Life is Strange

Life is Hella Strange – NorCal’s Culture Shines in Life is Strange

[alert type=”green”]MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD; READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.[/alert]

When you started your first playthrough of Life is Strange, it was made aware to you it took place in a town called Arcadia Bay. Which, if you’re from Northern California, or NorCal as we locals say, you probably thought, “huh, that sounds a lot like Arcata.” As someone who also lived in SoCal, Arcadia is a nothing town next to Pasadena that has a giant mall. And that’s about it. As you open Max’s journal and read her entries, you discover this magical place of Arcadia Bay is south of Seattle, in Oregon (and all NorCal folks will tell you, anything North of Redding is basically Oregon). The only thing that exists with that name in Oregon is the Arcadia Beach State Recreation Site, south of Cannon Beach. I know I’m losing you, but bare with me here—fast forward to seeing Chloe and Nathan fighting in the bathroom the first time, and the magic words come right out:

“Wrong. You got hella cash.”

I remember that moment like it was yesterday (well, it was a couple of weeks ago, but you get the point). I sat straight up in my chair, eyes wide, gripping my mouse and the edge of my keyboard like, “did she just say… HELLA?” And she said it again, and again. Fist pumps were had, and I felt like I was playing a game in my own hometown. She said hella, and my theory was confirmed. My theory was further confirmed at PAX East 2015, when I met with game director Michel Koch, and executive producer Luc Baghadoust, who told me about the lead writer who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area to study the culture and area.

“Some people did not like the ‘hella’ in the dialog,” Luc told me, “and others did. I stayed up all night looking at all the [Twitter] posts about the game.”

Life is Strange
I have a place just like this in Benicia where I go to clear my head.

I reassured Luc all the “hella haters” were those not of our kind, and those who reside South of the San Luis Obispo county line. That he had nothing to fear, and he did the culturally accurate thing by perfectly representing “hella” in Chloe’s vocabulary. Luc definitely appreciated my feedback, and it meant a lot to me that Dontnod Entertainment went that far to ensure the game had a genuine NorCal feel. If you’re not from NorCal, you’re probably all wondering the same thing: Is the word hella really that big of a deal? Well, it is. But that’s not the only thing they got right.

I was raised in a town called Vallejo, and went to school in the neighboring town, Benicia. Now please, don’t pretend you even know where they are, or that you’ve even heard of them (unless you listen to E-40/Mac Dre or any other Hyphy-Movement artist). And no, you can’t diss the towns unless you had to live/go to school there for eighteen years, so please, don’t try. Vallejo and Benicia are right next door to one another, where in some parts, you may think you are in one, but are actually in the other. We were far enough from San Francisco to escape the chaos, but close enough to escape our small town and enjoy the big city. Similar to Life is Strange’s Arcadia Bay and Seattle, for example.

One of the biggest complaints the youth of Arcadia Bay have is that there is “nothing to do in this shithole.” Towards the end of episode one, where Chloe takes you to the lighthouse, a lot of the things you can observe in the area took me back to my days in Benicia. I do want to point out that Arcata [California] also has a lighthouse where people go to relax, called the Trinidad Head Light. It’s not nearly as large, and has more of a square base, but I found the similarity interesting, and charming. When Chloe sits down and looks over the town, you have a chance to observe random points around the area.

©Tatjana Vejnovic
Kyle Warren – ©Tatjana Vejnovic, Mare Island, CA, 2008

Silly graffiti was one of the first things you notice as you come up the hill. I don’t think I have enough bones in my body to count how many times I’ve walked around places in Benicia and Vallejo I wasn’t allowed to walk around. Say the old military academy on Mare Island, for example. I’d find stupid graffiti very obviously left by Benicia-made bands and high school punks. The remnants of a bonfire was the next thing I noticed–which my goodness, if we weren’t drinking beer in the 9th Street parking lot, we were trying to make a bonfire somewhere along the bay coast in Benicia. If we had the gas money and ability to get away from our parents, however, we went to the city, and made a huge bonfire at Sunset Beach. The empty beer bottles and cans, burned wood logs–it all hit home for me, and really added to the experience of playing through the game.

Something I want to applaud Dontnod Entertainment for is their diverse student body [at Blackwell Academy]. Much like my senior class at Benicia High School, you had people of all races, heights and body styles. But not just physical diversity—the personalities of the student body (if you get a chance to talk to everyone you can), is quite impressive. You had the bitchy cheerleaders, the snobby art kid, the wannabe-popular but artsy introvert, the very Christian abstinence-believer, the geek, the whole nine yards. Whether we want to admit it or not, Benicians, our high school had a lot of different groups and personality types to offer. I mean shit, we had an Anime Club. Not a lot of high schools did.

Life is Strange
I know who in my class was the “Dana.”

Going back to Max’s journal, in the first part where she talks about getting accepted to Blackwell, she wrote:

“If words were a dance, this would be a rave. Even though I’ve never been to one.”

It was no secret senior year that if you wanted to go to a rave, you had to talk to me. I wasn’t “popular” until senior year. I kinda transformed going into senior year. I grew a couple of inches, I dyed the under part of my hair blue, and I started going to raves. This word got out, and people kept asking me (people who I barely knew, or people who were mean to me prior) if they could go with me. And of course I said no! I only took my best friends with me. This little part in her journal just reminded me of the NorCal rave craze. Funny how the smallest thing still reminded me of something in my high school days.

If you interacted with a trash can, Max would say, “glad to see our campus is so eco-friendly.” To piggy-back on the rave thing, my friend Colleen and I actually did a glow-stick recycling project at POP 2008. Aside from that, recycling when I was in high school was the new big step in taking care of the environment. People who recycled and were active and loud about it definitely tried to make a difference around campus. We did a lot of different recycling events around school, including a giant E-Waste event.

Chloe Life is Strange

Not to say “oh man, I’m so Chloe,” or “Chloe was so me,” but I do see a lot of eighteen-year-old me in Chloe. I dyed my hair blue, and nearly flunked out of high school; I found no use for classes that I saw no real-life application for. My room was also a fucking wreck, had posters covering up every inch of the wall, and I was negative about everything. I loved rock music, and I tried so hard to be punk. I wore studded belts, band t-shirts–I hated that new shit, I was all about the Stones, and wore a shit ton of bracelets, rings and eyeliner. Sadly, I didn’t discover I looked good in a beanie until after my prime college years.

Although we don’t know much about Chloe’s relationship with Rachel Amber, there are a few posters on Chloe’s wall that give hints that Chloe may be bisexual or lesbian, which I can also relate to. I was about thirteen when I figured out that I was bi, and it made me internalize a lot of emotions. It wasn’t until I was fifteen that I came out to my mom, and even that was frustrating! She didn’t understand, and that did no good for our already hindering relationship. Like Chloe, my father had also passed, but at a far younger age, and I didn’t necessarily always agree with who my mother dated, with caused a lot of tension.

Above Chloe’s bed, she has “I’d rather have a life of oh wells than a life of what ifs,” written in sharpie. When I noticed that on my second playthrough, I about shit. To this day, my mother scolds me for my decision on moving to Los Angeles for a year. “I told you, you’d fucking hate it. Nothing good would come out of it. Look what happened. Fucking car accidents! Just look what you did to yourself!” And like my good friend Erin told me, I had to do it for me. Because I could live a life of what ifs, or I could live a life of oh wells, and that was the path I chose for myself, and I am fortunate for that experience. Fact of the matter is, Chloe is more than just a secondary character: she’s a real, relatable figure.

Life is Strange

There’s a lot more about Life is Strange that I can nitpick and match up to the NorCal culture and my high school days. Even the music in the game made me feel like I was at home. A lot of the local bands and bands I liked were of that indie-acoustic type. What still shocks me is how accurate it was to the lifestyle and culture. Remembering old local businesses, going to places that overlooked the town and talking shit, making bonfires, making treehouses (in my case, inflatable rafts and getting “stuck” in the bay.. oh man), you name it. Yeah, Benicia is a shithole, and Arcadia Bay is, too. But that’s what made Life is Strange an experience for me, not just another episode of yet another game series. I hope other NorCal folk find their way to the title and feel this way, too.

And for what it’s worth, October 2013 was pretty damn warm.