Life is Strange and the Hidden Cost of Disability

max and chloe

Recently I decided to play through Life is Strange, which I had seen a lot of praise for over the past year. I booted up the first episode and played it in a single sitting on Sunday afternoon. I was immediately struck by the game’s beautiful visuals, thematic music and interesting characters. Life is Strange stars Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old student at a prestigious art academy in the town that she left behind five years ago. The story kicks off in short order as Max finds herself with the ability to rewind time, which she uses to prevent the death of another young woman.

Before long, it is revealed that the woman in question is Chloe Price, Max’s childhood friend that she has not seen since leaving five years ago. Together, they begin to explore Max’s powers, using them to unravel the mystery of Chloe’s missing friend Rachel all while their small Pacific Northwest town of Arcadia Bay is beset by supernatural phenomena. Max contends with high school problems, a vision of an apocalyptic storm, and the awkward reunion with her old friend.

After finishing Episode 1, I immediately purchased the remaining 4 Episodes on the strength of the first one alone. Few games have the ability to get their hooks into you like Life is Strange does.

HEAVY SPOILERS FOR LIFE IS STRANGE EPISODES 3-5 FROM THIS POINT ON 

At the end of Episode 3, Max discovers a new facet of her powers: she can transport herself back in time to any picture that she is in. Suddenly thrown back into her 13-year-old self, Max finds herself faced with a time-traveler’s golden opportunity. William Price, Chloe’s father, is about to leave home, and Max knows that he will be killed in a car accident. Using her powers, Max prevents William from taking his car and saves his life.

Yanked back into the present, Max races to Chloe’s home to check on her friend. There, she meets the still-alive William, who calls Chloe. Max is then confronted with the consequences of her powers.

Chloe

Yes, I know it is a cliche. The butterfly effect, chaos theory, explored in everything from A Sound of Thunder to Donnie Darko (which the game is quick to call attention to. Our protagonists are genre-savvy). For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Chloe may have her father, but as a direct consequence a spinal injury received in a car accident has rendered her almost completely paralyzed. A classic case of “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” for us time-travelers.

For most people this will provoke a visceral reaction. The player has grown used to Chloe as a blue-haired punk-rock rebel, virtually incapable of sitting still. There was a kinetic quality to her animation and motion-capture that some will surely find familiar. Seeing all of that gone, along with the personality and vigor of the Chloe the player has come to know, coupled with the knowledge that you, Max, are responsible for it all is like a punch to the gut.

But to me, it was something more than that. I may not be in a wheelchair (though we are acquainted), and I’m not paralyzed, but I am an amputee. I could relate to this version of Chloe in that sense. I took a day before playing Episode 4 to clear my head. I could handle this. I’d seen disabled characters in media before, and while it always hits close to home I’ve been able to deal with it.

But after starting Episode 4, I realized that Life is Strange wasn’t going to gloss over the most crushing thing about being a disabled kid. As I wandered through the Price home, I found a whole family, but one that was barely staying afloat. Bills were everywhere, numbering up into the thousands for basic, everyday supplies. Speaking with William Price I found him joking about it, but the reality still hung over his every word.

The Price family was united, but at what cost?

That’s the thing that is so often ignored. This is where DONTNOD really twists the knife for people who grew up disabled. The crushing debt that accumulates when you need specialized equipment, care, doctors, therapies and medicines. It is a tax on our existence that most people don’t even think about.

My parents didn’t have great insurance. My mom worked at a local bank and my dad was a trucker who worked for my grandfather. And as it turns out, losing a foot is very expensive. My parents never spoke to me about it, but I was a nosy kid. I saw the kinds of numbers that were involved for my surgeries, physical therapy and the cost of my prosthesis. As I got older, I became more aware of our position as lower-middle class rural people who just didn’t have a lot of money to begin with.

I lost my foot at the age of 9, and getting older meant I grew. A lot. This meant more prostheses, more often. More money. Watching William Price bent over a dining room table full of bills is something I can relate to. I remember seeing my mother in the same position, calculator and papers spread out as she did her best to make it work. And as I got older I got more aware of what was going on, of how much debt my disability was putting us in.

When I was in my middle teens I had a pretty firm grasp on things. Around the same time my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and began to undergo chemotherapy. This only added to the bills, and in my mind, I felt like I was responsible for putting us in such a sorry position.

Most people probably know what it is like to feel low. That heaviness that sets into your bones and weighs down your every movement. You don’t want to do anything, but at the same time you itch because you want to do something, anything to just not feel this way anymore. I felt less than worthless. A worthless thing can be thrown away, but my family couldn’t just discard me. I was worse than nothing; I was a cinderblock tied around their necks, dragging them down.

Chloe felt this way as well. After spending a night with her, she confides in you that she knows that her condition is getting worse, and that she understands how much this is costing her parents. She then asks Max to tamper with her morphine dosage, to kill her quietly, so that she can end her life on her own terms. The decision of whether or not to help her is up to the player, and you can take all the time you want to decide.

My condition was never as bad as Chloe’s. Being an amputee will never kill me by itself. But I can understand her thought process here because I’ve had it myself. There were times when I contemplated suicide because I didn’t want to be a burden to my family anymore. I never attempted it, never even came close. Whether that was cowardice or good sense is, I think, still to be seen. I could never tell this to anyone else. I maintained a cheery disposition publicly for the most part, because I knew that if I told people how I really felt it would make me even more of a burden. I couldn’t add to the list of my family’s problems.

This alternate-universe jaunt ends quickly afterwards as you return to the branching-off point and set things back the way they used to be. Regardless of whether you help Chloe commit suicide or not, it doesn’t matter. But later on, in Episode 5, it is implied that these alternate universes to persist after your consciousness is snatched away, that there are multitudes of Maxes and Chloes out there. And in at least one alternate existence, Chloe carries on, living out the last bit of her life in pain as her family sinks further and further into debt.

That’s why Episode 4 of Life is Strange is an experience I will never forget. I identified with Chloe and her predicament. I saw my family’s struggles in hers, my parents’ worries and problems in hers. I felt the crushing weight of Chloe’s despair as I relived my own experience. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the game. I’m glad someone discussed the experience of disabled people, and showed the daily struggle that is our financial existence.

There are a great many emotional experiences in Life is Strange. I cried several times over the course of the 5 Episodes. I laughed at puns and cheered for characters that I liked. I experienced the melancholy that the game is so good at producing. But nothing will compare to that alternate universe, where Chloe and her family became the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a representation of mine in any video game. The experience was painful, but worth it.

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