Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Life Is Strange: The choices we are not allowed to make

It's kind of hard to know how to talk about Life Is Strange, the 2015 episodic/serial choice-based time-travel RPG.  It's one story in five parts, and each episode tackles drastically different concepts and subject matter, sometimes in radically different ways.  The blogqueen and I played through the first four episodes saying "Okay, on the next run (which we must obviously play) we'll do this the other way" and then found that when the final credits rolled neither of us had any real desire to pick it up again.

How exactly do I talk about a story where the phrase 'that was always going to never have happened eventually' is grammatically reasonable?  I'm going to try going roughly by episode and see how that goes.  Spoilers will be progressively spoilerier as we go.  Also, this game gets into some serious and potentially very triggering material, so if that's not something you want to deal with today, I have also posted a full index of the Ender's Game posts for your re-enjoyment.

(Content: murder, suicide, terminal illness, sexual assault, loss of agency.)

Our heroine, Max(ine) Caulfield, is a waifish photography nerd at a tiny well-respected private high school somewhere in Oregon.  It's her hometown, but she's been away for five years, so it's both familiar and confusing, and she still hasn't tried to reconnect with her childhood BFFFFF, Chloe Price.  One school day she witnesses an accidental murder in the school bathroom and spontaneously develops the ability to rewind time (if only by a few minutes).  She prevents the murder and thus saves someone who turns out to be Chloe, and together they begin searching for Chloe's missing friend, Rachel Amber.  The core mechanic of the game is Max's ability to essentially save scum her own life, thus letting her decide which version of a conversation she wants to be the 'real' one, or to see how a situation goes badly, reload the past, and take steps to prevent it again.  Very meta.  I approve.

Despite this supernatural power, the game is mostly about mundane choices--who do you want to befriend, whose secrets will you keep, whose side will you take?  The one exception to this is Max's recurring dream/vision of a hurricane coming in to obliterate the town in five days' time.  Who's behind that?  Could there be--could there BE-- something sinister about the rich kids' Vortex Club and their End of the World party in only four days' time?  Other weird phenomena also start popping up: unreasonable snow and unscheduled eclipses and beaching whales.

While the game reminds you regularly that it's all about consequences, it doesn't severely drop the hammer until episode two, when Max shorts out her time powers just when she needs to talk down her suicidal friend Kate.  The situation is as wrenchingly plausible as they can make it--Kate was drunk at a party, there's a viral video going around shaming her, no one in authority cares that she says she was drugged and assaulted afterwards, and even those who believe her are going heavy on the victim-blaming.  Refreshingly, the writers behind the game make it pretty clear that we're supposed to sympathise fully with Kate and the victim-blamers are a bunch of jackasses.  It's also not as exploitative as one might expect; there is never an opportunity to watch the video, for example.  Depending on the choices you have made up to that point and while you're on the roof, Kate can be rescued.  It's a harrowing story, but very compelling.  (On our playthrough we failed to stop her at the very end, but this is a game about time travel and anything can be undone.)

Episode three gives us a new twist when Max discovers that she can use photographs to alter moments of her more distant past, and retroactively prevents the car crash that killed Chloe's father, thus drastically rewriting the entire world.  The most drastic obvious change is that Chloe has instead been in an accident herself in the last year and is now completely paralysed with progressive organ failure.  The blogqueen and I were massively apprehensive about this, since media about disabled people tends to be awkward at best and eugenicist at worst.  To our pleasant surprise, this game avoids a lot of that.  This alternate Chloe is arguably happier than her able-bodied self, and her parents have managed to equip their home with a bunch of adaptive technology that still lets her live her life.  No one ever declares that they'd rather be dead than disabled, or implies that a disabled child is an unwanted burden on their family or friends.  The game does make it clear that being disabled is horrendously expensive, but the Price parents are resolute that they'll do anything they can to improve her life.

That said, Max can also find a letter from Chloe's doctor (which Chloe apparently hasn't been told about) saying that she probably has only a few months to live no matter what they do, and ultimately Chloe asks Max to give her a morphine overdose because she'd rather not suffer through that decline (and bankrupt her family).  The player can choose to assist or refuse, and then, either way, immediately use the photograph to restore the original timeline.  So, while it's carefully set up to make it clear that this is Chloe's choice and she specifically wants to skip her own terminal case, we nevertheless get the selfless disabled person trying to spare their loved ones the burden.  Compared to the usual depiction of disability in media, I feel this lands solidly in 'better, yet not good' territory.

Episode four brings us nearly to the end of the investigation, as our reunited heroes find a well-equipped storm bunker, "the Dark Room", that someone is apparently using as their hideout to kidnap, drug, and photograph teenage girls.  (The game implies that most of the victims were not physically raped, but some probably were, and the violation is inexcusable in either case.)  Max and Chloe finally locate the body of Rachel Amber, but it's a trap and the villain ambushes them, killing Chloe (again) and kidnapping Max.

★Interlude by Erika★
I want to take a moment to talk about Rachel Amber. She is everywhere. From one of the first scenes we see graffiti about her, we see missing posters about her, people talk about her. The early episodes hit you over the head with "wonder who is Rachel, and what happened to her!" She's the reason Chloe was at the school to start with when we run into her (she was putting up missing person posters). A large majority of the plot is driven by investigating what happened to her. She is a mystery, and she is supposed to be.  From how other characters talk about her, you're never sure how you're supposed to see her. There are implications that she is, in her own way, even guiding Max, which is what made it so... anti-climactic to get the one-two punch of "she was drugged, maybe sexually abused, and definitely photographed in horrific ways" with "yep, there's her body". I never really expected to find her alive, but I had expected more from this game than what thematically amounts to "raped and murdered". While there is little room for the game to continue exploring Rachel after this point, she only comes up once more and is largely forgotten now that the mystery is solved and she is found.

★Back to Will★
Even up to this point, I was pretty well on-board with this game.  Its treatment of harsh subject matter was at least considered if not perfect, its characters are generally complicated and interesting, it has serious and impactful choices, and it's so queer.

It is so queer, y'all.

Pictured: Max kissing Chloe.  Chloe's hair is dyed in the approximate colours of the bi pride flag.

Max is bi, unquestionably.  Her close past friendship with Chloe takes on romantic overtones almost immediately after they meet again, they flirt constantly, and your first opportunity to kiss is in the middle of the game.  You can choose not to, of course, but 80% of players went for it, as is right and good.  If you do, the flirting only ramps up afterwards.  Chloe really only expresses interest in other girls, primarily Rachel, and it's hard to tell if she's just teasing you when she talks about how hot Mr Jefferson the photography goatee teacher is.  And while they have some obviously sexualised scenes (playing in the pool at night, nearly naked) it's mostly not objectifying camerawork.  (Being male, I'm probably not a good source on whether the male gaze applies.)

Max's other potential love interest is Warren, a nerdy boy who defies the vast majority of expected nerd boy cliches.  He's super excited about what a geek Max is and wants to trade classic SFF movies with her, but he never becomes the entitled and resentful Nice Guy, even if you reject him, even after he puts himself in physical harm to protect you.  IN FACT, if you turn down his date and he then learns you're spending all your time with Chloe, his response is basically "Oh, wow, yeah, if I were you I would also date her, good call".  (Erika: I remain conflicted on if I would pick him or not if Chloe wasn't the other option. He's kind of endearing, but also so thirsty.) No biphobia!  Not even a second of "wait, are you gay or something?"  Normalised bisexuality.  Truly this is a world unlike our own.  (Villains don't mind throwing in some homophobia now and then, generally by calling Chloe a dyke, which is kind of unnecessary but in line with the rest of the writers' choices.)

Most of the other characters very clearly have their virtues and flaws as well.  Victoria, alpha girl of the school, is snobbish and judgmental, but can also be kind and loyal, and is clearly motivated more by insecurity than malice.  Chloe's stepfather David is an ex-soldier, pushy, prying, secretive, and short-tempered, but genuinely cares about his family and is just very bad at simultaneously protecting and respecting people.

Nathan Prescott is worth talking about as well--he's the rich kid who never faces consequences for anything and (almost) kills Chloe in the first episode.  There's a lot of ableist talk about how he's "insane" and on a ton of prescription medications (in addition to illegal narcotics), but ultimately we're corrected: his mental problems didn't make him evil, they made him vulnerable, and while he's done inexcusable things, he's in turn a victim and pawn of bad people who are entirely sane.  Like Chloe's alternate timeline (and this time speaking as someone who does depend on medication for his mental health), I felt again like this ended up in better territory than usual, if not necessarily great.

With all that said, let's talk about how much I hated episode five.

Okay, 'hated' is a strong word; I was less uncomfortable than Erika was while we played through it (Erika: I spent most of this sequence clutching a pillow yelling "NO" and making upset noises at the TV), but in the aftermath I became more and more dissatisfied with the writers' choices, the wasted opportunities, and the confluence of really tired cliches in a situation that desperately needed the originality and unpredictability of the rest of the game.

It starts out bad: Chloe is dead, Max is captured, and the real villain has been revealed as Mr Jefferson, the hipster teacher Max has idolised for years.  It turns out that his favourite subject for photography is the destruction of innocence, so he likes to kidnap girls and photograph them as they are slowly overwhelmed by fear and despair.  Bound to a chair in his secret bunker, the player is mostly just forced to watch scenes play out, which is the first problem.  Episode five is less a game than an interactive movie--rather than making choices, you're pushed through a pretty linear sequence of events, trying desperately to find anything you can do that will make a difference.  The writers were clearly trying to evoke a sense of helplessness in the player (after four episodes of causality being your plaything), and I don't disagree that they succeeded.  What I dislike about this is that after four episodes of focusing on the agency and power and courage of this teenage girl, they decided that what we really needed to bring things home was a painfully long sequence in which our heroine is helplessly victimised by a violent man and we can do nothing but watch.  The game up to now had--usually--avoided being very voyeuristic, and that goes right out the window.  Prolonged camera shots of an underage, drugged girl.

This is not something I was looking for in my game.

After what feels like about nineteen weeks of pointless struggling, Max manages to find one of her photographs that she can use to tweak the very first scene of the game, rewriting the entire week.  Kate is alive, Chloe is alive, Mr Jefferson has been arrested, and Max is declared the winner of the photo competition, which means she's out of town at a gala when she receives word that the mysterious hurricane is nevertheless destroying the town.  She goes back to rewrite time again to make sure she's home to protect people, and consequences spill out of control such that she ends up back in Jefferson's evil lair with no photos.  Ex-soldier David comes to the rescue this time, because what we really needed was for her to get rescued by a strong man again (Max does help, but still, seriously?), and off Max goes to find the one remaining photo that will let her travel back to warn Chloe and save the day.

It works, though apparently the developers felt they needed padding or just hadn't shown off enough graphical tricks yet, because first there's an extended nightmare dungeon sequence that is pretty much exactly what I'd like to see in a horror movie, except that since when is this game a horror movie.  It was cool, and it's certainly a powerful scene when Mirror Max berates Player Max for using her time-warp powers to make people like her.  I just wish they had given us more reason for any of those scenes to be in the game, apart from 'it was cool and we had a half hour of runtime to fill'. (Erika: However it would have made for a great horror game.)

The final choice of the game comes in the same place the story starts, on a cliff, watching the hurricane bear down on Arcadia Bay.  At this point, our heroes have 'realised' that all of these bizarre phenomena are somehow caused by Max's time-warping, including this very storm.  How they've realised this remains unclear to me; it seems like a pretty strong application of post hoc ergo propter hoc.  (It would have been just as reasonable to conclude that some other force had fractured reality, causing various disasters but also somehow allowing Max to hop between possible timelines, near as I can tell.)  Regardless, Chloe realises that Max only developed her powers to prevent Chloe's death, and so offers Max a photograph that will let her travel back to day one, allow Chloe to get shot, never gain her time powers, and thus prevent any of the catastrophes that follow.


A brief list of things I am provisionally okay with:
  • moral conundrums where you have to choose between one person you value most or a bunch of other people
  • diabolus ex machina in which some kind of force majeure threat out of nowhere requires you to choose between two flawed results
  • villains being characterised as creepy hipster misogynists who literally see women as objects, even and especially if it's not blatantly sexual
  • gameplay sequences specifically designed to evoke a feeling of helplessness
But when you combine all of these things to tell a story about a heroine getting tied up, drugged, threatened in various physical and psychological ways, punished for every choice she makes, and ultimately told that the will of the universe is that she either allows her girlfriend to be murdered or she will personally be responsible for a random town-destroying disaster...

Again, this is not what I was looking for in this game.

On the plus side, you can choose not to sacrifice Chloe, so it doesn't have to be a story about the Tragic Lesbian who dies selflessly to save the straights.  Yet the writers obviously felt that was the stronger story, and put substantially more time into that ending than they did into the one where you let the storm run its course and then drive off into the sunrise.  (You also only kiss Chloe again if it's right before you rewind to let her die; otherwise it's hugs only.)  In both cases, I'm not sure I've ever seen a game that so desperately needed a 'where are they now' ending for its various side characters, which would have fit in perfectly as, for example, a photo album that you could flip through during the end credits.  (From what I've read, the lack of detail was intentional, especially in the ending where the storm hits, as the writers wanted to leave players in suspense about who survived the disaster.)  Instead, Erika and I agreed, the supposed consequences of all of your many other decisions throughout the game are seriously undermined, since you don't get to see any impact in the end from anything but your final choice.

I would go as far as to say that none of your choices matter expect the final one. You either reset, and none of it happens, or you just leave them to die.  (If Max retains her memory during the days she must now relive, they could matter more, but it is unclear if she does or not, and given the previous mechanics, implied she doesn't.)  The survivors aren't going to care whether you were nice to them or not after getting a bucket of paint dumped on them, they're going to be a little preoccupied with how their lives have been destroyed by a hurricane. For a game that let you think that its choices were so important, real lunchbox letdown.

Will again★
I can see ways they could have spun the hurricane ending more effectively, and even the reset ending, but in both cases they'd have to have actually wanted to do so, and set up for it.  In the reset ending, a sequence (even a montage) of Max using whatever knowledge she still has in order to help people (supporting Kate, befriending the rest of the 'unsympathetic' students and stopping bullies, reconnecting with Chloe's mom and helping her through what follows) would have added a lot.  In the hurricane ending, obviously, how you've interacted with other characters could also influence the choices they're going to make, and 'former enemies come together to protect the community in a crisis' is a way better cliche than anything else we were getting in this episode.  Victoria and Frank the drug dealer come to mind as examples of people who are hostile by default but can have a conscience installed.  Give me Victoria mass-texting people to come to her family's storm bunker; give me Frank and David driving around town grabbing anybody stuck on foot on the street.

One last thing that I expected to mean more but never did was the nature of the big photo competition: "Everyday Heroes".  Max's winning picture is a shot of herself and her wall of photos, yet her heroism is not really evident to anyone else most of the time (the main exception coming to mind is her rescue of Kate).  Her heroism in the reset ending consists of choosing not to act.  Maybe the takeaway there is that 'everyday heroes' aren't often noticed or recognised, but it's kind of lacklustre, and there isn't much that can connect an act like that to the real world.  Conversely, there's a giant missed opportunity for plausible 'everyday heroism' if Max's little actions over the course of the week are allowed to add up to something significant in the end, like the townspeople being more ready and willing to protect each other.  Be good to people throughout the week, bring them closer together, make them more ready to weather the storm, and maybe they can save each other so you aren't pushed to let your girlfriend die.

And I figure that's exactly what the writers did not want to allow.  Either of these things--the reset ending where you see Max still finding ways to help people, or the hurricane ending where she's helped them become people who leap to protect each other--distracts from the focus of the ending right now, which is "are you going to kill your girlfriend and suffer like a hero or spare her like a selfish coward".  That is the extent of what the writers wanted you to be thinking about and left with, and all other possible consequences of your many, many choices are removed by fiat.  If anything, the message seems like it's supposed to be "life is strange (WINK) and therefore nothing is truly in your control and your choices and desires don't really matter".  Helplessness is in keeping with the themes of the final episode, but "you can't really have any agency" is again a thing I was not looking for in my bisexual SFF mystery game, especially as the 'twist' ending of a game that claims it's all about choices.

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