Frames, Selfies, and Time-Traveling
Life Is Strange and Video Game Perspectives on Photography
I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds. Certainly the fading snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalog, and the great range of things in between are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself.
The Decisive Moment, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photography has been an artistic obsession since its creation, and needless to say, it was a major invention that revolutionized not only art, but also science, medicine, history, and all spheres of society. In fact, the multiplicity of its roles is what makes it such a groundbreaking invention – roles which seem to be boundless, that keep having their limits pushed. Notably, it has completely troubled artists, who sometimes feel a certain malaise and insecurity vis-à-vis photography as art, or actually feel inspired by the enriched perspective it brings to the table – or most of the times a bit of both, hence their impulse to constantly (re)define it, (re)frame it, and portray it, despite their not being photographers per se. Photographer-protagonists in fiction are commonplace, whether one thinks of literature as in works by Marcel Proust and Marguerite Duras, or of film such as the Hitchcock classic Rear Window or Closer starring Julia Roberts. Videogame is no exception. As technology develops, more and more video games of all genres include components of photography, which the player oftentimes controls, forcing the role of photographer upon them.
One may think of famous games such as Donkey Kong 64 (1999), where the player must take pictures of lost fairies, trapping them in photographs, then freeing them once back home; of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2003), where the protagonist may take pictures of all other characters, and then give them to a sculptor so that he may carve them; of Dark Cloud (2000), where the player may take pictures of structures and items to serve as models to build them afterwards, combining them, inspiring the inventive protagonist; of Dead Rising (2006) where the photojournalist protagonist photographs zombies to document events and score points based on some aesthetic qualities; as well as of less famous games such as Dyscourse (2015) and Spelunky (2013) where cameras are weapons used to stun enemies with the flash; and like Camera Obscura (2015) where taking photographs allows the screen to duplicate and alter the ground on which the protagonist walks. All of these representations of photography reveal certain roles attributed to it by artists, imbuing it both with extraordinary mysticism and riveting anxiety, in unique ways that only the medium of videogame permits.
Life Is Strange (2015) is another such game involving and framing photography in an exceptional way, in fact using it as driving force, as heart of the story. Without neglecting the entertainment and narrative value of the game, it provides surprisingly deep and complex discussions and perspectives on photography, challenging grand concepts such as the gaze, self-expression, technology, agency, photographer-model and subject-object relationships, and surveillance. The premise of the game is the arrival of an aspiring photographer at a renowned private photography school, and her eventual participation at a national photography contest. However, the plot grows darker right away: a student goes missing, presumably kidnapped, and the protagonist’s best friend gets shot. Max (the protagonist), as she witnesses her friend getting shot, finds out she has the superpower of rewinding time. And so, she goes back in time to save her friend, and embarks on a journey to find the missing girl. However, every time she uses her power, there is a multitude of unexpected consequences, ultimately altering even the environment in disastrous ways. This is a “choices matter” game – the player is presented with difficult choices and dialogue options which entirely change the course of the game, resulting in an individualized narrative for each player with countless variations.
There are three main concepts that I will analyze in the context of this game that provide valuable, refreshing insights into modern photography, inserting it into direct dialogue with theoretical approaches: the first one is self-portraiture, the second one is temporality, and the third one is the off-frame. I will inspect precise game elements of the narrative, both literary and visual, as well as interweave these analyses with discussions of the roles of photography, and of videogame as medium. I will bring in a variety of scholarly criticism to nourish my analysis whenever it is particularly pertinent to do so, though it will generally inform the entirety of my arguments.
The protagonist of Life Is Strange, Max, is known amongst her colleagues and competitors for two reasons: she uses an instant camera, and her main subject is herself. I will come back to the instant camera as it relates to temporality in the second section of my paper. Throughout the game, Max takes a numerous quantity of self-portraits. This comes forth right as the game opens, when she wakes up from a dream or premonition in class, looks at her own self-portrait while her photography teacher, Mr. Jefferson, actually explains the history of so-called selfies, and then she proceeds to take another self-portrait in class, so as to prove to herself that she is not dreaming, that she has woken up – to prove reality (Figures 1-3).
And so, as early as in the introduction, photography is presented as a means to prove reality, to assert presence – the idea of self-portraits thus becomes all the more valuable: asserting one’s own presence, one’s individuality, the reality of oneself. The very process of photography is indeed depicted in all of its sequence of actions, as grounded in the present moment, which is enforced by the instant camera: the grabbing of a camera, the aiming, the pressing of the shutter-release button, the blinding flash, the printing of the photograph, the shaking of the photograph, the viewing, the recognition of oneself. The sequence of moments is indeed all about asserting one’s presence in the tangible world, proving it, leaving a trace of it, and they are triggered by the player, who takes part in the photographic process at hand. Life Is Strange shows this right away as the game starts, setting the tone. Photography asserts reality, and when reality comes to be shaken up by the discovery of a superpower, this is when it becomes laden with anxiety. But nonetheless, the process of self-portraiture is a means of agency, and it is all the more clear in Life Is Strange. Susan Sontag writes in On Photography that photographs “are a way of imprisoning reality” (127) or “they enlarge reality” (127). And so, selfies, are a way of capturing yourself as within reality, enlarging your own presence.
This first idea serves as the ground for the narrative to build itself upon – or rather, for the player to build a narrative of their own. And so, the idea of a “choices matter” game creates a parallel with the theme of the selfie in terms of creating one’s individual narrative and leaving tangible traces of it. The tool, whether it is a camera or a game controller, serves as a way for the photographer and the player to create themselves in a defined spatiotemporal frame, and then view themselves, or view the story they are creating. Much like photography is limited by the frame that the camera provides, videogame is limited by the very coding inscribed by its developers. Despite the availability of multiple options of individualization within the game, the very presence of options reveals its limitations – limits which are somewhat clearer in photography, as we look through a rectangle-shaped lens (or a digital screen as transposition of it). We shall come back to this in the third section of this paper.
There is a trinity of photographic roles that are embodied by the character of Max: the viewer, the model, the photographer – paralleled in video gaming by the game developer(s), the narrator-protagonist, and the player (again, Figures 1-3). As well, the player comes to be a viewer, a model and a photographer through Max, by proxy, through the control of her actions, speech, and movement – inevitably by being a player. The video game theorist Mark J. P. Wolf writes in The Medium of the Video Game: “While figuring out these structures, or solving puzzles or challenges posed by the game’s author, players try to think like the designer or programmer, which sometimes forces them to momentarily take on the author’s way of thinking.” (4) In this sense, Life Is Strange, including a certain amount of puzzle-solving, does force the player into becoming the programmer (creator of the game), much like it forces the player into being a photographer through Max (creator of photographs), as well as of her three roles. These three photographic positions are occupied by the same fictional individual, and they become central to the idea of self-portraiture and to her superpower to rewind time.
The game is directly supported by an impressive amount of famous photographers and theorists from Diane Arbus to Eugene Smith, and most notably Henri Cartier-Bresson and Louis Daguerre who are directly referenced at the beginning of the game (Figures 4, 5).
Far from coincidental, these references consist in a certain transmedial intertextuality, relating directly to the portrayal of photography in the game. It might be necessary to first explain what I intend by transmedial intertextuality. I base this on Julia Kristeva’s understanding of intertextuality in “Problèmes de la structuration du texte” as textual interaction that allows a text to constitute itself from the transformation and combination of other previous texts, understood as sequences or codes by the artist. (299) And by transmedial I imply the variety of mediums in which these references come through, which leads to the transformation as codes described by Kristeva which happens across mediums – a text, a photograph, or a movie, already having a life and afterlife of its own, is referenced, and shapes the visual and textual narrative of the videogame. Simon Pont explains in The Better Mousetrap: Brand Invention in a Media Democracy: “Transmedia thinking anchors itself to the world of story, the ambition principally being one of how you can ‘bring story to life’ in different places, in a non-linear fashion” (205). The direct referencing of such a great variety of works does in fact not only help bring Max’s story to life, but it does so in reality, our reality. Max does not admire and take after some other fictional photographer or writer, it is the likes of Cartier-Bresson whom she emulates, it is Jack Kerouac whose picture she looks at every day in her locker, and it is Man Ray who decorates her dormitory. The very geographical space in Max lives and the virtual space offered by the game (what appears on the screen), both spaces in which the player has agency, are made of intertextual elements whose codes are inserted into the player’s reading of them.
It is noteworthy however that the transmedial aspect is highlighted by the videogame reproduction of photographs. That is to say, photographs are not used as is, working as a direct citation of the work, but rather, they are redrawn in the style of the game (Figures 6, 7).
While the subtitles and voice-acting are always clear in referencing works, they are still appropriated and not only reframed in a new context, but also remade. This is first and foremost in an effort to remain in the reality and indexicality of the game which makes an effort to insert itself into the player’s reality. Indeed, a real inclusion of a photograph (say, scanned) would create an estrangement, a tension which would counteract the effect of reality so efficiently provided by, among other things, the intertextual elements. As well, I advance that the intertextuality is more effective, more transmedial, thanks to its animated reproduction. Rather than working as an outside citation, a redrawn photograph comes to build the virtual world it is a part of. It is inherent to it, while still containing and offering its intertextual baggage. It carries its (figurative) code (in Kristevan terms), which comes to (literally) code the game itself.
And so, these spaces defined by intertextuality come to define Max’s identity as a photographer/model/viewer, coding her and the space around her. It is no coincidence that Louis Daguerre comes up in the first classroom scene, right before Max discovers her superpower. Mr. Jefferson, the teacher, and a student explain: “Louis Daguerre was a French painter who created ‘daguerreotypes’ a process that gave portraits a sharp reflective style, like a mirror. The Daguerreian Process brought out fine detail in people’s faces, making them extremely popular from the 1800s onward. The first American daguerreotype self-portrait was done by Robert Cornelius.” Not only does the game star a self-portraitist protagonist, but it goes further in actually tracing the actual history of self-portait. As well, Louis Daguerre had to have very long exposure times and his photographs were unique and could not be reproduced – much like a modern day instant camera. In fact, the unique nature of each one of Max’s photographs is significant, in that one of the main roles her photographs have is to carry a deeply emotional and subjective meaning. And so, much like her self-portraits are means of assertion of oneself and one’s subjectivity, the instant camera and the daguerreotype enforce this means by the impossibility of its reproduction and the unique nature of each photograph. This is all the more powerful when a photograph is viewed: the viewing also implies a certain subjectivity, like the reading of a literary text. Her ultimate refusal to submit her photograph to the contest expresses this desire to keep her pictures to herself, for they are hers and of her.
Max does embody the blurring of the a priori separate identities of photographer, model, and viewer, as she is all three at once. This is also complexified by the medium of videogame, as Max is the player’s subject/object (like a model is to a photographer). But at the same time, the player is Max, as well as a viewer of Max. And through Max, he or she recognizes himself or herself, through the viewing of the activation of his or her inputs. The game presents a mirror to the player, in a sense reminiscent of film theorists’ (debated) argument that movies force identification of the viewer with the protagonist, but even more so, as the player really is the protagonist. Ruggill and McAllister identify the medium as “immersive” (5) and “persuasive” (11) in Gaming Matters because of its interactivity, and Wolf explains that the “interactive nature of video games, the possibility of many different outcomes, and the illusion of effectiveness and power on the part of the player can make video games potentially more attractive to people than more passive media” (4). One must not neglect the activeness of the movement required to input commands on a controller, which results in actual movement of the protagonist, enforcing this idea of mirror that the process of self-portraiture brings up in the literary and visual narrative, at play as well in the medium of videogame itself. The game developer(s) and the player become co-narrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them, according to Tamer Thabet who theorizes co-narration in Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story.
This projective, identifying process is in fact defining not only of gaming in general, but particularly so of Life Is Strange, as there is a constant switch from a third person to a first person perspective in the game: the player is at once Max herself and a viewer of Max as well in the camera. The player controls what she says and does, when and what she photographs, when she rewinds, but also hearing her private thoughts as if they were the player’s own, as if she were trapped inside of the player’s mind, like a model trapped in a photograph. And therein lies the distinction between portraiture and self-portraiture, the former being linked to murder in the game, and the latter as a clear act of agency, as the game implies. Mr. Jefferson, who in fact ridicules the modern “selfie” trend in class, ends up being the main villain of the game. He kidnaps students, drugs them, takes them to his dark room and photographs them as they are dying. His very big, intricate camera, as well as his lights, parasols, white screen, and his equipment, contrast with Max’s simple instant camera (Figure 8). His models become his victims, his subjects have their subjectivity taken away and are turned into objects.
Susan Sontag writes in On Photography: “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” (2) To this, Ananta Charana Sukla adds in Art and Experience: “A photograph can be a means of acquiring and gaining control over the thing photographed” (162). These two scholars do highlight photography’s harmful potential through the problematic dynamic of power between photographer and photographed subject, implying that the photographed subject comes to be appropriated, owned by the photographer. Indeed, the photograph takes on an afterlife that is entirely out of the photographed subject’s control, as his or her image of himself or herself does not belong to him or her. One may indeed think of the bullying and blackmail potential of photographs. This problematic characteristic of photography is not present – or at the very least, much less so – in self-portraiture: the photographer and the model are the same person, and there is therefore no power dynamic at hand (except possibly an inner one). Max and Mr. Jefferson do stand at antipodes of each other when it comes to photography and ethics (Figure 9). But if portraiture can be murder, can self-portraiture be suicide? And then, if self-portraiture is agency, is suicide agency? The game opens up this discussion in the plot.
There is indeed one character, Kate, colleague and friend of Max’s, who attempts to commit suicide. An erotic video was made of her and pictures were taken after she had been drugged at a party, and shared, showing the deadly potency of photography. Indeed, she was made into a model against her will, she is therefore not a subject but an object, and digital photos and videos are infinitely reproducible, entirely outside of the realm of her control – two possible characteristics of photography that Max stands up against. This forebodes the entire narrative, with the only difference that the person who took Kate’s pictures did not mean to kill her in actuality, it was only an unintended consequence of this type of photography – effectively showing that there is a great power that lies in the camera and in the photographic process themselves. Whether her suicide attempt succeeds or not depends entirely on the player’s decisions throughout the game.
The moment before her suicide is indeed a “decisive moment,” work cited in the game, as Cartier-Bresson would define it: “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (n.p.) It is, narratively speaking, very obvious that the moment of the jump from a high-rise building is a decisive moment. It is interesting however that the students who are pointing their phones like they would be pointing guns, ready to take pictures, at Kate who is about to jump off are the same people who took and shared the very pictures that led her there in the first place (Figure 10). Kate’s closer friends, also photographers, are too shocked and distraught to even think of taking out their cameras. Even Max, controlled by the player, is not given the option to take a picture of Kate at that moment. Does the game advance a certain ethics of photography? It is very clear that the game does highlight this moment as decisive, as time and space completely freeze, and only Max is allowed to move (Figure 11).
She herself does not understand why, and it is the only moment in the entire game when her superpowers do not work. In fact, the time and space become a photograph, completely still, until she reaches Kate. She must witness her friend jump off or succeed in saving her. Either way, this traumatic event shapes the rest of the narrative.
In light of this, I would like to advance that the decisive moment, both in the game and generally speaking, may be one which is in fact unreachable, unphotographable, because it is a photograph, figuratively speaking. Cartier-Bresson argues that photography is the recognition of such a moment, but what if taking a photo at such an unspeakably intense moment may indeed make it decisive, or more decisive? Does not photography in fact add weight onto a moment? The recognition of a decisive moment is future-oriented, and is in fact an act of precognition: predicting the significance of an upcoming event or person. The students that are preparing to photograph Kate as she is jumping are recognizing that indeed, if she does, they will have successfully recognized the future weight of the event. And the weight is inevitably put by the photographer on the photographed subject and the eventual viewer. Would one photograph a murdered body, a raped body, a dead body at funerals? It would be morally debatable, precisely because it has happened. The moment is gone. Much like Sophie Calle’s The Last Image series on blind people expresses a latent desire to have been able to capture the last moment before her models lost their sight, in an act of precognition, of a missed decisive moment. This decisive moment of Kate’s suicide (or suicide attempt) in Life Is Strange extends a discussion of morality to the whole of portraiture – that is, photography of others, especially if they are unaware or unwilling. In portraiture, a photographer establishes a power relation with a photographed subject, putting himself or herself as the dominant figure, with a possible covert desire on his or her part for it to be a decisive moment, for something extraordinary to happen to their model shortly afterwards – in fact, is not a famous person’s last picture before their death considered more valuable, while a photo of their corpse considered somewhat immoral unless used for scientific or medical purposes? Portraitists gain prominence for predicting the future, and oftentimes, a dark future.
And indeed, Mr. Jefferson makes it happen. He literally kills his victims and photographs them as they are dying in an effort to make the moment he captures the most decisive it could ever be. Afterwards, the corpses of his models are buried, they are worthless. As a photographer, he makes the decisive moment happen, taking this idea to its extreme, but showing that indeed, photographers may wish ill to their models – wish which might be inherent to the power relationship inherent to the photographer-model relationship at hand, as Life Is Strange shows it emphatically through Mr. Jefferson and realistically through Kate. In fact, the association of photography and death or murder is commonplace, which leads to the photographer owning his or her subject; Roland Barthes writes in La chambre claire: “on dirait que la Photographie emporte toujours son référent avec elle” (17); Elissa Marder writes in “Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “photography inscribes a death sentence directly upon the body of the subject” (150); Christian Metz writes in “Photography and Fetish”: “Photography’s deeply rooted kinship with death has been noted by many different authors, including Dubois, who speaks of photography as a ‘thanatography'” (Metz 140). The game builds effectively on this idea, as I have attempted to show, and uses it as climax of the narrative.
An additional point I tangentially aim to make is thus that photography can be traumatic, or at the very least, instigate or deepen a trauma, since the act of photography freezes a moment in time, such as the moment before Kate commits suicide which is literally frozen for Max, inevitably making one moment immortal in a framed form, through time and space, not only underlining the moment through the taking of a picture but also constantly reliving the trauma when it is viewed. This discussion has already taken us to the next section: temporality.
I have previously described the very present, grounded act of photographing, particularly true in the case of the instant camera’s photographic process. However, after the process, there is a photograph, which inescapably represents the past and is viewed in the future. Temporality in photography is thus very complex, almost mystical, whence Max’s power. It is very eloquent that Max’s main attribute is that she is a photographer that her superpower is to go back in time – but is not this just a hyperbolic manifestation of her photography? I have begun to argue that the viewing of a photo is a subjective act, and is inevitably posterior to the act of creating a photo, which is itself posterior to that which is photographed, the captured event. This crossing of temporal boundaries comes to define photography itself. Elissa Marder, in her reading of Barthes, postulates: “Photography is ‘magic’ and not ‘art’ because it although it creates the illusion that it functions mimetically, its real power, Barthes explains, lies in its capacity to authenticate the presence of the referent by performing as constative speech act. Photography, he states, is a temporal rather than representational medium.” (155 original italics) Defining photography as a temporal and magical medium makes it all the more interesting in the case at hand Despite the game making a very conscious effort to be entirely realistic, to be grounded in our reality through the use of actual geographical locations (Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; Los Angeles, California) and intertextuality, Max uses a certain magical power she possesses to rewind time. Magical powers are a priori sci-fi or fantasy elements, but as it is but the one extraordinary element of the game, it does not create a disconnect with reality – or actually, not any more than photography does.
Marder advanced that photography is indeed magic. She adds: “In the act of transforming light into skin, photography transubstantiates the body of the referent and transports it through time and space. As mechanical maternal medium, photography has the ability to reproduce a new collective body that destabilizes the separation between past and present, subject and object.” (157 my italics) Therefore, Max’s power appears to stem not from some ethereal, mystical, or genetic sources, but from photography itself. It is through photography that she has access to her superpower. In fact, photography is referred to as her “gift” twice, right before she finds out about her superpower (Figure 12). The game makes Max incarnate the notion of disruption of chronology that defines photography. It is all at once an act of the past, of the present, and of the future. She ends up disrupting and breaking the very notion of temporality through photography, shattering reality, getting lost in timelines. The more pictures she takes, the more picture she views, the more she rewinds, the more messed up time is, as the warning screen states as you start the game. The very present act of the decision-making and of snapshot-taking is thus both oriented towards the future, whether it’s to enter a contest or to eventually report to the police; and necessarily depicting the past and bringing it back to life, giving it a new meaning and use. Photography is figuratively time-traveling, and literally so in Life Is Strange.
The medium of videogame offer new interactive opportunities with temporality. Though time-traveling is nothing new in fiction, the length of the video game as well as the importance of the player mixes temporalities. Wolf, in the same previously cited work, argues: “Cinema rendered time more malleable than it had been on the live theater stage, but the video game presents even more possibilities for temporal structuring. And, quite often, more time is spent with a video game than with individual works in other media” (77) Indeed, Life Is Strange takes approximately twenty hours to complete once (that is, one arch of the storyline, one possible branch of it), which varies greatly from player to player. Indeed, a player may take an indefinite amount of time if he or she wishes to see and do absolutely everything the game offers, going back and forth not only in the narrative of the game, but also in the player’s timeline. A player may indeed ‘rewind’ the game, going back to a previous saved state of the game, erasing any subsequent narrative that is to have happened, but will not – much like Max does in her timeline.
The notion of temporality is crucial in looking at photography’s different roles and purposes. Sometimes, photography is used purely for aesthetic purposes: Max takes a picture for the sake of art, as with the picture used to enter the contest, in some variations of the game (Figure 12); sometimes, to remember something clearly and freeze a moment in time to eventually unfreeze it: Max takes a picture of a critical moment, identifying it as a decisive moment, in order to potentially rewind to that moment and alter the future; sometimes, as evidence: Max takes a picture of a crime scene to later prove something happened, as surveillance – for instance when the player has the option to take a picture of a security officer harassing a student (Figure 13); to identify, such as on the missing person posters that are plastered across the town (Figure 14); as meaningful, emotional tokens, such as the picture of Max’s friend’s mother’s marriage (Figure 15); and so on.
Oftentimes, what was supposed to be purely artistic becomes evidence, and vice-versa, and evidence can prove to be deceptive. The lines are, again, blurred. The game proposes that photography’s different roles are not as clear-cut as they seem. The temporal variation due to regular chronology unavoidably forces a photograph onto a different spatiotemporal and subjective context from its origin – even if the viewer and the photographer are the same person. For instance, the photograph of the lighthouse as seen in Max’s her classroom takes on a slightly different meaning the second time she views it, while the third time she sees something entirely different (Figure 16). The role of “viewing” a photograph, last role of the photographic process that I identified, is ongoing and just as subjective as the photographing. Indeed, she sees a different picture after she has had a variety of interactions with the pictured lighthouse. She projects her state of mind onto the photo.
Let us come back to the idea of transmedial intertextuality I looked at previously – more specifically, at how photographs build. Victor Burgin writes in Looking at Photographs: “The daily instrumentality of photography is clear enough, to sell, inform, record, delight. Clear, but only to the point at which photographic representations lose themselves in the ordinary world they help to construct.” (142) He continues: “Although photographs may be shown in art galleries and in book form, most photographs are not seen by deliberate choice, they have no special space or time allotted to them, they are apparently (an important qualification) provided free of charge – photographs offer themselves gratuitously[, they] are received rather as environment.” (143) There is an overabundance of photographs, so much so that they are at once an inherent part of our daily lives and in the background of them. This is true in Life Is Strange, to a certain extent: the world is built of photographs. The world is photography, showing that indeed ours is as well. And while they are part of the environment, some pictures do stand out, and come to have a particular relevance, acting as pillars of the world constructed by photos.
This is indeed like intertextuality: if there were a very long, exhaustive, gratuitous, and seemingly meaningless amount of photographs that Max and the player could look at, they would lose their significance and get lost in the environment. But in fact, Life is Strange does depict this one side of photography, decorating walls and structures with undistinguishable photos, while underlining some others, fictional or not, that Max and the player get to look at in details, entering a first person perspective, looking through Max’s eyes and hearing her thoughts on the photo. In fact, players actually choose the “look” option on some photographs, actively choosing to become viewers (Figures 17-19).
And necessarily, because of the nature of the game, Max’s interpretation of viewed photos varies depending on decisions taken and choices made, effectively revealing the extent of subjectivity in viewing. This subjectivity in viewing also comes forth in the concept of the photographic off-frame, which we will now move on to.
(3) The Off-Frame
The last concept I wish to discuss in this paper in the context of Life Is Strange is the off-frame, as theorized by Christian Metz, so basically the idea that a photograph extends beyond its physical frame. He explains: “The spectator has no empirical knowledge of the contents of the off-frame, but at the same time cannot help imagining some off-frame, hallucinating it, dreaming the shape of this emptiness. It is a projective off-frame (that of the cinema is more introjective), an immaterial, ‘subtle’ one, with no remaining print.” (143) As just stated, this projective conception of the space around a photograph puts emphasis on the viewer/reader who must imagine and conceptualize that which surrounds the photographed subject – the size and precision of this off-frame depends indeed entirely on each subjective viewer. The off-frame comes to life in Life Is Strange. Max, as subjective viewer of photographs, may rewind back to the time and space of a photograph. In one specific instance, she (and through her, the player) observes a photograph closely, which the players must focus on properly – underlining the active nature of viewing photographs to the extreme: the player must press buttons to zoom clearly on the picture – and then goes back in time to when the photograph was taken, itself a decisive moment. Indeed, this is the last photograph taken by Max’s friend’s father, and Max now has the chance to save him, completely altering the future (Figure 20).
At that precise moment, she may only physically go as far as what she remembers of the space – the living room and the kitchen, which are the off-frame. Interestingly, this scene allows us to conceptualize the limits of the off-frame, its frame. In this sense, I advance that Life Is Strange shows the frame of the off-frame. The player can see, feel the end of the space Max rewinds to. There is the actual frame of a photograph Max uses, then the off-frame of that photograph, and this off-frame then becomes the frame of the virtual space of the photograph, enabled by time traveling linked to Max’s memory. In this sense, Life Is Strange contributes to this theory by showing the very tangible frame of the off-frame as it pertains to subjectivity.
Relatable to the off-frame in photography, the theorist Teresa de Lauretis has developed on a film concept of off-space as “the space not visible in the frame inferable from what the frame makes visible.” (26) A comparison of these two concepts is entirely valuable, and does highlight interpretation in both mediums, but I would rather like to apply it to the medium of videogame. Wolf writes, “the video game, as an interactive medium, often gives the player some control over the point of view, allowing one to choose which spaces appear on-screen or off. Rather than wait for the film camera to show it, off-screen space can often be actively instigated and explored by the player, and in some cases, […] it can constitute a large part of the game play itself.” (Wolf 52) In fact, the interactivity and the varying camera angles, controlled by the player, seem to negate any potentially off-space. Whatever is seen on the screen of a film or on a photograph is clearly limited by a frame, leaving a trace of the cameraman or the photographer’s work, as well as of the camera’s eye. But there cannot be an off-frame without a frame, or an off-space without a defined space – hence Wolf’s using of the term “off-screen space,” relating another concept altogether. Much like Thabet’s concept of co-narration, the player’s input in the medium of videogame is too great to apply film, literary, or photography theory directly onto it.
This then makes me ponder, should this concept be dismissed completely in videogame? I would like to propose a new term as a play on off-space and off-frame: the off-game. Let us simplify these two existing concepts and consider them as the imagined, projective, subjective space beyond that which is materially visible by the viewer, given to the viewer by the artist, such as a photo or a film in their most physical form. Let us also consider that in the contemporary world, photos and videos are oftentimes neither produced nor viewed materially, physically, but only digitally, which does not take away their framed nature. And so, games would have the frame given to their by their artists: that is the entirety of their world, their code. As games such as Life Is Strange create a world in themselves, whose limits are difficult to imagine as the player’s only referent is the player’s physical world, and indeed, it is complicated to locate the limits of our world. The game mirrors our world, is a projection of it. However, as a coded work art, the codes define its very limits. I am left to wonder what in the game is not coded, beyond its codes, but implied through the coding, inferred by the artists but really brought to life, given signification and shape by the player’s subjectivity.
There is indeed one or two element in Life Is Strange, which may consist as off-game, as they are entirely outside of the actual narrative, part of the coding as extradiegetic, optional elements. The first one, slightly less significant, is the “achievements” that are unlocked by taking certain optional pictures, and completing parts of the game (Figure 21).
These do not have any effect on the narrative, they are simply entertaining add-ons, which in fact relate to an additional layer of the roles of photography. While some photos drive the narrative, alter it completely at their taking or their viewing, these pictures are purely aesthetic, bear no weight – they are not decisive moments. Are they indecisive moments? Breaks from the sometimes heavy role of photography? Moments where the player, through Max, is simply having fun, outside of the frame of the game? These achievements, as well as screenshots you make take, appear outside of the game, they are transferred to the game system itself and shared with other players.
The other possible off-game element I consider is the ending of each episode or chapter (the game is separated in five episodes), where two screens appear, comparing some of your meaningful (succeeding in saving Kate; choosing to help a friend who is terminally ill die; stealing money to pay off debts), somewhat meaningful (chatting with a homeless person; going to watch a movie with a friend), and less meaningful (watering your plant; reorganizing photos) actions with the rest of players of the game (Figure 22).
These screens allows the player to see how his or her ethics and morals, projected onto Max’s decisions, compare statistically with all other players with an internet connection. In fact, these two screens can be looked at at any time after the game is completed. The statistics are updated and change as more people play through the game, inserting itself into our timeline. This element thus extends the game far beyond its coding, and it is up to the players to make of these numbers what they will, to interpret these statistics. It is simultaneously part of the game and outside of it, relying on the player’s projection onto Max, and depending on the player’s actual input on the game as well as his or her interpretation, while not being part of the visual and literary narrative whatsoever.
These two elements that I have tentatively coined as off-game succeed in bridging the rift created by the real world and the virtual, fictional world created and presented by Life Is Strange. The game’s world in fact bleeds onto our world, successful through the player’s projection into and participation in the medium of videogame. However, the mere fact that there is an attempt to bridge a rift means that there is indeed a rift. This rift is, for me, the off-game; the space between the virtual world and the real world, the bidirectional links that are created, and the traces left, by the player who brings in elements of his or her tangible world onto the game, and the elements of the virtual world that the player takes with him on his trip back from it, for Life is Strange is indeed a journey.
This concept is a good way to close this essay and bring back a few points I have made throughout this analysis. Videogame portrays photography fascinatingly, shedding light onto a new side of this multifaceted art, if only because of the player’s implication and projection, specific to this medium. Life Is Strange does so more than just any game, mainly due to some of its defining characteristics such as being a “choices matter” game, boasting a photographer-protagonist with the magical/photographic power to rewind, promoting self-portraiture as a tool of agency and subjectivity, and highlighting the variety and depth of photography’s roles. I have attempted to advance a new term, the off-game, so as to express a certain off-frame or off-space in videogame – and Life Is Strange is indeed the ideal game to draw theoretical concepts from, as it is itself theoretically grounded in photography theory, if only through the number of transmedial intertextual references, as I have advanced, but also because the off-frame literally comes alive as virtual space where the player, through Max, (inter)acts. I suspect that the next few years will see a (long-due) growth in scholarly acceptance of videogame as a medium, and while photography will keep on having its limits pushed, it becomes all the more relevant to compare mediums, as they keep interacting, inspiring, and nourishing each other. Much like Cartier-Bresson states in the opening quotation of this essay, he attempts to define photography to himself, rather than define photography. Life Is Strange defines photography for itself, offering its own subjective perception of it as a gift to players, turning them into viewers, photographers, and photographed subjects, allowing them to play these three roles without ever even holding a camera.
Thank you to JonnyJinx and Super Mallow for pointing out the use of photography in Dead Rising and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
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