Video Games: Just entertainment, or food for thought?

“The slightly unconscious model is often the most open and honest. No vanity or posing, just… pure expression.”

The most chilling lines come often from the most unexpected of sources, at the most unexpected of times and from most unexpected of people. A most common cliche of any thriller, the most unexpected character turns out to be a psycho killer who uses photography to capture, quoting Alfred Hitchcock, “pieces of time”, and the moment where the innocence of a young mind finally leaves, as it realizes the atrocities of adulthood and the naivety of youth.

Sounds exciting, right? Maybe it is a plot of a famous American thriller movie, or a cult classic novel from a renowned writer. Yeah, that must be it, right?

Nope.

This little psychological drama is from a game, called Life is Strange, developed by DONTNOD Entertainment.

When we think games, usually Mario, GTA, CoD, Counter Strike, Assassin’s Creed etc. (not in any particular order) come to mind. They are relatively light hearted games, designed for players to plow through the enemies and provide oodles of entertainment. Although they have some serious content in terms of story, ranging from socio-political satire in GTA series to a revisited history class in Assassin’s Creed, these games are more associated to their traditional value; their ability to entertain.

There are, however, black sheep everywhere, and so why should gaming industry be any exception? Ever since the gaming industry entered the 8-bit era, the art of storytelling has pervaded into games, providing unsuspecting gamer a new challenge; grasping the story.

Our little Italian plumber Mario had a simple story of his adventure, a reason to bash those turtles and drop those dragons into lava pits; the princess who he had to rescue. This was a bare-bone story, but it worked just fine. Gamer had an actual purpose, a reason beyond high scores. “We have to save the princess!” was probably exclaimed by every gamer at least once during their playthrough, which was, in a way, revolutionary. But it still was unimaginable to see games anything beyond entertainment.

Japan made sure that things would change.

Square, a Japan based video game company, made a last ditch attempt to save itself from complete closure & created a game which went down in history as a legend. Their Final Fantasy introduced narrative into gaming, and pushed video gaming as a medium of entertainment. This started a flurry of games with intense stories incorporated into them. Wing Commander, Metal Gear Solid, Legend Of Zelda, EarthBound, Chrono Trigger, Resident Evil, almost all installments of Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider, Metroid, these are but a few of the names which are from the 90’s with a story, where gaming was still restricted to polygons and pixels, and 64 bit gaming was a revolution.

In recent times, games are more frequently being used as a medium of storytelling, and in this series of articles, some of those games will be discussed. It’d be hella cool, I tell ya.

It seems Chloe is becoming a good bad influence on me too.

Life is Strange: A novel posing as a video game

Title card for the first episode of the game Life is Strange. Present in the image are Max Caulfield, Evan Harris, Alyssa Anderson, Brooke Scott, Dana Ward and others.

It’s a rather recent game from DONTNOD Entertainment… Wait, I’ve already mentioned this. Anyway, it is an episodic adventure game with a female teenage (just so we are clear) called Maxine “Max” Caulfield as the protagonist. A nerdy teenager with issues, Max tends to avoid people and is unsure about herselfie. I’m going to use this joke every single time. In your face Jefferson!

Ahem. Sorry, I got carried away.

So, Max is basically your Everyday Teenager who has an eye for photography and is afraid of socializing. Things spiral out of control pretty quickly however, when she has a vision of her city, Arcadia Bay being destroyed by a humongous tornado. She later discovers that she has the power to rewind time back to a few minutes. With her newfound powers and a pure sense of justice, Max goes out to find a way to avert the disaster, and to save a childhood friend.

The game explores a myriad of themes; teenage, bullying, drug abuse, family issues, growing up, loss of childhood innocence, artistic expressions, friendship, love, loss of loved ones and its effects, time travelling and its consequences, psychopathic criminals, spirituality and many more. In fact, the game covers so many themes that it was panned for its lack of a consistent tone. In my humblest of opinion though, this diversity of theme is what makes this game a beauty.

Max's room and her photo wall.
I wonder about Victoria’s comment here right about now.

The Everyday Hero, Max

Let’s talk about the main character first. Max undergoes a radical transformation throughout the game as a person. From a shy girl, she becomes confident and assertive, as she tries her best to avert a storm which will wipe out her city. As a character, Max is lovable, and the player can see how she grows from a nerd to a hero. Her sense of justice and loyalty towards her friends  give her an unusual level of purpose uncommon in youth, making her a strong and endearing character. Her relation with her childhood friend, Chloe Price is especially striking, who acts as both her sidekick and contrast, guiding and influencing her like a good sidekick should.

Chloe & Max from episode 2.
I’d play Warren and sing all the intros of Fullmetal Alchemist here, but then this caption would make little sense. Oh wait, it already makes no sense.

Her youth however, leads her to irrational decisions fueled by emotions. She uses her power to try and help people whenever she can, without realizing what her actions might entail or what her powers are actually capable of. Her naivety leads to a path where amateur time travelling geeks like me can have a field day. Chaos Theory, Butterfly Effect, Timeline Divergence, all these complex theories are thrown into the mix just because of her innocence. The consequences of her actions follow up to the bitter end, where she must finally choose. Whatever her (your actually) decision is, she ends up suffering for it, giving our beloved teenager a tragic end to her courageous battle. It’s another part where the pangs of growing up can be felt biting sharply.

Max Payne, Arcadia Bay’s finest.

Sorry, I had to do that. I just had to, and I’m sure DONTNOT would’ve done that too, if not for copyright issues.

Gaming, driven by a laid back story

The pacing of this game too is an interesting point to note. The game developers decided to reward players who take it slow and try to take in as much of the story as possible. As revealed in Director’s Commentary, the developers gave aesthetic rewards to players who explored each and everything. Characters are developed in seemingly small events, breaking the mold of bee lining observed in more popular gaming scenarios (I look at you, FPS genre). Every character & object present can be interacted with, and they have their own stories. This serve the purpose of developing the atmosphere and to immense the players into the story.

A proof of how the story was engaging comes from the fact that the players took up to 10 minutes just to make a crucial decision. Oh wait, did I tell you that this game features a decision system? No? Oopsie.

The game has a decision system, where at certain points (read: a LOT of points) the player has to decide the course of actions to follow from 2-3 choices presented to them. Although the player can rewind to undo their recent actions, most were still confounded by the choices presented. It was almost as if they were deciding the destiny of a real young girl, or maybe even their own destiny. The characteristic of a good story, be it comes a book or a movie, is its power to suck the reader/viewer into the world it creates. In this aspect, Life is Strange delivers excellently. The players empathize with Max, and in essence, become her.

The Dark Room

Among the many themes in the game, perhaps the most striking is the revelation of the true motives of the antagonist.

Warning: Spoilers inbound. Read at your own risk.

The antagonist kidnaps young girls and tortures them, to capture the moment when their innocence of youth finally leaves, and the harsh reality of the unfairness of life finally settles in. He finds this loss of innocence artistically appealing, and photographs these pieces of times to make them immortal. The antagonist serves as a perfect opposite to the young protagonist, who’s yet to lose her innocence. The villain wins in the end however (in a sense, get it? In a sense?), when Max loses her innocence after a series of terrible experiences, and accepts some of the harshest realities of life. It’s a crystal-clear reflection of everyone’s life, where we grow up to leave behind our childhood and step into the uncomfortable and unforgiving shoes of adulthood. The game in a way emphasizes on the need of being young, and how it gives the power to change the world.

Max's journal during her nightmare sequence.
And to think I thought my nightmares were scary. Oh the arrogance!

End spoilers. I think.

The nightmare sequence that follows Max’s escape is possibly one of the best nightmare sequence I’ve ever seen. Max’s deepest fears and regrets are explored in a great detail, and her character becomes more endearing as the player fight through these horrors.

A conclusion… or is it?

As my mind swirls around thinking of all the other aspects which I could write about, I see 1600 words already typed out. Maybe it’s time to end this little article, with hopes of a continuation.

We played hide and seek in waterfalls,

We were younger…

Share This:

Comments

comments

Anurag Yadav

Move along now, nothing to see here.