Interactive narrative and the self: How Life is Strange encourages us to be ‘everyday heroes’

Literature

“Life is strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions will impact the past, present and future. Choose wisely…”[1]

What is at stake in the decisions made by the protagonist of a story? Surely, no less than the way the entire plot unfolds, what the audience pays attention to; more than likely, the moral spin of the story is also affected by our narrator. In what is generally (albeit contentiously) defined as a postmodern world in regards to our consumption of narratives, it is hard to contest that the way we each read makes each reader’s journey through a text unique from any other. While the written word has driven literary imagination for centuries, the 20th and 21st century and the technology it has produced have ushered in an array of new modes for creating great literature. With this in mind, how might we begin to address a text where the reader (or player, to use the video game terminology) has an influence on how the story plays out, not in interpretive terms, but in literal terms? Contrary to Barthes’ assertions in The Death of the Author, it would appear that the ‘reader as creator’ is very much alive, and indeed assumes the power of authorial intent in such texts. But this argument would appear to do a disservice to the multiplicity that choice allows us in interactive narratives; just because we have choice, it does not make the text a singular narrative.

While there are many video games that allow for extensive player choice, DON’T NOD Entertainment’s Life is Strange (2015) certainly offers a unique blend of narrative and gameplay.[2] The story asks us what life might be like if we could go back and fix everything; the opportunity to never say the wrong thing, to have a life seemingly free of regret. Of course, this is an idealised picture which negates the unforeseen circumstances that often arise from our good intentions; the game does not pretend that doing what seems ‘right’ will have a happy outcome. Undoubtedly, for the science fiction genre this is far from a unique concept. What makes the stakes so high for Life is Strange is that the player is complicit in the outcomes of their decisions, whether these outcomes are intentional or not. While other narrative forms allow a somewhat safer distance from the horrors they contain, the player must acknowledge a responsibility for choosing whether to act or not. This complicity, paired with the often taboo subjects breached with both respect and nuance, make Life is Strange a game[3] not just of thematic exploration, but of deeply personal exploration also. This essay aims to explore how Life is Strange balances timeless human concerns with a deeply personal experience, and acts as a vehicle for both social and personal awareness. In doing so, it arguably secures itself a place as an enduring narrative, eminently worthy of our attention and analysis.

Life is Strange in the Literary Context

Life is Strange is a story that continues the long tradition of the bildungsroman, though in new and innovative ways. Our protagonist Maxine “Max” Caulfield discovers, upon returning to her home town of Arcadia Bay[4], Oregon (a fictional town), that she has the ability to rewind time. After five years of absence due to her family moving to the east coast, she has returned to study photography at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, under the much revered photographer Mark Jefferson. The story is largely a discussion of change, and the loss of naivety, as well as an exploration of the lack of morality present in the adults and other figures of authority in the story; the first time Max confides in the school principal about seeing Nathan Prescott (the son of the richest family in the town) waving a gun in the girl’s bathroom, she is accused of defamation, despite her spotless student record. This mostly stands to suggest the flaws inherent in structures of power; in Arcadia Bay, the rich continue to grow richer, as the previously lively and humble seaside town slowly falls from its roots into overdevelopment. There is a sense of inevitability about this; that inherited power overcomes sound moral reasoning. However, the game refuses to be this simple.

Throughout the piece, Max (and you as the player) fight back again the small indignities and wrongs of the everyday. The theme of the mundane is continued through the central “everyday heroes” photography contest. Present around the Blackwell Campus is the detritus of various posters asking for a following, or to merely be seen or recognised; this is  a common thread throughout the history of American Literature that this work contributes to. The game is another voice amongst the many existent narratives that works to fight against a forgotten past. It is by no means an easy task to give a voice to all these groups (their multitudes are represented by the posters, and Max always makes comment of how she wishes she could do more). The game is very aware of its inability to cover everything it might like to, and this is very much echoed by the protagonist. This theme is hinted at in further subtle ways; alongside the larger moral dilemmas of the piece, you have the option to save other characters from minor inconveniences such as having paper or a toilet roll thrown at them. This in particular illustrates how the intertext of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye operates; Max carries the surname Caulfield, which seems to stress her preoccupation with  insecurity of identity (both socially and as an aspiring photographer), and the deep desire to help others, paired with a looming sense of helplessness. Even with her rewind power, she struggles deeply with her lack of ability to really make meaningful change in the world. This is a deeply philosophical concern; when have we done ‘enough’ to help? Can we quantify what ‘enough’ is? Without dictating answers, the game leads us through a series of such moral tests, asking us to ask ourselves what might be right for us personally.

Chloe: “I gotta blame somebody, otherwise it’s all my fault.”

Max: “It’s just life, shit happens, it’s nobody’s fault.”[5]

Max’s kind words to her troubled and rebellious best friend Chloe betray her inner monologue, but seem to speak directly to the broader message of the text; we can’t possibly hope to fix everything, but that shouldn’t stop us fixing something. The context for this particular quote is that Chloe is deferring blame onto those closest to her for the death of her father, William, in a car accident during her childhood. Following this, Max uses a photo to travel to the day of his passing, and convinces him to take the bus instead. The result when we return to the present is anything but ideal; William is alive and well, but Chloe is quadriplegic due to her own car accident, and the family is in overwhelming debt. The final trauma of this attempt at temporal reconciliation is Chloe’s quiet request for you to switch off her life support machine; she wishes to leave the world on her own terms after having one final day with her best friend, and to go peacefully to save her parents from debt and herself from further pain. This is only one of many instances where the game carefully brings forth controversial issues with utmost respect, but simultaneously refuses to let us remain bystanders. With the emotional connection established in the three episodes leading up to this point, the player can scarcely try to look at the situation objectively, which is what makes the moral choice all the more pertinent to life.

 

Narratology and Identification of the Self

Life is Strange bridges the traditional gap between the “playable story” (narrative-centric game), and the action and choice-based game. The field of game studies often defines itself in opposition to literary or film studies, arguing that games are based on the enjoyment of interacting with a set of established rules which lead to unpredictable and unique ends for each player; by this reasoning, characters are only involved insofar as they provoke an investment in furthering the plot through gameplay.[6] With this historical background in mind, it becomes easy to address why Life is Strange manages to ‘have its cake and eat it too’, in regards to the strength of its deeply connected narrative and gameplay. As a choice-based game, the player is never really removed from the outcomes of each decision; whether the results of a particular choice are as desired or not, the player is engaged by their own autonomy.

“Paradoxes of plot and character are well-known to readers of literary narrative, but they are put to new—and theoretically thought provoking— uses through the interactivity of the videogame medium.”[7]

From a narratological standpoint, the game is incredibly complex. The audience (or player) controls Max, and decides when she uses her rewind powers, who she talks to and for how long, what is spoken about, where she goes, and what she observes (and to what extent) . This effectively overcomes J. Hillis Miller’s idea of the ‘secret’ of literature, insofar as it allows the player full access to otherwise privy information. This is taken a step further with Max’s rewind powers; suddenly we are in a world where sneaking into school after hours to look at student files runs no risk of incrimination, and surveying the private lives of fellow schoolmates through their computers and phones likewise carries no danger. This eliminates the question of secrets in that regard, but raises many more questions in its place. What does knowing all this offer us, and is it right even with good intentions? This again links back to the theme of social optimisation, and perfectionism;  many gamers already reset their game to optimise the outcomes of branching dialogue; Life is Strange asks what the moral implications are for the outcomes of our absolutely controlled circumstances.[8]

Another interesting aspect is the style of narration; Max is a fully developed character, so unlike many other choice-based games, the player’s dialogue options are limited to what Max would believably do. While we decide for her, Max still makes reflective comments, asking “what if?” of many pivotal decisions. This then prompts the player to trial many different options, or indeed exhaust all options with the rewind power in order to see what is ‘best’. Additionally, we don’t see the world through Max’s eyes, but over her shoulder, which denotes third person narrative. When mixed with prolific choice of direction, this certainly feels a little like ‘playing God’.  With the rewind mechanic, this is even more the case. However, this feeling of empowerment is never existent without a looming sense of powerlessness; Max is frequently visited by visions of a storm destroying Arcadia Bay; visions that were not present until her powers began. This links in to the recurring symbolism and suggestions of the butterfly effect, a part of chaos theory. Initially used to describe weather patterns, chaos theory suggests that a small action will cause a ripple effect, and enact far larger changes than anticipated. From both the symbolic and ever looming storm and the presence of the butterfly in the bathroom where Max discovers her powers, the story foreshadows a darker side of the freedom of choice.  Another small hint at the chaos theory symbolism is the inclusion of a butterfly as a symbol to suggest the game has saved your decision; it warns that a rewind may bring about better (or different) outcomes.

 

A Game for Change

” Usually, people need something to judge so they never take a good look at themselves. […]  In the end, we can only blame ourselves for participating.”

Mark Jefferson[9]

Life is Strange is a game that deals with many contentious issues with feeling and respect. Though this essay lacks the time to explore these with the requisite nuance to do them the justice the game does, some of these particular themes include queer relationships[10], bullying and suicide, PTSD, drug use, abuse of power, issues of race and land ownership, death with dignity, surveillance and censorship, and environmental concerns. One particularly interesting aspect of the work is the way it opens itself up to public discourse so freely. Regarding reading and public discourse, historically popular fiction (both of text and screen) have held a space of social discussion – most notably perhaps with the emergence of serial texts, and the way these play on anticipation, suspense and uncertainty. Life is Strange engages with this in two ways; the game is a five episode series, and published an episode every few months from its initial release. Additionally, at the conclusion of each episode, all players are able to see a breakdown of their decisions, and with an internet connection, a breakdown of the percentage of other players who shared or deviated from their choice. This evidently opens up a large forum for discussion online and in person, regarding rationale for such actions.

The ability for this game to break down walls has not gone unnoticed or uncelebrated; among the many awards since its release[11], this year Life is Strange was awarded the 2016 Games for Change (G4C) award,[12] as recognition of its outstanding articulation of real human circumstances through well developed characters, and its unapologetic liberality. The game makes no attempts to pull punches; when paired with the impetus of interactive choice, this brings the darker themes far closer to home. This is significant for the argument of this essay; while the other awards highlight the quality of construction (which evidently allowed for the central themes of social issues to be conveyed so strongly), this suggests that there is a consensus about Life is Strange.  This is in regards to its ability to create a dialogue for its diverse following that remains relatable and true to life, despite the variation present in the audience. Games for Change cites that it aims to “[facilitate] the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts”.[13] Certainly, this sets the bar very high for the aspirations they have for their winning game. As a game for self exploration in relation to broader societal establishments, Life is Strange does an excellent job of preventing the player from being merely a bystander.

One particularly relevant aspect for the text is the strong focus on and respect for nature it has. Throughout the game, there is discussion of  the notion of spirit animals (with regards to the first peoples of the land),  and mention of the disappearance of fish from the harbour (due to industrialisation and overdevelopment, and overfishing). The game is quite spiritual in this regard. Max is followed by her ‘spirit animal’, a Doe; this is symbolic of naivety, innocence, and natural connection, which further reinforces the work as a coming of age story (though more accurately a fall from innocence). There is the ongoing dichotomy of Max fixing the world for the people around her, paired with the oncoming storm and chaos of nature. During the early episodes (following the gaining of her powers), Max finds several dead birds at Chloe’s house. When she travels back to save Chloe’s father, there are instead three beached whales in the alternative timeline. This connects back to the butterfly effect, but may also suggest that as human impact for self interest increases, so too does the toll on the environment.

One fan theory draws attention to many pieces of evidence which suggest the Prescott family are well aware of the oncoming storm; such as their access to a 1.3 million dollar bunker stocked with food and supplies, and Nathan’s nonchalant attitude (he throws a party the eve before the storm’s arrival)[14]. In light of their realisation, the writer goes on to suggest that perhaps the Prescott family are waiting for the storm to destroy the town in order to gain the freedom to redevelop it as they please.[15] If this is truly the case, then the impact of the largely criticised final decision carries far more weight than the vast majority of players give it credit for. In the end, Max finally realises that in order to prevent the storm, she has to go back to where her powers awakened (when she saved Chloe’s life) and fail to intervene. The alternative is to leave town with Chloe and allow the storm to wreak whatever havoc it may. Many criticise this final forced choice as detracting from the multitude of smaller decisions, accusing the writing team of reducing all previous choices into nothing in the final moments. However, this ending may well be a final and absolute means of having Max (and the player) decide between the interests of the self, and the interests of the whole.

 

Whether this metaphor carries for all players or not, Life is Strange certainly asks us to be gentle on others, and in its multiplicity illustrates the full lives of otherwise peripheral faces in the crowd. Though it cannot hope to give a face and a name to every person who resonates deeply with the harrowing experiences it so carefully illustrates, it certainly seeks to give them a voice, and to ask to world to give them attention, if only for a brief time. Through all the painful worldly truths present in the game, one resounding theme that seems to carry through is the game’s suggestion that we only have the present, and that, for better or for worse, the little things will add up to something larger. In the small, mundane moments that capture the fundamental nature of human experience, Life is Strange shows us that it doesn’t take supernatural powers to change the world; dedicating oneself to changing what little we can is what makes us everyday heroes.

 


References

Barthes, Roland. “The death of the author.” Contributions in Philosophy 83 (2001): 3-8.

Caracciolo, Marco. “Playing Home: Videogame Experiences between Narrative and Ludic Interests.” Narrative 23.3 (2015): 231-51. Web.

DON’T NOD Entertainment.  Life is Strange. Square Enix. (2015) Video Game.

Games for Change. “About Games for Change” ( 2016). Web. Retrieved from: http://www.gamesforchange.org/about/

Hillis Miller, J. “One thought on “What is Literature?””. Literature Matters Blog (2016). Retrieved from: https://literaturemattersblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/24/what-is-literature/

KPopp. ” Life is Strange – Time Travel Intensifies #12 (Episode 3 Ending)”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, May 20, 2015. Web. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/7Bc-Bm0rm-s?t=1640.

Mejia, O. “Life is Strange – four burning questions after ‘Dark Room'”. Shack News. July 30, 2015. Web. Retrieved from: http://www.shacknews.com/article/90586/life-is-strange—four-burning-questions-after-dark-room

YOGSCAST Kim. “LIFE IS STRANGE: Out of Time (#4) Science Lab”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, March 26, 2015. Web. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/yDth-VpArTM?t=1413


Footnotes

[1] DON’T NOD Entertainment.  Life is Strange. Square Enix. (2015) Video Game.  This dialogue appears at the beginning of each episode to foreground the impact of your input into the narrative.

[2] ‘gameplay’ can be defined as the mechanical aspects of a video game; how your character is controlled, the degree to which they can interact with the environment (people, objects, places). All of these have an effect on the extent to which a player might find the game immersive or believable. When applied well, the integration of narrative with mechanical aspects of gameplay can complement one another in such a way that the world becomes deeply immersive.

[3] The word ‘game’ is perhaps too broad a term; Life is Strange (as the title of this essay suggests) is more accurately described as an interactive narrative.

[4] ‘Arcadia’ is undoubtedly a reference to the Greek utopia of the same name; a deeply ironic and deliberate allusion.

[5] KPopp. ” Life is Strange – Time Travel Intensifies #12 (Episode 3 Ending)”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, May 20, 2015. Web. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/7Bc-Bm0rm-s?t=1640. See the link for a timestamp to the direct quote (27:20 to 27:39). I was fortunate enough to find a video where the player made the same decisions I did to get the specific dialogue – note that the publisher of the playthrough also gives a commentary which is ordinarily not a part of the game.

[6] Caracciolo, Marco. “Playing Home: Videogame Experiences between Narrative and Ludic Interests.” Narrative 23.3 (2015): 231-51. Web.

[7] Ibid. p.232.

[8] Often if a wrong decision is made the player’s only option is to restart from the last save point in the game – akin to a word document with no delete key. Life is Strange frees players from this mechanic, at the cost of certainty of outcome.

[9] YOGSCAST Kim. “LIFE IS STRANGE: Out of Time (#4) Science Lab”. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, March 26, 2015. Web. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/yDth-VpArTM?t=1413. See the link for a timestamp to the direct quote (23:33 to 23:44). Again, the uploader of the video speaks through the quote slightly, which is ordinarily not present. Jefferson here is talking about a viral defamation video that leads one student to attempt suicide, though the quote resonates well beyond its circumstances.

[10] You have the choice of having Max show affection towards either a male or female partner, or you can choose to be romantically involved with neither. The inclusion of a canonically bisexual character is rare, and so this kind of representation is highly celebrated.

[11] Most notably, Life is Strange was also the recipient of the Game Awards (2015) “games for impact award”, the Develop Industry Excellence Award (2015) for “use of narrative”, and the BAFTA for Games award (2016) for “best story”.

[12] G4C Awards 2016: Most Significant Impact to Life is Strange http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/life-is-strange/

[13] Games for Change. “About Games for Change” ( 2016). Web. Retrieved from: http://www.gamesforchange.org/about/
[14] Mejia, O. “Life is Strange – four burning questions after ‘Dark Room'”. Shack News. July 30, 2015. Web. Retrieved from: http://www.shacknews.com/article/90586/life-is-strange—four-burning-questions-after-dark-room

[15] Ibid.

[First published 21 November 2016]

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