Bullying, depression and suicide: taking responsibility in Life is Strange
08 August, 2016
Life Is Strange was conceived primarily as a game about teenage struggles.
Though there is a fantasy element, involving main character Max's ability to rewind time and correct past mistakes, this is meant to serve only as a backdrop to the everyday trials and tribulations for Max and her fellow students at Blackwell Academy. After witnessing a horrifying incident, Max discovers her powers, and from then on uses these powers to help herself and those around her.
Depression and suicide is still relatively new ground for games, and few games have tackled these issues as head-on as Life is Strange
Max's world is filled with teenagers based on various Hollywood high school archetypes. The developers, Dontnod Entertainment, intended the game to unflinchingly tackle real issues teenagers would face, and so they end up covering difficult subjects such as cyber-bullying, mental illness, and suicide.
As the player, you control Max, navigating her through everyday environments such as classrooms, dormitories, and family homes. You can inspect items in these environments, like a detective of ordinary life, and speak to the characters that inhabit this world.
At times the game poses you with difficult choices, which will profoundly affect the course of future events.
Do you let your friend be scolded by her father for having weed in her room, or do you take the blame instead? When a school bully gets a taste of her own medicine, do you humiliate her further, or show her compassion?
There are no "perfect" answers, so you are free to act however you feel is appropriate. The game does not shy away from dealing with serious issues and throws tougher dilemmas at the player later on; decisions that some players spend minutes agonising over.
Psychiatric themes lace the plot of Life is Strange, and a few characters are shown, either explicitly or implicitly, to be experiencing mental illness. One of the game's more challenging series of scenes focuses on the character of Kate, a student at Blackwell who is mercilessly bullied, both at school and online.
Kate is a kind-hearted, strictly religious, reserved person. If you explore her room, you will see evidence of her strong faith, and her highly judgemental family. Sadly for Kate, somebody drugs her at a student party, and soon a compromising video of her is posted online.
Incessant bullying and teasing ensues. She finds little support; you can view a letter from her parents, in which her mother writes: "We hope you haven't brought shame upon you or our family."
For Kate, this experience sadly leads her to severe depression. Evidence of this is found as you explore her room. Her mirror is covered up so she doesn't have to look at herself. Her room is kept dark. Observing her violin shows she hasn't played it in weeks. She has stopped tidying her room, when usually her room is immaculate.
Overall, it paints an impression of the low mood, lack of energy, and loss of enjoyment which come with depression. Kate feels helpless and hopeless, saying "I'm in a nightmare and I can't wake up... unless I put myself to sleep."
Throughout the first act of the game, you are presented with opportunities to be supportive to Kate, be it having a friendly chat with her, helping to remove insulting graffiti about her, or by being available on the phone for her. Unfortunately it's clear that you alone cannot cure her of her depression.
Eventually, Kate, feeling alone and abandoned, ends up on the roof of a school building with the intention of ending her life.
Here the game presents you with an opportunity to talk her down to safety. If you have paid attention to her story so far, and have been a good friend to her, there is a good chance that you can convince her to stay strong in the face of bullying, and remind her that she has family members who would be devastated if she were to die.
This of course is sensitive subject matter for a game: if you don't say the right things in this scene, and if you haven't built a strong relationship with Kate, there's a chance that things could go horribly wrong. The developers were mindful that this was essentially "gamifying" a suicide attempt, and had to take care not to trivialise the issue.
One important step they took was removing Max's powers during this scene, so that the player would deal with it strictly on a human level.
The developers made sure that this was a scene that continued to matter throughout the course of the game, as it would belittle the moment if it was quickly forgotten. Max continues to dwell on the moment as the game progresses, as do other characters. If Kate survives, you will continue to converse with her over text messages, and eventually visit her in hospital, where she is shown to be recovering.
This hospital scene provides a strong sense of hope and closure, indicating people with depression can find help and can get better.
The developers were also aware of the impact such scenes may have on players, and produced a web resource for those affected by issues in the game
The developers have gone to great lengths in trying to tackle the subject matter sensitively, including researching about bullying, reviewing suicide prevention materials, and speaking to mental health professionals about how best to speak to people who are having thoughts of suicide. They were also aware of the impact such scenes may have on players, and produced a web resource for those affected by issues in the game.
Our own ordinary world
What makes Life is Strange so impactful is that, despite the fantasy element, it essentially takes place in our own ordinary world, and stars believable characters not unlike people we already know. As you grow attached to characters like Kate (just one of a wide and fascinating cast, all with their own issues to deal with), it makes the overarching story of time manipulation all the more compelling.
I've neglected to mention the key plot element: the story of a teenage girl who has disappeared from the community. As the game progresses, you will learn the dark secret at the heart of this small town, but much like the television series Twin Peaks was about so much more than the murder of Laura Palmer, this game is about so much more than the core mystery.
This game can be played at a leisurely pace, allowing you to become lost in its fully realised, detailed world. It is rich in character, and features a warm acoustic soundtrack, for a late-2000's indie-film feel. It is widely regarded as one of the best games of 2015 and is a must for anyone who enjoys strongly narrative-driven interactive experiences.
Depression and suicide is still relatively new ground for games, and few games have tackled these issues as head-on as Life is Strange. Playing the game I get the feeling that developers are still finding their feet on the best way to deal with such subject matter, but I certainly admire the bravery with which they explored it, and their attempts to remain respectful.
More information on the emotional cost of bullying is available.
Life is Strange is available across multiple platforms including PC and Mac via Steam or Humble Bundle, as well as on Xbox and PlayStation consoles.
Authored by Sachin Shah