Grow Up is a series in which I evaluate whether games called young adult actually fit the definition and explore why that matters.

On paper, Life is Strange looks like a quintessential young adult game. It tells the story of a teenage girl, Max, who discovers she has magical powers—in this case, time travel. Depending on the player’s choices, there’s a budding romance between her and her former best friend, Chloe, or between Max and her new, goofy nerd friend Warren. Even the visuals, tinged with golden hour light and an overall Instagrammy color shift, scream youth.

And it is a coming of age story, of the type associated with young adult fiction and female audiences in particular. Max gets new time-travel powers, rekindles a friendship, and learns a valuable lesson about how saving the day isn’t as easy as it looks. She can learn more about her feelings, explore her sexuality, stand up to bullies and save lives. But does being a coming of age story guarantee that Life is Strange is also a young adult story?

It’s more complex than just looking at the aesthetics of the game, or how it lines up with story beats associated with young adult fiction. In actuality, Life is Strange seems to be aiming for a young adult audience, but doesn’t entirely succeed at capturing how and why those story beats and aesthetics appeal to the intended audience.

“Coming of age” is typically associated with young adult because these stories center young or teenage protagonists forming their own identities. While figuring out who you are may be most common in your teenage years (and in teen fiction), identities are fluid and changeable at any time—a protagonist forming a more solid identity does not mean that they’re a teenager, or even that they’re lacking in maturity for their age.

But in the case of Life is Strange, its protagonists are teenagers. The fact that Max is a teenager and a girl to boot makes it tempting to shove the game into the young adult category because of the way femininity, youth, and young audiences are tangled up together in popular consciousness.

Ash Krieder, on their blog Go Make Me a Sandwich, discusses the apprehension they felt recommending Life is Strange to a male friend, assuming that he wouldn’t get it because he lacked the experience of having been a teenage girl. On reflection, Krieder realized they’d been asked to identify with coming of age stories about boys all the time—and, more importantly, that those stories often got shelved with the classics, whereas coming of age stories about girls were considered young adult or “girl’s fiction.” Earthbound, the Persona series, and even The Legend of Zelda, to a certain extent, use story beats associated with coming of age stories but aren’t lumped in with YA the way that Life is Strange is.

We can chalk that up to garden-variety misogyny toward female protagonists and young women’s interests, if we want to, but there’s something more interesting at work: while coming of age is one of the frameworks in the Life is Strange, it’s not the only one—and that’s where things start to get tricky.

In Innuendo Studios’s video “Superposition: The Genre of Life is Strange,” the host describes the game as having two sides. The game’s first two and a half episodes encompass a standard coming of age story structure, and the latter two and a half are a “Lynchian psychodrama,” that “devours” the coming of age story and erases it. That’s because the last three episodes of the game unravel what came before; in the first few episodes, Max saves her former best friend and potential romantic interest Chloe and begins to repair their relationship. In the last few, Max’s time-travel powers make things worse to a melodramatic degree. No matter what she does, no matter what choices she makes or does not make, Chloe just won’t stop dying.

In the end, Max is faced with a choice that’s annoyed me ever since I first played the game on its release: a tornado rapidly approaches her hometown of Arcadia Bay, almost certainly caused by her repeated (ab)use of her powers. Will she let Chloe die to save her hometown, or will she save her and doom everybody else? The former choice, according to Innuendo Studios, is the coming of age story. The latter is Lynchian psychodrama. The game, in its strange and frustrating conclusion, asks the player which of those stories the player wants an ending to.

Both endings are tragic—save Arcadia Bay, and Max is forced to watch her former best friend die without ever being able to apologize for her callous behavior, without bringing her any comfort in a time of great need. The town lives, and Max learns that some things are inevitable, that she can’t keep changing who she is or what she says to please others. Her identity becomes fixed; she grows up. It’s sad without Chloe, but the length of the ending, its conclusive nature, the kiss that can precede going back in time—that all feels “true.”

Save Chloe, and much of Arcadia Bay dies. Max can save a few characters depending on her choices throughout the story, but most will die. Lives will be ruined. Max and Chloe hop in Chloe’s busted truck together and drive off, leaving the wreckage of the town behind them. The ending is a scant three minutes long, and its length in comparison to the other ending seems intended to make the player feel almost guilty for their selfishness, for throwing an entire population away for the sake of one blue-haired girl with a rebellious streak.

As Innuendo Studios’ argument goes, to sacrifice Chloe emphasizes the “with great power comes great responsibility” theme often found in YA literature. And it’s tidy to an almost absurd degree—people who never met Chloe show up at her funeral to let the player know that they’re okay, that the painful events of the game never happened because Chloe died. The Lynchian ending, where Chloe and Max ride off together, suggests that no matter what your intentions are, changing the past always makes the present worse. Instead of learning to handle your own power, this ending suggests that it’s important to learn to live with your mistakes, even if that mistake is saving your best friend from getting shot and letting your hometown die in a tornado of your own making. We all fuck up. Our actions have consequences. But we can’t look back.

According to Innuendo Studios, “maturity means doing both,” knowing when to try to fix things and when to move on. That word, “maturity,” is something that’s always haunted me about the game. Though it’s rated M in the US (and 16 in countries that use the PEGI system)—meaning it’s not recommended for younger audiences, something DONTNOD would have agreed to in order to get the game released!—the story and writing do at times feel immature. Much has been said about the corny dialog, which feels like adults trying to approximate how teens speak and handily missing the mark, but there’s also the melodrama, the clumsy handling of social issues, the hamfistedness of it all. It feels like it’s trying to be YA. It feels like maybe DONTNOD wanted it to be YA. But rather than treading the line between maturity and immaturity, Life is Strange weaves drunkenly to either side of it.

Maybe that, more than anything, is a point in favor of it being young adult. Progression from adolescent to adult isn’t linear—sometimes it’s not even progression. We loop around on ourselves, sometimes acting wiser than our years, sometimes acting like children in adult-sized bodies. The characters of the game do the same. But who is it for? Is this a case of Euphoria, where the antics and exploits of teenage characters are largely for adult consumption, or Sex Education, where adults are an incidental audience?

Whether Life is Strange is young adult or not is a complicated question. As Innuendo Studios points out, there seem to be two stories at war in the narrative, one of which feels YA and another that feels decidedly adult. And more damningly, the story is told in a medium that lacks a canon of young adult fiction—it may very well be that the teen-centered narrative, its romantic melodrama, and its hazy, sunset-colored visuals aim to capture what works so well in other media without necessarily being the thing it’s trying to emulate. We simply don’t have a wealth of specifically young adult games to compare Life is Strange to; despite being largely for adults (per its ESRB rating), the game’s story and protagonists suggest it’s for a young adult audience.

I don’t think Life is Strange is a bad game for a YA audience—I certainly read and watched things that weren’t intended for me at a young age and even, in some circumstances, benefited from them. But as much as Life is Strange seems YA on the surface, it feels more like the popular perception of YA than YA itself. This wouldn’t be a flaw, if we had more uniquely YA games to point at. But the fact is that we don’t—there’s a deep misunderstanding of what YA is and who it’s for within games, which is the whole reason I’m writing this column in the first place.

So, is Life is Strange YA? It’s complicated. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But the good news is that Life is Strange is just one game in a series, and the prequels and sequels, particularly Before the Storm, might be one of the best examples of what a YA game could look like.

Read the rest of the Grow Up series.