've fooled myself, thinking I'd find satisfaction into what society expected me to be, and that was my mistake. I hope someday you can understand that, but I never stopped caring about you. For what it's worth, I am sorry for hurting you and Daniel and Esteban.

This—a parent expressing love for their children but with honest regret over their choice to become one—is not something we see expressed in media anywhere. It's powerful, and I found myself struck at the raw honesty of the exchanges on both sides. In my version of Life Is Strange 2, Sean remained hurt by her mother's actions but tried to understand her.

“Our society has really different standards for men and women,” said Life is Strange series co-director Michel Koch in an interview with Paste. “Of course, what she did is bad for Sean and Daniel. It hurt them, and we cannot deny that. But most of the time in society, when a father decides to leave his family, it’s almost okay. He can just go on with his life; everybody is okay with him. And when a woman does that, most of the time society sees her almost as a criminal … And so it was really important for us to try to use Karen to talk about that; about how society forces women to be mothers while they don’t force men to be anything.”

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This brings us back to True Colors, which features a father who explicitly abandons their children. One of several reveals towards the end of True Colors is that the reason Alex and Gabe found their way into the foster system was because their family fell apart after their mother died of cancer. Their father, John, couldn't cope with the responsibility and stress of solo parenting, aided by a particularly cantankerous teenage Gabe. One day, it was too much—and he left. The difference between Alex and Sean was an opportunity to ask why

Alex and her brother were left wondering what they did wrong, but never got an answer.

With Alex's power, which lets her touch an object and experience memories (don't think about it!), she's able to feel her father's emotions in the moments before death. He's scared and alone. There's a moment in the conversation with Jed, where you're given an opportunity, as an adult, to use this information to finally cast judgment on your father:

  • He was a screw-up.
  • He was a victim.
  • He was a fighter.

I chose B. Having watched Alex's father struggle under extraordinary circumstances, I saw a person crack, the way I sometimes crack when my kids and I are having a bad day, but I'm fortunate enough to have a robust support system—a partner, close friends, lots of family—who step up when I'm down. Like Karen, I found their decision to leave personally unfathomable, but the game does not present either parent wholly as monsters. Both Life Is Strange 2 and True Colors do not sugarcoat the lasting consequences of their actions and the emotional wreckage it left behind on their children, but they are presented as full people.

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"The world never gave a shit about him," says Alex, in this scenario. "He was always just struggling to get by. He still hoped one day things would be better. But you [Jed] killed him."

My version of Alex Chen decided to show her father, with the perspective and maturity of adulthood, some grace. Other players may have chosen differently. He was a screw-up. Alex had a biological father that ran away, and in crisis, Alex leaned on Jed like a father. I began to view these parental characters—Karen, John, Jed—through the same personal lens. And this choice, mixed in with the more general way Life Is Strange as a series ideologically pushes players towards forgiveness and understanding, created a moment of weakness.

It's made all the worse upon watching the way Alex coldly declares "and I condemn you."

Brutal but fair. 

The situation, even if it was influenced by Life Is Strange's own leanings towards players trying to understand why other people make poor choices, left a sour taste in my mouth. It felt primed to emotionally undermine what I'd otherwise found to be a satisfying ending. But it was also clear there would be at least one more choice in front of the player, before the credits rolled: would Alex stay in Haven Springs or leave? Maybe I had another chance.

And so this became my way of thinking about my Alex Chen: forgiveness isn't absolution, nor does it require the person offering that forgiveness to help you do the work of earning it. 

The climax of True Colors involves your interactions with a variety of characters in Haven Springs either springing to your defense or shunning you when you accuse Jed. Some folks took my side—and others didn't. Regardless, even though Haven Springs brought the Chen family together—Gabe chasing his dad, Alex reuniting with Gabe—it was not a real home. It was a catalyst for Alex discovering themselves, a step towards later finding that true home.

I owed Haven Springs nothing, and neither did Alex. I left with a guitar and my girlfriend at my side. The two stepped on a bus and left everything—including forgiveness—behind.   

Final note: I strongly dislike how the game frames this. You're presented with a long, heartstring-pulling montage about what it'd be like if Alex stayed, while the alternative is brushed off as the boring "unknown." The game is emotionally tipping the scales, which it's unfairly done as far back as the very problematic storm vs. no storm choice in the original.


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

parenting, Life Is Strange, Life is strange 2, Life Is Strange: True Colors

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