Is a game better just because it makes you cry? Does that alone make it meaningful? Artistic? If a game forces you to pause and reconsider some aspect of your own life, or to contemplate another perspective, does that automatically put it above other games?
I was awfully harsh in my critique of Life is Strange, calling it an empty, meaningless narrative. I’m sure many would disagree with me due to the variety of “emotional” moments. Certainly there were many times that I sat on the edge of my seat, wide-eyed, struggling to make a decision or unable to believe what I was seeing. I did become emotionally invested in the game, and I do think Dontnod certainly did a functional job with the narrative.
Yet I still think it is important to ask “what was the point?” What purpose does the story serve for our protagonist? How has their life changed in response? What are the consequences?
In many good stories, the conflict serves as a backdrop and metaphor to a character’s personal growth. An excellent example is Iron Man, where Tony Stark is an irresponsible philanthropist whose conflict transforms him into a hero. Instead of inventing weapons of war, he creates a suit to destroy his own past creations and to reclaim his corrupt company. By the end Tony Stark is a different person, having learned something and forever being changed. One could argue that Tony Stark died in the Middle East and Iron Man was born, adding further weight to Stark’s concluding confession that he “is Iron Man”.
As I asserted in my analysis, if there is any lesson learned in Life is Strange, it is for protagonist Max to “believe in herself”. This is such a basic lesson of morality that it belongs on Nick Jr. Just because a game made you cry along the way, does that now make it a high example of art in the medium?
I would contrast that with two other games that no one praised nearly so highly, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. While the former game hit me emotionally much more often, both games had moments that were unique to the medium and placed me into a perspective I was not often used to.
In Heavy Rain, there is a scene where you are controlling the journalist Madison. She steps into the home of a man she suspects of being dangerous to ask him some questions, and at one point he offers a drink. He is very insistent on it. The game soon prompts the player to take a sip. I, so used to following button prompts on screen, took the drink without any thought. Shortly after Madison’s vision becomes blurry and she falls to the ground. The thought that the man might have slipped a drug into the drink never crossed my mind.
I began to wonder what the statistics might be of male players that took the drink without a second thought and female players that did not. It was a moment where the interactivity of video games allowed me a moment to experience a fear that many women in the country have.
But did it add to the narrative?
In Beyond: Two Souls, there is a moment where the main character Jodie is trying to prepare her apartment for a date. It’s a fascinating moment, as you are able to control both Jodie and her potentially jealous ghost companion, offering two separate perspectives of the date. A surprising moment for me was the moment where Jodie was trying to figure out what to wear. I struggled surprisingly long to determine which ensemble gave the right message. Something so stereotypically feminine and that, as a man, I’d never truly understood. It was yet another moment that placed me in the mind of a gender I’m not familiar with.
But did it add to the narrative?
What we’re experiencing is the evolution of an interactive medium’s potential. Good writing should combine with the interactive nature of games to generate a much more engrossing and emotional experience. The tools of the author have been expanded. Yet this also means the interactive nature of games can be used to manipulate and coerce.
Consider documentaries, for example. The audience is at the mercy of the director, with nothing but complete faith that the information will be shared in a fair and unbiased manner. A documentary film no doubt contains hours upon hours upon hundreds of hours of footage, all of which must be trimmed down to about two hours or so. What information is thus left out? Can we trust that all the interviews and footage we see is being shown in context? What if we are intentionally being shown footage with the intent of misleading us? Of shoving us towards a conclusion that does not reflect the reality?
The interactive nature of video games can be used to force us to ask questions of ourselves and our perceptions, but it still relies on perceptions of reality. I can build a simulation where the player controls a woman in a dark street of a poor neighborhood at night, and I can add in metrics to see if that player will cross the street in order to avoid the colored man approaching from over a block away. Perhaps in this “simulation”, the colored man is polite and, if engaged, offers to help escort the woman home. Perhaps approaching a police officer results in the woman being taken advantage of under threat of being arrested.
All of this can question a player’s preconceived notions about the world, or it could feed directly into them. The problem is that this scenario itself is not reality.
So what does this have to do with Life is Strange? Well, part of the reason the game is so “emotional” is that it deals with potentially controversial subjects that video games rarely touch on. The fear of abduction, of rape, and of the contemplation of suicide. These are all heavy subjects, but including them in your game does not create art.
Including them in your game in order to manipulate the emotions of your audience—particularly to force them into a desired conclusion—is not art, and is downright unethical.
Emotional manipulation can, and often is, propaganda. While I won’t go so far as to claim Life is Strange is propaganda, I can certainly confirm that it is crafting a world where characters act and behave in certain ways to manipulate player emotions. The game’s narrative adds circumstances and context that further and further lead a player to believe X, Y, or Z to be a justified way of thinking.
This is why Life is Strange was so disappointing, and managed to be so throughout each episode. There were several moments where the game could ask truly thought-provoking questions of the player. Place them in a scenario that caused them to stop and consider what their stance was in some difficult conundrum. Yet these moments were not only undercut by the clear and obvious manipulation to think a certain way, but also by the fact that none of them changed Max by the conclusion.
To compare with The Walking Dead: Season One, even if the choices the player is given “don’t matter” in the end, they matter to the game’s central theme of parenting. In two separate moments in the game’s final episode the writers call back to prior actions, and even offer the player to choose what dialogue is most important to reiterate. In other words, the entire story was building to this conclusion, where the characters would forever be changed. It tied into a thematic concept. It was a story.
Life is Strange, in comparison, is simply a string of events. Yes, they are very emotional events, and eventually those events stop happening, but there is no meaning to them. Nothing brings them together to say “this was the entire purpose”. Instead, because they are emotional, they are expected to simply have meaning by existing.
While some writers are capable of eschewing conventional story-telling traditions and rules, Dontnod are not so talented as to effectively execute that. They are simply lucky to be telling a story in a medium that doesn’t know any better.