Despite how radically different Max Caulfield, Chloe Price and Sean Diaz are from each other, the three protagonists of the Life is Strange series have one thing in common: they’re queer as hell.
Even with the hesitation that was present in the first season, the protagonists of this series are irrevocably queer. You can choose if and with whom they become romantically involved, but the existence of the romance options means there’s little room for denial. You can shape their decisions, but they aren’t blank slates like the characters you can embody in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect. Max is a shy photographer who is into boys and girls, and this holds true even if she doesn’t pursue Chloe or Warren. Chloe has had boyfriends and her arc largely revolves around her relationships with two women—these truths are never pitted in opposition to each other. When Sean talks to his friends about his sexuality, none of the four possible options imply that he is exclusively attracted to men or women.
It’s rather revolutionary, although it shouldn’t be. As of 2017, roughly 4.5% of people in America alone reportedly identify as LGBTQ+. But there are few—if any—videogame series that have done this before, and perhaps it isn’t so surprising for the dedicated fans of a series that strives to promote empathy above all else.
Even among fans, though, Dontnod Entertainment’s queer representation in the studio’s most famous IP hasn’t been perfect. This brings the question: Does queer representation have to fit an arbitrary ideal? Should it be tied to notions of wholesomeness, the exploration of only positive moments, and the avoidance of the pain that comes with not just being queer, but also being human and forging intricate connections? There is no one right answer, but Life is Strange 2’s response to these questions—intentionally or otherwise—is that there is a space for ungraceful and complex depictions of queerness, and it’s a space that needs to be filled.
In the third episode of Life is Strange 2, brothers Sean and Daniel are still on the run after a confrontation with a neighbor in the first episode ended with a police officer killing their father. This time around, instead of wandering on the road or staying with their estranged mother’s family, they’re working at a weed farm with a ragtag group of hippies, tourists and runaways to save money for their journey to Mexico. The leaders of the group, Finn and Cassidy, receive a particular focus from the game and Sean himself, for he can form a romantic relationship with either one.
From the beginning of the episode, Sean and Finn’s chemistry is clear. Finn is eager to frequently be physically and emotionally intimate with Sean. He calls Sean hot and reassures the older Diaz brother that any scars from trimming weed buds will make him sexier. When the two return to the camp from work, Finn asks him, “So, did you have a good day at work, honey?” When Finn challenges Sean to throw a knife into a bullseye and Daniel uses his abilities to make his brother miss, Sean lashes out at Daniel and hisses, “You think that shit is funny? You made me miss! In front of Finn.” While he’s evidently worried about someone realizing Daniel has powers, I couldn’t help but initially interpret it as Sean being upset that he looked bad in front of Finn, whom he constantly expresses an admiration of throughout the episode.
If you have Sean draw Finn in his sketchbook, he freaks out when Cassidy takes a peek before he shyly asks if she thinks it’s weird. And if you agree to pull off Finn’s risky and downright ridiculous plan to steal money from your supervisor’s safe, Finn tells Sean that he’s always getting obsessed over the people he meets before the two kiss. Right after, Sean thinks to himself, “Never thought I could actually do it. So glad I did. I…kinda wanna do it again? Okay, shut up.”
And this line, voiced with equal tinges of nerves, uncertainty, and excitement loud enough to break the quiet of the rustling forest leaves, the subdued crackling of the campfire and the distant hooting of an owl in the dead of the night, encompasses so much of the queerness in Life is Strange.
The first season of Life is Strange was criticized by some for not being explicitly queer enough and having an ending that played into the infamous Bury Your Gays trope by making Max choose between sacrificing an entire town or her potential lover, Chloe. Before the Storm—a spin-off prequel made by Deck Nine Games—had a strongly queer main narrative but its ending left a bad aftertaste for some fans who felt it played into the same trope by sensationalizing the tragic death of Rachel Amber. Regarding this season, it’s worth noting there is more romance content if you pursue Cassidy, and you can make Sean flirt with Finn all you want, but the two can only kiss if you agree with his heist plan that requires putting Daniel at risk. In short: Life is Strange has always visibly incorporated queerness, but it’s also fumbled along the way.
And yet this is part of what makes Life is Strange feel so authentic. It has always been refreshing in how its portrayal of teenagers avoids reducing them to one-dimensional tropes and instead validates them and their struggles. It knows that teenagers are fuck ups. Adults are often fuck ups. Life is the continuous and chaotic pursuit of understanding ourselves, and in our last days, we don’t reach any epiphanies about who we really are—we simply run out of the time to figure it out. Therefore, it makes sense that the queerness in Life is Strange is sometimes clumsy in ways that mirror our own messiness.
It makes sense for me to see Max and Chloe’s kiss in Chloe’s bedroom as not queerbaiting but rather a reflection of what it’s like to be a queer teen girl who might not have come to terms with her sexuality yet, or one who uses the guise of a dare to kiss the childhood best friend she’s recently developed feelings for in a way that lets her play it off if she’s rejected. Even though Before the Storm had an unnecessary post-credits scene, it makes sense that there are secrets, family drama, and instances of implied infidelity in Chloe and Rachel’s relationship because those things happen in many relationships, period. It might make him less likable, but it makes sense that Finn wouldn’t make himself romantically available to someone not willing to go with a plan that is stupid but that would change his life and the lives of the people he cares about.
These things make sense to me because they’re not inherent to queer relationships or people, and it’s time we have more stories that don’t see us as just plot devices to kill off—that see us as normal and whole human beings who are not political statements despite how our identities are constantly politicized. We’re messy and complex and polarizing and unable to fit in tidy boxes—and we should allow a space for narratives that convey those aspects of ourselves in addition to the stories that uplift our moments of happiness and pride.
There is no one right or valid way to feel about the queerness of Life is Strange, but it’s important that we move forward with the comfort that we have these sometimes divisive but always well-intentioned queer narratives at all. That we can discuss them, write about them and have something through which to channel our queer voices. These narratives may be flawed but they’re not crumbs because they’re complicated and so are we. Life is a giant, often hellish mess, and I’m happy to see Life is Strange expand the number of queer characters in videogames so that all of our shades, ranges of life experiences and multifaceted identities can be explored.
Natalie Flores is on Twitter @heartimecia.