Spoilers for the first three episodes of Life is Strange.

A few weeks ago Chaos Theory, the third episode of DontNod’s adventure game series Life is Strange, came out. The series is no stranger to tackling controversial matters, as Laura discussed her feelings in relation to the ending of the second episode and how the game probably could’ve handled it better.

Unfortunately, I left Episode Three with a poor taste in my mouth. Sure, the episode had much better pacing than the previous ones, and it really pulled the story forward, but the ending really did worry me.

A big problem that not only makes me concerned for the future of the series, but calls into question just how well DontNod have been able to handle the themes of the game up to now.

Life is Strange follows teenager Max Caulfield, a student at Blackwell Academy with a passion for photography. One day, she discovers she has the ability to rewind time and undo the mistakes she has made, and she manages to save her old best friend, Chloe, from being murdered. Chloe had gone off the rails and become a pot-smoking rebel who frequently fought with her step-father, the head of security at Blackwell.

Episode three sees Max go back further than she had ever gone before, to the day Chloe’s father died. The game has you help prevent Chloe’s father’s death in much the same was as any other ddf1ed5643f61e32c099ce9bfbe40982puzzle in the game, but the repercussions of this are almost instantly shown. When returning to the present, Max finds herself friends with people who were previously her enemies and her old friend Warren wants nothing to do with her.

This really builds up the tension: Max had dramatically changed the present by saving Chloe’s father… but what is Chloe’s life like now? The event that made her the delinquent she was before never happened, and so surely her life must be good now, right? If you’re DontNod, the answer to that is a great big ‘no’.

The very last scene of Episode Three sees Max and Chloe meet again for the first time in this new timeline: Chloe is no longer the badass with bright, blue hair she was, but is instead wheelchair-bound and seemingly paralyzed. Max recoils in horror, utterly ashamed of what she has done to Chloe because of her meddling.

This is a problem. A big problem that not only makes me concerned for the future of the series, but calls into question just how well DontNod have been able to handle the themes of the game up to now.

There is real damage done due to the stigmatisation of mental health problems

Before I discuss Chloe and the problems surrounding her sudden disability, I want to focus on another character: Nathan Prescott. Nathan has been one of the few identifiable primary antagonists of the series up to now – sadistic, spoiled, violent, he is the character who initially shot Chloe at the very start of the game, but was able to be stopped by Max with her abilities.

However, Episode Three finally, explicitly confirmed something that has been hinted at since the start: Nathan has mental health issues, and is on medication for them. And here lies problem number one with Life is Strange.

Nathan could have just been a spoiled, sadistic, violent person due to his upbringing as part of an affluent family who never said no to him. That would have been a perfectly acceptable justification of why his character is just so evil and no one would have questioned it.los1 ‘Mentally ill’ or worse, ‘psycho’, are commonly used shorthand to describe a character such as Nathan, and often it’s done with little regard for those who actually have mental health issues.

Not only is it potentially a lazy to explain away the problems of Nathan’s upbringing by masking it with a mental health problem, it can be incredibly damaging. Studies have shown that stigmatising mental health issues leads to people trying to hide their problems due to risk of  being treated poorly, leading to lowered self-esteem and anger. There is real damage done due to the stigmatisation of mental health problems, and Nathan as a character only perpetuates it.

Disabled people being the object of pity or being the victim of a tragedy is incredibly common

Continuing on that trend of lazy-bordering-on-damaging writing, what happens to Chloe in episode three plays into another all too common trope of disability. The reveal that Chloe is paralysed in this new timeline is played purely for shock value.

Max’s reaction, the very slow camera pan up, and the fact it is the very last scene of the episode are all techniques to show Chloe as a point of tragedy for Max. We’re meant to pity Chloe, and disabled people being the object of pity or being the victim of a tragedy is incredibly common.

Life-Is-Strange-Episode-3-Chaos-Theory-642x371What’s worse is that this scene is obviously used to show a loss of agency for Chloe. Up to this point, Chloe was breaking out of her house, doing whatever she liked. The entire third episode up to that point featured Chloe and Max going for a night out, breaking as many rules as they could to show just how much of her own person Chloe is. The implication of that final scene is that she can no longer do that; a major part of why people liked her character is gone and that’s all Max’s fault.

Disabled people are very often portrayed as being burdens on other people – friends, caregivers, it doesn’t matter, and disability is seen to ruin lives and chances of happiness, especially shortly after the disability occurs. Little House on the Prairie and Daredevil used Mary Ingalls’ and Matt Murdoch’s  blindness, Forrest Gump uses Lieutenant Dan’s missing leg, and Life Is Strange uses Chloe. This is often thrown at the audience as a shock tactic – unveiling a disability with the expectation that the initial assumption will be that character’s life is ruined forever, regardless of how they may improve or adapt in the future.

This being only the third episode in a five episode series, it’s more worrying when we consider what could happen in future episodes. From Max’s reaction at the end of episode three, I’m predicting that a major decision for the player’s character is whether to kill Chloe’s father again to restore the original timeline. This means Life Is Strange could wind up posing a pretty simple but also incredibly troubling question: is it better to be disabled or dead?

I did nothing wrong to warrant being disabled because nothing does warrant being disabled.

Predictions aside, the episode formula of Life is Strange means we’ve had forewarning about Chloe’s disability since episode one. As Geek Remix points out, episodes one and three both feature Chloe making a choice related to disability, and often opting for the more morally questionable solution. In episode one, she parked in a disabled parking space, much to the annoyance of Max, and in episode three she wanted to take money set aside for disabled students.

So oh the irony come episode three, where Chloe finally becomes disabled. This person who has made anti-disabled decisions in her life is now disabled, and the general feeling  I had when I considered all that has occurred in the past three episodes is that Chloe seemingly deserved it.

This is troubling, as it paints Chloe’s disability as some form of divine retribution; a punishment from the universe. Nobody deserves a disability, and disability shouldn’t be portrayed as punishment for someone’s actions. I’m disabled, and I did nothing wrong to warrant being disabled because nothing does warrant being disabled.

Keep in mind these things are not actions of specific characters, they’re not explicitly written for the game or said by a character. These are often subtle narrative motifs woven throughout the entire series in often minor ways, and so the blame can fall squarely on DontNot rather than a specific character. It’s an example of the pervasive ideas people have about disability.

We won’t know for sure how all these different themes DontNod are trying to deal with will be wrapped in the space of two more episodes, and so I am hesitant to be too damning about their portrayal of disability. Episode four could start with Chloe being just as great of a character as she has been up to now, and I would be utterly overjoyed if that occurs. However, it has taken me three episodes to see these very small narrative threads to entangle together into something that is beginning to worry me, so naturally I’m cynical for the future of the series.

About The Author

Former Managing Editor

Joe Parlock is an opinionated pop culture writer from the British midlands with 3 years of experience and a passion for being a general grump about games. Starting out before he could walk with a Sega Megadrive and a copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2, his favourite genres of games includes platformers, stealth, fighting, roguelites and the budding survival sim genre. Joe also writes not only about games, but also other areas of pop culture such as film and TV.

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  • Gingerbear Games

    I haven’t played past chapter one so take what i have to say with the knowledge that i haven’t played the part you are talking about, just going off what you said about it

    They way you describe the change in chloe comes across more as her being changed completely, the entire character changed because of something max did, max noticing that the chloe she knew for the past 3 eps isn’t the chloe she has as a friend now. I’d say thats a pretty good reason to be surprised.
    nathan, yeh, i’d say it’s lazy although it’s not done yet, might get more backstory in later eps.
    overall though i don’t agree that it can be damaging in the same way that games don’t cause violence or sexism.

  • Elias Games

    I never felt as though the game punished Chloe for her “past” behaviour, that’s an interesting thought. I think it’s still too early to tell the intentions behind her sudden disability and it probably will be explored further in future episodes, no talking or exchange of thoughts were done after the reveal so I personally think it’s way too early to draw any conclusion as to the developer’s intent. I respect your opinion though.

    As for the main character’s shock to discover that her best friend is suddenly disabled. I don’t think that’s intended as “oh no my friend is now disabled, how poor” but rather a genuine shock to reveal that your friend have changed so much, if my friend called me and said he’s paralyzed from waist down I’d be pretty shocked too because it’s unexpected given previous circumstances. Now if it was a stranger I met for the first time being disabled I wouldn’t be shocked, I probably wouldn’t think about it too much. Context matters.

  • Niel

    More than anything else, I think Episode 4 will be asking players the question of, “Is Chloe happier now with her disability and her father alive, or was she happier before with her being not disabled and her father dead?” Either way, Chloe’s current life is a direct consequence of Max’s decisions. It’s easy to see how this might stigmatize having disabilities, but Max is in a position where she can potentially make her best friend “undisabled” by reversing the changes she made.

    As already noted, Max only just met her friend again. There are still a lot of things we don’t know yet. I would reserve judgment until we get to see what Dontnod does with Chloe in Episode 4.

  • Other people are crazy is something we tell ourselves because we’re too egotistical or immature to accept that either everyone is crazy (most people are incredibly dysfunctional) or that crazy doesn’t really exist anymore than race does.

    A lot of sociologists are wanting to change the word sociopath from being interchangeable with psychopath to instead mean a kind of pathology that is locked into a culture, and so is fostered and encouraged by it, so that we can say our culture is sociopathic and that is why it seems to be failing at every turn to produce desirable outcomes for everyone. If crazy is the opposite of sanity we are all born crazy and struggle to achieve some modicum of sanity.

    What I’m trying to say is instead of pretending these things don’t exist, maybe widen the net somewhat. We are not supermen, we are all disabled in that respect.

  • Paige

    Thank you so so so so much for writing this. I’ve been following the series and as a disabled AND mentally ill person this episode and the end of episode 3 made me feel so upset and gross. I’m so glad to see a source that isn’t praising this as a bold writing decision. I’m tired of disability being a punishment or a plot point. Being disabled is not a fate worse than death.

  • Polly

    Agreed concerning Chloe, I thought it was a bit cheap to make her disabled as part of a bigger aesop on how meddling with time is wrong (especially considering that the player is forced to go back in time; I, for one, absolutely did not want to), and it does reinforce the idea that disability is the absolute worst thing that could happen to someone and all disabled people are just waiting to die, which is offensive. However I disagree about Nathan. I think that without his mental illness I would not have sympathised with him. He did bad things, but ultimately he was a product of his environment and I think his mental illness afforded him a modicum of humanity that, as a mentally ill person myself, made me more accepting of his place in the narrative.

  • Lazy and unimaginative writing. I’m 33 years old and I’ve been on various forms of meds since I was 13. I could give a sh*t less if Nathan was on meds. That tells me nothing. Most of the people in the world who are in positons that are high stress, challenging, daunting, and/or demanding are on drugs, booze, or meds of some forum. That is the simple truth.

    The disability angle was a bit unsettling, not because of the disability, but because I assumed she was dead. I can understand your position in terms of defensiveness and judgement, but I believe that the scrutiny is misplaced. The writers simply wanted to portray a Chloe that was not dead and was the opposite of the previous Chloe. I don’t believe that the paraplegic Chloe was intended to belittle anyone.

  • Mark Wilkinson

    Worrying approach to disability? Are you for real? ANYONE who was in the same situation as what was depicted in the game (if it was possible obviously) would have a similar if not the exact same reaction Max did. She thought she was saving her friends dads life who was not only a friend to her but his death devastated Chloe’s and her mother’s life and changed it massively for the worse. Upon realising she did in fact save him to then see your friend roll out in a wheelchair completely paralysed from the neck down and with a feeding tube inserted in a hole in her throat her recoiling in horror over the realisation of what her actions did to her friend is COMPLETELY understandable and moreover completely normal. I had the exact same reaction seeing it happen in game and my wife has a disability. And to say Nathan’s mental health issues being revealed as an “explanation” for his severe anti social and criminal behaviour was poor writing or lazy is completely ridiculous as it’s extremely common for a person who has that type of psychosis to act in the way he does. It’s not at all stigmatising disability it’s accurately representing the common realities of it in the mainstream where it’s not usually discussed let alone represented. Tbh what’s worrying is your complete misunderstanding and dismissal of the facts of what is commonly the situation and reality of mental and physical disability to pursue an unnecessary and pointless virtue signalling witch hunt when no witch even exists and then with a self gratifying click and sense of accomplishment you click send and publish this garbage. Have a look at yourself because you know zero about disability other than what you think you know from second hand stories at best. Boo