A Reading: The Shared Trauma of Life is Strange and Ocarina of Time

Each episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange begins with a disclaimer—that you, the player, are about to make choices that will affect the characters’ past, present, and future. And while the latter two seem like common sense in a branching path game, the first made me wonder. Was I about to see that storied trope of time travel narratives, where changing the past endangers the future? Was that what those first few episodes were building up to? Is Life is Strange just a videogame fusion of Back to the Future, The Flash, and 11/22/63?

For a while, that seemed to be where we were going. Max changed the past once, then reversed that change because the outcome was too painful for her to bear. Then she changed it again, and again, and soon the game’s version of the butterfly effect had her world spiraling out of control. But then, at the very end—at the moment where some time travel narratives would send her back one last time to prevent everything from happening, to wipe the slate clean and start again—Life is Strange did what it does best. It gave me a choice.

And by the game’s standards, that final choice was a relatively simple one. There were no unknown future ramifications, no ongoing plot threads, no real ambiguity at all—just a clear, simple decision. Early in the game, Max saves Chloe’s life (something she ends up doing a lot over the course of the narrative) and, apparently, the resulting butterfly effect sends a tornado spinning towards Arcadia Bay. So, while watching the destruction from a faraway lighthouse (Bioshock influences, anyone?), Max has two options. She can go back in time and let Chloe die, thus allowing her town to survive. Or she can sacrifice the town—the place she (and you) had spent the past five episodes living in, learning about, and growing to love—for her best friend.

I picked Chloe. I sacrificed Arcadia Bay. It was one of the fastest decisions I’d made in the entire game—faster than warning Victoria about Nathan, faster than sticking up for Chloe, faster than even trying to save my friends’ lives during the storm. And as the ending cinematic played, I realized why.

But before I explain, we have to talk about trauma theory, and about the Hero of Time.

At the end of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link has, to put it simply, come of age. Over the course of that game—shuttled back and forth between past and future, solving puzzles and saving friends as his child and adult self—he learns how to be an adult. He grows up, saves the world, and then…

He becomes a child again.

At the end of Ocarina of Time, Link is left in a Hyrule with no memory of his quest, left with people that have no recollection of the trials he went through to save their world. He already grew up, but that past—actually, that future—is gone, banished into another timeline that he will never see again. So he sets out on a journey to find his friend Navi, the only one who would remember everything he went through. And of course, that journey becomes a sequel—Majora’s Mask.

Majora’s Mask is both one of my all-time favorite games and one of the most complex and interesting time travel narratives I’ve ever encountered. Because it’s structured around a loop—three days that play over and over, with Link slowly inching his way towards saving another world from destruction—it raises some interesting points about altruism and heroism, about who to save when your actions will soon be wiped from the board. But more importantly for us, it actually embodies a very literary form of trauma: a past unmoored from time, existing outside of memory, acting again and again through the body of the person experiencing it.

If that makes no sense, that’s okay—trauma theory is dense and I’ve only just cracked the surface. But in essence, Link’s journey in Majora’s Mask almost perfectly represents the ideas that underpin notions of trauma in literature—his very experience of growing up is torn from him and cast outside his timeline, and, in Majora’s Mask, he once again goes about saving the world. Except this time, he’s forced to repeat that action of saving over and over again, with his actions resetting every Night of the Final Day. And because the games use the same character models, he’s even repeating those actions with the same characters—the same people he’d saved the first time he grew up. But now, there’s not even a chance of that coming-of-age from happening, and likewise, none of them will remember him once the clocks rewind. He’s reenacting the trauma he experienced at the end of Ocarina of Time—the trauma of growing up, saving the world, and then becoming a child again. The trauma of an entire life unremembered, unrecognized, and unseen.

So when Life is Strange asked me if I wanted to go back into the past, to effectively wipe clean everything I’d done over the course of the game, render meaningless every choice I’d made, every conversation I’d had, every step I’d taken for the sake of a dying town, I said no. Not because I cared that much about Chloe (though I did), but because (despite what sometimes seemed like the game’s best efforts to make her as unlikable as her namesake) I cared that much about Max.

Because that’s really what the Arcadia Bay ending of Life is Strange entails. You’re not just choosing between Chloe and the town, you’re choosing between your choices meaning something and meaning absolutely nothing—between a world where Max grew up and a world where Max, like the Hero of Time, became younger again, trapped with her memories in a timeline where they never came about. And because so much of Life is Strange seemed to be about learning the limits of control—about understanding that, no matter your actions, some things will always be out of your hands, watching that tornado decimate Arcadia Bay seemed fitting. Stop trying to change the past. Accept the present as it your choices have made it… and move on.

In the end, I didn’t want Max to suffer the same fate as the Hero of Time. I didn’t want her trapped in a world where only she remembered her coming-of-age, where no one would ever acknowledge what she’d gone through and how she’d grown up. And I also wanted a time travel narrative to finally subvert that tired trope of the big reset—of that final button that returns us all to the start, that inconsequentializes every moment of the story that had just played out, that allows the character to ultimately control the world and prevent the side effects of their actions. I wanted that brave story that actually lets those actions hold meaning, that doesn’t try to keep that ending neat and tidy, that—in essence—lets the chaos stand.

So thanks, Life is Strange, for having the guts to at least give us the choice to make those moments actually matter—to have our decisions still mean something during that final cinematic.

Because really, what would the point of offering those choices be if, in the end… nothing really matters?

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