When you hear the name Twin Peaks you probably think of Dale Cooper delighting in a damn fine cup of coffee, or a little man talking backwards and dancing in a red room. These have become indelible pop culture images, referenced and parodied countless times, and have given the show a reputation for, above all, being weird. But there’s a lot more to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult supernatural soap opera than its eccentric characters, quotably idiosyncratic dialogue, and offbeat nature.
Peel away the layers and you’ll discover that, really, it’s a show about the secrets people keep. The picturesque town of Twin Peaks, nestled among the mist-shrouded mountains and towering Douglas Firs of the Pacific Northwest, looks like a peaceful, idyllic place at first glance. But it soon becomes clear, to both the viewer and outsider Cooper, that it has a dark, sinister side lurking quietly in the shadows.
This is a common theme in David Lynch’s work, and the opening scenes of his 1986 film Blue Velvet are perhaps the most powerful articulation of this concept. As the saccharine pop song the movie takes its name from plays, we see a brilliant blue sky, a white picket fence, rows of colourful flowers, and idealised images of suburban life. But then the music fades, replaced by an unsettling machine-like drone, and the camera sinks into the dirt, revealing a writhing, repulsive mass of insects below.
Several games have famously been compared to Twin Peaks. There’s cult favourite Deadly Premonition, which tells the story of an eccentric FBI agent investigating a murder in a small Washington town. Bright Falls, the setting for horror game Alan Wake, is clearly inspired by Twin Peaks—particularly the Oh Deer Diner and its peculiar patrons. And the Silent Hill series, in which the titular New England town has been corrupted by malevolent demonic forces, draws obvious parallels.
But the tonal and visual similarities these games have to Twin Peaks is superficial. The inspiration is simplistic and cosmetic, focusing on the odd, quirky elements of the show rather than the deeper themes that run through it. And that’s fine. But as a fan of the series, I’ve always wanted a game to go deeper than cherry pie references, and to capture the dark magic of the show in a more meaningful way. As much as I love the weirder aspects of Twin Peaks, it’s the human side of the story I’ve come to appreciate more over the years. The teenage melodrama, the double lives, and the everyday demons that torment the town’s residents as well as the supernatural ones.
Life is Strange is a game littered with references, from Blade Runner to Jack Kerouac. Some of them feel slightly forced, but overall it accurately reflects those exploratory teenage years when you define yourself by the artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers you enjoy. Among them are a few nods to Twin Peaks, many of which are lacking in subtlety: the ‘TWN PKS’ licence plate on Chloe’s truck, ‘FIRE WALK WITH ME’ scratched into a bathroom mirror, a letter signed by a Dr. Jacoby, red drapes. It’s all fairly obvious stuff, riffing on the popular iconography of the show, but doesn’t serve any purpose other than giving fans a glimmer of recognition.
I groaned when I saw Chloe’s plate, because it felt like a cheap, easy way of scoring pop culture points. But the more I played Life is Strange, the more I realised that, as well as these allusions, it also seemed to have a deeper understanding of the show. I don’t know how much of this was intentional—the sheer amount of references suggests it was—but for me it’s the closest a game has come yet to capturing the essence of Twin Peaks. It’s nowhere near as artistically interesting or as hauntingly atmospheric, but it gives you that same feeling of pulling back the veil and uncovering the many hidden, sometimes disturbing, secrets of a seemingly pleasant place. By episode three, which is when the game really clicked for me, the camera has plunged deep into the dirt and revealed the insects swarming beneath the streets of Arcadia Bay.
It seems nice enough at first—a sleepy, charming coastal town—but Max digs deeper and finds the reality: corruption, drugs, voyeurism, obsession, bullying, and worse. And when she begins to investigate the disappearance of a fellow student, and realises she’s been leading something of a double life in secret, you can’t help but think of Twin Peaks’ similarly troubled Laura Palmer. The supernatural elements in Life is Strange aren’t as successful—there’s nothing as darkly surreal as the Black Lodge or as abstractly terrifyingly as BOB—but it does the much tougher job of capturing the less obvious elements of the show. The result is that Life is Strange feels more like it than Deadly Premonition ever did, even though its inspiration is far less overt.
I’m ashamed to admit that Life is Strange had been sitting unloved in my Steam library for over a year. I tried to get into it once, but couldn’t stomach the occasionally cringeworthy dialogue. But I’m hella glad I gave it another shot (sorry), because I’ve since fallen in love with it. As I learned more about Arcadia Bay, I was reminded of the first time I watched Twin Peaks and saw Laura Palmer’s life unravelling and spilling its secrets. “Beneath the surface there’s another world, and more worlds still if you dig deeper,” says David Lynch. “There’s goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force—a wild pain and decay—also accompanies everything. If you look a little closer at this beautiful world, there’s always red ants underneath.”