Life is Strange is aware of and proudly displays its many influences. It contains small nods to contemporary styles and larger references to thematic predecessors. Geek culture manifests in the faux Magic: The Gathering cards hidden in Max’s drawers and on Warren’s graphic t-shirts. Modern hipster aesthetics appear in the game’s soundtrack, which features artists like Alt-J, Sparklehorse, and Mogwai, as well as in Chloe’s punk-chic outfits and Max’s journal doodles. “I mean, we are looking at memes, 4chan, Tumblr, and all that,” Life is Strange’s co-director, Michel Koch, tells Vice. Max namedrops several famous photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia (my man!), in tribute. Life is Strange incorporates this photography into its narrative, visual language, and themes of representation and transience.
In examining the plot of Life is Strange, reflections of popular surreal and sci-fi stories emerge. The Laura Palmer-type figure of Rachel Amber evokes David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, which also receives acknowledgement from Chloe’s “TWNPKS” license plate and the “fire walk with me” graffiti in the Two Whales washroom. Recurring visions of impending catastrophe that conclude on the night of a high school Halloween party? Prolonging an inevitable fate while experiencing newfound joys of adolescence? These elements draw on Richard Kelly’s cult classic, Donnie Darko. Max’s supernatural use of mementos to access and change the past echoes The Butterfly Effect, which derives its premise from “A Sound of Thunder,” a short story written by Ray Bradbury, who wrote The October Country, a book which Max borrows from Kate in the game.
Amidst the broad range of cultural homages in Life is Strange, a specific influence is at the foreground. “Max’s name is a nod to the main character in Catcher in the Rye,” Jean-Maxime Moris, Dontnod’s creative director, told Siliconera after the release of the game’s first episode. It is unsurprising that JD Salinger’s monumental coming-of-age narrative and its unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield, find their way into this particular bildungsroman’s myriad inspirations. There is a poster, titled “The Winger and the Cow,” in Max’s room that is modeled after Catcher’s famous carousel cover art; and a hunting hat in Principal Wells’s office that resembles Holden’s own. If the player investigates the hat, Max makes a reference to the word “phony,” Holden’s iconic slang term. As well, Kate’s jump recalls Catcher’s James Castle. One critic has argued that Max Caulfield’s name is a mere characterization shortcut, but Life is Strange’s callbacks to Catcher are more complex than they first appear, and Holden is as central a part of the game’s subject matter as he is of Max’s name.
In the half-century since the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, generations of troubled teenagers have identified with Holden Caulfield. Catcher chronicles Holden’s premature leave from boarding school and subsequent wintertime wanderings through the city of New York. Always in a state of indecision and melancholia, he resists maturation into adulthood in all its forms—a disposition that makes him bitter and desperate. He criticizes everyone around him for attending to adult niceties and becoming “phonies” concerned with the superficial and performative, yet is often driven by compulsion or necessity to engage with those same people. His blind stabs at adulthood place him in awkward positions, and, as a motif throughout the novel, Holden recounts old times rather than choosing to engage with the present. His distress builds with each of his encounters, and his physical and mental states deteriorate as he socially distances himself from everyone he knows and meets. He plans to run to the countryside and live a life of solitude as a deaf mute, eschewing interaction with other human beings, but Phoebe, his younger sister, brings him back.
The only solace Holden finds is in the perceived beauty of innocence. He has a favorable meeting with two nuns, and he finds joy in seeing a young boy carelessly obstructing traffic. At one point, he helps tie a young girl’s skates. She thanks him and it pleases him. His only living acquaintance that he truly likes is Phoebe, who has yet to face her inevitable maturity. He resents his older brother, a writer who takes his talents to Hollywood, but cherishes the late memory of his younger brother, Allie. When Phoebe asks Holden to name one thing he genuinely likes, he can only name Allie. “Allie’s dead,” Phoebe says. “Just because somebody’s dead, you don’t just stop liking them,” Holden rebuts.
Allie’s innocence is preserved in his death; he cannot age or mature and thereby cannot inherit the traits of the adult realm that Holden so detests. In the same conversation with Phoebe, Holden expresses his modus operandi, from which The Catcher in the Rye gets its title:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around—nobody big, I mean—except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
It is popular to read Holden as a noble character who suffers disillusionment with 1950s America, as a defender of the sanctity of childhood, and as a tragic martyr failing to control the uncontrollable. But Holden’s crusade for innocence also informs the motivation of Life is Strange’s antagonist, Mark Jefferson. The connection becomes clear once Max comes face-to-face with the catcher in “Polarized,” the game’s final episode.
Holden’s fixation on innocence comes to a twisted conclusion in Jefferson’s photography. “Simply put,” he tells Max in the Dark Room, “I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing that moment innocence evolves into corruption.” Likewise, Holden is fascinated by symbols of preservation in Catcher, noting his interest in mummification and penchant for childhood field trips to the museum with carved statues of Native Americans. This desire for preservation is what drives Jefferson to his photography, which shares morbidity with Allie, mummies, and the noble savage trope promoted by the statues. “Max…you used to be so pure, so innocent,” says Jefferson, “[now] you have to die.” Like Holden, Jefferson attempts to control the uncontrollable—to contradict the natural order. He purports to look for “pure expression” in his models, but screams at Max to stay still: “I need you posed and framed my way!”
The way that Life is Strange links Holden to Max in name and Jefferson in attraction to innocence enriches the reading of Max’s final choice. Holden’s obsession with innocence alienates him from everyone he knows and makes him a miserable misanthrope; Jefferson’s infatuation with purity perverts his artistic talent and passion into something horrifying and harmful. Like Holden, Jefferson is a catcher in the rye, but what about Max? She must choose the possibilities of the future over the allure of the past lest she meet a similarly tragic fate.
The narrative implies that Arcadia Bay’s ecological disasters are the result of Chloe’s continued survival and of Max’s refusal to let her go. As Max rescues Chloe from both Nathan and the train while rekindling her beloved childhood friendship, the storm draws nearer. In this case, Chloe is Max’s equivalent of Allie: a relic of childhood brilliance to be parted with and properly grieved for the sake of healthy personal growth. Is it a mistake in the order of Holden and Jefferson to sacrifice a whole town for Chloe? In keeping Chloe, is Max sabotaging her future opportunities and relationships, distancing herself from everyone else by destroying Arcadia Bay? Is Chloe Price the price of passage into maturity? Her phone call that removes Max from the Zeitgeist Gallery (where Wells ordains Max “a noteworthy adult”) seems to imply so.
However, if the storm is to be read as a metaphor for Max’s inner turmoil towards maturity, it is important to note that it subsides regardless of the player’s final choice. Sunshine accentuates Max and Chloe’s exit from the fallen Arcadia Bay. Birds and deer arrive amongst the wreckage, heralding the return of the natural order. The visible Pan Estates billboard alludes to Pan, a Greek god of wilderness, reverberating notions of pastoral simplicity. The imagery reinforces the town’s nominal tie to Arcadia (a place artistically synonymous with an unattainable, utopian past), which suggests that Arcadia Bay, the site of Max’s youth, is the cost of her entry into adulthood. Perhaps Max is meant to abandon the physical ideal of nostalgia and embrace Chloe as the avatar of the future.
“There are supernatural things [in Life is Strange],” Moris tells GameReactor, “but they’re only there to be a metaphor for what is going on inside the characters.” The metaphors of Life is Strange, like those of many classic pieces of fiction, are ambiguous and worthy of discussion. Dontnod places allusions to The Catcher in the Rye in Life is Strange not just as a formal tip of the hunting hat to Salinger’s influence, but also to let the player know that a foundational knowledge of his novel is a helpful tool for interpreting meaning within the rich ending of a remarkably literary videogame.