I could frame anyone of you in a dark corner, and capture you in a moment of desperation
Now, now, I know what are you thinking! "WTF, why are you celebrating a deranged sociopath, who murders women, and takes tortured photos of them before the dirty deed is done?!". First of all I'd like to say, thanks for reading my blog, please continue reading. Second of all I'll say, what you are reading is the third issue of my recent established blog series which I've titled "You're quite something". A title I thought summarizes my objective of analyzing characters, whether they be NPCs, playable protagonists or antagonist, and why they leave me with some memorable after thoughts. The characters I write about in this series aren't necessarily always characters I like because of how their personality, or how they are characterized, but maybe because of the role they play, the archetypes, and how the story writers play with them.
My recent time spent with Life is Strange started with a full playthrough of the prequel, Before the Storm, which I had not played until now, where upon I felt it was only appropriate to jump straight into the original when it was done--Similar to any playthroughts I do with the Steins Gate visual novels and here I am. Now what I usually take into account when making my choices on what to write on, I think about the character and the things he does, say, represents and how that reflects upon the way I read, experience stories, or maybe on how it ties into a much larger discussion that says something more about as people.
It's a pretentious way for me to say that there are quite simply certain aspects to video game characters I find interesting, and this time I want to focus on Mark Jefferson, a man who is essentially a major villain in Life is Strange, though it could be argued that something more abstract could be considered the true villain of this game. And the game does have its share of bad dudes. Mark is a man with a face who is easier to break down. He certainly is a major character, having close ties to Rachel Amber, the character whom you spent the entire game looking for and Chloe's sweetheart, as well as having a close "kin-ship" to Max and his other Photography students. The student teacher aspect isn't inherently unique to this character alone, and there have been many great stories on mentor/student relationships that gets tested-- if nothing else it plays these tropes very carefully. Life is Strange is very much a strange series to me, it wasn't exactly the gold mine of brilliance at first, having gotten my share of young teenage drama from the Persona games, which I personally find to have way better written high school characters than the former, it felt hard for me to like this particular game.
A game that has since become a franchise in only a few short years of time. As of only a week ago, I decided to dive back into this divisive series of occasionally face palm worthy dialogue, and more often than not some genuinely really well done drama and characterization.
Life is Strange when you're a teenage girl, even more so when soon to be an adult in form of Max Caulfield. A young girl who couldn't leave her comfort zone if it was in the path of a herd of charging wookies. This insecurity is part of the meta link that ties Max to her powers of rewinding time, a literal metaphor for teenagers inability or rather challenge in having to deal with tough decisions. The issues she faces are the fairly typical, if not topical affair of revenge porn, unexpected pregnancies, suicide, rape and victim blaming, things fairly associated with young high school women. While Max doesn't necessarily hold all these balls in her court, she faces them all anyway through her classmates and friends whom she goes out of her way to help and consequently befriend thanks to her newfound video game powers. It draws a very interesting picture between player agency, and character, like does Max actually genuinely care for the people she saves, does she actually want to be friends with them or is she simply trying to put on a facade in a desperate attempt to fit in? The question is raised by her own subconcious in the later episodes, it makes for an engaging little thought session when games can manage to frame their own limitations and put them into context that allows the game to ask philosophical questions to think about.
Of course most stories can't go without having an antagonist, whether that antagonist is the insurmountable teenage anxieties, homework, friendship squabbles or just a straight up bully is all different. The thing about Life is Strange is that it's a very personal story, relating to Max made evident by her powers, and how they tie to the character's own issues of being unable to confront people or making heavy decisions-Evident through her interactions, the idle animation of how she nervously scracthes her arm, her seemingly consistent droopy demeanor when talking to people. This is how we are initially introduced to Max, but as we play and get closer to the end, and depending on how you've played Max--One can notice the changes in Max's character, as her responses feel less reserved and more mature. In no less due to the weight of the tragedies, and least of all, betrayals she's had to endure throughout the story, whether it be her closest friend dying again and again, or school mates trying to commit suicide or more importantly in regards to this blog, her idol and teacher Mark Jefferson comitting the worst betrayal.
Before the darkness unveils itself though, we are almost immediately introduced to the character in the very beginning of the game as Max is a student of his photography class. Now, as is typical of these modern adventure games with RPG dialogue wheel functions, there's a bit of roleplaying to be had because they play into choice and consequence, the thing the general masses associates with RPGs.. and NOTHING ELSE, but let's ignore that for a second. For all the "modern" type Telltale esque adventure games I've played, Life is Strange is probably the one with the strongest emphasis on making every choice, and action, carry some proper weight. The overall issue with most video games that want to make moral choices, is that the illusion of decisions making any real impact is paper thin. And these choices feels less like they were designed with the idea of making your decisions meaningful and more like as a way of adding replayability, forcing the player to play the game twice to see all the content. Trying too hard to make all choices matter, or have an effect on the world, can potentially end with a cluttered narrative. In Life is Strange the priority lies on having choices that are difficult, choices that leave an impact, and makes the player pause. The time travel aspect allows Max to redo some of her decisions, even something as seemingly innocent as examining another person's private items can have consequences and will be something you can redo thanks to your powers. Knowing that, might make it hard to believe the difficulty in making decisions, but as said, it plays really well into Max's characterization. Beyond using these powers to gain insight into the people she meets, and subsequently making for some unique an distinct puzzle solving it also serves as a beam for the story's theme of what Max wants and what others want, as it all culminates into a twisted hurricane of destruction. The power granted to her makes her confident enough to try and befriend people, push her beyond her boundaries, and when she's faced with the repercussions of using her powers to her and Chloe's benefit she's set to prove that she can make tough decisions she might not always like without a safety net.
A lot of these aspects draws some parallels to the 2001 sci-fi film Donnie Darko is evident with the same usage of spirituality, time travel, a highly respected male figure turning out to be abusive, and several similar plot points, and even the deep remote forest based setting and weird caricatures like Samuel in form of Twin Peaks is evident--But there are also some strong allusions to Nordic noir with its depiction of a seemingly mundane town in the boonies, and how the rumors of kidnappings and worse affects this small community as they try to live their lives while these things happen around them. The murder mystery is ever looming in the background, while the characters go on about their lives, as they try to make sense of it--It doesn't take precedence over establishing the characters and building the world.
Much like said Nordic Noir thrillers, an entire season generally focuses on one particular murder, as opposed to several, and the story unfolds around the characters tied to the one who was murdered and those affected and/or with any close connection to it. And Jefferson, while not being a serial killer per-se, bears all the hallmark traits of one. In the way of how he captures, tortures his victims, succeeding at this due to sociopathic and charismatic demeanor, making himself out as someone who is easy to trust and rely on. We as human beings have an unhealthy affinity to danger, to the things we hate, it's very Jungian in the sense that it represents the Shadow Self of the ego that we try to suppress, the things we fear to become or don't want to admit, we are inadvertenly drawn to it through our interests in murder mysteries, and the perpetrator's story. Ted Bundy being a very topical example, who now has a Netflix series relaying on victims, and other people who was affected by his crimes, least of all his admirers due to his charm and good looks which paved for some kind of a cult following--Nothing that isn't alien today, but is still very scary. xaggerated depictions of serial killers in the mass media have blurred fact and fiction. As a result, real-life killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and fictional ones like Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter have become interchangeable in the minds of many people.
Jefferson, while not being a public murderer, is very much a public figure and he uses to commit his crimes. Trying to humanize them, and rationalizing them, is ultimately what makes them celebrity monsters similar to the portrayal of the Italian Mob or roguish thieves like Bonnie & Clyde. Life is Strange sees no fit to portraying Jefferson as a misunderstood being of bad circumstances, but rather as a depiction of our unhealthy relationship with danger, with serial killers in general.
So far I haven't been talking about Jefferson too much, because knowing Life is Strange and its trappings, its influences, its play on adventure game tropes, will serve to help understanding the role that Jefferson plays in all of this. Dontnod had already mapped him out as their main villain from the get-go. And going through the game again, it is interesting to note how early the hints can be found. The most obvious are his little anecdotes in his very first lecture in the game, as well as his conversation with Kate, a conversation you'll mostly be missing out on when you arrive at class, but if you are smart enough to use the rewind feature (which I wasn't at first) you can actually hear the whole conversation. Jefferson is laying into Kate, making it seem like she caused the alleged rape and drugging of her person at the Vortex Party she reluctantly attended due to peer pressure. A very unbecoming type of behaviour for someone who calls themselves a teacher, if you so choose and play your cards right you can choose to place the blame of Kate's situation in his head, which will earn him a time-out for his teaching carreer, and it will effect his later conversations with Max.
The interesting thing is that while Max certainly has a bit of crush if not a lot of admiration for him at first, examining her diary will reveal some interesting thoughts. She thinks of him as a bit highy and mighty, and how he changes on how he talks to people, depending on who is present. His role as someone who has a lot of admirers, and how he uses that influence of love to abuse and harm people, it's topical, and also shares a deeper message on the difference between men and women. The fact that he and Nathan Prescott was able to thrive to commit their atrocities because of their status says it all. And his lack of rationale, on top of his lack of motivation being the cherry on the top.
The buildup to Jefferson's reveal is fairly typical of thriller fiction, and as Life is Strange struts towards its conclusion at the apex of Max's character development we get thrown head first into the sophicating, claustrophobic walls of the Dark Room where all photos are crafted, and Jefferson reveals his true colours. His role as Max's idol, the photographer she's always wanted to be, all preconceptions having been shattered also serves to pave away for Max's journey from teenager to a proper adult.
What's most interesting about Jefferson's character isn't so much the character himself, he monologues like a Batman villain, and his role played in the death of Rachel, Nathan's mental deteroiation and so on while integral, the game isn't too bothered with him--And I think that's a good thing, the tendency to focus the spotlight on the killer in a murder mystery has always felt wrong, if not a bit boring, when it's the victims and how it has affected them and their loved ones that is more interesting and important. But not only that, if any reasoning was given to try and rationalize Jefferson actions, it would have only served to downplay the message of powerful men using their power to hurt women. Because there is no reason to why these things happen, no back story, puzzle or hints, Jefferson is not sick, he is a sociopath, completely in control of his actions and smart enough to lie and put on a mask of the innocent teacher to lure women into his Dark Room, carefully picking his targets, and removing them from the equation when he's had enough. All of this is evident with Jefferson's negligence toward's Kate's distressing situation, on top of the darker things he has done, it is Kate's tumoil and challenges that are framed with interests. We are with her throughout the whole thing, even during her most troubled times. It is the people, specifically women, whom he and quite a few of the other male cast members has hurt which the game is interested in. Even Max seems to have a hard time associating with men, beyond Chloe's late father and presumably her own. In her nightmare in the final episode, she's being stalked by all of the primary male figures of the game, evoking a deeper fear of them, especially Warren whose slightly pushy attitude is being flanderized into creepy stalker territory.
There is no revelation on whether Max's fears are true, but there doesn't need to be as fears aren't always clear or true but we sadly all have them to protect ourselves. As the game draws it, Max does seem mostly comfortable around Warren, and depending on how you choose to play her, you can choose to be generally cozy with him, or keeping your distance at a safe spot. Nevertheless, her inner fears paints a deeper subconcious unpleasant feeling that he might be stalking him, there are hints throughout the game, among a few is in Episode 2, where he can be spotted otu of Max's window, peeking inside. There are no real dialogue conversations where he can be confronted about this, and no matter how you play things with Warren, the fears are still there--It hints on a deeper truth of Max's character, her fear of losing Chloe, and depending on how you build your relationship with her the fear of revealing deeper feeligns for her that might not be reciprocated due to Rachel or not knowing whether she just feels the same things, and of course the fear of all the men who's confronted, hurt her and even some that are just a bit "weird. Max might have an underlying fear of men, and Jefferson's revelation as an abuser seems to underline it all.
The fact that the reveal actually came as surprise to me at first is probably what is most interesting. The hints are there, and I never took the time to look at them. Dontnod was careful enough to not think too lowly for the player, and making sure that one would need to think outside of the box to catch all the hints, and the game presents moral conundrums and scrupulous characters comitting terrible things that makes it hard to determine who is bad, and who is bad by circumstance. Perhaps it is because I want to believe the best in people, as I too try to always be the best I can to other people, because of fear of getting rejected, these feelings are reflected in Max too, which is why she becomes a target for Jefferson.
Making Jefferson as Max's photography teacher is also a clever way to draw parallels to Max's powers. In large chunks of the story, Max's powers go hand in hand with her photography skills. Photoes are basically memories, time capsules, and like in Donnie Darko they also serve as jumping points for the time travel aspect. And at the same time, there is predatory side to it too, in the act of taking a picture, where photographing people is to violate them and by framing them in a way which they never see themselves, having knowledge of them that they don't have makes them into subjects that can be symbolically possessed, same as filming someone. You, as the victim, don't have the say into what and how those photoes can used--So while Jefferson doesn't murder his victims, he does do something to them that will ultimately drive them to die as seen with Kate.
To reiterate, it's not new or even all that unique that the teacher ends up being the bad guy in the narrative, it is interesting however that the identity of the perpetrator is ultimately still as surprising as it is. Because as David Madsen says in the game "You should never have to suspect your teacher".