[Concerning spoilers: Before I get started, this post does contain spoilers. I have written as broadly as I can about certain plot points to avoid ruining the story, but a certain level of specificity is required. Only episode 1 is spoiled in any great detail. If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, I’ll mark the point in the post past which you’ll want to stop reading.]
(spoiler-free) reflections on the “relateable-ness” of women’s stories
I spent a large portion of my free time last week catching up on Life Is Strange, the breathtakingly amazing adventure game/RPG by Dontnod studios about a high school senior who discovers that she can rewind time by about two minutes and her subsequent, increasingly weird, adventures as she attempts to solve the mystery of a missing student while also averting a vision of a disastrous future.
If that description doesn’t sound appealing, then let me add that I hate adventure games and make a point of avoiding them at all costs. But I have loved LiS episodes 1-3 and am eagerly awaiting the next installment! The writing is compelling – I cried at the end of episode 2 and damn near cried at the end of episode 3. It also feels very true-to-life; certainly Max’s (the protagonist) experiences as she awkwardly attempts to navigate the treacherous social waters of her school felt very true to my experiences as an outsider at my own high school.
So given the enjoyable gameplay, the well-crafted writing, and the fact that playing Life is Strange gave me ALL OF THE FEELS, you’d think that I’d be willing to shout its praise from the rooftops, right?
But when a male friend asked if he should give it a try, once I’d played through the first few hours of episode 1, I found myself stymied as to how to answer; the friend in question didn’t have the experience of being a teenage girl, for one, and that shared experience with the protagonist is part of what made the game so compelling for me. Not to mention that Life is Strange is a game that is primarily about the stories of women and girls, and “naturally” wouldn’t be as compelling or relateable to a male audience. So I wound up giving an equivocal answer, something along the lines of “I’m enjoying it but I don’t know how you’d like it”.
It was only later when I was discussing it with my husband that I caught myself making the same disclaimers and realized that that whole line of reasoning was absolutely full of shit.
The coming-of-age story is so ridiculously common that it has become a cornerstone of the modern literary and film canon. And while it’s true that there are a few examples where coming-of-age stories feature a female protagonist, the genre is largely defined by its male protagonists. But if I, as someone who has never been a teenage boy or had any experience of trying to navigate the social pressures of assuming a restrictive cultural definition of manhood, can be capable of consuming male coming-of-age stories and finding them (the well-crafted ones, at any rate) engaging, then why shouldn’t the opposite be true?
Books like Catcher in the Rye are considered to classics, books that truly educated people should have read. However, had Holden Caulfield been a girl, it’s most likely that Catcher in the Rye would be consigned to “young adult” or “girl’s” literature status, along with Judy Blume and any number of talented authors who wrote about girls’ experiences of being a teenager.
This is because in our patriarchal society, men are the default. Their stories are “universal” “accessible” “relateable” and “important”. Conversely, women are specific, atypical, unrelateable, and unimportant. And yet, even knowing all of that, my initial gut reaction when I was asked “should I play this” by a friend who is a man was “well I like it but it might not be to your taste”. Which was dumb, since Life is Strange is one of the most powerful, important games that I have ever played – something more than just another murder simulator that I devoutly hope that represents a new direction for AAA game studios like Squeenix.
past this point, there be spoilers
So what makes Life is Strange so important, you might ask? Well, gentle reader, LiS is unlike any game I have played before, for a number of reasons.
First, it is full of complex female characters. There are strong characters, passive characters, antagonist characters, and vulnerable characters. More importantly, all of the major female characters are complex enough that they can fill different roles at different times.
There are characters, like Victoria Chase and her lackies, who are undisputed villains, but they are never presented as villains because of their gender. It’s a tricky balance to strike, given that the actions that make them villains are very stereotypical teenage girl cruelty, but Victoria and her gang are given motivations that go beyond simply “girls are all enemies”. (It helps that Victoria does also get some small moments of sympathy, when the player is allowed to see behind the mask.)
There are also female characters with whom you form strong bonds of love and respect: Chloe and Joyce (Chloe’s mother), but also Kate to a lesser extent (if you choose to help her). Particularly with Chloe and Joyce, while these relationships have troubled aspects, they are also painted as enduring – which is refreshing, given how depressingly common “cat fight” is as a default relationship for female characters in ANY medium.
Second, LiS takes a serious look at the lives and relationships of teenage girls without trivializing or infantalizing them. Because of how we’ve been conditioned to see the struggles of teenage girls navigating a path to adulthood as unimportant, it’s easy to look at a game like LiS and see nothing but “teenage drama”. Thankfully, the writers do an amazing job of looking at the emotional consequences of that “drama” and how that pain causes people to feel and react.
Third, LiS deals explicitly with bullying and the realities of online harassment – and it doesn’t do so in a way that feels preachy or out of touch. Kate Marsh, one of the secondary characters, starts out as a target of bullying, which later escalates to online harassment. The LiS writers also do a good job of portraying how often the systems of power that are supposed to intervene and keep us (women) safe from harassment wind up further victimizing the women who attempt to access help. And as someone who has experienced both bullying in school and online harassment, I can attest that some of the interactions dealing with Kate were uncomfortably close to home.
Depending on the choices that you make, Max herself can also become a target of online harassment. The messages you receive are unnerving and arrive at unpredictable intervals, which is also true to life. It’s strange and upsetting to be in the middle of going about your business only to have these terrible messages intrude on what you were trying to do:
Fourth, LiS portrays sexism as a reality of navigating the world as a woman without ever shying away from the terrible emotional damage that that reality creates. One of the primary villains, Nathan Prescott, is a villain because he is rich and entitled – with that sense of entitlement extending to the bodies of the young women around him.
David, the security chief of Max’s school and Chloe’s stepfather, is also a villain and cautionary tale. He, a grown-ass adult, develops a weird and creepy obsession with a series of teenage girls (one of which is Max), and yet you as the protagonist have to be careful in dealing with him because of the power that he holds over your life. Later, if you choose to hide the first time Chloe butts heads with David, Chloe actually gets slapped by her stepfather but says nothing to anyone, saying that it just would have been worse if you’d tried to step in. And further down the line, if you choose to side with two other female characters in confronting him about his creepy and inappropriate behavior, he throws it back in your face by saying “bitches always stick together”.
And then there are the male authority figures and how they deal with the aftermath of Kate’s bullying coming to a dramatic head at the end of episode 2. It turns out that Mr. Jefferson, a teacher who is portrayed in very sympathetic terms, tried to talk to Kate about the online abuse, only to then blame her for her own victimization. David, who you already know to be a creep, is there in his official capacity. And then there is Nathan, a student, and Principal Wells – who has already proven that he is too invested in the Prescott’s money to take any serious action against Nathan, despite his key role in the matter.
Max, as the protagonist, finds herself the lone woman in an office full of powerful men who are demanding that she tell the truth about what happened, while also clearly conveying the subtext that doing so is clearly against Max’s own best interests. Which is some powerful shit, right there.
Lastly, and most importantly, LiS deals with sexual violence openly and honestly, without trivializing it or excusing it.
One of the key plot points is that young women are getting drugged at parties and being taken advantage of. As a protagonist, you must decide how to react on two separate occasions when two very different women tell you very similar stories of being drugged and possibly assaulted. Do you believe the women and offer support and backup? Or do you keep your distance by engaging in victim blaming? Moreover, the reaction if you do engage in victim blaming is emotionally wrenching and deeply shaming, which is as it should be!
Critically, LiS also avoids perpetrating the common (harmful) “wisdom” about sexual assault by having these attacks come from someone that is known to the victims. Because unfortunately, that is the reality of sexual assault; overwhelmingly women are attacked by people that they know and have reason to trust; evil-stranger-in-the-bushes assaults do exist, but are very rare. Neither do the writers flinch from showing how there are systems and institutions created by class and money (like school and the police) that protect serial predators from the consequences of their actions, so that they can be free to keep assaulting.
And yet, as difficult as these things are to deal with emotionally when presented in such hard-hitting terms, these factors all make me very happy that this game exists. Because THIS GAME. THIS GAME is the sort of thing that I have been wishing major studios like Squeenix would start publishing. Apart from its own merits as an artistic work, playing Life is Strange made me feel like there was actually a part of the gaming industry that was listening, that gave a shit about me as a human being. Finally, finally, it feels like someone is reflecting myself (or a younger version of myself) and my experiences, and that feeling is amazing.
 Yes that is too a word. Shut up, spell check.