Figurehead: Illusions of Power and Control in LiS (ep.3-4)

  • 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 6, Response #5

Considering that Episodes 3-5 are about 60-ish% of the game, I will be breaking down my analysis under each episode. Episode 5 will have its own separate post.


Episode 3 — “Chaos Theory”

ChaosTheory

Episode 3 takes off running, as both you as Max and you as Player are growing more aware of the many mysteries you have your hands in. On your way out of the dorm to meet Chloe, Dana confesses to you how sad she is about Kate and how she wishes she could have done more to help (in my playthrough, I saved Kate).  That conversation gives more depth to her previously flat characterization as “the cheerleader,” in my opinion. But this isn’t the only expansion or reduction of gender stereotypes in this episode.  But before I continue on that, I feel it necessary to comment on the type of decisions you begin making in this episode, starting with breaking into the principal’s office.

Considering that narrative, decisions, and character relations are intimately intertwined, all three are limited and stunted if Max is given one kind of decision to make.  When you arrive, you have no choice but to construct a pipe bomb to blow open the door.  First of all, I thought a pipe bomb was a bit excessive; second, setting a mini-bomb off, which would of course trigger the fire alarm, seemed a bit dumb considering the intellect ascribed to each girl so far; third, and my main point, is that the decision and its consequences are nullified and deemed “good” because, technically, it never happened.  In Jennifer McVeigh’s article “Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics,” she summarizes Miguel Sicart’s opinion of the gamer in decision-making situations: “Sicart further argues game players are moral beings that when engaged in a system behave according to its rules” (nymgamer.com).  I disagree.

For example, I do not believe it is right to public vandalize (yes, yes, it is just a door, but the type of decision is the important part and will come in later), and that is my moral belief. However, according to this game and Sicart’s assumption, I am only moral if I comply with the game’s rules (if I blow up the door).  This is a problem because 1.) this decision is turned into a one-objective mission, which conflicts with all of the other situations like this which have been multi-decision option instances (why make all of the others multi-ending decisions and this extremely limited?), 2.) now the game’s rules are conflicting with the character development and morality I am constructing around my Max, and 3.) this lends to my main critique of the game that 99% of Max’s decisions are made for her while she/you the player decide most of the actual decisions in the game.  While there were not too many instances of this in episodes 1-2, episodes 3-5 are ripe with them, which I found to be a huge problem since all of the character building you have done til now should (you would think) reveal itself in decisions you can make.

After going back in time and having never used the pipe bomb, you are safely in the office, searching through files. You anti-climatically discover that Nathan has a disturbing record (erased with his parents’ money), which includes drugs, violent outbursts, and a sick fascination with Rachel Amber (including the word-picture of “Rachel in the dark room”).  As you are about to leave, you discover a huge sum of money, for the handicap student fund, and you can choose to give it to Chloe to pay of Frank or leave it. Building on my-Max’s character, I chose to leave it, not because I didn’t want Chloe to be free of Frank, but because I didn’t want her to do it through the misfortune of others.

On your way out, Max and Chloe stop by the pool.  You can choose to go through the girls’ or boys’ locker room, and I chose boys’ just in case there were clues from Nathan. Naturally, the graffiti notes on the walls were raunchy and derogatory to girls, ranging from “Max is a feminazi” to “69 reasons to bang Rachel.” While the graffiti is, of course, disgusting, Max’s response to the second example I gave bothered me more: “bros will be bros.” After all the kind things Max has thought and said about Rachel, never did I think she would excuse someone talking about her like that, with the ever-pathetic and irresponsible retort of, essentially, “boys will be boys.” A lot of Max’s comments on random objects are meaningless and just drifting thoughts, like anybody has, but this one in particular struck me.  Max (well, at least my Max does. You can choose to be mean) spends so much of her time and conversations building others up, especially her fellow girl classmates, and defending them against the actions of very overtly sexist men (usually Nathan and David).  This seemed out of character, but then again, many socially-ingrained beliefs can infiltrate our personal worldview without us realizing.

On the flip-side, the pool scene, both in cut-scene dialogue and speech decision-mechanics, was very uplifting and sweet to me. In the episodes to come, Chloe and Max don’t get as much time to just unwind and open up to each other. Chloe asks Max about her life (and potential boys), and Max, my Max, is very candid and says she doesn’t want anything to do with boys, especially right now.  Chloe compliments Max on her inner strength and changing personality, calling her a “force of nature” (too soon…too soon…), and you can really start to feel growing mutual respect and admiration for each other. Chloe wants to be loving, like Max, and Max wants to be bold, like Chloe.

The next morning, Max borrows Chloe’s old stash of Rachel’s clothes (horrible foreshadowing) and they reminisce on their adventures.  In a moment of teasing, Chloe dares Max to kiss her. You can choose to take the dare or to brush her off.  I took the dare for two reasons: 1.) I was genuinely curious as to how far the game would take a lesbian romantic relationship (even though I equally  hoped it wouldn’t ruin a good, female friendship by empty queer-baiting) and 2.) it fit with my Max’s character, who wants to be more bold and spontaneous.  I bring up these instances of character development intentionally, as they will all lend themselves to my future decisions and, of course, the BIG DECISION.

After a rough argument with David (in which you can side with him or Chloe, and of course my Max picked Chloe, which causes David to leave), Max discovers another aspect of her powers.  When looking at an old photo of her and Chloe, she time jumps to that exact moment, fully conscious of her future self and outcomes.  This situation is another instance in which the option of choice is eliminated. No matter what, you are not allowed to move on in the story until you change William’s fate.  In this alternate reality, Max’s character is completely different too, which makes little sense, especially if she still moved to Seattle but was even closer friends with Chloe.  She is seen as best friends with the meanest kids in school (she doesn’t even know Warren), and she wasn’t even aware of Chloe’s accident.  Again (commence broken record), Max’s seemingly god-like power is out of her control. Even though she can use it to turn back time and save William, she has to. She cannot opt out of it. You as Max cannot opt out of it. The game’s narrative rules force you through the rabbit hole, after giving you the illusion that you at least have power over your own abilities. Not so.


Episode 4: “Dark Room”

theDarkRoom

Right off the bat, episode four smacks you with an excruciating decision: comply with Chloe’s wish to help her die or refuse.  After spending a day and night with her, you are already mourning the vast difference between her and reality-1’s Chloe: she’s more subdued yet more grateful about life, more guilt-ridden yet more thoughtful, and physically, she has her dad and has had a happy life with him yet she is paralyzed.  At this point, I as the player wasn’t sure if this would be my new reality in the game (I was really hoping not, because I feel like that would have subverted everything you did in reality-1. However, what you do next subverts reality-2’s decisions and hearkens back to my issue with decisions that you don’t have to live with). As mentioned in my last post and as I will talk about in my post about episode 5, some of the biggest and most ethically-conflicting decisions in the game have either limited outcomes or are, in connection to the rest of the decisions and narrative, inconsequential. Back-talking to Victoria will make a tentative relationship with her difficult to achieve, but choosing to end your friend’s life or saving her dad from his fate have literally no effect on the game’s outcome or even your relationship with Chloe. Those decisions certainly would have carried more weight if they actually had consequences and if they changed Max’s future, but they have so little input into the story that they feel more like a “psych!” moment than an actual decision.

Concerning my choice for Chloe: Prepared to live with my decision and still building on my Max’s character, I refused Chloe’s request.  I was somewhat relieved then that I could go back to reality-1, but I was also angry at the designers for presenting such a huge, character- and ethically- important decision, yet completely negating it narratively no matter what you do.  However, decision nit-picking aside, I was very impressed at how quickly, through reality-2 Chloe’s narrative and few decisions with her, I became attached to that reality and that Chloe.   The dialogue with Chloe, William, and Joyce were all well-constructed and emotionally-rich.

After the emotional roller-coaster of reality-2, Max’s first task (raiding Nathan’s room) once she’s back in reality-1 is hard to really get into at first, but–praise for the game’s writers–the game certainly doesn’t lag. What you uncover in Nathan’s room really begins to open up how much bigger this situation is than just a fight between Nathan and Kate.  There are photos of women in bondage/torturous positions, a pharmacy’s worth of pills, photos of Chloe drugged, and one of Max’s selfies.  At this point in the game, I really did believe that Rachel was dead, mostly because of Nathan’s disturbing collection of trophies of the woman he had “conquered.” And, as the game progresses, the theme of collecting and capturing becomes so much more insidious.

As a Post-Episode 5 edit, my critique of the theme of “collecting” women is that it’s almost ignored if you’re not paying attention. The instances are not subtle. They define episodes 4 and 5. Chloe, Max, and many of the significant women in the game are being moved around the chess board of Arcadia Bay by the insidious actions of Jefferson and Nathan. The plot concerning Rachel Amber’s mystery runs parallel to Max’s powers and is by far the most realistically relatable plot. YET…aside from Max’s comments in the moment to Jefferson about how messed up he is, Max never has catharsis from the tension and emotional captivity of the game that Jefferson and Nathan are playing with her. There is no release for Max or the player. After surviving this “game” with the limited control you’re given (as both player and Max), the only thing left to do is make the FINAL DECISION. I’ll address the lack of catharsis in my next post, but my main intention in addressing it early is that the male attempt to dominate and manipulate women in this game is extremely prominent, and yet, the female characters do not react specifically against the male’s actions. They might disapprove of them, but they don’t specifically address their feelings and consequences from them.

Addressing one of my most conflicting critiques of the game: Max’s lack of action for herself. Most of the game, Max makes decisions concerning other peoples’ fates, either through physical action or dialogue. As a game centering on decisions and interaction, there is nothing wrong with this. The problem I find (commence broken record) is that Max barely makes any decisions concerning herself and actions done to her.  Either others intervene on her behalf or she can do nothing. This conundrum exists, primarily, in relation to the men in Max’s life.  The main examples are Nathan (who acts against her), Warren (who acts for her), and Mr. Jefferson (who, I could argue, acts over her, since she has no means of resistance in episode 5’s dark room).  Exhibit A, Nathan attempts to attack you as you leave the dorm. Without any choice, Warren steps in for you, beating Nathan up. I chose to have Warren end the beating, since I didn’t want Warren or my Max defined by hurting or controlling others.  Aside from my issue with Max’s agency, I thought that Warren’s consistent rescue attempts also undermined his character too. Aside from Warren randomly showing up and either a.) beating up Nathan or b.) awkwardly attempting to ask her out, little else of his character is revealed. He seems nice, but very little of his friendship with Max is valued or exposed in the narrative.  Having only seen him as a potential romantic interest, the narrative seems to provide another no-choice option of treating him as such.  Since I’m always in protest of the Nice Guy trope, I always kept Warren at the distance of friendship because 1.) the world is potential ending. Max doesn’t have time for romance and 2.) I wanted to see what would happen to their relationship if they remained friends and Warren’s heroics were not automatically rewarded with romance.  Surprisingly, not much changes, although his future dialogue with Max is less enthusiastic and warm, and he immediately hooks up with another of their classmates.

I won’t go too much into the barn and party, mainly because I will talk about them through episode 5.  However, I am impressed, again, with the writers. The two mysteries, Max’s powers and the missing girls, run side by side and are always building momentum.  Even though I expected bad things, I was genuinely shocked and horrified by the basement and finding Rachel’s burial, and that discovery further emphasized that the decisions made concerning Arcadia Bay’s mystery were just as important as the almost sci-fi mystery of Max’s gift.

And, of course, the broken record starts again.  The end of episode 4, bleeding into 5, represents one of my biggest critiques of the game: again and again, the lack of Max’s agency and power, especially against men. After the Vortex party, you go back to Rachel’s burial site, and are ambushed by the photography teacher, Mr. Jefferson. He drugs Max and shoots Chloe.  In the moment you need it most, Max’s powers fail.  In one of the few instances when someone is actually acting against Max, she cannot defend herself or act out. And of course, again, it is against a man.  In the situations with Victoria or Kate, you can always outsmart the problem or make intentional, action-based decisions. But in any situations with Nathan or Jefferson, you are always powerless.

 

 

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