The Unexpected Girl Trouble of ‘Life is Strange’
Dontnod's new, indie-style episodic adventure wasn't controversial until Polygon questioned the writers' presentation of its female leads.
When Dontnod Entertainment released Life is Strange to the world, the Parisian studio knew a storm would be coming. It's right there, on the screen, after all: a terrific whirlwind dominates the opening seconds of their new, five-part episodic series, on a collision course with a small Pacific Northwest town. But they probably didn't predict Polygon's response to their intimate examination of the lives of Oregon teenagers, girls whose friendships have been stretched, strained and split, only to be sewn back together through incredible circumstances.
"Can gaming's great women characters be written by men?" came the question from the site's Colin Campbell, reflecting on the depiction of Life is Strange's two leading characters, Max and Chloe, late-teens whose lives diverged five years prior to the 2013-set events of the game. I get that the role of women in games is a topic of great scrutiny right now, as it probably should be, in so many ways: how female games characters are presented, how many women work in the industry, and the gaming audience's close-to-even gender split. But Campbell was baiting his readership, pure and simple, into a response.
Life is Strange, launch trailer
Check out this sentence, from Campbell's piece: "The game begins in a moment of extreme peril for [Max] Caulfield. I might be going too far here, but I find it interesting that she is presented, not merely in trouble, but endangered by that most erect of phallic structures: a lighthouse. Make of that what you will."
As I saw it, Max was almost crushed by a collapsing lighthouse, and I don't really understand what more there is to make of the scene. Campbell goes on to say that the writing in Life is Strange is "engaging and original", but then, after a detour into the writer's own fiction-writing experiences, he concludes that the game's presentation of Max "doesn't feel entirely authentic".
Now, neither Campbell nor I have ever been a teenage girl, so our perspectives on this aren't perfect. But, to me, Max was a fairly accurate rendering of so many socially reserved women that I have met in my life, fiercely intelligent and creative but almost ashamed to present those sides of her personality beside louder, more "popular" peers. You might say aspects of her character seem cliché – the obsession with analogue tech, with Polaroid over digital cameras, and acoustic guitar tunes instead of banging EDM (which, even in 2013, was Quite The Thing amongst American teens).
You might say that painting Max in generic colours is positively damning of the potential for female characters in contemporary video gaming, but hang on: Life is Strange is one episode, "Chrysalis", deep into a five-part series, and the absolute necessity of any developer come first contact with their headline cast is to make them memorable, recognisable come the second time, the third and fourth and fifth. Dontnod co-founder and creative lead on Life is Strange, Jean-Maxine Moris, admits that yes, the studio has kept Max relatively stereotypical – for now.
"In many ways, the characters that you find in episode one are more archetypal than you'd find in other, non-episodic games – but that's just like comparing a television series to a film. We faced narrative challenges, like breaking down the story so that each episode was self-contained and had a sense of closure while also leaving things open enough for the next episode, without giving too much away. There are a lot of challenges that we're facing."
Moris – J-Max to many a friend and stranger alike – speaks repeatedly of challenges, which is entirely expected as Life is Strange represents a new step into the unknown for his team. Dontnod's only previous game was the Capcom-published Remember Me (which I wrote about for Edge last year), a future-Paris-set third-person brawler that mixed Arkham-comparable combat with neat memory remixing mini-games. Despite some critical appreciation, it didn't really connect with the mainstream – not form that telegraphs success with this new project.
I'm not shying away from the fact that there is a problem with our industry, but the truth is that sexism is a problem in society as a whole. There is sexism in games, just as there is everywhere else.
Life is Strange's gameplay hook is again about rewinding events – but here it's in "real" time, as Max can undo events around her to make a better (immediate) future. Like getting a schoolmate to dodge an incoming football, or tamper with a tin of paint to ensure the Queen Bitch of her academy has her cashmere cardigan ruined. Using this ability allows Max to avoid death beneath that lighthouse, late on in the episode. Which brings us back to where we came in.
Campbell's piece has, understandably, struck a nerve with Moris. "I think that men can write great female characters," he tells me, with categorical assurance. I don't disagree: think of the great female characters that authors from Shakespeare to Stieg Larsson have created. "So, I totally disagree with You Know What. We went through a very rigorous creative process, and we are not making the fact that we have lead female characters our main selling point. We have, however, always been really open to having female leads, and once we made that decision, we stuck to it.
"I get that the way women are seen in games is a very important topic these days – but we don't make a big deal out of our choices with Life is Strange's characters, and if nobody else did, it wouldn't be. I'm not shying away from the fact that there is a problem with our industry, but the truth is that sexism is a problem in society as a whole. There is sexism in games, just as there is everywhere else. It wasn't invented by us (games makers), and it won't be solved by us, either. In terms of character development, whether they're male or female doesn't matter much to me – I just want good characters.
"We put a huge amount of research into this game – into knowing how teenagers of Oregon would act and speak in 2013. We spent a lot of time essentially living like teenagers. And here we are. I'm very happy with where we're at, and whole everything we've done and will do is open to criticism, of course, it shouldn't be because of the fact that we're males."
Life is Strange is memorable – for its characters, however broad their personality brushstrokes right now, and more besides (including its "hella" slang, which has grated against some critical assessments). Its art style mightn't push the capabilities of current-gen consoles – the game is cross-gen, for PlayStations 3 and 4 and Microsoft machines, and Windows – but it's painterly pretty, and its lighting hugely atmospheric. Its puzzles in episode one are simple, and its major decisions not as life-or-death as, for example, Telltale's on-going Game of Thrones series.
The studio's aim was for the art "to have this strong sense of nostalgia, a positive nostalgia", and while I've no connection to its setting or many of Max's idiosyncrasies, I know what Moris is getting at. As far-out as the time-rewind mechanic is, so much of Life is Strange is distinctly everyday and universal of relatability, from the overdue bills on the sideboard at Chloe's place, to the schooldays cliques butting heads for no real reason besides boredom. Most British players won't have seen the town's rich kid wave a gun about in a bathroom, but maybe that was all the rage in 2013 Oregon.
And it might just be a watershed moment for gaming, too. Life is Strange looks every inch the indie production, with its emphasis on gentle problem-solving, long conversations and its general aesthetic. But it's backed by a massive publisher in the shape of Square Enix – according to Moris, the only potential publishing partner that didn't want to change a thing about the game, like replacing Max and Chloe with male alternatives.
"It is ground breaking, and we're in a really unique spot. We are between indie and triple-A. Square is taking a risk, where other publishers didn't want the game, for all the wrong reasons. But this is a very meaningful relationship to us, and I hope it is to them, too. This is not a game for everybody, but I think it's one that is going to matter, both now and when we look back at it."
Episode one of Life is Strange, "Chrysalis" is out now. Episode two, "Out of Time", is released in March.