WARNING: This post will contain major spoilers to key parts of Life Is Strange episode 2.
I was on the fence about Life Is Strange at first. On one hand, it was by the developers of Remember Me, a game I loved and felt was criminally underrated. On the other hand, I was seeing a lot of comparisons to Gone Home, a game I felt was at best bland and at worst, pretentious and cliché and extremely overrated. I figured I’d wait until the full run of episodes was out before jumping in but my friend gifted me the first one for my birthday. After playing it through on a live stream, I discovered that the only real similarity to Gone Home was the conflicted, female teenage protagonist and that there was much more to this game so I immediately bought the season pass. Episode 2 came out last week and I also played it through in one session this past weekend. What I discovered in the end was that this fictional title about a character I couldn’t really relate to actually showed me something unexpected about my real life and potentially validated a recent decision I made and had been questioning since.
A quick primer for those unfamiliar: Life Is Strange is an adventure game and at several points, you’re forced to make choices that will impact how the story progresses throughout the series and how other characters interact with you. If you’ve played and of Telltale’s recent titles like The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, you know the kind of thing I’m talking about. Also like those games, when an episode concludes, you’re shown all of the critical choices you had to make and how your decision stacks up with the rest of the player base. You can also show a comparison that is run only against your friends list (which was Steam in my case as I played on PC.) It was when I looked at these two comparisons after completing episode 2 that I had quite a surprise.
Here’s where the spoilers come in. During the game, Max (your character) meets this young woman:
Kate is sweet and friendly but shy and is often the victim of the clique of “mean girls” at Blackwell Academy where you both attend (and seriously, these girls are mean.) She’s also a religious person with a conservative upbringing which has given her a rather prudish reputation.
Prior to the start of the game, she decided to attend a party hosted by the elite social group at Blackwell known as the Vortex Club in an attempt to fit in. The short of it is, someone drugs her (very likely but not provably the asshole son of the rich family that owns the school) and she’s filmed making out with a bunch of different guys, a video quickly spread online by the aforementioned mean girl clique. A direct implication of rape is not given (likely because the developers didn’t want to go that far, even though this series is rated M) but if you read between the lines, that’s clearly what this is about. Her reputation gets destroyed very quickly, the school security guard hassles and threatens her to keep things quiet and her religious family all but completely ostracize her, leaving her extremely depressed and alone.
You have several choices to make with Kate over the course of the episode which largely involve telling her how you think she should handle things. At the end of the episode, she ends up pushed so far that she goes to the roof of the school, ready to commit suicide by jumping. You have to try to talk her down and it’s possible to fail and have her die but also to save her. I unfortunately messed up and couldn’t save her, a choice I’m living with as I think that’s what you should do in these kinds of games but I’ve felt like crap about it ever since.
When the episode ended, I compared my choices and found that I was in line with what most people picked, though I felt extra bad when I discovered that most people were also able to save Kate’s life. What really threw me for a loop however, was the stark contrast of one earlier choice when I compared the world to my friends list.
When Kate tells you her version of what happened at the party, she asks you what she should do. She wants to go straight to the police and make an accusation against Nathan, the rich kid who she’s certain drugged her. Your choice as Max is to either encourage her to do that or to tell her to wait for more evidence first.
I chose the latter. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, having had several experiences with Nathan up to that point and knowing the influence he had at the school and indeed in the town, I knew throwing an accusation out with no concrete evidence would only damage Kate’s reputation further. Proof is undeniable, an accusation is easily brushed off and retaliation certain when there’s so much corruption involved.
Secondly, when I play games like this, I try to play with my own set of values as the character to see how my own moral compass intersects with the writers and designers. My compass said that while sexual assault (especially on campuses) is a real, serious problem, so is false accusation and the presumption of guilt until proven innocent, the opposite of due process. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believed Kate’s version of events but in the eyes of the law, an accusation alone isn’t enough without proof (or at least, that’s not how it should be.) So, assuming I’d be able to find her more evidence, I told her to wait. She didn’t take it well but agreed nonetheless.
Here is how that particular choice stacked up against worldwide players versus my friends list:
With only a 1% difference, my friends list was the polar opposite of the worldwide stats, though it was fairly similar on almost everything else. This was a huge abnormality that really blew my mind and I began to ponder why it happened. It didn’t take long for me to realise it.
After Extra Life last year, I wrote a personal post talking about how among other things, I was deciding to step back from an online community I had been a part of for a long time. This was largely because of a shift in tone there to the extreme end on some issues which have boiled over in recent months, an extreme I do not agree with at all. The vast majority of my Steam friends list is still populated with people from that community and everyone on it who has played this game at time of writing is from there. On a regular basis, I question whether stepping back from that as I have was a good idea and whether or not I should go back. This choice comparison and how the community members were literally 99% different than the rest of the world has provided a surprisingly indirect, yet clear answer to that question, at least for now.
As weird as it is to have a personal quandary like this answered by a statistics screen in a video game, I think the way this informed a decision I was otherwise unsure of is quite something. Unfortunately, showing who made which binary choice doesn’t convey any nuance or context. Did they believe that what they’d witnessed of Nathan’s behaviour up to now was enough evidence on its own, even though it was anecdotal? Did other choices they made in episode 1 reveal more concrete evidence that I hadn’t seen? What choices could those have been? Were they trying to play to their own moral compasses as I do or were they projecting their gut feelings alone because they knew it was just a game? Or did they tell Kate to go to the police because they just believed her based on her say so alone, despite a lack of proper evidence? This is a common symptom with the “guilty until proven innocent” problem I mentioned earlier.
I made the choice I did because while Kate’s story certainly was believable because of what I’d seen up to that point, it didn’t matter as the law is clear and a false accusation can destroy someone’s life, even if it is an asshole and even if the accuser is being unjustly dragged through the mud themselves. The burden of proof should always be on the accuser, not the accused. It wasn’t the best choice for my feelings (seriously, fuck Nathan) but it was the best choice based on how I personally interpreted the situation. Clearly, those on my friends list didn’t think so, even if they were in the vast minority compared to most players of the game who witnessed the same things.
This chilled me quite a bit. I can’t know the motivations of their choices for sure but having stepped away from that community for the reasons I did and hearing how the tone has continued to be there since, it appears fairly clear to me what they were and that saddens me. It indicates a line of thinking towards certain critical issues that’s based on extreme viewpoints rather than rational ones and a disdain for due process when it involves certain subjects that have become touchier of late. That’s not something I believe in and while we don’t all have to agree, the viciousness some have shown to those who dare to not tow the line has been made all too clear the last while.
This one choice and how out of whack it is with all the others when compared to the rest of the world speaks volumes in a way I never thought possible. On that alone, DONTNOD Entertainment should be highly commended because this is something I didn’t think was possible. It’s a realisation I wasn’t expecting, certainly not in this way but it’s both fascinating how it happened and also depressing as the outcome is not one I was hoping to see. This game is light years above Gone Home for many different reasons but this revelation and how it was communicated is something wholly unique in my 30+ years of gaming. Who would have thought a static screen could tell you so much. Needless to say, I think I’ll be staying away from that community for a little while longer and I can’t wait to play the rest of this series.
Life Is Strange indeed.