Entertainment as Dialogue for Real Issues: Life is Strange

(Warning, Spoilers of the first four episodes of Life is Strange ahead)

Video games can be pretty hit and miss when it comes to representing real world issues. When gameplay is the primary focus it can be difficult to nail down a meaningful story. When you try to give a player control it can wrestle away the narrative impact. Games entertain, they can educate, and they can make you feel, but they don’t always represent reality all that well, and so tackling real world issues within those realms can be a challenge. I mean, how powerful is death in the video game world when you have extra lives, or in a worst case scenario you can just hit reset?

In Life is Strange, the primary game mechanic allows you to literally rewind time and change your decisions. Say the wrong thing to someone, rewind and try again. Found out some key information a minute too late, just go back and use it. It should take away any real impact surrounding death right? And so any kind of meaningful discussions surrounding such an issue shouldn’t carry all that much weight. But in two of the four episodes so far, the game has managed to do just that, tackling two very serious and real issues that exist in our world, and it does so in a mature and meaningful way.

Throughout the first two episodes your character’s (Max) close friend Kate has been remorselessly bullied by other kids in her school because of a video that spread online of her making out with a bunch of different guys (made doubly worse as she’s devoutly religious). The bullying continues to build, and Max can intervene at points, but it is clear Kate is struggling. At one point in the game, with one of your other friends in a bit of a situation, Kate rings you needing to talk. You can choose to take the call or not (the former will get you chastised by your other friend who needs you at that time too). It leads up to the climax, where Kate, distraught over everything that’s happened and not wanting to deal with it any more, throws herself off the top of the dormitory in front of a group of her peers watching. Max arrives on the scene just as she begins to fall, and as you would expect for a game where you can turn back time, she rewinds time just before she hits the ground, and runs up to the rooftop to help her.

It’s here where the mechanics of the game really throw you around to tell a story of impact. Max realises her newfound ability is failing her. As she gets to the roof, she realises the gravity of the situation: She only has one shot at saving her friend. What ensues is a test of your friendship with her. Max has to talk Kate down, and using the dialogue wheel you choose what to say to her. Everything you need to know can be found littered throughout the gameworld you’ve been inhabiting for the past couple of hours. Did you actively try and stop the bullying that was going on? Did you answer her call when she needed you? Do you know her family situation is through the pictures and letters that could be found in her room when you went to talk to her?

I realise when written like that, it might seem like it’s trivialising a very real issue. Depression isn’t something that can be solved by playing a game of ‘say the right things’, but a complex internal battle. Despite this, the game tackles the situation with a nuance that you might not have expected from a game that at times bogs itself down in trying to sound ‘youthful’. The situation feels real, and you know saying the wrong thing might push Kate towards that point of no return.

If you managed to fluke your way through the right responses, or if you had done the legwork prior to know what to say, then you can save her life. Otherwise, Kate commits suicide, and you can’t rewind time to save her. Just like in real life, showing genuine love and care for someone might make the difference. If you save her, you visit her in the hospital, where for the first time in the series she seems to have something to smile about. You can sense she is still carrying the baggage of what happened, but seeing the two friends hug after what happened is a genuine reward for the player, especially since not everyone will get that scene (you can even find out exactly what percentage of players would, since the game tracks everyone’s choices and shows them as a statistic). It manages to tackle suicide without standing on a pedestal to do so, and also represents how dangerous bullying can be, which is an underlying theme throughout the story which will ring true for anyone who has been subject to it.

The game does it to you again in episode 4. The loss of your rewind ability is only temporary (and yes, losing them for that one moment is awfully convenient, though Max is cautious of relying too much on it in case she loses it again) and Max has traveled to an alternate timeline. By doing so, Chloe’s (who is Max’s BFF) dad is alive again, but at the cost of Chloe, who is now quadriplegic (because of a car accident, which was also what claimed her dad’s life in the original timeline).

She’s in constant pain, fully aware that her respiratory system is failing and the bills are racking up to an astronomical degree on her parents (all of this you become privy to as you go through the game world). She seems genuinely happy that you’ve visited her, and the two of you rekindle their friendship.

Then comes the gut-punch, which you can probably predict at this point. She turns to you, and says the following:

“Being with you again has been so special. I just wanted to feel like when we were kids running around Arcadia Bay…and everything was possible. And you made me feel that way today. I want this time with you to be my last memory… Do you understand? All you have to do is crank up the IV to eleven…”

Your best friend, who’s life is already circling the drain and has been for some time, just asked you to help her commit suicide. You are then presented with three responses: ‘Accept’, ‘Refuse’ or ‘Don’t know’, with the last decision eventually leading you back to the first two. You have to make the call, and at that point in time you don’t know where the story will actually go from there.

At the end, as cruel as it might initially sound, your decision doesn’t really matter. No matter your decision Max goes back to where the timelines initially split, choosing to sacrifice the father so that Chloe wouldn’t end up the way she did. While that nullifies the scene’s impact somewhat, the friendship between the two over the previous three episodes (and this relationship between the characters forms the core of the game) is still very real, and the gravity of the moment when the game pauses and gives you the option of ending her life or refusing her wishes hits you hard. And it goes about the situation without forcing one direction or another, which is impressive given the nature of the situation.

Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on regarding euthanasia, the game acts as an effective dialogue. Chloe’s plight is incredibly sympathetic, but you can sense the turmoil Max is facing over being asked to take her best friend’s life, even if it is to ‘put her out of her misery’. And while a close friend in pain isn’t exactly what you want to ‘role-play’ through, it does help to put you into the situation and assess the issue where you feel a connection to the situation.

Life is Strange has its problems, and not every moral choice presented is executed as effectively as these two. But what the game does do is show that it is possible. I’ve talked before about how video games can be emotional experiences (seriously, Mass Effect man…) but beyond just plucking at our heartstrings, they can serve to make you think. You interact with the medium and not only does that draw you into the game’s world, it makes you think about what’s going on a little more. When some people had written the URL to Kate’s video on a mirror in the girl’s bathroom, trying to spread what was causing her so much pain, you’re drawn into thinking about the kind of damage bullying can do. Despite its outlandish premise many of the problems Max faces are surprisingly grounded.

The focus here is on video games, and just one in particular. But the concept can be transferred to other media. Music lyrics can be incredibly powerful and speak to the hearts and minds. Movies and books can both set out a fictional situation with analogues to real situations and make you consider things from a different perspective. And video games throw you into the problem head on. Yes it’s great to sit back and be entertained by our media (that is why we call it entertainment…), but we shouldn’t ignore what it’s capable of. If a game like this can open up real discussion on bullying or suicide, then it can make a real impact. And to the creator’s credit, they have opened up doors for people who play the game who might suffer from bullying or depression to seek the help they need. Crazy as it might sound, this game might save a life or two, or at least make some lives a little easier.

I used Life is Strange only because episode 4 just came out, and as I saw where the conversation between Max and Chloe was going I started talking aloud to myself: “No, no no come on man don’t do this to me. Don’t make me choose!” I was caring, I felt invested. And instead of looking at the situation from afar, where my opinion on the issue either way would mean nothing, here I was, having to decide if I I would follow my friend’s last wishes for me to put her out of her misery…

…and to think the game didn’t even have the decency to let up after that. It’s an episode full of gut punches…

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