Life is Strange: Exploration and Motivation

Jammed out to episode 1 of Life is Strange over the last few weeks. Didn’t even know it was Squeenix until they mentioned the Spirits Within, and then I was like “I CANNOT ESCAPE THIS COMPANY.” Anyway, it made me look at how exploration games can kind of suffer from a character vs. game disconnect, and how that looks.

The game is an exploration game: the point is to sort of go through and experience as much of it as possible, to see where your decisions lead, to find out what your button presses do to the software and the story as it plays out.

But there was a point where I felt that agenda, and the agenda of the protagonist, were in conflict.

You play Max, teenager at a new school where you don’t know anyone. It is driven home early in the game with diary entries how Max is very new and has been very busy, so much so that she hasn’t had a chance to re-connect with her friend who lives in the neighborhood. Early on, the cliques are established – there’s the popular mean girls, the popular idiot boys, the “skater” crowd that Max is kind of into, the Ducky character (seriously, this game — at least in this episode — is mostly John Hughes with a dollop of the fantastical). And there’s a scene where you can get to know the folks at your school better — everyone’s hanging out in the quad and Max has to go do a thing that isn’t very time-sensitive.

It’s early enough in the game where you have a sense of these cliques, and how Max feels about them, but before the drama level starts ramping up, just beyond the “newbie zone” where you’re getting used to the mechanical interface and your basic powers. You have a good sense of what’s in Max’s head about the various classmates at this point…

….and the second person you see out the door of the school is one of the Jerk Crowd. You’re given an option to talk to him.

I didn’t.

Each of the significant named characters kind of has their own vingette here, and the space seems clearly designed for you to get to know some of the significant NPC’s a little better. Talk to the broody ace photographer, the nerdy creepy kid, the quirky Asian stereotype that Max wants to hook up with Ducky….a lot of these characters Max would conceivably talk to a bit (though likely not seek out as I did in my playthrough…but I’m thorough). But the jerks? The jocks? The insular kid reading on the bench? Why would Max care? The game gives you the option of interacting with these folks, but the main character’s motives and outlook provide a disconnect.

At these moments, the skeleton of the game is transparent beneath the layer of narrative and character. It doesn’t matter if Max would ever care about the creepy janitor…he’s there…you can talk to him…it’s part of the game experience. Because this is a game about exploration. It doesn’t matter if the character would do it, the game allows you to do it.

But Max isn’t a silent avatar, a voiceless protagonist a la most Nintendo characters. She’s not just a vessel for mechanics. She’s there because she is the protagonist in a story, someone with hopes and dreams and fears that you’re asked to care about. If she’s going to talk to the arrogant jerk with the girls hanging off him, she’s going to need a reason to do it, beyond “the player made her.”

This reason wouldn’t be impossible to give, or to demonstrate, but it would require that the story give a little more nuance and complexity than it did at first. Scenes that show that the Vortex Club is not as awful as it might seem. Scenes that show Max as possibly interested in their isolated little world. Scenes that make the character as curious about these NPC’s as I was as a player.

What I like about Life is Strange is its delightful central mechanic, the thing that could only allow this to ever be a game, the ability to reverse your decisions after you see their consequences. It makes me ponder what lasting consequences look like as a game system, as a thing to play with and manipulate. I also love that it has a strong narrative quality, that it focuses on characters and explores their motivations. But if you’re going to spend a lot of energy on giving us a very believable protagonist, and then ask us to violate what that protagonist would do in the interest of the game’s structure…I don’t know that this is the best use of time. If you want to give me the option to talk to the jerks, you should also give me a reason that this would not be entirely out of character.

…anyway just some initial thoughts, to start this blog back up after a period of latency. MOAR SOON.