“Life is Strange is the compelling story of Max, a Senior photography student who suddenly discovers she is able to rewind time. She uses her power to save the life of Chloe, her childhood friend, whom she has not seen in five years. For Chloe it’s been a turbulent time and she’s been drifting off course since her father’s tragic death.”
I’ve been meaning to play Life is Strange for a long time, but reality keeps getting in the way of my virtual commitments. A recent comment by my friend Dave prompted me to move the game higher up on my schedule. Why? Well, because Dave, who frequently posts commentary on his various gaming adventures, expressed some particular concerns that piqued my interest. Specifically, he spoke about the “creepiness” of many of the male characters that Max encounters.
“Every single dude in the game is a creepy weirdo,” says Dave. “That’s not what I have a problem with, though. My problem is that the game seems to be encouraging me to not blow these guys off, and to engage them and pretend that they aren’t making me uncomfortable.
“The latest instance of this is when Warren, the awkward guy-friend, who is crushing on my character, asks me to go watch a movie marathon without actually indicating that he wants to go on a date with me.
“If I choose yes, he gets excited and says, “That was easier than I thought!” because he thinks I somehow just agreed to a romantic date with him. But If I choose no, my character doesn’t actually say no. It’s more of a “Sorry, but I’ve got too much on my mind right now” answer that is totally leading him on. I want a third answer which is, “Sorry, Warren, I know you have romantic feelings for me, but like every other dude in this game, you seem a bit ‘date-rapey’ to me. Now please go away, while I try to find a fake ID and the nearest casino so I can use my time-reversing super-powers for good.”
A few people responded, including women who identified these situations as very true to life. One person asked if the game was, perhaps, intended to socially engineer men to treat women better. Having not yet played at the time, I felt I was still qualified enough to answer thusly:
“It would be nice to have the solid ‘No. Fuck Off’ renegade punch option, but the character doesn’t seem to be that kind of girl who can pull that off. Moreover, there are a whole lot of cases where a woman saying “no” results in her being beaten or killed–that is the extreme, but there is still a level of fear when saying no. So yes, this is pretty realistic… Not that every guy I’ve ever personally had to say no to is a creep as this seems to imply, but saying no–even to guys I’ve trusted–isn’t as easy as it seems, especially for a woman in such a situation.”
With these thoughts in mind, I finally fired up Life is Strange and asked Dave if he was willing to join me on my latest gaming diary/interview as we played separately through episodes one and two. The game allows for various choices within the dialogue and actions, so, on top of our differences in personal experience, our game choices will also change certain outcomes.
This is Dave’s first experience with an “interactive fiction” video game (outside of old text-based adventures). After another friend blogged about it, and motivated by the SquareEnix (formerly SquareSoft) logo, Dave decided to check it out. “The main reason I’ve ever played the Final Fantasy and Tales Of series by SquareEnix, was for the story, so the idea of a solid story-based RPG where I didn’t have to waste my life grinding sounded great to me. As a 36 year-old, married, straight man, I’m probably not the intended target demographic for this game. But screw that. I take any media for what it’s worth, and still love reading young adult fiction.”
Life is Strange was created by DONTNOD, who had issues finding a publisher because there is a troublesome belief that a female video game protagonist will not sell well. I asked Dave what audience he felt the game was intended for:
“Good question. My (drunk and feelsy) answer is ‘people who like to play RPGs.’ AKA, ‘gamers.’ I can’t imagine trying to rewrite this game from a male perspective, but aren’t the devs mostly guys anyway? Maybe I could see it from a guy’s perspective, but it would be a totally different game. The entire point of a game (to me) is escapism, just like any fictional media. I can BS about how this is about a teenage girl and therefore should appeal to actual teenage girls but, that’s still just BS. From the trailers and other ads it seems it would appeal to those who enjoy a good story-based game. I really don’t think you can slap a demographic around it.”
Life is Strange begins with an out of body experience in which Max finds herself at a local lighthouse during a storm. When she returns to reality, she is in her photography class, but has discovered a new ability: Max can reverse time to alter events. From here, the player is able to interact with various objects and people within her class and later in the hallways of the school. When she makes her way to the washroom, she witnesses a violent interaction that results in the accidental death of one of the students. Max is able to rewind time and save the girl–who turns out to be her estranged best friend Chloe. The boy is the local rich brat, Nathan.
Let’s talk about some of the people that Max meets–specifically, the ones that troubled Dave most. Says Dave: “I think just about every guy (that Max has more than casual interaction with) is a creepy weirdo. I’m wondering if this is just me, or if others see this as well.”
First, there’s Max’s photography teacher, Mark Jefferson, whose creepiness, Dave felt, increases as the episodes continue. Next is the security guard, who also happens to be Chloe’s stepdad. Every encounter between him and any female student, as well as his stepdaughter, involves a lot of bullying. Warren is a friend of Max’s who, it is strongly implied, has a crush on her, and Daniel a student in Max’s class who likes to sketch his female classmates.
In my playthrough, I noticed Daniel drawing pictures of Max’s classmate, but in my interactions with him, Daniel did not ask to draw Max. Dave’s experience went quite differently:
“‘Can I draw you?’ WHAT? No, weirdo, you can’t. What about my obviously shy character makes you even remotely think that I would be OK with that? Now the options presented to me:
“weren’t exactly the same as the options I pictured in my head:”
“Anyway,” Dave continued, “after I declined, Daniel then pathetically makes it about him being a loser and that I must think I’m better than him or something. So then I felt bad, so I guiltily rewound time, and then sat there uncomfortably as he sketched me. And now as I sit here and write this, I’m fucking angry. I was nice and approached him since he looked kinda lonely. And when I turned his odd request down, that little bastard guilted me. And I let him. Fuck that guy. He got me to put his feelings above my own comfort and I’m still pissed.”
Dave’s moment of empathy with the female experience comes with the added bonus of self-loathing with respect to the characters of Warren and Daniel. He explains:
“I can see my younger self in them. I too was an awkward and chubby teenager who would sometimes crush on my girl friends. That whole “nice guys finish last” mentality has been around for years. Fortunately for me, and most other awkward kids at the time, we grew out of that, and/or had moments of self-awareness where we realized that these behaviors (pining after girls without actually approaching them, or trying to make them pity us) were unhealthy and pathetic.”
“What adds to their creepiness for me is the knowledge that today there exists a rather large online echo chamber for these “nice guys” to share their “forever alone” memes and fall into a well of misogyny as they turn themselves into victims whilst vilifying the women they supposedly care about. What’s worse is that there’s a direct line from there into that toxic PUA/TheRedPill bullshit along with that Men’s Rights awfulness. This crap is so awful, that I wonder if the game had been set in 1993 instead of 2013, would I have found these guys creepy or just kinda cringy?”
Interestingly, while I did not make all of the choices that gave me all of these experiences, I did not feel the significant creep factor that Dave reports on. That is to say, I can certainly recognize the concerning elements, but these are situations I have grown up with and live with. For me, it is normal to find various ways to get out of awkward situations by politely turning a “nice” guy down without actually saying “no,” because I don’t want to hurt his feelings, even though it put me in a more awkward position. My nightclub days involved all the prerequisite safety checks to avoid being assaulted or worse, drugged on the dance floor or followed back to our cars. For my friends and I, protecting ourselves from guys who couldn’t or wouldn’t take “no” for an answer was almost like natural instinct for us. Dave finds the actions of the male characters creepy, but for me, I’m creeped out by my own apathy towards this when I was growing up. I should have taken the “hell no” options, but didn’t because I was scared or conditioned to do otherwise.
So I asked Dave the hard question. Through playing Life Is Strange, Dave has experienced the guilt trips. Some women experience this, even with men they feel they can trust. Did the game feel like it was trying to teach Dave, as a man, a lesson? Was he able to actually put himself in Max’s shoes and empathize?
“I’m not sure. I will say that I’ve gotten some new insight into this from that G+ post (and even some of the Reddit posts). But I can’t tell if it’s actually an intended point of the game. My brother-in-law asked the same question on that post, and I’m still not sure how to respond. I think the answer is “maybe.” But the idea that a woman can feel uncomfortable, even with a man she thinks she can trust–that seems both upsetting and honest. I’ve never thought of that before (because I’M A NICE GUY THAT’S ALWAYS HONEST AND WORTHY OF TRUST… even though I’m not). I’ll need to ponder that some more. Dammit.”
I gave Dave a break so that we could explore another aspect of a man role-playing as a woman. There is speculation that one of the reasons game companies are hesitant to allow for a lead female protagonist, especially when potential romance is involved, is that straight male gamers are uncomfortable role-playing such moments.
“So, I had to take a second and ask myself honestly if one of the reasons I dislike Warren is because of some deep-seated queerphobia where I don’t want the character I’m playing to be in a romantic relationship with a dude, even though I’m playing as a girl. After a bit of serious thinking, my answer was Keith David. I led a month-long campaign of incessant sexual harassment against Keith David in Saints Row IV. I asked him repeatedly to have sex with me. He always said (firmly but politely) “no.” And it couldn’t have been easy for him since I was literally the most powerful person in the world. And I asked him before he betrayed me, and I asked him after I kicked his ass. And he still managed to say no. Not that I listened. I treated it like a game, with no respect for his feelings. I just kept asking and ignoring his answer. I tried changing my voice, my appearance, even my gender, anything I could think of to convince him to have sex with me. But he kept saying no, and I kept harassing him. What I’m really trying to say here is, I’m sorry Keith David.”
(For the record, I did make a significant number of attempts to sleep with Keith David as well, with no regard for his feelings, despite his firm but polite refusal. I’m sorry too, Keith David.)
Back to this game. Max has a very violent encounter with Nathan, the student who shot Chloe in the washroom. Because we both chose to tell the principal about Nathan’s gun toting, Nathan has been harassing Max and this escalates into an attack in the parking lot. Both Warren and Chloe come to her rescue. She and Chloe drive off, while Warren fights off Nathan. Later, when Max meets Warren again, they talk about the event. Both Max and Warren seem to agree that Max “owes him” for taking all those punches. Does Max not owe Chloe for helping her out too? Dave points out the concept of “nice guys” who think their non-asshole actions entitle them to the affection of the girl they are being nice to.
Max and Warren’s conversation veers towards their mutual love of sci-fi movies, and Warren invites her to a Planet of the Apes marathon. My Spidey senses tingle here, but I agree and hope this doesn’t become a not-date that I regret. Dave is far more perturbed by the suggestion and wishes there was a third option to Warren’s sort of date request:
“Because I’m a dude who’s been (sorta) in Warren’s place before (except–I hope–for the fucked up self-absorption he has) I really wish the ‘No’ answer had been a clear, ‘Sorry Warren, I like you, but I don’t have romantic feelings for you.’ Because at this point I want him to still be a nice guy and not ‘lead him on.’
“The problem is, I don’t know if it would have stopped his advances. Keith David’s clear message didn’t stop mine, after all.”
This might only be a game, but its themes of drug abuse, bullying, violence are very real–as is the experience of Max as she makes her way through the everyday situations of her life. Was it the intention of the developers to make this game into a teachable moment for men who perhaps didn’t quite understand the meaning behind things like #YesAllWomen? Does it matter? The fact is, Dave willingly accepted this experience and has come to understand things a little better, and will hopefully pass on what he’s learned to both his eleven year old son and nine year old daughter.
“What bugs me is if women have to worry about this shit all the time. I can simply concede that I’m a whiny dork, because the problems don’t actually face me. But … if women actually go through this, then that’s really fucked.”
Welcome, Dave. Welcome to our world. And thank you for taking the time to explore it with me.