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.