Wednesday 29 July 2015

The Long Form: Keeping the Fat

The 4th of five episodes of Life is Strange was released this week. A series that gets somewhat mixed, if generally positive, reviews but is also carving out a sizeable fanbase who note it as clearly one of the strongest games released this year. I'm including myself in that group, even if they can't stick the landing in two months with the conclusion. I strongly suggest everyone experience the game before engaging with the critical reaction to avoid spoilers.
The opening of this episode seems to have gotten a generally positive reception so far. It is clearly emotionally affecting. While tearing up, I was also very aware of how manipulative putting such a choice in was, especially in the context of the relationship presented (the asymmetry of Max knowing Chloe far more than alt-universe Chloe knows Max and so is leaning on a past-relationship as a sign of desperation, looking back to better times). I normally get taken out of an experience by seeing the strings being pulled so clearly but here I was still very much in the moment.

After finishing the episode and considering this, I've started to wonder what made this moment different. Having spent 13 hours before this point must surely have something to do with it. The early pivotal moment may seem like it explodes out of the gate, but actually there's been the majority of an hour before the decision is asked of the player. A full hour-long episode of a TV drama has elapsed in this alt-universe before "the feels" are applied. The slow pace of narrative-based gaming allows something you generally don't get from the fat-free pace of other visual storytelling.
Life is Strange is a story about the end of the world. It's a story about time-travelling superpowers and how Super-Max saves the day while unravelling the bigger threat that will destroy everything by the end of the week. Only it's not. It's about social issues, abuse and suicide and harassment. It's about friends and forming social bonds even outside those who you can feel are potential friends. Life is Strange never flinches from dealing with the very real issues that young-adults face.

One of the smart moves that the game employs to distance itself from time and space is in the setting. We're looking at a college/boarding-school setting. Canonically it is an 18+ school in America with a 21+ drinking age. But it isn't University and feels just as close to a final tier of school. This setting allows for underage drinking, early partying, the removal of parental supervision, and discussion of sex. If this was set in Europe then you'd only need to change a few numbers and it would be talking about boarding at 6th form where the age of consent is 16, unsupervised drinking age is 18, and the kids are more solidly teenagers rather than young-adult but dealing with the same social issues. While some have been critical of this unreality that the distancing from the setting creates, I see this as an important act of universalising the narrative for a larger audience.

So we have an incredibly relatable story, despite the fantastic premise, and a slow pace. This is 13 hours of how Max and Chloe went from being childhood friends to... we don't yet know how that story will resolve. But it is clearly a loving relationship of some form that may be more about the confusion of youth than queer-baiting.

I posit that the opening of episode 4 can only land because games are not yet at the point of being tightly scripted packages of the absolute minimum required for the narrative. That loose form makes the moment so much more affecting because you've walked so many more miles in those shoes when it occurs than with a theoretical TV version of this same story. The audience for the medium has a tolerance for long and meandering. Each episode is 4 hours of immersion in this situation; it all builds up; to the point you can get away with such bare-faced emotional manipulation.