Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Love Is Strained

Okay, I lied: Here’s one more (last?!) post on Life Is Strange. (And, improbably, some initial thoughts on the presidential election, down at the bottom below the spoiler block.)

I’ve been following up with more interviews with the directors, as well as a terrific GDC talk that they gave on the game. The content is great, and the French accents make it all the better. They’ve been pretty open about the message that they want the game to convey, which helps unlock more of the story for me and better parse my own reactions to it.


I’ve also been dipping more into the fandom, and have noted a very consistent reaction to the ending. Most people are sad about it, understandably so. Some of the early gaming press reaction was along the lines of “It’s like the Mass Effect 3 ending! It’s a choice that doesn’t reflect all of the other variables that have come before!” Actual players seem to appreciate it more, but are more fixated on the unequal treatment of the two choices. The correct choice (Sacrifice Arcadia Bay) is really poignant and emotionally affecting, but also brief, with a roughly 30-second cut-scene and recycled music. The other choice (which I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch) apparently leads to a much longer multi-minute closing sequence, with multiple scenes showing the aftermath and more closure for the various characters, as well as new music unique to this ending. Overall, people seem to feel like the developers leaned on the scale to favor one choice, which was not the choice that most preferred.

With that in mind, it was cool to hear Dontnod’s description of the creative process. The initial spark that drove the creation of the game was the idea of a rewind mechanic in a choice-and-consequences game. From there, they quickly decided to set it in high school, at the cusp of when children transform into adults. They had the idea of that final choice prior to any of the other plot of the game. It wasn’t “tacked on” or something that they fell back on because they didn’t have any other ideas; they constructed the rest of the game to lead you to that moment and that decision.

Ultimately, as the directors say, Life is Strange is a game about becoming an adult, which means accepting that you can’t make everything perfect. I hadn’t really considered that while playing, but after hearing them say it, it makes perfect sense. As children, we can have an expectation that the world will be fair. We trust our parents to provide for us, to make the right decisions; bad people will eventually be punished, good people will be rewarded. As we grow older and experience more of the world outside the comfort of our homes, we realize that this is not a universal law. There is injustice in the world, bad things happen to good people, we experience senseless pain. We often rebel against this, with the idealistic clarity of youth: things aren’t perfect, but if we try hard enough and use the right words, we can *make* them perfect.

Sooner or later, though, most of us will eventually realize that perfection is unattainable. No matter how hard we try, some evil will persist in the world. We are limited, flawed individuals: you and I and every other soul we see. With maturity, we come to understand our limitations. That isn’t an absolution of responsibility, but does prepare us for the rough path we need to tread.

In my initial post, I had been a little incredulous that anyone would choose the “Sacrifice Chloe” option, asking what the point of the whole game would then be. With this theme in mind, though, it makes perfect sense. At the start of the game, Chloe dies senselessly and Max can’t accept it. By the end, though, Max comes to understand that the death must happen. She can grieve, process it, and move on.

But! While the devs don’t touch on this, what’s interested me the most is the asymmetry of the two ending choices. They’re both about acceptance, and markers of maturity, but I think they’re two very different kinds of acceptance.

The “Sacrifice Chloe” option is a fatalistic attitude. It’s about recognizing that bad things can happen in this world, and we cannot stop them. It’s about letting go of the things we cannot change so we can continue to function in the rest of our life.

The “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” option, though, depicts Max as an active agent. This is about accepting responsibility for your actions. Throughout the game, whenever Max makes a mistake, her instinct is to fix it, to strive for an ultimate solution that will please everyone. This is, as Max ultimately realizes, impossible. If she wants something badly enough, she needs to understand that it will require sacrifices. In this ending, she takes ownership of her choice and the impact that it has on the world, instead of deflecting or avoiding it.

Both endings see a wiser and more mature Max, and a Max who is equipped to proceed into adulthood and chart her life course. But they also depict two Maxes with different philosophies. One is a more peaceful Max, who has learned to live with a world that sends bad things her way. The other is a more optimistic Max, who has gained the confidence to make changes to her world. The prior Max will probably have an easier but sadder life, while the latter Max’s life will be more challenging but may bring her greater happiness.


I didn’t think at the start of this post that this would be about the election, but that’s kind of where it ended up! The different attitudes towards the endings of the game seem like a fairly accurate reflection of the difference in French and American attitudes. France, along with much of Europe, tends to be pessimistic about the possibility of implementing real change in the world, whether good or bad; they have strong but sclerotic institutions that resist alteration. Americans have a greater tendency towards idealism: not just that things will be better in the future, but that their actions in the voting booth will change the world.

This seems like the start of a dark and scary time. The world ahead will be worse than the world we left behind. I feel afraid, and sad, and am fighting very hard to keep those emotions from sliding into despair.

I and others who feel the same way need to think of our mental health. It's natural for us to be shocked and depressed today, but sooner or later we'll need to move on. The question is how. The easier and sadder approach will be to accept that this is the world in which we now live. It isn't that radical of a thought; for most of human history, populations have lived in deprived and unjust countries, and civilization has endured. We can find comfort in religion, in culture, in friendship, and burrow into a smaller part of the world for solace.

The alternative is to take the harder but more rewarding path, where we each willingly make sacrifices in order to change the world for the better. That may mean sacrificing money, as we donate to organizations that will protect those most at risk. It may mean sacrificing personal comfort, as we publicly expose our bodies and our voices to speak out against injustice. It may mean sacrificing our careers, as we turn away from the acquisition of money to the betterment of society. It may mean sacrificing friendships, or status, or time, or happiness. Those sacrifices will each hurt, but, if we willingly make them in order to achieve a greater good and roll back a harmful tide, we have a chance of living in the world we want. In fact, it's the only way we can bring that world into existence.

Much like in the game, it sucks that we have to make that choice, but we do need to make it. We need to decide how we are going to relate to the world. I won't fault anyone who chooses to live with the world as it is, but I hope that enough people are willing to make the harder choice and take the actions that will be necessary to change it.

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