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On Life is Strange‘s Empty Spaces and Quiet Moments

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There’s something so important about empty spaces in video games. Life is Strange stands out so much for me because it understands this all too well. For starters, it’s an adventure game–a walking simulator, depending on what circles you run in–so it lends itself well to quiet, still moments already. It moves at your pace, allowing you to stand and look at something as long as you’d like. You’ve even got the power to rewind time in case you find yourself in one of those rare sections that don’t afford you that opportunity.

But what’s so special about Life is Strange is that there are these moments where “Sit” becomes an action for you to take.

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I’m not even joking when I say that these moments–these empty, quiet moments in a game that’s all about rewinding time to make moments–are why I enjoy Life is Strange so much.

When we play a game, usually we’re assaulted by a barrage of stimuli: check your health, reload, listen for footsteps, keep an eye on your radar, listen to comms, know where your teammate’s standing… all these things are just running in the back of our minds as we play. It’s overwhelming at times, if not downright exhausting. Games are usually about having something to do at all times.

But Life is Strange has made sitting and reflecting an important part of the game. In this particular screenshot, the game’s protagonist, Max, has set out to find some empty bottles to shoot with her old best friend, Chloe. As she does, she finds a stump she can lean on. As she sits in the (relative) quiet of the junkyard, she reflects on her time back in Arcadia Bay.

Design-wise, it’s a fine (if heavy handed) way of providing some exposition, allowing a peek into Max’s head. It is a pretty strong example of telling instead of showing (which is what you don’t want to do in a story), but that only lasts for a few lines before the slow pans and panoramic views begin to loop without any speaking.

The background noise settles in and before you know it, you’re given this opportunity to sit and reflect with Max, having your own kind of conversation in your own head. She’s just sitting against a tree, you’re sitting on the floor. Or on the sofa. Or in a chair. It’s a great moment of immersion that I personally soak up every chance I get.

Story-wise, there’s a strong symbolic importance in having moments like these in the game. Take episode 3’s “empty space.” Max is crashing at Chloe’s after a night of shenanigans at Blackwell. Max says, “Wish we could just hang out all morning like we used to.”

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The thing is, it’s fully within your hands as the player to let them do that. After a few more bits of conversation, you find yourself in another “empty space,” with a prompt to stand up if you wish. Chloe turned on her stereo moments ago, so music begins to play, specifically Bright Eyes’ “Lua,” which has some pretty gosh darn melancholic lyrics. The camera shifts from them lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling, to  looking at different parts of the room.

The game can’t progress unless you get up. You know what you have to do, and you know where you have to go, but if you happen to be enjoying this moment, you understand that it’s only temporary. In order to move on, you have to let this moment be a moment; you have to let it go.

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The song plays out and you’re still sitting in bed. There’s a gap before the music kicks back in and you just hear the sounds of birds and trees outside. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s everything that episodes 3 and 4 are not. To get wide-scope with it for a minute, it’s everything that life is not.

Think about it. When we go through the course of our day, usually we’re assaulted by a barrage of stimuli: check your phone, pick a song, listen for your subway train, keep an eye on your time, don’t be late, know where your project stands before going into the meeting… all these things are just running in the back of our minds as we live. It’s overwhelming at times, if not downright exhausting. With tech and our lives as they are right now, it’s always about having something to do at all times.

To carve out space like this, to find the empty spaces between the hectic moments of life, seems almost luxurious. It seems the stuff of fantasy. Leave it to a video game, then, to place that luxury back into our hands. Life is Strange reminds us of the importance of having these quiet moments to ourselves, and that’s something I’ve taken directly to heart.

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