Gamers often talk about the convergence of film and games. But in Life Is Strange, some of my favourite moments are the literary allusions because they make the world feel richer and more authentic.
That starts with Max’s last name, Caulfield, which is a reference to Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, the iconic rebel who calls everything “phony.” At first, I wasn’t sure if the reference was intentional, but then there’s a poster of The Wingers and the Cow in Max’s room which mirrors the cover for Catcher. There’s also a moment when she inspects a hunter’s hat near the principal’s office and notes how “Only a total ‘phony’ would wear a creepy hat like that.” While the two Caulfields’ personalities are different, the spirit of defiance and being an outsider imbue both.
Max’s hobby, photography, plays an important role throughout the game. The school guard is setting up cameras to survey the entire campus in the name of security so the callbacks to Big Brother and 1984 are somewhat obvious in that context (also, one of the missing persons disappeared in 8 June 8, 1984 - the actual 1984 was published on 8 June 1949). But the guard can be photographed harassing Kate Marsh, who in turn has a rabbit called Alice a la Alice in Wonderland.
You’ve borrowed a book from Kate, The October Country by Ray Bradbury, which is a collection of darkly twisted short stories. This reflects the way that Life Is Strange is in some ways also a collection of short stories about the strange citizens of Arcadia Bay. Another Bradbury short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” is also mentioned, which is about a world in which time travel is done as a fun excursion. The story illustrates the “butterfly effect” when a group of hunters go back to 65 million years in the past to kill a tyrannosaurus. The main character accidentally kills a butterfly so that when he returns to his time, a cascade of differences has changed their present. It’s no coincidence that you also see butterflies throughout Life Is Strange.
Horror book references abound. One of the dorm room slates reads, “Redrum,” or “murder” in reverse, a macabre reference to The Shining that seems relevant in the sense of Max possessing special powers like her literary counterpart, Danny Lloyd. Max calls one of the dogs she sees “Cujo,” the eponymous dog who goes on a rampage in the Stephen King classic. She also has Battle Royale in her possession, the powerful novel by Koushun Takami where a bunch of high school students are forced to kill each other (this came before The Hunger Games). While Life Is Strange hasn’t broken out into a gladiatorial fight to kill each other yet, the social competitions are mental bouts for social prestige that take a serious toll on the students, depending, of course, on the choices Max makes (Kate’s arc is really rough).
“Moby Deck Tours” is a callback to Moby Dick and a fight against the cosmic indifference of life, which Max is struggling against. In the residence halls, a William Blake poem is quoted for Kate: “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright, in the forest of the night.” The poem is outwardly about the celestial war for the Heavens, but can also represent the internal battle for our own humanity. As Kate has struggled with personal demons, it’s a poetic attempt by Max to show her support.
In one of the photos Max sees, Chloe’s mum, Joyce, is with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as well as Sailor Song. The latter novel takes place in Kuinak, a small fishing town similar to Arcadia Bay that is one of the few places on the planet left that hasn’t been ravaged by environmental destruction. Max also mentions Jack Kerouac, which evokes the spirit of being “On the Road” and their desire for a carefree life, which Chloe often mentions. Chloe also refers to Max multiple times as “Sherlock,” an obvious connection with the famous sleuth as they try to find a missing girl, Rachel Amber.
There are multiple Hamlet references and Max’s Facebook header, “Time is Bunk,” is a quote from The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. I’m sure the ability to rewind time and change your decisions would make for an interesting addition to the galactic map.
A construction agreement you find is signed by Howard Roark, the stubborn protagonist of The Fountainhead whose architectural purity I’ve heard jokingly referred to as the bane of many architect professors. When stealing money from the principal’s office, Max mentions spending time at Powell’s Books, which is the largest independent bookstore for used books in the world and a nice callout to one of the coolest group of bookstores in Portland, Oregon.
I’m sure there’s some I’ve missed and many more to come (I just started the fourth chapter). The best part about the literary references is, they’re not intrusive, but rather, primarily exist to fill out the world and give it more texture. If you catch them, great. But if not, it doesn’t hamper the experience or detract from it all.
Life Is Strange would be remarkable without a single literary reference. That it seamlessly blends them into the universe is a testament to the fantastic writing from Dontnod Entertainment and its dedication to creating an experience that shows life is strange, but also fascinatingly complex.
It actually reminded me of a moment from another Square game, Chrono Trigger, and its powerful trial scene. Just the way your early choices in the classic JRPG impact the way the trial happens, Max’s decisions have an even bigger role throughout the whole of Life Is Strange. None of that would matter if you didn’t care about those people. Fortunately, in decisions like adding literary references from the real world, Life Is Strange goes a long way to creating believable characters in a believable world.