- Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
- Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
- Week 5, Response #4
The wish to go back in time and change a decision is such a common human desire; because of that universality, whole moves are based on it and usually begin with the phrase: “if only I had done ___ instead of ___.” Going into Life is Strange, I had heard about Max’s ability to relive certain points in her life, but I didn’t know how detailed it could get. From casual conversations with friends to life-altering situations, you are given the chance to go back and change nearly anything that you did not like the first time around (in fact, the game will often, literally, slow down and encourage you to try other options). As someone who, in real situations, is always preparing for Plan A-D for a decision’s consequences, this game forced me to replace the anxiety of aftermath for the quality of my decision. Especially since, at this point in the game, all I know is that no matter what I do, a cataclysmic tornado is coming on Friday, I, as Max, can afford my focus to be a little more immediate, both in time and with people. While Max’s cutscenes with other characters (particularly Chloe) drop clues about how to stop/survive the tornado, I find myself, as the player, moving Max around in between these scenes, free to focus on immediate issues of interpersonal quality, particularly situations with Chloe, Kate, and Warren.
What I find most interesting about the decision-making process so far is the consequence warnings. You can make a myriad of decisions or actions that have no long-term consequences, or at least no long-term significant consequences. But after at least episode one, you realize that the stakes are higher than just your popularity. People could die, and the town may be destroyed. But still, after playing the game for a bit, you don’t really question the value of a decision unless those little butterflies appear in the screen’s corner. Of course, in conversations with teachers and classmates, the consequence warning makes sense. How you interact with people leaves impressions. But occasionally, I’ll be doing something rather arbitrary, like watering my dorm room plant, and the butterflies will appear (and then I freak out and panic and start theorizing that the world will end if I don’t water my plant correctly). I actually did research this decision online, and the only consequence of not watering your plant at the right time…is that the plant dies. That’s it. No earth-shattering butterfly-effect (killer pun). But at this point in the game, you’ve already been trained to be aware of the power of your decisions, not just in conjuncture to yourself (although you could go through this game and play it for entirely selfish motives) but how you will affect others. And I think that’s awesome. After being accustomed to games where the difference between conversation blurbs is a few loyalty points or a discount at the medieval market, it is refreshing to find a game where the player has to appreciate the inherent power of decisions, whether you’re playing a more selfish, angry Max or a more altruistic, generous Max or even a very ambivalent, apathetic Max.
As for why the game places such heavy emphasis on decisions/consequences, I couldn’t be entirely certain. Finding articles on LiS or even interviews with the creators was difficult since I am avoiding spoilers. In Jennifer McVeigh’s article, “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics,” she believes the game’s structure is meant to “[ask] players to deal with numerous compounding ethical issues in order to construct a criticisms of current social problems” (nymgamer.com). After reading this, I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s a lot more grand than what I was going for.” But I completely understand what she means by “compounding ethical issues,” since how you handle each decision draws in your own moral system. For me, it was paramount that I build a good relationship with Kate (even though I didn’t know that a certain decision-tree would lead to a higher “success” rate of talking her down from the roof) because my personal moral system and my value of people outside of what they can do for me.
My one critique of that same situation though is that the choice for Kate to live, if the game was being realistic, was not mine. Her mental choosing to live or die was not my responsibility, although I certainly could and did persuade her to not jump. Because interactions with NPCs are all about feedback (and, really, this game is ALL about feedback), they are limited to only responding to the player and the player is limited to using them as a sort of sounding board (even if one is emotionally connected to the character). However, confronting a suicide situation, I think, could have been handled more sensitively, perhaps with the angle that did not put so much responsibility and control of Kate’s life on Max and gave Kate’s character more agency.
Looking at a different decision, I was not nearly as concerned about the outcome of my plant (although I am pleased that I did not kill it), whereas another player might have rated that decision as incredibly important. One of my favorite things about the game so far is the gathered data you are shown after each episode. I’m glad that the decision percentages are not shown until after the episode, so that players are not swayed by general consensus. What interests me most was seeing the amount of decisions I wasn’t even aware of. Especially after episode 1, I saw not only the huge amount of decisions I could make, but also the amount that I did not even encounter, yet the game still counted them as a decision made because I did not contribute. The fact that inaction can influence the game as much as intentional interaction fascinates me, since I’ve never seen a game keep track of it like this.
(Post episode 5 edit): Now that I have finished the game, I admit, I am a bit more cynical towards the plethora of decisions presented to me, even in the beginning episodes. While I appreciate the concept that action and inaction can still have consequences, I am disappointed that, in the big picture of this game, no matter what I do, I will always come to the same decision at the end of episode 5 (no spoilers…yet). Eric Swain says in his article on The Stanley Parable that “each individual choice is inconsequential… The meaning is derived not from a single set of choices, but the relationship that all of the choices have to all the others, choices represented through spatial relativity” (popmatters.com). For example, while my choices within episodes 1-5 influence my dialogue options with Chloe, whether or not I can save Kate, Victoria’s receptiveness to my warnings in episode 4, etc…, all of those choices are in connection to each other, but absolutely none of them influence the ending. The choices I make and how I want them to connect and improve each other within the game are, essentially, up to my emotional connection to them (within the parameters given to make certain decisions). There are only two possible endings from one decision, and that never changes. So what does that say about all of the decisions and narrative designed by the writers? Does that devalue everything before the ending? Or is all of the meaning in the game solely dependent on the player? I am a big fan of giving credit to authors and their intentions, but when it comes to a game like this, where everything hinges on decisions yet none of the decisions influence the end/the goal…really, does their intended value of certain decisions matter if I didn’t find meaning in interacting with them? All of the decisions and their consequent plot could have been vastly different yet still ended the same. I think that the story given to us is well done (most of it), but it discourages me that my involvement in the game was almost always inconsequential. I might have found meaning in the many decisions I made, but I was always walking on the singular path set for me.
Since this was a game about developing Max as a character and a young woman, the connection between decision and consequence should have been far more emphasized and influential in the game. While the gender of the protagonist seems to be of no significance to the game creators, the power of decision, especially in a game that hinges on choice, should be much more empowering and emphasized for a female character. Denying a female character control of the most important decision in the game is counterproductive and defeating. Yes, realistically, no one has total control over their actions. But the final choice and many of the choices leading up to it are results of actions taken against Max. For the most part, Max makes little impact of her own accord in the grand scheme of the game.
Going back to McVeigh’s comment on “criticisms of current social situations,” I would wonder if that is the game’s actual intention. Depending on the player, you could find issue with any number of situations presented in the game, or you could just drift through, either approving or ambivalently accepting everything. Would that change in attitude or empathy make a difference to how the game is played? Since, no matter how you feel about certain situations you can only explore and decide within the parameters that Max is given, I wonder how much emotional input is expected or required for the game to turn out the way it “should.” But then again, that’s the fun of having free will: the individual decides how much value to place on each decision in various situations. McVeigh quotes another gaming critic who elaborates on this interesting balance between the player’s decision values and the value of decisions within the game: “GamaSutra writer Christopher Gile argues that Metagaming, which refers to the player’s ability to use knowledge the in-game characters are not privy too, alters game play in Life is Strange ‘from one where [the player is] trying to do the correct things in the moment to one where [they] are trying to find the best possible outcome for everyone'” (McVeigh). And everyone, of course, includes the player. Granted, the player does not have to act like a good-willing god, seeking happiness for everyone. Your Max and the balance between relating to her and creating her can be very self-reflective, self-interested, and/or a benevolent self-rejecting wish-granter. While, in my playthrough, I wanted others to be happy too, my Max did make quite a few socially-deemed selfish choices. Many times, I chose what was best for me or Chloe, but not for anyone else. Was that “wrong?” Absolutely not. At least not to me, and no matter the ending or the limited outcomes, if I am seeking meaning within each choice, I think that a bit of self-interest and self-focus is important and healthy. So yes, McVeigh’s originally grand-sounding statement (at least to my ears) has very solid reasoning. This game, no matter the decisions you make, shows you struggle and suffering–from problematic chemistry homework to abusive parents to bullying–and like in real life, you can’t just disappear. So what will you do? And that’s the intrigue of the game.
On the topic of the decision mechanics of the game, I definitely applaud the game designers and writers. Other areas of the game, I think, could improve in many ways in order to enrich the world you’re placed in, but the decisions themselves are so engaging, it is easy to forgive most of the game’s flaws. The flaws that bother me most though, which I think are worth looking into, revolve around voice. Not necessarily the audible voice acting we hear (although, admittedly, I think that aspect could use some improvement.) but the character qualities and attitude carried by the words and dialogue chosen is what I’m referring to. This also ties into Max being a lead female protagonist.
Max is a hipster. I love that about her character. I don’t have any statistics, but I’m sure her geeky-ness and vintage interests appealed to both male and female gamers. From her character type, I expected unknown artist references, collections of unique items, etc… but I was still jilted by a lot of the dialogue. The way Max talked to some of her dormmates or made mental notes on people (note the example above) sometimes felt confusing or unnatural, even for someone who is expected to be different from the start. A lot of moments like these happen in episode 1, and it made me wonder if the writers were trying too hard to distance Max from the hyper-typical dialogue of the cheerleaders and the jocks (which was also unnatural at times). However, especially after finishing the last three episodes, I can see Max’s character, maturity, and dialogue improve and grow significantly. She becomes more consistent in dialogue and word usage, and you as a player can feel a greater consistency to her as a personality. Even though the game takes place within the span of a week, a lot of Max’s nervousness in tone and uncertainty in dialogue options fade.
The source of this initial dialogue inconsistency, I think, may have the same source as my other issue with the characters (stereotyping): the lead writers, designers, producers, and artists were all men. Of course, I believe that a team of all men could write a good game (obviously they did, because LiS has had great success), but for a game that focuses primarily on its female characters, I expected there to be at least one female writer or designer. Max and Chloe and other female characters are still interesting, but there’s a sense that a disconnect exists between me as a real (particularly female) person, who knows how actual women behave, and seeing these supposedly realistic characters acting very differently at times. Sometimes the same thing happens with novels, when writers create characters of opposite gender. Does this always end poorly? No. Sometimes the blending of gendered voices is great, especially when readers/gamers are looking for characters beyond stereotypes and expectations. However, in LiS, I feel like the characters to suffer most from this stacked creative team are everyone but Max. Aside from Max, everyone fits into some sort of neat, stereotypical, high-school box: the mean girl (Victoria and her “minions”…yes, they actually call themselves minions in the game), the cheerleader (Dana), the emo kid (Alyssa), the punk (Chloe), the nice guy (Warren), and the jerk–I mean, jock (Nathan). The social roles seem extremely rigid, and everyone behaves pretty much exactly as you would expect them to. Would this have changed if a woman was involved in the writing process? I’m not sure, but I’m almost certain that the female characters would vary a little more in personality.
However, complaints aside, I still have 3 episodes to go, so there is opportunity for improvement. Also, my praises still go to the game’s creators for creating an emotionally and morally complex game with, not one but, two female protagonists. For that and for the company’s stand against bullying (in the game and using the game’s profits for anti-bullying messages and groups), I’ve learned that the creators took a lot of heat. According to an article in Paste Magazine, the producer said his gender choice for Max “was not a statement nor intentional, but simply ‘felt natural'” (Champagne, Jennifer n.pag). His unconscious decision certainly produced consequences though, as, in a video diary, the co-founder of DONTNOD explained that “Square is basically the only publisher that didn’t want to change a single thing about the game…We had other publishers telling us ‘Make it a male lead character,’ and Square didn’t even question that once” (Rougeau, Mike kotaku.com). In the video diary, the writers and producers discuss how they were focused primarily on explore identity building and real-world decisions that their players could relate to (kotaku.com). Especially after jumping from Mass Effect 2, an adventure genre game, to LiS, I can certainly appreciate how relate-able and applicable and genuine to life the game feels, and I can’t wait to finish it.
*http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2015/01/life-is-strange-creators-met-resistance-over-havin.html (“Life Is Strange Creators Met Resistance Over Having a Female Lead” by Jennifer Champagne)
*http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=8452 (“Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics” by Jennifer McVeigh)
*http://kotaku.com/publishers-wanted-to-change-life-is-stranges-protagonis-1678811522 (“Publishers Wanted To Change Life Is Strange’s Protagonists Into Men” by Mike Rougeau)
*http://www.popmatters.com/post/179065-the-stanley-parable-an-examination-of-walking-spaces/ (“The Stanley Parable: An Examination of Walking Spaces” by Eric Swain)