Psychosis, Life is Strange, and Becoming the Villain

I have a bit of a reputation amongst the media studies professors on my campus as ‘that kid who won’t shut up about Life is Strange all the time.’ I’ve written multiple essays on the game, one of which I went on to present at a conference for undergraduate film students (despite not being a film student, nor is Life is Strange a film), to the point that my advisor once begged me to stop. “What more can you even possibly have to say about it?” she had asked me, to which I responded, “A whole lot more.”  Upon introducing myself to the friends of friends, they have recognized my name as that Jordan, the one who hates Life is Strange; the first time this happened, I remember my flush of embarrassment, afraid I seemed obsessive or pedantic, but by now I’ve come to accept this semi-infamy. Between the essays, the conferences, the inside jokes with friends, and these conversations with acquaintances, it’s impossible for me to deny the myriad ways this game has influenced my life, despite – or maybe because of – my distaste for it. In fact, it might be accurate to say that this game has defined my academic career, inspiring my first forays into disability and media theory, if only to find the words necessary to describe just how abysmal I find Life is Strange.

It wasn’t always this way, though. The year the game first came out, I was immediately intrigued by it. I was no older than sixteen at the time, as well as recently out of the closet, so the concept of a choice-based story-driven game that focused on the relationships of queer teenage girls enthralled me. Men were already deriding the game as feminist propaganda – my favorite genre of media – so as soon as there were full playthroughs of the first episode released to the internet, I sat down to watch.

For the first few minutes of the game, I was completely on board – sure, some of the dialogue was cheesy, but I was a teenager reared on B-movies and cult classics, so cheesiness was not a turn-off for me. The gameplay was appealing to me as a long-time fan of the Tell Tale games that no doubt influenced the style and mechanics of Life is Strange. The soundtrack of mostly gentle indie music combined with its watercolor-esque visual design set the game’s tone perfectly. For the first few minutes of the game, I loved it.

Eventually, the game transitions into its first real conflict as our protagonist, Max, finds herself ducking behind the stalls in the girls’ bathroom to hide from a teenage boy, who we soon come to know as Nathan Prescott. He barges into the restroom, ranting and panicking, pacing and talking to himself in the kind of frenetic way that felt very familiar to me.

The year the game first came out, it’s important to note, was also the year I experienced my (first) psychotic break. I didn’t know as much at the time, convinced that my disconnection from reality must be rational or normal or fine, somehow, despite how difficult even basic functioning was at that point. I was barely sleeping, a series of paranoid delusions keeping me wide awake all night, and barely eating, too, due to a dangerous combination of forgetfulness and apathy. My grades were slipping. My hair was greasy and stringy, my skin pockmarked with scars from picking obsessively at bugs I had become convinced were real.

At that point in my life, leaving class to have crying fits in the bathroom was a multiple-times-a-week affair. When I first saw Nathan standing there, gripping the bathroom sink in both hands, mumbling to himself as if to another, unseen person, I felt I had found a kindred spirit. He’s just like me, I thought to myself, and within the span of just a few seconds, I imagined what might happen next: Max would come out from her hiding place to comfort Nathan, he would explain what was upsetting him so much, and thus the game’s plot would unfold.

If you’ve ever played Life is Strange, however, you know by now that’s not at all what happens next – instead the game’s deuteragonist Chloe Price enters the scene, starting a fight with Nathan. It becomes immediately clear by the way he is screaming and cursing at her that Nathan is going to be the game’s villain. When she threatens to tell his family that he talks to himself, he pulls a gun on her, and as Chloe pushes him away – causing him to pull the trigger and kill her – she shouts, “Get away from me, psycho!”

I might not have known that what was happening to me was psychosis, but I did know that that word – psycho – was what connected me to Nathan. The thing that made me stay up all night, forget to eat lunch, skip out on showers, and lock myself in public restroom stalls was what made Nathan a villain, and if that was the case, then sixteen-year-old me figured I must be a villain, too.

If I ever tell anyone about any of this, they’ll think I’m dangerous, too, I thought to myself, so I can’t tell anyone.

It might seem silly to let a piece of media affect you so intensely – in hindsight, it sort of was – but I was sixteen, and losing my mind, and I’d never seen anyone else lose theirs. As far as I knew, Nathan was a vision into my future – one day I might be swinging a gun around in the girl’s bathroom, screaming curses and hurting people without meaning to. So I kept that promise to myself, refusing steadfastly to tell anyone about my psychosis, until eventually I couldn’t keep the secret anymore.

For several months, I was too busy seeing a gamut of therapists and psychiatrists, testing out a handful of antipsychotics, and dropping out of high school to think about Life is Strange at all. Once the dust of my mental breakdown settled, however, I returned to it, not because I wanted to give the game a second chance, but because I wanted vindication of some sort.

The centerpiece of my anger, unsurprisingly, was Nathan himself. He was a villain made to be hated and feared, and I felt both emotions in spades as I played the game through for myself. He was violent, misogynistic, spoiled, and cruel. He’d murdered a teenage girl and drugged at least two others. He was a character almost completely without virtue… and yet, buried underneath my disgust, I still felt a sense of kinship. The anger management books hidden in his room mirrored the books for raising ‘troubled teens’ that my parents had stockpiled in the back of our family bookshelves, and the way the other Blackwell students gossiped about Nathan being unhinged was uncannily similar to the way people had begun talking to and about me. Nathan took the same sort of medication that I took and saw the same type of doctors that I saw. This was the connective tissue between us that made it impossible for me to revile Nathan as much as the game wanted me to.

Despite how much time had passed since I first saw that scene of Nathan in the bathroom, I still remember thinking, for a brief moment, that he might get to be one of the heroes. In my head, there still exists a version of him who is kind and deserving and, yes, psychotic, and when I remember that Nathan, it becomes hard to truly hate him. The closest word I can think of to describe how I feel instead is grief; not for Nathan, per se, but for the people Nathan represents. I think people forget that psychosis is not an invention of horror stories or Oscar-nominated dramas. I don’t mean a literal sort of forgetting, but a subconscious one; when it’s never been a part of your life, I imagine it’s quite easy to believe psychosis happens only in the most extreme of cases to the most deranged and extraordinary of people. But psychotic people are everywhere – your siblings, your children, your peers, your best friends, your vague acquaintances – and we know how people see us. Every psychotic person I’ve met has a story similar to mine.

If asked by a stranger why I have such a vendetta against a game that came out over five years ago, I’ll usually answer with one of the many other critiques I have with Life is Strange. From the glaring issues regarding the framing of physical disability as a fate worse than death, to the petty nitpicks pertaining to the entire cast’s shallow and often inconsistent characterization, Life is Strange is far from perfect. And while, yes, I do consider those things reason enough to call Life is Strange flawed, none of those answers could ever be 100% honest. The truth is much simpler than that: I hate Life is Strange because Life is Strange made me hate myself.

Again, I’m aware of how melodramatic that sounds – Life is Strange is, at the end of the day, just a video game. But for sixteen-year-old-me, it was so much more. It was a glimpse through a one-way mirror – a look into how I could appear to the people around me based on something as simple as brain chemistry. It remains the first of very, very few pieces of media I’ve seen that features a character with psychosis (and, for the record, none of what I’ve seen since has handled the issue any better.) I doubt DONTNOD Entertainment were acting out of malice when they made Nathan – in fact, the company appears to pride itself on being progressive with regards to mental health – and I don’t begrudge anybody their right to like or even love Life is Strange. All I ask is for people to remember that while Nathan and the crimes he commits are fictional, the people he represents are very, very real. The damage that stigmatizing psychosis can do is very, very real. Art has a responsibility to be empathetic towards the people and the things it represents, and psychotic people – no matter how easily forgotten we may be – deserve to see ourselves as something other than chauvinistic villains or horror franchise monsters.

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Jordan F

Jordan F. is a trans, disabled gamer attending college in the Pioneer Valley area. They are a media studies and creative writing double major who focuses most of their work on applying critical disability theory to pop culture, especially games and film. They can be reached at jordan.a.f.09@gmail.com

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