Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Taboo subjects have always proved an enticing and daring prospect in the realm of film and TV, but for video games many of those cultural doors have remained resolutely sealed—and with good reason. The medium is one built on the purveyance of violence and the unit-shifting titillation of sex, but those themes have become cheap and commercialised, commodities so commonplace they’re almost transparent.
There are some subjects that are so sensitive in nature they’ve stayed far from the drawing boards of game developers the world over: social anxiety, puberty, depression, suicide. Yet it was only a matter of time before they transitioned from public consciousness into the world of video games.
Life Is Strange, the magnificent genre side-stepping video game series from Parisian developer Dontnod Entertainment, is the product of such thematic osmosis and its brave depiction of these difficult subjects made it one of the most acclaimed titles of 2015.
More importantly, these subjects were added as a natural part of the narrative, an organic element that wasn’t shoehorned and gamified beyond all recognition. It’s incredibly easy to cheapen sentiment in games, and Life is Strange manages such volatile ingredients with a sensitivity that’s almost unheard of among the endless sci-fi wars and fatalities of modern gaming.
For lead character Max Caulfield, simply navigating the minefield of life in a modern high school is challenging enough. The desire to shed the warm anonymity of childhood and emerge as a young adult with beliefs of her own becomes the impetus that drives her character and serves as the prism through which she, and we, see the challenges and characters of her world.
These characters could come across as trite and two-dimensional (and a couple do, sadly—not everyone can be a renegade), but instead they’re given layers: secrets, fears, agendas and desires, and through Max’s eyes we see the pressure of living life within such a delicate social ecosystem. The pressure to fit in runs through every facet of Blackwell Academy. Such is the divide between the “accepted” and the “outcast.” There’s even a group for the most entitled among its number: the Vortex Club.
One such character, despite her meek and mild nature, is defined by this divide most of all: Kate Marsh. Kate’s quiet and reserved nature aren’t enough to hide an inner turmoil that’s consuming her while the high school life bubbles around her. Max is sensitive to Kate’s delicate nature and through their relationship we’re given the chance to explore the nature of her struggle.
And it’s not just through conversations with her (all of which are optional); the signs of her depression and faltering mental state can be found in the items around her room. A note here, a photograph there. Acknowledging these seemingly unimportant elements creates new conversational avenues—and while these are classic elements in the adventure game genre, they become a connection between us, Max and Kate.
When the demons eating away at Kate’s mental health lead her onto the roof of the girls’ dormitory, we and Max find ourselves as the last bastion of reason before she steps over. That connection becomes more vital than ever—did we listen? Did we read the signs? Did we see what so many others failed to notice? Our knowledge of Kate’s quiet designs will decide her fate, yet even if she does choose to end her life, it isn’t presented as a win or fail situation. It rocks the people around her and leaves a mark, but its presented as just that—a choice made and embraced.
But it isn’t just the the delicate subject of mental health that makes the execution of LIS’s narrative so palpable—it’s also the way it handles an even more divisive and taboo theme—the issue of “right to life.”
Delivered through a shock twist at the end of episode three and presented in its entirety in the opening section of episode four, Max discovers her time travelling good intentions to prevent the death of Chloe’s father (an event, in Max’s eyes, that changed her best friend forever) have resulted in a new timeline where her father survives but Chloe is hit by a car and is now confined to a wheelchair.
In the realm of another genre, this scene may have been bastardised by a need to gamify every element, mutilating the story to fit the confines of a particular genre. But as part of a slower paced game, the scene of Max getting to know a version of Chloe far removed from the one she already knows is given time to breath, the exchanges between the two slowly revealing a young woman who wants to see the best side of things even though her body is failing her.
The debate over assisted suicide, and the argument for a patient’s right to life, is a subject that’s been forced into the limelight by campaigners and cases where terminally ill patients have traveled to countries and states where euthanasia isn’t a crime.
It’s a subject, taboo or not, that should be discussed, but that doesn’t mean developer Dontnod presents it with bias—Life is Strange is an experience defined by choice and the consequences of those decisions and the heartbreaking decision to help this alternative version of Chloe drift into a peaceful death or continue a painful life becomes one of the series’ most harrowing. Neither choice is presented as wrong or right. It’s a choice painted in ever-changing shades of grey.
It’s a subject defined by the consensus of the developer’s nationality (France recently passed laws that granted doctors the power to provide medicated sleeps that can induce death for terminally ill patients) and the setting in which LIS is based (the game is located in a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest, home to a number of states that have legalised forms of assisted suicide). Again, as with almost every major plot point in the story, you have the choice to go either way, but giving players decision making power in such a raw place creates an emotional connection few games can equal.
Life Is Strange isn’t a perfect game—it has its own issues and failings, as you would expect from any piece of interactive software—but the respect it pays to incredibly delicate themes feels greater than any of its other qualities. It’s a sensitive platform to address the unaddressable.
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