Eastshade: gaming, grief, and lockdown

Mild spoilers for Eastshade within.

One of the few joys of lockdown has been the chance to discover new games and play them for hours on end without interuption. I notched up 10 consecutive hours in Heaven’s Vault one Saturday back in May because it was so entralling, I just couldn’t bring myself to stop. And the light evenings back then meant I could still go for my permitted walk of the day afterwards. How fabulous!

For the past few weeks people have been feeling on edge, knowing lockdown restrictions could become harsher any at moment with little to no warning. For many, this uncertainty and lack of clarity has been some of the hardest aspects of the pandemic to deal with.

Now full lockdowns are happening again in parts of the UK – and it looks like next week the rest of us will join them. It will be harder this time with colder, wetter weather taking away our chance to enjoy time outside coupled with long, dark evenings.

Life has been reduced to trying to similtanously savour and grieve the things you know will soon be taken away from you again. Every weekend I go for what could be my last meal at a restuarant for a while. Or see a friend in a park for what could be the last time for a while. It’s hard to fully enjoy these activities though, because we just don’t know.

Over the past month I also had a grief milestone looming over me. On Sunday, the sad and grief-stricken day arrived where I had lived longer without my mum than with her. As always with grief-milstones, the build-up was very emotional and intense (and always worse than the actual day itself for some reason!). I felt quietly heartbroken and I didn’t have anyone to talk about it with who understood or knew what that day meant to me.

And then I stumbled upon Eastshade. What a beautiful, moving, life-affirming game! It gave me everything I didn’t realise I needed.

A screenshot showing a beautiful, green landscape with some mountains in the distance, and a hot air balloon rising into the sky.

It is very carefully and thoughtfully designed. At the start of the game, you travel to a small island populated with talking, walking animal folk. Your reason for visiting is that your mother really loved this place. You want to find and paint 4 beautiful views on the island that she told you about. She died an unspecified amount of time ago. This is OK though because the grief is quietly there but it’s not so raw it’s unbearable. You have gentle challenges to move the game along but nothing is urgent, nothing bad will happen to you and nothing can hurt you. You can find and complete other quests along the way but they are also small and gentle, like helping someone to find something. Or discovering the source of the music in the woodlands at night.

Exploring is the heart of the game. All the quests are designed to get you look around and discover something more and you are always rewarded for this. Every flower, beach, woodland trail, and sunset is just magnificent. It is so beautifully crafted. For example, the light changes depending on the time of the day. So I often found my way back to the beach, river, or tower top just to appreciate it during a different moment.

The sound design was also exquisite and again, I often found myself visiting places just to hear a particular piece of music, or the waves, or the sound of paddling my raft on the lake.

Another clever bit of design was the way that areas of the island opened up for exploration. At first you are in a small village, then the surrounding area, then the town etc. etc. You always had enough to explore and still feel free to do whatever you wanted without getting lost or feeling too overwhelmed. Just as one area might start to get a bit boring, another opened up. As you began to tire of walking around, you earned enough money to buy a bike or a pulley wheel. Then you could have fun whizzing around on wheels or zooming down ziplines to previously inaccessible areas.

When you return home at the end of game, you see the pictures you painted on the island and the letters you received from new friends made.

A screenshot from a cave on the beach, looking out to the sky, the sea, and a cliff face. A stone column divides the view of the sky into two.


Everything I’ve just described matches the criteria for boosting mental well-being, doesn’t it? It feels like the game was deliberately designed with this in mind.

  • Exploring your surroundings
  • Appreciating nature
  • Discovering new and exciting things
  • Helping others, and being helped in return
  • Overcoming challenges
  • Making new friends
  • Going somewhere new
  • Doing things to remember the people we love

We can’t do a lot of these things in real life right now, so I feel so blessed to have discovered this game at a time where I could benefit from it the most. Thanks to Eastshade, I can do these things virtually instead. I have a wonderful and safe place to return to any time I like.

That’s all great but why are you talking about it here, in your blog on bisexuality?

Good question! Well, one of the quests is to get two erm, female bearfolk, together. They have feelings for each other, but aren’t sure if the other feels the same. Your task is to invite one of them to a picnic so the other can tell them how they feel. So sweet! And I didn’t know it was coming so it was such a pleasant surprise.

This quest really made me smile. It was simple, joyful, LGBTQ+ inclusion in a really nice and meaningful way. The quest was treated exactly the same as any other in the game. That’s all I’ve ever wanted in the media I consume really, to be represented and treated just like everyone else.

Thank you for giving that to me, Eastshade. I love you.

A screen shot of a waterfall, lined by trees either side. Trees with green leaves on the left, and a deep shade of pink on the right. Again, the sun and moon are visible in the sky.

The highs and lows of Life is Strange

Warning: Spoilers within!

I don’t know about you, but I feel permanently exhausted by mainstream media and its heteronormativity. So I’ve been desperately searching for more LGBTQ+ books, shows, movies, and games to consume.

Buoyed by my discoveries of Gone Home and Tacoma I moved on to Life is Strange and was delighted to discover that (depending on what choices you make) there’s a romance between the two main characters. And normally you can have something queer or something good but not both so I’m happy to report that it was one of the most beautiful and moving gaming experiences I’ve ever had.

What’s it all about then?

Well, technically it is a game, but it would be more accurate to say that it’s essentially a story that plays out in front of you and in between scenes you explore and interact with your surroundings. During conversations with the people you encounter, various different answers pop up on the screen that you have to choose from. What you choose affects the game in subsequent scenes and episodes. And I mean really affects, like whether people live or die and not just something petty like you eat an apple instead of a banana. As a result you often find yourself sitting in front of the screen for 5-10 mins working out which option you want to take. How cool is it that a game makes you think like that?

The game is comprised of 5 episodes in total. I got all 5 for £15 on Steam and considering it took me 3-4 hours to complete each once I felt like it was very good value for money. The first episode is free so you can try it out without losing any money if you don’t like it.

You play a young adult called Max (short for Maxine), a college student studying photography in a small Oregon town on the coast. The game opens with you just finishing a class. When you visit the bathroom another teenage girl (Chloe) gets shot by a fellow student. In the trauma of the moment you discover you can rewind time and save her. Yay superpowers! (Later you can even use Polaroid photos to travel through time.)

And the young adult you saw get shot? Naturally she turns out to be your childhood BFF who you haven’t seen or spoken to in 5 years because you moved away…

…and she’s your romantic interest!

Neither of their sexualities are stated in the game but to me they both read as bisexual. Both young women are attracted to each other. Chloe has bisexual coloured hair and makes comments about having boyfriends in the past and a male teacher being hot. Max is into Chloe, but depending on how you play the game can be attracted to her friend called Warren too.

chloe

 Chloe with purple-pinky roots and blue hair.

Life is Strange has good writing, natural dialogue, and a really intriguing plot. There are two strands to the story. There’s the paranormal where you can rewind time and choose what you use your powers for. But your powers come with a heavy price (don’t they always?) – they will cause a tornado to appear in a few days’ time which will destroy the entire town. Whilst that is playing out in the background there’s also the human drama which propels the story forward. A girl from your school is missing – what happened to her? What’s her relationship to Chloe? Who in the school knows more than they’re letting on? And how does the mystery link back to your classmate who is clearly struggling with mental health problems and being bullied?

And now for the downsides…

It doesn’t take a genius to work out where some of this story is going. This kind of set up always leads to the same things. Naturally everyone is hiding something and no one is as they first seem. If the missing girl were to be found alive by the end of the game I’d eat my bobble hat. And my troubled classmate is either going to kill herself or I am going to have to try and stop her. As a suicide bereavement survivor this kind of content is very traumatic and makes me long for the day when games come with trigger warnings.

Here’s what I texted my friend about the game whilst I was playing:

“OMG the graphic design is so stunning. As is the voice acting. And the soundtrack of cool punk music + beautiful instrumentals is awesome. The friendship between Chloe and Max just keeps blossoming. And it has loads of subtle X-files references, like 10-13 written on hallway posters!”

Followed up by; “This happiness can’t last, can it? :( ”

See we’re all conditioned to know that we don’t get happy endings. Not us queer folk. Not in fiction. So I was bitterly disappointed to find that my suspicions were right. It was all too good to be true.

I won’t reveal the details in case you want to play the game yourself but if you don’t mind a few more spoilers I can tell you the end because knowing that won’t ruin the rest of the plot that much – it’s too separate from it.

End of game spoiler & discussion below

Your final choice boils down to either saving Chloe or saving the entire town from the tornado.

Arrghhhhhhh,” I texted my friend. “The only way to save Arcadia Bay is to kill my girlfriend!

I’d say, fuck the town,” she replied. (Which is understandable. She needs happy endings as much as I do. She’s still recovering from losing Lexa in The 100.)

Many fans feel the same, which spawned the phrase ‘BAE before Bay’.

That’s what I’m going to choose,” I replied. “Because I NEED a happy story. But urgh what a stupid choice. I’m so angry. I don’t want all the characters I’ve spent so long getting to know to just die in the storm. I knew this game was too good to be true!

Now as it happens, the little girl I live with came in to my room at that exact moment the game paused for me to pick between those two end options. She asked me what I was doing so I explained what the game was and how both options were so awful I didn’t want to choose.

You should save your girlfriend. Because…because you can always go and find a new town,” she said, perhaps not realising at the tender age of ‘nearly 6’ that meant people would die, not just that the buildings in the town would be destroyed. But still, I like the way she thinks!

The lowest of the lows…

I felt cheated because I had so carefully thought over every other single choice in the game. Whilst they impacted other threads of the story, it was really sad that ultimately none of them mattered if your only option is to either go back to the very start and erase everything you’ve been through or let the town be destroyed.

When you choose to save Chloe it really sucks because all those characters you’ve come to know? You never see them again. You don’t try to call Chloe’s mum or visit to diner to search for her and see if she survived. You don’t even get a short montage of college classmates and townfolk coming out of wrecked buildings to asses the damage or anything. So you don’t feel like you get any resolution and you’re made to feel like you selected the ‘wrong’ choice.

In order to feel like I’ve fully completed the game I know I’m supposed to rewind time and pick Chloe’s death instead. Which I do for completeness, and in another slap to the player only then are you allowed to witness a true kiss between these star-crossed lovers. Followed by a very long montage of heart-wrenching moments showing Chloe’s murder and everyone else grieving.

I hate that the writers have led me down this path and that’s what makes me feel utterly let down and hurt by this game’s ending. (Along with the fact that a lot of it can be classed as ‘torture porn’ as the game features sexual abuse, murder, characters being drugged etc. etc. which is also very upsetting.)

So, to use the name of the last episode, I feel so polarised…

On the one hand the first 3 episodes were some of the best gaming experiences of my life. I was moved beyond words. So utterly taken with these characters and their beautiful friendship and blossoming romance. Yet on the other hand I just felt so used and hurt by the ending. Especially considering that it didn’t have to be that way at all.

So what can we take away from all of this? Well thankfully I took a Polaroid of myselfie just after playing epsiode 3 so if I stare at it now…yes! Reality is changing!

– – – >past me reaches for the mouse in order to click ‘Play Episode 4’ < – – –

Future Me:No, wait! Listen. Don’t play any more. Enjoy what light this has brought into your life and leave it at that. Listen to punk music. Go and kiss women with bisexual coloured hair. Dye yours purple like you always wanted to. Get into photography because it looks so cool in the game. How about lumography?!

Past Me:Oh erm, well…

Future Me:Put a picture of Max and Chloe together on your wall. As your screen saver! Laptop and mobile!! Download the soundtrack. Listen to it everywhere. Dance. Fall in love!

Past me: “You’re kinda scaring me now. :/ Help.”

Me:Find your own Chloeeeeeeeeeeeee.”

– – – – Whooooooooosh. Time Travel!  Future me disappears – – – –

So as I had a sneaky suspicion about how the game would end I decided not to finish it. I’m really sorry as that means I can’t give you a full review but I’d rather not take the risk that it ends badly. The story that unfolded between Max and Chloe was so great I just want to give them a happy ending in my own head and keep it that way. I’ve read that a prequel was released last year and that a sequel is in the works too so I will have to check out their reviews to see if I want to delve deeper into this franchise.

If you’ve played either of the two games available do let me know what you thought of them. Did you go through the same highs and lows I did?

I can’t wait to replay the first few episodes of the game just to relive that joy again, and pick different choices so I can see how the various different outcomes unfold. I also love how it’s really inspired me creatively. I have the urge to write, draw, doodle, and journal.

There is a lot that is problematic about this game which makes me both angry and sad – but I can’t deny there is a lot about it that I love, including the representation of its bi characters. This is a story that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. And to celebrate that I even printed off a picture and stuck it on my bedroom wall.

max-chloe

Max and Chloe walk along each side of the raised section of a railway track. Their arms are outstretched to keep themselves balanced and they are holding hands over the sleepers.