Playing Life Is Strange May Be Sad, but It's Hardly Depressing

Oh, Life is Strange. You know me so well...
Oh, Life is Strange. You know me so well... Screencap from the credit roll of Life is Strange Chapter 4: Dark Room
click to enlarge Oh, Life is Strange. You know me so well... - SCREENCAP FROM THE CREDIT ROLL OF LIFE IS STRANGE CHAPTER 4: DARK ROOM
Oh, Life is Strange. You know me so well...
Screencap from the credit roll of Life is Strange Chapter 4: Dark Room
Warning: Spoilers

“Dear God, why are you playing that again? It always makes you so depressed.”

That was my lovely wife, who had come out of the shower to find me engaged on what I think is my fourth play-through of Life Is Strange. I’m hard-pressed to think of a game that has so engaged me in the last decade. I find new things every time I play it (this time, a new Doctor Who Easter egg). Gaming has become a narrative experience for me as an adult, with only a few things, like Tomb Raider or Thief, sparking an interest in battling against a computer army. You’re much more likely to find me riveted on stuff like Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

However, she’s not wrong. Life Is Strange still makes me cry every time I play it. The suicide or salvation of Kate Marsh, the decision whether to help Chloe Price die, and, my God, that ending if you rip up the Polaroid…those scenes will tear out your heart and mount it on the wall like a Big Mouth Billy Bass. This game affects me.

It does not, however, depress me. It just makes me sad.

Depression runs deep in my family, and is something I’ve been struggling hard with over the past several months in ways that I have never had to before. Part of it was spending an entire year covering an endless dumpster fire of an election followed by the ascension of one of the most incompetent fascists ever to achieve executive power. That’s enough to trigger even people not prone to depression into a malaise.

You’d think that state would make me avoid something as emotional and tragic as Life Is Strange, but the truth is that sadness seems to actually help. The problem with depression is how it wraps you in a cloud through which nothing can penetrate. It’s like carrying around your own personal health-sapping smog. Reaching out past that not only takes monumental effort, it feels pointless. Better to just sit and stare off into the middle distance, letting entropy take you.

Likewise, it’s hard for anything to reach into you. You can hug a depressed person and tell him or her how much you love that person, and it does help, but your capacity to feel is diminished. It’s like anesthesia for your soul.

The sadness I get from Life Is Strange is a powerful emotion that penetrates the numbness. It’s something I can feel when feeling anything is welcome. Sadness is not necessarily a bad emotion, either. Why does playing the game make me sad? Because I’ve come to care deeply about the characters. Because I too have experienced hard choices with no completely good outcomes, seen people I love die, comforted the victims of terrible monsters and watched dreams burn like celluloid caught in the gears of a projector. The only way you can be sad is if what is happening matters to you on a primal level.

Sure, finding something that could make me feel joy in that way would be nice, but few video games have that capacity. The ending of Final Fantasy XII always puts a smile on my face. Nothing like watching a war end and all the people fighting team up to save the world to brighten the day, after all, but I’m hard-pressed to think of another example. Feel free to suggest them in the comments, though.

It’s okay to be sad. I would say it’s even necessary if you want to be a healthy human being. It means you feel, and when depression has me lying in the dark wondering what the point of it all is, an intense sadness that comes from re-engaging with the adventures of Max Caulfield is like a shot of adrenaline. I woke up this morning in the blackness as usual, but like the quiet moments in Life Is Strange where Max contemplates the in-game universe, I contemplated what it meant to be sad or depressed based on my wife’s comment. It was enough to get me up and want to write this, which is more than I do some days. That’s the power of sadness, sometimes. What can I say?

Life is strange.

Life Is Strange Episode 1 is currently free on PS4 and Steam.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner