Choice, Guilt and Life Is Strange
The strangest thing about life in Dontnod’s game is the neoliberal logic of individual responsibility
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This article contains major spoilers for Life Is Strange Season 1.
At the beginning of each episode of Life Is Strange the same message appears: ‘Life Is Strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present and future. Choose wisely…’
This notion of choice and consequence is common in narrative led games, and as with other examples, say, The Walking Dead or Until Dawn, we participate in the knowledge that it’s only a partial truth. In particular, we accept that we have some agency to affect how events unfold, but can’t stop the main plot heading in a predetermined direction. What stands out about Life Is Strange, however, from that opening text through to the ultimate repercussions of its time travel premise, is just how responsible it makes us feel for what happens, and how inconsequential it renders our decisions.
This is largely by design, of course. Life Is Strange never really expects us to neatly solve the problems of its protagonist, Max Caulfield, as she struggles to deal with high school politics, her relationship with childhood friend Chloe, a criminal conspiracy, and her newfound power to rewind time. It’s more a lesson in acceptance — of the limits of our ability to influence the circumstances and people around us, and the need to face difficult situations rather than wish them away. But it’s a lesson learned the hard way, which first wants us to agonize over each dilemma and feel that we should be in control.
The aim is clearly to pull us into the game’s scenario by making us invest in decisions and outcomes, but the dynamic it creates interests me for another reason. Specifically, it mirrors an everyday experience in neoliberalized societies of facing myriad choices that demand our attention and make us fully accountable for our circumstances. This is what social theorist Wendy Brown terms ‘responsibilization’, a logic which ‘tasks the worker, student, consumer, or indigent person with discerning and undertaking the correct strategies of self-investment and entrepreneurship for thriving and surviving’. According to this logic, all responsibility is in the hands of individuals, so when things go wrong it’s not systems or institutions that are at fault but our decision-making.
Elsewhere, I have similarly described a social ‘pressure’ placed on individuals today, which paradoxically expects us to both balance and maximise our prowess in various aspects of life — work, consumption, family, health, political participation and so on. This pressure manifests itself as a continuous need to make decisions, where each choice is potentially bad or good, or in many cases good in one way but bad in another, so there is no obvious ‘correct’ option.
To a great extent, such choices are the core of our individual freedoms in neoliberal capitalism. We are free to express ourselves and construct our lives through hundreds of micro-decisions that can affect us or our communities. But at the same time, because all these decisions are offered to us as genuine choices, and because there is no single prohibiting authority telling us categorically what to do, the criteria for how to choose or what to prioritize is often unclear.
In this way, even when it comes to situations which should seem ethically clear-cut, people don’t necessarily choose the ‘right’ option. For example, faced with two brands of coffee, one ‘Fair Trade’ the other not, we would generally assume that it’s better for coffee producers to earn a decent living wage. But if this is so straightforward, why is it a choice we have to make at all? Why is it an individual consumer decision, where both options are viable?
There are of course reasons why someone may choose the ‘Unfair’ Trade option, from the financial — being unable to afford higher priced Fair Trade goods — to the ideological — placing a more parochial ethics of financial responsibility to family above those of international trade — or the cynical — believing there’s no point constantly trying to make socially responsible choices because nothing ever really changes. Or, someone may choose this option simply because it’s implicitly validated by its presence on the supermarket shelf.
Whatever rationale we apply, the point is that the act of choosing makes us responsible, and this goes for any number of decisions we make. If the coffee producer is poorly paid, if the ‘wrong’ leader gets elected, or if we exhaust ourselves through overwork, it’s our fault as consumers, voters, or employees. As such, there’s a guilt attached to all the things we fail to do by choosing to do something else, whether or not we really have significant influence through our decisions, or if we even understand what’s at stake in the first place.
Life Is Strange effectively operates the same logic. Like this globalised 21st century capitalism, it places us in a world whose systems and rules we don’t fully comprehend. It continuously saddles us with ambiguous dilemmas that may or may not be significant. It claims to give us access to the insight and agency necessary to make wise decisions. It uses the concept of agency and free choice to make us responsible for problematic results. And, underneath it all, it ensures that the decisions which plague our conscience actually rarely matter.
The central factor here, and where it goes further than similar games, is in Max’s ability to manipulate time. As with any cautionary tale about super powers, the initial emphasis is on the advantages, most obviously in the moment the power first emerges, as Max saves Chloe from being killed. It’s also in the smaller things, like when we choose to ‘redo’ a conversation, using the information Max receives first time round to convince her interlocutors that she knows and cares about their problems. This gives us the sense we are powerful agents in this world, able to read its inner workings and influence people to do the right thing.
But this sense of power creates added pressure when we face complex problems, because it makes us feel that we should know what to do even when we can’t know. As with any such game, we are thrown into an unfamiliar world at a particular moment, with no experience of its prior events. We enter a situation where we don’t really have a feel for how things work, where the information at our disposal is limited and roughly sketched, and where we aren’t sure in advance what drives the plot. Yet because we appear to have all the tools required to overcome these disadvantages, there’s no excuse for mistakes.
In the game’s first episode, Max witnesses David, Blackwell Academy’s over-zealous security guard, harassing Kate, a timid student who we already know is bullied by other students. We can choose here to intervene and confront David, or stay out of sight and take a photo of the situation. There are various factors to consider: Might David attack Max? Might Kate have done something wrong? Is it any of Max’s business? Does Max have a moral duty to intervene? I decided that a photo could be a good way to document the incident should I need evidence of David’s misconduct later. But the scene didn’t unfold as I’d hoped: Kate spotted me and interpreted my role as voyeuristic, causing her to lose trust in me (which had repercussions later).
In simple gameplay terms, it makes perfect sense that the situations in Life Is Strange should be partially opaque, to keep the choices and characters interesting. So, the game deliberately shows us contrasting perspectives, holds back information and even misdirects us to keep us on our toes. But these techniques also serve to make us doubt ourselves, even as we try to do our best based on incomplete information, and without fully understanding how the game registers our performance.
Of course, Max’s ability allows us to rewind and make a different choice, and as such seems to help us achieve better results. Yet since many situations remain ethically vague or reveal their significance much later (in fact, the photo of David can prove useful if the plot goes a certain way), the rewind power can actually cause a kind of paralysis, as we endlessly reconsider the different elements in a dilemma rather than simply live with our first choice. And as long as we remain in the scene, our doubt and indecision continue to linger.
In these cases, the time control power functions like that ‘pressure’ to do better, or find the perfect balance that somehow fulfills everyone’s expectations. It creates guilt because we could always have taken a different path, even after the immediate results of our decision emerged. It’s not the game’s systems or predefined storylines that are at fault if something goes wrong, because we had every chance to discover new information, weigh up the options, and do things differently.
Personally, I felt this ‘pressure’ often led me to almost arbitrary decisions, or simply to go with my initial instinct. In other words, I did not ‘choose wisely’ so much as muddled through, or made any choice purely to escape the decision-making process. As in reality, where so many choices present themselves as important, and even something like buying coffee has an ethical consideration attached, we may feel unwilling or unable to compute all the variables. The freedom to choose can become a burden, so we take the easiest path, look for an immediate gain, or follow an apparent expert and hope for the best.
The other point about this freedom is that, for all the stress it can cause, much of it is less significant than it seems, because our individual decisions simply don’t have much impact. Life Is Strange reflects this concept too, as it gives us a power to affect the world, only to use that same power to undercut everything we do. This is especially true with the other aspect of Max’s time control — her ability to relive a specific moment in the past through a photograph, and make changes that affect the entire timeline — as it enables the narrative to erase our influence.
In episode four, Max goes back in time to prevent Chloe’s father dying in a traffic accident. But in the newly created present it’s Chloe who’s had a car accident, is paralysed, on life support and slowly dying. Here, Chloe asks Max to help end her suffering by administering an overdose of medication. It’s a big decision and one that hangs on Max’s conscience long after she makes it. And yet, whatever we choose, Max soon revisits the past once again to reinstate the original timeline, wiping out the consequences of our actions.
The pretense of our agency reaches its logical conclusion in the final moments of the game. As Max has used her power repeatedly to keep Chloe alive and uncover a murderous plot, it becomes clear that she has disrupted the balance of nature, and a huge tornado threatens to destroy the town of Arcadia Bay. As Max and Chloe look on from a safe distance, a clear binary choice is established: use a photo one more time to return to the point Max received her power, when she first saved Chloe’s life, but this time allow Chloe to be killed; or stand and watch as the tornado swallows the town and the rest of the cast within it.
At a stroke, this final decision erases everything that came before it. If the town is destroyed, it doesn’t matter how we affected the lives of the people within it; if we go back in time and restart the story, those effects never happened. So, in hindsight, none of the individual choices or outcomes we fretted over warranted a moment’s thought. Here, Life Is Strange reveals the absurdity of our investment, and along with it that of our social reality, by hinting at the superficiality of all the micro-decisions that occupy our time.
Yet it is also in this very moment that Life Is Strange finally gives us a real decision. Do we recognise that absurdity and refuse to participate further, or do we maintain the charade?
On one hand, the game doesn’t simply relinquish the sense of guilt it has constructed, and continues to flag this situation as being our responsibility, especially since it was Max’s actions and power that caused it. Even if we don’t feel directly to blame (after all, we didn’t choose to have the power, nor was there an option to never use it, and we couldn’t have predicted these terrible consequences), it is still only we who have the opportunity to fix things, if we are willing to sacrifice Chloe, and we who must make the choice.
In terms of the logic of ‘responsibilization’, the strong implication here is that we should go back in time. It tells us that we shouldn’t meddle with other people’s freedom to make their own decisions, nor with systems we don’t understand. Instead, we should put things back the way they were, and return to a life of making decisions in the confines of our individual situation. Although, of course, we will remain responsible for everything that happens.
On the other hand, this isn’t merely another empty choice, and we are really free to draw a different lesson. Indeed, since we still don’t really understand Max’s power, and the game has shown us repeatedly how unpredictable the results of our decisions are, can we even trust that sacrificing Chloe will have the desired outcome? What if Chloe dies and the power is triggered by something else? What if everything that’s happened was supposed to happen? Or, if the point is that the more we meddle the worse things get, shouldn’t we stop meddling right now? Without understanding the systems, there is no guarantee.
So what are we left with? Well, since we’ve gone to such lengths to save Chloe, why stop now? Maybe that is the one meaningful decision we can make, or the one piece of real agency we have. Or, put another way, this is a moment where we’re free to choose the terms of freedom itself. We can either accept the freedom that’s given to us, by resetting and reliving the process of endless, pointless decision-making. Or we can reshape our lives from scratch, by deciding what really matters to us and defining the bounds of our freedom. Here, Life Is Strange challenges us to see through the illusion it has created, and consider an alternative path.
Perhaps, finally, we can choose wisely.