“Two roads diverged in [Arcadia Bay]…”: Critique of Agency & Praise of Empathy in LiS (ep. 5)

 

Polarized

  • 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 #5.5

Episode 5: “Polarized”

Episode 5–emotionally and narratively–was exhausting and painful. I mean, damn, look at the way it opens: with an image of Max strapped to a chair. Her lack of mobility and control is a big theme in and critique of this episode.  About half-way through, I was tempted to watch a playthrough (I didn’t) instead of finishing it myself. Why?

As Max, I felt paralyzed and restricted by the selfish–and usually abusive–desires of the male characters in the game. Their gaze–which in many ways is represented physically–imprisons Max and Chloe, and keeps a seemingly-powerful protagonist from exhibiting any kind of agency.

I would be interested in doing a study on the reactions of episode 5 between female and male players. As a female player, having absolutely no control over what happened for most of the episode was infuriating and invasive.  For the first fifteen to twenty minutes of gameplay, Jefferson is drugging Max, moving her around, demanding to see her “purity,” and ecstatically gushing over his capture of the other women.  The visuals alone are terrifying: cameras at every angle focus on Max, her black t-shirt doesn’t allow her to blend into the white background (sidenote: in a visual allusion, her shirt has the iconic moth from Silence of the Lambs), and Jefferson is standing directly over her and forcing his camera (his gaze) into her face and body.  Verbally, the scene was audibly assaulting, with Jefferson screaming, “stay still!”,”I need you posed and framed MY WAY!”, “I need to capture the purity of your image,”, and my favorite (gag) “I like my models to be seen, not heard.”  Until David comes to rescue her, Max is at Jefferson’s mercy, visually, audibly, and physically.

My one (feminist) praise of this scene is Max’s responses to Jefferson’s taunts and crude comments.  When he raves over Rachel having been his subject, Max can retort, “Rachel was your victim, not your subject!”  She reclaims Rachel from being his possession and creation to someone who he harmed.  Max fights him in any way she can, through her words and her wit, but your struggle is fruitless unless David can save you.

After Max is saved, she drives to the town to find Warren. If you can find them all (I admit, I didn’t), you can save many people, including friends like Alyssa, before you arrive at the diner. While I appreciated that Max can use her power here to make a difference and intentionally save others, the final decision (or at least, the one outcome) narratively negates almost everything you do in this episode.  Max does find Warren, who still has a picture from the Vortex party, and goes back in time to try to save Chloe, Nathan, and Victoria.  The conversation that comes next is with Chloe, and you must use the right speech options to keep her from going into the party and repeating herself.

While you get a sense of satisfaction from keeping Chloe safe and outwitting Mr. Jefferson, I found the conversation manipulative. The story won’t let you go farther unless you change her mind, and the fastest and most efficient dialogue options–I found–were the ones about Max, especially her and Chloe’s friendship.  In McVeigh’s article, she states that players get the most out of LiS by accomplishing a list of balanced social actions, including “balanced aggression” (nymgamer.net).  If Max is too aggressive, she will often not get the outcome she wants; if she’s not direct enough, the same. While repeating actions seems very straightforward (like going back in time to save Chloe from getting shot, well, twice), repeating conversations to manipulate them to the right aggression balance seems nearly passive aggressive.

But here’s where the game gets psychologically trippy, even though there’s only about 10 minutes left of gameplay. After rewriting that timeline, Max and Chloe end up on the beach, as they’d planned, and begin their way to that dreaded lighthouse.  Because she’s messed with time so much, I’m assuming (although I’m not entirely sure what happens next) the timelines and Max’s psyche begin to bleed together somehow. She goes into these interactive visions that are so twisted they’re practically begging Freud to analyze her. Aside from two of the visions–the diner and the Memory Lane–I didn’t understand their purpose. They were disorienting, and there were random moments of mobility that seemed unnecessary. For example, in the creepy rat-maze where all of the men Max knows are hunting her with flashlights, I wasn’t sure if the writers wanted us to understand that Max was traumatized (especially from her experience with Jefferson) or…honestly, I have no idea. The multiple hallways filled with doubtful and angry voices, that disturbing conversation with Jefferson in which you have to give him a seductive answer, the maze, the snowglobe–after an entire game in which you, the player, as Max, the reality-bending hero, have control over the events around you (for the most part), I had never felt so helpless. All of Max’s fears and grotesque rewinds of her life were playing one after another, and there was nothing to achieve or control, except that you wanted to get out.  Well, thank God I did, but then comes The Decision…the big one. And to be honest, if you’ve been tracking with the tone of the game, it’s not surprising.

(sidenote: I admit that the memory lane with Chloe that leads to the lighthouse was rather clever on the writers part. It reestablishes your emotional bond with her right before making a decision that will play directly off of that. So, kudos for them for making me feel something after wrecking me mentally.)

You’ve made it. You’re with Chloe. You’re both safe at the lighthouse. The Day After Tomorrow-sized tornado is heading for Arcadia Bay and….

FinalDecisionlis

Crying, swearing, existentialist rage and confusion, identity crisis: despite my fury at the final decision for being so basic (basic as in minimal in outcome), I did experience all of these things.  I praise the writers for designing a (relatively) real, nostalgic,  honest female friendship that connected me so firmly to these characters that the ending’s emotional charge (mostly) made up for the mess of episode 5.  If anything, the emotional struggle at the end speaks to the good character design and (overall) narrative with Chloe.

However…the final decision, I believe, has the potential to cheapen the game, if the decision-content is the basis on which the game’s success is based. Later, I will address why I do not think that this is true. However, logically, the power of decisions, the weight of consequences, the responsibility of dealing with your actions, personal connection: they were all reduced by not only the basic, two-outcome decision at the end (and its inevitability) but also the type of decision (“few vs. the many” type conflict).


Inevitability

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

One of my greatest English-nerd frustrations is the assumption that Robert Frost’s poem “Two roads diverged in a wood…” is about some sort of self-empowering, self-chosen decision to take the one better path. On the contrary, it’s primarily about how there were two roads and the “choice” to take one over the other didn’t matter. One could view the choice as unimportant and the actions on the road as meaningful (or vice versa), but that’s up to the reader.  Similarly, I think the dividing paths when approaching critique of this game can be grading it based on the logical progression of decisions or the empathy created between player and Max.

Anyway, poetry interpretation aside, the general principle matters. You will always arrive at this divergence in the path, and there will only ever be two paths.  At the end of “Polarized,” you will always arrive at that final, excruciating decision, and there will only ever be those two options.  The game intertwines narrative and decisions so that, despite the many times when you cannot contribute to outcome, there is a feeling that you have power over the ending and that the decisions at the beginning of episode one will influence the ending of episode 5.

So was the entire game one big ironic joke (intentionally designed by the writers) or was the primary directive from writers to players the emotional attachment developed with the characters?

I believe it was the later, and in that case, the game succeeds wonderfully.  However, the type of decision, I think, could still have been improved.  Even though both endings are messy (emotionally), the realism of this game (in relation to characters) seems disjointed when connected with such a clean-cut decision: the many or the few.


Bae or Bay?

After the many, many decisions made during LiS, after the many types of decisions, after the many consequences and outcomes, this is what the ending amounts to. And that is primarily what infuriates me. After playing through a game that reaps from rich concepts like memory, human connection, emotion, friendship, consequence, etc…this is it. Either you kill your best friend and stop the tornado’s onslaught or you save her and let the town be destroyed.

Yes, yes, this decision does emphasize the reality that not every story has a happy ending and many decisions in life will require some sacrifice. But is this the moral the writers were going for? From the rest of the game, I’d say no.

If you sacrifice Chloe and save the town, you have essentially sacrificed all of the memories and experiences you had with every single person in this timeline. Even after screwing with time again and again and learning that it often doesn’t work out the way you would like (there are always good and bad consequences), you’re willing to do it one more time. Yes, you save the town and the many people that you’ve connected with. But you’ve lost that version of yourself and of them that you painstakingly lived through and helped create and tried so hard to save. You essentially sacrifice everything you’ve done in this game.

If you sacrifice the town, you save those memories and experiences. You have saved that timeline. You’ve saved Chloe, who you’ve been building a relationship with and protecting this whole game. But (you assume, although it isn’t confirmed) you have lost everyone else. Kate, Warren, Joyce… everyone is dead. You have finally dealt with the only unavoidable consequences. There is no turning back, and you’re accepting the real weight of all of the decisions you’ve made from beginning to end.

If you can’t tell already, I picked the second option. I sacrificed the town. I chose Chloe. To quote this amazing article I found, “my life is strange ending was selfish and that’s hella fine” (Wan, Zhiqing twinfinite.net).  And while everyone is entitled to make their decision and have their reasons for it, from my analysis of the game, I think that saving Chloe is the most fulfilling and “logical” ending.

(I can hear the anguished screams of the other 56% already.)

Wan (who I believe is as partial to the Chloe ending as I am) argues for the agency and power in refuting the “expected” ending, saying the following:

When you think about it on a purely mathematical level, the choice seems obvious. The life of one person weighs significantly less than the lives of thousands of people who live in this small town. Why risk the destruction of an entire town when just the death of one person would make things significantly better for everyone else? And therein lies the problem. On a story and gameplay level, the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending basically means that every decision you made throughout the past four episodes never mattered at all. Even without all the investigation Max and Chloe did, Jefferson would still have gotten busted in the original timeline. You never would’ve built up relationships with Victoria, Dana, Kate, and the other Blackwell students that you established in the alternate timeline where Chloe survived. But most importantly, Chloe would have died while she was at the lowest point in her life. (twinfinite.net)

To set up my argument, I will quote Ms. Wan again, who does an excellent job analyzing both endings but who also chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay: “With both endings, players are allowed to decide which event is inevitable: Chloe’s death, or the tornado destroying Arcadia Bay. Whatever you choose, the outcome is pretty damn depressing, and there’s just no way to get out unscathed. So the question becomes, how do you want Max to come out of the situation, and how do you want her to be affected by the in-game events” (twinfinite.net)?

I, first, would critique her assumption that the game only points to the inevitability of something. I may seem contrary (since I did argue that same point earlier), but that would only be true if we are critiquing the linearity of the game, and maybe not even then. The basis would still depend on one’s viewpoint, especially concerning fate.  She even addresses this critique of herself later in the article, saying that “sloppy ending cinematic scenes aside, I found the ‘Chloe’ ending in Life Is Strange to be a whole lot more satisfying, not to mention humanizing, than the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending. My version of Max had decided that Chloe would be her top priority and that she’d never let any harm come to her” (twinfinite.net).  If the goal of LiS was to create a linear, point-A-to-point-B, logical story, sure, the ending would be sloppy. But that’s not the point, I do not believe, and both I and Wan address that next.

However, concerning Max, I believe she is right. She doesn’t directly say it, but Wan points to the game’s center: emotion. Empathy. “…how do you want her to be affected…?” she says. How do you want to be affected? Throughout the game, the player’s version of and the pre-existing Max walk a fine line.  Through the decisions made, the player inputs their emotions and values into Max. At those points in the game, they fuse. At those points in my game, my Max was a girl coming out of her shell yet still learning to love herself, someone who knew what it was to be loved and show love and loyalty, someone who (despite her powers) was learning to accept the weight of consequences and create a life and identity from that. Because of who my Max was, she chose to save Chloe. She loved the life and the identity she had made and experienced too much to sacrifice it again. Throughout this game, throughout this plot, she has been acted upon and every decision has resulted in something much bigger out of her control, so, finally, she accepts the responsibility of the present and gives herself her first full moment of autonomy and control.  To again quote Wan, I most certainly identify with her when she says that “personally, I thought it was rather poetic that Max tore the photo without even giving it a second thought, rather than abusing her power one more time and going back to the start to change things once again. I saw it as a sign of her being done with this power that she never asked for, and that she was done with messing around with timelines and people’s destinies” (twinfinite.net).  For me, for the Max I created, that ending was not only logical but also the most fulfilling, because it was not easy but it was true to character.

HOWEVER… (feminist critique coming in 3…2…1…) stepping back from analyzing the emotional expectations or narrative smoothness of the narrative, the ending, while emotionally charged, loses something significant.
Chloe dies. Or the town is destroyed. This game and the story within backs you/Max into a corner. At every turn, someone (always a man) is creating the setting for the grand scheme going on. As I’ll address in my praise of empathy in the game, the choices made within the game are significant because of what they mean to the player (your Max), but you/Max SHOULD be frustrated by the seeming inevitability and the unfairness and the ugliness of the final choice. I was pissed. I was ranting and crying and swearing at my tv screen, wishing that I could button mash my way out of this nightmare.

But no matter your choice, no matter what horrible fate you accept/create (depending on your view)…Max is unchanged. Max doesn’t respond. She is sad either way; she doesn’t react in a completely opposite manner than expected (she isn’t joyous that people die, in other words), but she is given no catharsis or room to emerge from the trauma that just shaped her last week. Jefferson has just emotionally and (possibly) physically molested her. Her best friend died before her eyes. Even if she can repeat choices, it still hurts; Max isn’t a robot. A massive tornado, a cataclysm she’s been fearing for a week, is here. She’s about experience horrible loss again.

IT. IS. UNFAIR. And after surviving episode 5, I expect Max to lose it. She should be enraged. It makes sense. She needs release, no matter the ending. But either way, after making arguably the most tragic choice of the game, there’s a moment of sadness on her face, but then the sun shines and everyone moves on. A nice, neat, clean bow wraps up a game about human emotion and teenage character growth.
Heck no. Max, a very unusual protagonist for a video game (she’s hipster, a girl, a photographer, quiet, etc… she doesn’t fit the usual game protagonist), implies a more relatable, hopefully less-stereotyped personality and reactions. So when her best friend dies (after she chooses to go back and let it happen, in a gut-wrenching moment of helplessness)…or the town is destroyed (again, after choosing to let another kind of disaster happen)…nothing. It’s so clean, it’s aggravating. I’m less angry at the ethical implications of the game \than the emotionally sterilized box Max is placed in. There’s no rage, no horror, no breakdown…after having her past week, which is probably the most life-changing week she’ll ever have, defined by trauma–both inevitable catastrophe in spite of her new powers and sick, sexist fantasies fulfilled by Jefferson/Nathan—there is a collapse. Max is suddenly vacant and very very unreal. After building up a realistic, different kind of protagonist and placing her in conjuncture with the all-too-common female fear of being taken advantage of (in two different ways for Max…she can defend herself neither against the aftershocks of her powers nor the men in her life), she is expected to react. But she is absorbed into a vapid, thoughtless ending, her emotions and character erased.

Could this have been the result of poor writing on the fault of the writers? Yes. They could have simply been careless. But in that case, they have been careless a lot in connection to Max’s gender. Having a female, teenage protagonist is so important in current gaming. It’s uncommon. Creating one outside of just being a sex-symbol is even more rare. The creators, I think, brushed off how necessary it was to intentionally connect her gender to the situations they were putting her into….especially at the end. She is not allowed to release, to explode, to rage or vent or weep or release anything raw. She is polished. She is boring. She is safe.
But human emotion and the recovery after a road of trauma are not any of those things. And in a society where trauma against women is brushed off as easily as the choice to make Max female, the choice to not focus on the aftermath reveals either a complacency in hushing a necessary conversation or a patriarchal knee-jerk reaction to quiet and controlled female emotion. Possibly both. Either way, Jefferson’s mantra of seeing and not hearing his models is becoming a theme for this game. Max is seen. She is given reactions (different from emotion), but not release, not a rawness of self. She is a model; at the end, she isn’t human. She has been replaced by the pretty, easy, polished model for female characters in games. She is reacted on and against, but her reaction will never be as strong as the actions taken against her. Because, truly, her rage or horror would make real the unfairness and vileness of Jefferson and Nathan and the lack of control in her life. It would reveal the sickening insidiousness of the patriarchy and its micromanaging of her life.
But she is quieted, again and again and again, and when it matters most that she validate herself—not in opposition to any of the males or their standards but truly just in and of herself, without playing by their rules anymore—Max is absorbed into the game that she’s been forced into.


Praise of Empathy

For all of my harsh critique of the final episode, the game as a whole succeeds emotionally connecting to its players. While Max’s lack of agency and the simplicity of the final choice is frustrating, they are not the Achilles’ heel that brings down the game. However, nor should they been seen as faults within the game. Assuming that they were intentional choices within the plot of the narrative (which of course is connected to the choice mechanism), we cannot assume the game was designed solely to present complex ethical decisions or a flawless story.  One thing that is consistent throughout the game is the emotional draw. The game’s narrative center is the friendship between Max and Chloe. Surrounding that is Max’s player-created relationships with her classmates, friends, and even her rivals. What you as the player-Max build and achieve is not materially- or trophy- based. You can get trophies, but there is nothing added to the game by gaining them. By numbers alone, there is no singular right way to proceed with or finish the game. Every decision has its pros and cons; there is no singular happy ending, so to speak.  What can be gained is purely emotional. The connection made between Max and the player and that Max and her life is the game’s great creation and accomplishment.  I would say that it is the only (intentional) achievement in the game.

All of that being said, I will flip the coin on my previous critique and see my argument points not as faults but as successes. The connection you have to Max and Chloe and the horror one feels at Max’s immobility reveal both a sense of player-created agency and an empathetic and equally self-created bond with Chloe.  The confrontation with Jefferson and the psychological maze are stinging with fear and anxiety. The final decision is (I would say) the most emotionally charged of the game. No matter your choice, you will lose something and you will be relieved to save something else: a terrible bittersweet.  These situations are powerful because of the symbiotic emotional life you’ve built from and as Max. Every choice in the game builds off of your connection to and as Max (and it is very important to say “to and as,” because there is a previously existing narrative which feeds you situations, but you give them meaning and empathy).  Choosing what breakfast to eat at the diner, whether or not to shoot Frank, to water the plant or not, to take the blame for the weed or not, to save Chloe or the town–these choices exist in the game without the player’s intervention, but they mean nothing and give the player nothing without the factor of empathy. Is it possible to assume then that, like the voices, scenery, music, decisions, etc, the game uses human empathy as part of its content? Is there even a word for that, like ludoempathy? Or rather, ludoaffect. You can try to play completely disconnected from your Max, but how you play the game reflects you, how you feel about the decisions, and the connection made with the game. No matter how you play the game, you are aware of how you can or do feel.  The game does not succeed because it is logically or narratively perfect; it succeeds because of the empathy created for this life as Max Caufield.  The journey that your emotions go through is vast and varied, and how you used that part of the game–which is equally part of you, the player–determines the achievement you get.

I could take my frustrations in episode 5 to be a fault of the game, but I won’t. They might be, but I prefer to see them as a success of the game. I had invested so much in the character of Max that the actions taken against her and the difficulty in her life tested me personally.  And that’s hella awesome to me.

Works Cited:

“My Life is Strange Ending Was Selfish and That’s Hella Fine” by Zhiqnig Wan. (http://twinfinite.net/2015/10/my-life-is-strange-ending-was-selfish-and-thats-hella-fine/)

“Doing the Right Thing: Life is Strange and Virtue Ethics” by Jennifer McVeigh. (http://www.nymgamer.com/?p=8452)

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173536)

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