Crosses All over the Dormitory
The first time I heard the song Crosses by José González I was driving home.
I don't like to drive but I had honours fieldwork. 2004 was a year of pushing through and doing whatever needed to be done. My journey would take me almost 200 km west of the city, where I could see miles of paddocks, and wind turbines just visible in the distance. I'd visit the sorts of places where other drivers always wave, and you need to put a wheel in the dirt to squeeze past. I felt more comfortable in those quiet rural areas, on bumpy or unsealed roads similar to the places where I first learnt to drive. But they always come with a dose of melancholy. It can get lonely out on the plains.
When I'd return to Melbourne I felt a mix of relief to almost be home, but vulnerability about being back among the anonymous, dangerous mass of cars. Crosses came on the radio right at that moment, and had me in tears driving down the highway. Without quite knowing what the song was about but that it was sad and beautiful, and had someone telling me I'd be alright. Sometimes things turn up at the perfect moment to hear them.
I'm not sure if I can express that particular cocktail of emotions but even writing about it brings it all back. Like flying and falling at the same time, and feeling like you might actually want your heart to break.
This song means more to me than everything else in Life is Strange put together. That's too high a bar to set, I know. But in a game that shoots for the moon it's difficult not to pick on all the ways it misses. I'm still glad it aimed there, for what it's worth.
I let the music wash over me again, as Max laid on her bed or stared out the bus window. As I brought in my own associations it would have been easy to let the song lend everything more emotional weight. I'd prefer to find out what music means to Max but I suspect the answer is not much. Her dorm room feels like someone constructing themselves through the sounds, words and images that feel expected of them.
Music is depicted as escapism, to block out the world when it becomes too hectic, cruel or confusing. Fair and valid, but not particularly interesting in itself. I keep wanting a game about art to try and push deeper.
I don't want to be the sort of person who accuses younger generations of shallowness or that they don't understand the world. But then, Max is clearly an older person's concept of an eighteen-year-old, so the feeling makes more sense. It's as though this was the only way they knew to create a character who is smart but still finding themselves.
I despised Max's need to push into everyone's business and strive to be universally liked and important. Pep talks and hollow sympathy all around. And as an artist I have no idea who she is, which is a problem.
Life is Strange always seems to stop a few steps short of the things it reaches for. To demand more care for each other but always express it in platitudes. Setting up themes about current issues such as surveillance ethics or rape culture but never quite following through. Queerness that's present but viewed from a distance. Like Max herself, Life is Strange seems desperate for everyone to like it, which is a poor foundation for any honest conviction.
Lack of conviction hurts themes about art. Art is passion and vulnerability, and expressing myriad thoughts and feelings. And it's not that art's difficult to find, I think. My toenail clippings are art if I want to look at them that way. But if someone else wants me to appreciate their toeclipping art they're going to have to sell me on it. It's not enough to tell me someone has talent, they need to give me something I can believe in, or at least understand on some level. I'll forgive lack of technical skill but not so much lack of intent.
It doesn't help that Life is Strange is mired in the type of game culture that's in love with pop culture references. Not to do anything with those references in particular, just to stick them all in there like an inspiration checklist. Art becomes basically the same thing – a way to demonstrate the things you're read, watched or played. I suppose that's one way to find common ground with other humans who love the same things. It is a form of connection, but doesn't feel like enough to me. I wish it pushed at something. Meant something. Wanted to mean something, at least.
For someone who doesn't know the first thing about being an artist I have some smug opinions about it I guess.