Life is Strange: Finding Hope in The Dark Room

On Life is Strange, depression, and a path to recovery.

Content notification on depression, suicide, anxiety.

Iplayed Life Is Strange when I was at my most vulnerable. I was stuck in The Dark Room, the twisted subterranean photography studio in Dontnod’s 2015 episodic adventure game. Like Max Caulfield, the thoughtful protagonist, my life choices, insecurities, and fears were laid out in scrambled polaroids and I was forced to confront them. The camera was turned on me, the lone subject of a self-portrait, and I felt ugly.

I was powerless and deep underground. I felt a storm approaching, one that would destroy everything I loved, and I couldn’t escape. If by some miracle I resurfaced, I started doubting if anyone would even listen. My spirit was in heavy fragments and I would need to carry the weight or let it crush me.

Life Is Strange brought introspective thinking that I wasn’t expecting but desperately needed. Through playing the story, stepping alongside Max and feeling her choices, I was able to externalize struggles I previously only experienced internally. I could crystallize what I needed to carry on.

I was surprised to find how much I identified with Max, a dorky college freshman navigating a prestigious photography program nestled in a hometown she had left behind. Arcadia Bay, Oregon, the picturesque seaside locale, was the focus of her anxieties. With the fresh Pacific, the breeze came an uneasy feeling that something or someone didn’t belong. There was a sinister underbelly beneath the cheery smiles of familiar, aged faces.

At this point in my life, I had started expecting the worst from people as a defense mechanism. I was guarded and scared of being hurt. At any given moment, I felt taken advantage of. I projected Life is Strange Arcadia Bay’s corruption into my own reality, rationalizing that a grand conspiracy was invented to keep me down. I knew people had it far worse, and that only made me feel more depressed. Current events robbed me of the optimism I was clinging to. I was more a sleep-walker than a valued contributor to the world, a wayward wind-up toy bumping into people apologetically.

Max began having premonitions. A horrible storm fast approaching. A disaster threatening to obliterate everything she knew of the place that helped form who she was. An unyielding unfeeling tornado killing everyone, wiping clean cherished memories, rekindled friendships, and dark secrets. Max was burdened with the knowledge of the inevitable.

My anxiety would spread panic throughout the day. Neurons whispered rumors of a tragedy yet to befall me or those I love. My storm was coming and I could smell the change in the air. The atmosphere stuck to my skin, causing breakouts, and never let me be comfortable in my own body. I couldn’t be happy anywhere, because I knew too much.

Max discovered her mysterious time-traveling power, allowing her to rewind events and change fateful outcomes. With an outstretched hand and intense focus, she could bend reality to her will. She could prevent eventualities, learn secrets and information and retroactively apply them, and even save people from dying. It was wish fulfillment taking the form of infinite cosmic do-overs.

I kept seeking out justifications for my anxiety. My head and heart swelled with untapped energy with no direction or purpose, so I fabricated things I could change. Like Max, I felt alone with a formidable responsibility to make any difference I could. We couldn’t stop meddling. It was a warped hero’s burden. We alone could prevent disaster from occurring, which made it all our fault.

While navigating a nightmarish version of the Life is Strange story’s events, Max encountered our doppelgänger occupying a familiar window-side booth in a dinner packed with people pleading for their lives. This phantom spoke in our voice and called herself “one of the many Maxes you’ve left behind”, afterimages created every time we twisted reality. She called us a hypocrite, condemning us for the “trail of death and suffering” we naively produced trying to fix mistakes and make the world happy again. It was a cyclical pattern of self-loathing we’d grown accustomed to.

“You fucked up time and space for your precious punk, Chloe. You think she’s worth all that?”

Chloe Price, the grungy bright-blue firecracker, is Max’s estranged childhood friend turned confidant and partner in crime. After being rescued from a fatal gunshot by Max’s powers, Chloe owned the role of catalyst and climax to the story. Chloe’s passionate attitude and spontaneity forced Max to stop daydreaming and take a more active role, leading to real growth in self-acceptance and responsibility.

Through it all, they had each other. A special, devoted bond weathering the discovery of a lost love’s corpse, the reliving of a father’s death, and the gravity of a self-fulfilling prophecy ushering in the apocalypse.

At my most desperate, no matter what the phantom told me, I wasn’t really alone. I am so fortunate to have someone in my life who cares for me and lets me care for her. My partner and I played through Life Is Strange together. We felt compelled to persevere through a game that was visibly affecting me more than either of us could have expected. When tragedy struck at the end of Episode 4, I felt the earth had disappeared beneath my feet. The Dark Room swallowed me whole, and my depression felt irreversible.

But in the dark was a remedy. Max could time-travel through photographs and alter the present in Life is Strange, and I could re-learn to love myself. With professional guidance and a cocktail of medicine, there was a mental rearranging. The path out was made clear, and it started with love.

Love for others. I began opening up and telling people how much I appreciated them and what they do. I expressed the impact others made on my life, and how grateful I was to know them.

Love for a partner. I confessed the thoughts of self-harm I felt ashamed of. I let her hold me while I cried. I reminded myself I wasn’t alone.

Love for myself. Taking ownership of what ailed me, and recognizing the patterns I created. Like a cursed superpower, my depression was mine and no one else’s. Through acceptance, I could learn to channel it and overcome.

From the safety of the lighthouse overlook, Max and Chloe watched the storm creep closer to shore. Waves crashed over driftwood and beached whales. Arcadia Bay appeared microscopic, distant in space and time.

Max’s wavering voice nearly drowned in thunderclaps. “This is my storm. I caused this…I caused all of this.”

Chloe stomped out that thinking like a cigarette. “Fuck all of that, okay? You were given power. You didn’t ask for it…and you saved me. Which had to happen, all of this did…”

But fatalism doesn’t hold up to time travel. There was always a choice, Max discovered, and she was presented with a grave ultimatum. Sacrifice Chloe, a girl living on borrowed time, or let the storm claim countless others.

You can also read: Psychonauts Helped Me Rationalize My Own Mental Health

Max learned what she cherished most, and chose to protect Chloe, to wander by her side as they figure out life together, and that’s growth. There is power and freedom in declaring ownership of your choices, of yourself. There’s a great maturity in being content with continuing on instead of undoing what you’ve learned, what you grew from. There is self-worth in caring for others and allowing them to care for you.

Hand in hand, the pair watched the violent upheaval of everything. In the morning sun, all that remained were splinters of a flawed community and echoes of good people. Woodland deer bounded over the wreckage, and a rusty pick-up carried Max and Chloe away.

I feel stronger having gone through it all. Through the sadness, there emerged a bright moment of clarity for me, something that shone through the oppressive walls of The Dark Room. It was love for myself, love for my depression, love for my anxiety. Because it’s all me, all of it, and there isn’t a single part of me that doesn’t deserve to be loved. I never have to carry the weight alone, and it can only grow lighter.

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