I’ve spent a little too much time, in the past week or so, playing a game on my computer.
The game in question, with the deceptively trite title Life Is Strange, is an example of what may be an emerging genre in video games: a graphic adventure game that amounts to an especially rich and engaging interactive story, with a particular game-play mechanic, some mild puzzle solving, some free exploration of the setting of each scene, an overarching mystery to investigate, and a series of tough choices that affect future (and past!) parts of the story.
In this case, the narrative device and game-play mechanic is the ability to rewind. The main character is Maxine “Max” Caulfield, an 18-year-old photography student at a high school for the arts, who suddenly finds herself able to manipulate time by undoing some decisions and trying other options. Important elements of the plot and a number of the puzzles that need to be solved depend on this ability.
SPOILER ALERT! I will not reveal any particular details of the plot, especially from the later chapters, but I will be discussing the general outlines of the game and the general outlines of its ending. If you have an interest in video games that might lead you to play Life Is Strange, and if you really don’t like to know too much about the trajectory of a story before you start it, you might not want to read on.
Max discovers her power as she sees a young woman killed by a fellow student: she responds instinctively to stop the event and rewind it, then must figure out how to prevent it. Everything else in the plot, which plays out across five separate episodes, branches out from that event and ultimately circles back around to it.
Because all the branching paths lead back to the same choice, the story has something of the structure of a tragedy: whatever she does, whatever other terrible events happen or do not happen along the way, Max seems to be driven inexorably toward her fate.
It must be said that, as a story, Life Is Strange is of decidedly mixed literary merit: tragedy it may be, but Shakespeare or Aeschylus it is not. The dialogue is often painfully bad, sometimes veering into unselfconscious earnestness and sentimentality, sometimes into all-too-self-counscious hipness, as though it was written by thirty-something men with a list of teen slang from the last decade or so and a quota to fill. Other times, the dialogue is serviceable; once in a while, it is very nearly powerful.
In spite of that, the writers have somehow managed to make the main characters worth caring about, in part because the characters change along the way as they overcome obstacles and weather storms. The plot is intricate and, for the most part, well constructed. The time-travel mechanic makes little scientific sense but is at least less inconsistent in its narrative logic than, say, the premise of the Back to the Future franchise.
I didn’t set out here to write a review of the game, though, but simply to commend this game and others like it to the attention of philosophers, especially those involved in practical ethics.
In its overall structure, Life Is Strange could also be seen as a Rube Goldberg variant of the trolley problem: for all its complexity and branching paths, it comes down to what appears to be a choice between two evils, a death-or-death decision.
At one level the choice can seem like the classic one-versus-many utilitarian calculus. In some online discussion of the game and its ending, many people seem to stake their (notably overheated) arguments on numbers and on the fact that, with one of the two final options, the numbers are technically unknown.
At another level, the choice involves consent of one of the other characters most profoundly affected by the choice, a matter of willing versus unwilling sacrifice.
What struck me most, though, is the way in which casting the final choice in trolley-problem terms fails to do justice to the richness of the choice in its narrative context.
Max does not arrive at the final choice as a hypothetical bystander who suddenly finds herself standing next to a switch alongside a trolley track without any prior history or context. Instead, she arrives at the final choice as part of an unfolding narrative, thick with relationships and memories and trajectories that give that moment and that choice a very particular shape and meaning and resonance.
(That said, I wonder if it’s a coincidence that a puzzle in the second episode involves a switch alongside a railroad track.)
In my play-through of the story, only one of the two final options made any sense at all to me, in part because it was the only choice compatible with the development of the characters involved as mature and capable human beings, adults who accept and learn to live with vulnerability and the possibility of irretrievable losses that have no rhyme or reason to them.
So, yes, as I played a video game about a time-traveling high-school student in coastal Oregon, I found myself thinking of Aristotle and of Martha Nussbaum (2001).
Through much of the game, Max is motivated by an increasingly desperate effort to fix everything, a quest enabled by a second time-travel mechanic involving old photographs. Her power effectively makes her invulnerable, and she wants to use it to protect all that she values from any possible harm, to prevent or undo any tragic outcome.
That this effort only sets up the tragic choice at the end seems entirely fitting.
A secondary delight for me as an ethicist in the unfolding of the story is that Max is at one point called out – by a rather surprising character who shows up in the last episode – for using her power to manipulate people. That kind of manipulation is in fact necessary to the solution of some of the puzzles along the way: Max can engage in a conversation from which she learns some critical piece of information then rewind and restart the conversation using the information she picked up the first time to get further information or to get something she needs to continue with her quest.
As her quest is to avoid any tragic outcome, it would seem the lesson is that such an aim and the desperation it can bring may simultaneously require and seem to justify using people, treating them as mere resources. Max – shy, soft-spoken Max – doesn’t seem like a moral monster, but that moment near the end of the story suggests that she is at risk of turning into one, blinded as she is by the imperative of fixing everything.
These and other revelations lead me to think that this game and others like it might have some potential in ethics education, or in moral development more generally. A story can bring to light the richness of human values, the complexity of choice in context, and the fragility of goodness; an interactive story may raise the intensity of such insights by implicating the player directly in the unfolding of the story.
As you play through Life Is Strange, Max’s choices are, to some degree, your choices, and you may share a little more than vicariously in her successes or failures, her triumph or her guilt, the comedy or tragedy that surround her. Any insight into character and values might then strike more deeply and have more lasting effects on your own moral imagination.
I would also suggest that online discussion of the game might be of interest to experimental ethicists, as fans of Life Is Strange have been lining up behind one or the other of the two final options and defending their choices with . . . varying degrees of sophistication and varying degrees of . . . heat. If you can filter out the troll spoor, there might be material there to inspire and inform a study of how people respond to immersive and narratively rich problem situations involving a single tough choice.
I might further say something about an odd, temporary effect playing the game had on my own experience of time and causality, but that may be a topic for another post.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2001). The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Rev. ed.). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.