Games Are Not Art

An examination of the link between Video Games and Art

Category: Life is Strange

Life is Strange: Episode Four Review at Kill Screen Daily

Here’s a link to my review of Episode Four of Life is Strange over at Kill Screen Daily.

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Life is Strange and Identity

ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων / “Character is destiny”

– Heraclitus

The ending of the latest episode of Life is Strange is remarkable for a number of reasons – to name a few: the sheer daring of its twist, the way in which it continues to develop its time-travel mechanic, and the way the new timeline uses a minimum of details to infer volumes – but foremost among these elements is the way the twist serves the game’s focus on the uneasy contingency of identity. That this unease is explored at the moment of late adolescence – just when, after the wasteland of our teenage years, our identity is beginning to coalesce – is further evidence of just such an emphasis. In the same vein, the player’s sudden thrust into a brave new timeline becomes the next step in the game’s exploration of questions of identity.

Though the game’s central mechanic is time travel, the point of the chronological play is not primarily to reorder plot – latest episode aside, for now – but merely to pose questions to the player: how do you respond to quotidian situations like a conversation with a principal, whether to answer a simple phone call, or whether to accept an invitation to a movie Friday night? Max’s time-travelling abilities allow the player the ability to explore divergent consequences, but the immediate results of these decisions are the labels that accompany each: answering Kate’s call makes Max a ‘good friend,’ just as dodging the principal’s enquiries has Max labeled a ‘troublemaker.’ Whether or not you save Kate in episode two brings about its own labels (savior, for example). As an aside, Max’s repeated saving of lives (Chloe, possibly Kate, and Chloe’s father William) makes for the game’s strongest connection to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: like Holden Caulfield, Max Caulfield is a figurative catcher in the rye, saving kids from falling off, falling away. Ultimately, the consequence of each decision not only has an outward effect (on the plot, on other characters, and so on), but an inward, definitional effect. Put another way, in Life is Strange choice creates identity.

The game then adds new, anxious layers to the simple question of “Am I making the right choice?” as the question becomes “Am I doing the right thing, for others and for myself?” Again, by situating the game at the point where the protean confusion of adolescence begins to crystallize into a fixed identity (there are problems with this portrayal, but they are tangential to my point) the game explores what this crystallization entails. Episode three’s kissing scene is exemplary in this regard. The opportunity to kiss Chloe is not merely a moment of fun, but is rather an opportunity to raise questions of identity: was it an experiment? An expression of her actual sexuality? Or is it just a moment of impetuous silliness? At the same time, it mirrors the subplot of Warren’s movie night – though its implications have yet to be fully explored, the acceptance or rejection of his invitation evoke the same kinds of questions of identity raised by Chloe’s kiss. But the point here is not to try and pin down her sexual identity. Rather, it is simply to note the way in which the player’s decisions serve as much to define just who Max is as much as they further the ends of the plot.

The breakdown between Max and Chloe near the end of episode three represents the dark side of this performative identity – a term familiar to those of you who have read, say, Judith Butler – neatly illustrating the reality that we all make bad decisions. When the pair retreat to Chloe’s car after learning about Rachel (whose status as Frank’s lover is another one of those interactions where choice implies identity – her decision to be involved romantically with Frank tells more about Rachel than Chloe’s enthusiasm has), Max says, “Chloe, you can’t keep blaming me and everybody for everything wrong in your life.” In response, Chloe divests herself of agency because to accept her own responsibility is unpalatable: “I gotta blame somebody. Otherwise it’s all my fault. Fuck that.” But she is not free from the decision-as-identity pattern. This is, after all, the same girl who started a fight with her mother to provide Max cover to search her step-father’s garage, and while it gave the space for a surreptitious search it also represents her willingness to add further strain to an already strained relationship. That her life is a mess is obvious – she was expelled from school, she is in debt to a drug dealer, she constantly fights with her mother and step-father, and so on – but the idea that this mess is, in part, her fault is anathema.

From this perspective, Max and Chloe are at opposite poles: the former is still forming her identity, and the player’s decisions go towards making concrete whatever this identity could be; the latter is trapped in an undesirable life that she has, in part, made for herself, and seeks to escape it all. For proof, we need look no further than Max’s diary entry for Chloe: “She’s all grown up now, but it doesn’t seem like she’s only one year older than me.” Visual cues reinforce this: she has dyed her natural blond into brilliant blue, and her arm is marked by a colorful series of tattoos. Chloe is, in essence, a thematic foil to Max’s tabula rasa.

But the twist deliciously inverts this dynamic, transitioning the game’s emphasis from that of choice to that of contingency and its power to shape our lives. By saving Chloe’s father, Max alters not only Chloe’s history, but her own as well: after altering the past, we find her hanging out with the detested Vortex Club and an implied familiarity with casual drug use. We play the Max we know, but in the place of some unknown and unsettling doppelganger akin to Chloe: a person who is the culmination of decisions utterly foreign to us, a fixed identity in contrast to the blank slate we were given in episode one. Similarly, we meet a Chloe fundamentally different from the colorful, impassioned, incandescent rebel we have known thus far: in contrast to her visual liveliness, we have only a barely mobile, blond analogue. But the horror of the moment lies not in a suddenly quadriplegic Chloe – hopefully the next episode will not descend into the ableist trope of defining a handicapped person solely by their handicap – but, immediately, in the vast gulf between our familiar Chloe and a dramatically different one, and, thematically, in the sudden reveal that our choices are not as grounded or substantial as the game has led us to believe.

The game’s exploration of how our choices define us then turns into unease at the entire apparatus of choice. Presumably, Chloe’s angry screed in the car has been proven right. Complete with her father, her life is no longer the same flavor of fucked up: presumably, she is not in debt to a drug dealer and the paranoid David is not married to her mother. But whether her life is unsatisfactory on some other level has yet to be made clear. The only obvious point is that, in a game concerned with human agency, the turn demonstrates how fragile that agency’s power truly is; life is as much what is done to us as it is what we do with it, possessing both passive and active voices.

Here we get to the epigraph: character is fate. Erich Auerbach, in his work Dante: Poet of the Secular World, uses this epigraph in order to introduce the idea that the characters of Homer and Dante are not merely re-presentations or echoes of characters we might find in real life, but singular figures defined by a cohesive identity – wrathful Achilles, cunning Ulysses. In Auerbach’s words,

In the poet’s inventive mind an act revealing a man’s nature . . . unfolded naturally and inevitably into the sum and sequence of that man’s kindred acts, into a life that would take a certain direction and be caught up in the skein of events which add up to a man’s character as well as his fate.

Put another way, the first conception of a character guides how that character operates in the work of art, so that everything that happens in the narrative fits that character: “the natural truth or mimesis of a Homeric scene such as the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa is not based on sharp observation of daily events, but on an a priori conception of the nature and essence of both figures and the fate appropriate to them.” Character is fate because the latter is the inevitable outpouring of the former, the way a flower’s is to bloom; when Patroclus dies in The Iliad, the end of Achilles is preordained because he is who he is.

But such a conception of character presupposes a unified, complete work, where the ending is already written. In a way, works of fiction have their own kind of ersatz eternity: the book, movie, or game is always in a sense complete, and it is only our experience of that work that succumbs to the flow of time. When we open The Iliad, Hector is already dead. But we experience Life is Strange from the perspective of a character in the middle of working out her fate, and the fact that the game is yet unfinished means that the conclusion is still unknown. And, given that we play as Maxwell Caulfield by making decisions for her (continually defining her as, perhaps, a good friend, or a figurative catcher in the rye, or heterosexual, a lesbian, a photographer, careful, careless, pragmatic, principled, and so on) we are brought closer to our own lived experience than any other game might presuppose. Like Max, we are perpetually working out our own identity and simultaneously creating our own fate.

By fundamentally altering the game’s timeline, episode three subverts the promise of fate: a game about the contingency of choice becomes that much more contingent. There never were any right choices to begin with, but by dipping players into an alternate world the very basis for these choices – a whole and cohesive identity expressed through decision – has been undone. We could have played a very different Max in the same way that we all could have been very different people given different situations and different answers to past decisions. Indeed, the whole point of the twist might have been just as well expressed had the game reversed your initial choices and diverted you down a different path than the one you chose over three episodes.

In its focus on the uneasy contingency of choice and identity, Life is Strange remains a fascinating and novel work – not because of its presentation (which is well-pioneered by Telltale Games at this point) but because of the seriousness with which it pursues its presentation of questions of identity. But its story remains, like ours, unfinished – and it is perhaps this personal connection between the work and our lives that gives the former such pathos. Character is fate, but it remains to be seen whether the hand that writes the story does so well.

Trigger Warnings, Life is Strange, and Art

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault and Suicide

A few weeks ago, Polygon published an opinion piece by Laura Dale on Life is Strange and the possibility of trigger warnings in art. For those unaware, a trigger warning is a piece of text that alerts readers ahead of time that subjects (e.g., rape, suicide, domestic abuse) will be discussed in a work that might bring up their own memories of a trauma, which gives those readers the opportunity to either steel themselves or stop reading and avoid the emotional aftershocks that memory can generate. It is, in essence, a tool of mercy or kindness in a world that does not offer either very often – and it is not, as some critics would say, an example of censorship. Similarly, we can also dismiss accusations of narcissism or excessive squeamishness by agreeing with the principle – yes, trigger warnings, like everything else, can be used flippantly – by noting that they are another tool (again, of kindness) in an essayist’s kit, and there will always be bad writing.

But what works for essays, blogs, and such does not necessarily work for fiction. As Jay Kang at The New Yorker notes, “A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points.” We expect our art to have a depth that allows for excavation and discovery; defining every work by its most troubling elements collapses the work to “a single idea.” But here Kang missteps, as we apply reductive labels to art all the time: Moby Dick is about whales, while The Babadook is an Australian monster horror movie. Or, as with Kang’s own example, Lolita is about “the systematic rape of a young girl.” We are always reducing our descriptions of various works for the ease of communication and discussion, even though it is more appropriate to describe Moby Dick as a book that uses whaling as a symbol for engaging with the natural world and meaning, or The Babadook as a movie that uses its monster as a stand-in for how we deal with grief. Or even saying that Lolita is a book about how trauma and cruelty – “the systematic rape of a young girl” – is transformed, uncomfortably and abashedly, into art.

In short, we are constantly using reductive labels and catch-alls to talk about novels, plays, movies, and even video games. Trigger warnings, like back-of-the-book blurbs or reviews, are merely part of the shadow each work casts. To be fair, Kang is only arguing that they serve to limit both our readings and discussions of a work. Dale, however, suggests that there may need to be a place for them in the work itself – and specifically in Life is Strange and the climax of its second episode. And here we get into a discussion of how we expect art to relate to our own lives.

When Life is Strange first appeared, the consensus on the part of reviewers was a combination of optimism for future episodes and snippiness about its use of slang. Polygon’s review said it was “cheesy” while Kill Screen’s review says “Max and company talk the way 30- and 40-year-olds think that teenagers talk.” Without being dragged into a conversation about how believable the game’s slang is, it’s worth clarifying that the reaction towards the game’s language is a reaction to its realism – that is, the way in which the game’s elements mimic our own experience. Having mail delivered on a Sunday ruins that sense of realism, as does – apparently – out-of-tune slang. But realism is, in many ways, a subjective idea: a work is realistic so long as it manages to accord with our own particular knowledge and interactions with the world. To the scientific layman The Rock might appear to be wholly realistic, while NASA employees regularly enjoy eviscerating the many, many mistakes the movie makes regarding asteroids, procedure, or what-have-you. Our sense of what is true in fiction’s mirror is informed by our own lives.

But realism is not reality: every work abstracts and adapts itself to present an image. Life is Strange’s own brand of realism is particular to its status as a video game: in the real world, we do not have icons hovering above items that outline how to interact with them, just as we do not have health bars, inventory space represented by dressed-up Excel spreadsheets, and so on. These features are unrealistic tools with which the player is able to explore the world, unreal tokens that help make the game real. The world of Life is Strange relies on these tokens just as any other game might, and whether Kate commits suicide in episode two depends on how well you have exploited the game’s mechanics (i.e., inspecting all the available objects in her room) with the ultimate goal of treating her like a human being: clicking the icon and reading the accompanying text is a well-worn mechanic in video games, but the real challenge is to show how well you have incorporated the resulting knowledge into a picture of Kate as a real person.

Though the scene atop the dormitories is marred by the awkward splicing of ill-fitting segments of voice acting, it nevertheless represents what realism strives for: a sense that the text is true to the world we know and experience. It speaks of the cruelty of our peers, the tunnel vision of despair, the failure of our guardians, and – perhaps – of the insufficiency of kindness. These kinds of multivalent elements are what constitute the core of what we look for in our art, and their absence is a fundamental betrayal of the connection realism works towards. Put another way, these emotions allow us to understand the work because we are able to see analogues in our own lives. And all the rest of the game’s realistic errata – e.g., ostensibly awkward attempts to mirror the slang of youth – is in support of this emotive outreach.

A work’s ability to define itself and its concerns through the presentation of its subject (in this case, the experience of adolescence) is then tied to its ability to connect with an audience. And this is where trigger warnings have both a place and no place in an artistic work. Though there is no limit to human invention (it would be possible to have a warning that does not force the game’s meaning, in the same way that the loading screen text in Spec Ops: The Line warps from gameplay tips to uncomfortable moral interrogation), a trigger warning preemptively defines the kind of interaction we are to have with a work: before engaging with the work itself, we would be given a pair of coloured glasses that would highlight certain themes while blotting out others. Put another way, the warning would define the text before it has a chance to define itself and connect – in essence, we are put on guard when we need to be most open.

More particularly, Life is Strange with a trigger warning would spoil the suddenness of Kate’s intended suicide. Again, the scene atop the dormitories is powerful because it comes suddenly, fledged with the stress of an unseen crisis and the terrible knowledge – made painfully real to our own quotidian experience through removal of the game’s time-altering mechanic – that you only have one shot at helping your friend. It captures so perfectly the desperation, the urgency, and the brittleness of care and friendship in part because it comes, like many suicides, so profoundly unexpectedly. Since to be forewarned by a warning is to be forearmed, I cannot see how a trigger warning would not but diminish the frantic desperation that the whole climax connotes – even as I recognize that the transfer of those emotions is precisely what awakens particular memories of personal trauma.

If I have put art on a pedestal, such was my intention; if I have inadvertently judged art to be worth more consideration than an individual’s suffering, then I have misspoken. My thesis is simply this: when we approach art, we do so with the intention of allowing it to strike some part of our soul, and realism allows the work to make the needed connection. Max’s voice and Kate’s suffering are all venues through which we may find that connection. Beyond singular moments of ingenuity (exceptions are always exceptional), the notion that trigger warnings have a place in fiction is problematic because it defines how we are to relate to the work before either Kate or Max speak. This is not to say that any text is hyperbolically free and open, as all texts are intentionally limited – they merely hone themselves to the point they wish to make.

All this is hardly a refutation of Dale’s argument. It is merely a counterpoint in a conversation. However, the idea I am advocating – purity of relation – does, when placed next to the weight of someone’s suffering, does seem uncomfortably willing to sacrifice their mental wellbeing for the sake of principle. Nabokov, in his afterword to Lolita, compared the associations his readers bring to the book to guests others have brought to his party; too often these guests are the monsters that have latched onto us earlier in life. I have no answer to this quandary, save for the hope that the two propositions – aesthetics and compassion – are not caught in a zero-sum game, where the triumph of one denigrates the other.

But I can be confident in one thing: the inclusion of a trigger warning in Life is Strange would undo the horrific, crisis-bred connection the player feels to that tragic, rain-drenched moment atop the dormitory. It is as immediate and devastating as a lightning bolt; it cannot bear a lightning rod.