I’m passionate about learning languages, not only to access the cultural baggage they contain and for the communicative aspect, not only to improve my travelling experiences and to open my mind to new ways of thinking — I could go on and on about the neurological benefits of learning languages — but also, I learn languages as a coping mechanism, as a healing tool.
The benefits of self-expression, communication, and artistic creation in the process of healing from trauma are no longer to be proven and can hardly be understated, and writing comes to mind first. A great number of writers (all writers?) have the urgent, irrepressible need to communicate something in their soul, in their mind, to grab something in there and put it out there. It is very therapeutic. Like extracting a tumour. As such, language becomes a tool for healing. Not so much a medicine per se, as simply using language in any manner is not sufficient in itself. It is more like a scalpel, which needs to be used well and carefully to heal. Language can also backfire and entrap in trauma, as I argue is the case with Nelly Arcan, a writer whose language became her only way out, but ultimately made her go around in circles infinitely, creating a prison out of her literary space. However, I’ve written on this quite a lot already, so for now I would like to raise a tangential idea and push my metaphor further: if (a) language is a tool for healing (say, a scalpel), is learning additional languages giving oneself more tools for healing (say, anesthetics and stitches)?
This may stem from my own introspective thinking, as it is one of my coping mechanisms, and I’ve sometimes found writing in a foreign language particularly therapeutic. French is indeed linked to all my emotions and basic thoughts (I feel in French), while my knowledge of English and German stems from thousands of hours of intellectual work. I don’t feel traurig or hoffnungslos or terrified or aloof. I’ve learned, memorized these words. I’ve thought them through, which means I know precisely the weight each word I use has, which is not always the case in French, where my use is more spontaneous and informed by a certain naïveté. I never actively and consciously learned French. My learning of French (in strictly communicative terms, I have indeed spent a lot of time to improve my mastery of it, but never had to learn it from scratch) did not implicate any choice, any agency.
It can of course be very cathartic to express oneself naturally, without the additional constraints of the intellectual work that comes with using a foreign language, and I often do write in French, don’t get me wrong. But writing in English or in German allows a certain distanciation from the written words. It is not so much a mirror that reflects the state of your soul back at you, but more a product of reflection, not only of content but also of the structure, grammar, and words themselves. This mirror is often that which entraps you in your own trauma, as you keep seeing yourself in the traumatic words that you write. Trauma takes the bigger piece of your literary identity, which, for a writer, is gigantic. On the other hand, writing in a foreign language may help by getting it out there, but leaving it on its own. It is still the productive result of your work and creativity, but there is more distance that allows for a more objective or external look at it. The writing process is also altogether different, involving different parts of your brain, which may or may not be a better healing tool for you. Indeed, just like a scalpel is inappropriate if you have the flu, different tools work at different times for different people, and so I would argue that it never hurts to have more tools at your disposition.
Though I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for Dany Laferrière and his work (though not for the Académie française, I couldn’t care less about this normative, haughty, obsolete, and cliquey institution), a little something bothers me in his discourse about the French language in Quebec. He is very much revered, and rightfully so, as he is a wonderful writer, and so we take his words for irrefutable truth. His statements are never challenged, because an untouchable aura emanates from his eloquence. However, the content of his words need to be discussed. The last two times he attended the political/cultural talk show Tout le monde en parle, the one with the largest audience in Quebec, he has of course reiterated his love for the Quebecois twist to French, but he also stated something along the lines of the problem is not so much in the English words we use and adapt to Quebec French, which makes Quebecois French beautiful, but rather the insidious infiltration of Shakespeare’s language into the structure and grammar. He also added that then, our language becomes a language of colonized people (the English having colonized Quebec/New France/Lower Canada/Canada East). All of this said in a very dramatic tone. That’s indeed a very interesting topic, and it becomes particularly difficult to challenge his statements not only because of his reputation and definite talent, but also because of his own Haitian origins, which he writes about in the very texts that gave rise to his fame. But nonetheless, this idea is one which definitely requires nuancing.
I do consider as well that the English colonized Quebec, but this statement needs to be contextualized and further reflected upon, it cannot simply be stated like this, with all the authority on the matter that he detains, without unpacking such a loaded and emotional concept. First, this implies that French is not a colonizer language. In fact, the reason why there is such a thing as Quebec French is because of French colonialism in the first place. French is as guilty of being the colonizer’s language as English. I do think Laferrière realizes this, but it is crucial to explain this double-colonization that happened in Quebec in order to really provide an understanding of the linguistic, let alone cultural and identity, reality of Quebecois. We are colonized colonizers, and it is not right to selectively pick one of the two in order to make a point.
Second, why this need to make distinctions between “what is right” and “what is wrong” to use from English? Why is it okay if I say “j’vais checker le hood de ton char toute fucké qui est parké chez nous” but not okay for me to say “j’vais visiter ma mère mais j’vais arrêter par chez vous en passant” (instead of “rendre visite à” and “passer chez”). Why does, according to him, the former phrase showcase the beauty of Quebec French, while the latter is the proliferation of colonialism? In any case, both contain a number of language mistakes, but why would he rank them? All these mistakes are in fact due to the infiltration of English into our language. But giving more weight to structure rather than to vocabulary for instance is completely subjective. He argues that we reinstate our status of colonized people, and think like a colonized people, when we use structures from English, without really explaining his point of view. “Thinking,” to reuse his words, requires both structure and vocabulary, and vocabulary is even more important than structure in terms of communication and comprehension. Such a strong statement on his part needs to be better explained and nuanced. I understand this was a talk show and not an academic essay, but all the more reasons to be extra careful with such strong, unfounded statements. I’m open to his idea, but as it is, I’m very resistant to it, for it seems like yet other arbitrary boxes to scold the lower classes that apparently think like colonized people, while “educated” people are apparently free from this.
The metaphor of photography as freezing time has become commonplace, almost clichéd now. A number of scholars have discussed in greater depth the diverse, multilayered temporal implications of photography and of the photographic process, which fascinate me. There is indeed a complex web of perceptions on the matter: photographs carry the past, trigger memories, are testimonies of history; they are stills of a fleeting present, a very precise, almost surgical moment in time, the epitome of presence, the length of a nanosecond; and they take on a life of their own, an afterlife, constantly reinterpreted in the future, creating a metaphysical space with its own destiny. In fact, it appears that photographs exist in and represent all temporal tenses. It comes to no surprise that photography has been described by various scholars in magical, mystical terms: freezing time, necromancy, capturing souls, ghostly images, etc. I wish to develop the idea that it is this crossing of temporal boundaries, the disruption of chronology, that is at the heart of these altogether ethereal metaphorical terms in relation to photography. After all, time is considered as the one major uncontrollable element of life, the one fatality to which all human beings are submitted no matter what — and photography comes to disrupt this trope on which humanity is founded.
Two texts that I have recently read (Blow-Up by Julio Cortazár and Veronica’s Shrouds by Michel Tourmier) depict characters who are upset by having their picture taken, who are deeply shaken by the photographic act. That is to say, these fictional characters are taken out of their temporality, and begin existing in the chronology contained in the photograph, parallel to theirs. The image is ofthem, but it is not them (or taken by them but not theirs), because it lives in its own chronology, and therein lies the malaise of the photographed subject and the photographer alike. The problem lies not so much the photographer, but more so in eventual viewers of the photograph. The photographer is merely a cog in the photographic process which gives another life to that which already has life — but an alien life, because of its other temporal reality. But a photographer always eventually plays the dual role of creator and viewer.
This is of course reminiscent of Baudrillard, who considers the photograph as having a life of its own, not a mere item created by the photographer. I wish to emphasize, however, the importance of the viewer in what I consider the life-giving of the photograph, its “afterlife,” and its chronology. I am reminded here of Elissa Marder, who uses strikingly carnal vocabulary in relation to photography in Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, speaking of it as procreation, as a stillborn, and calling the photographer “midwife to the photographed body,” also stating that “photography is magic and not art.” This fleshly yet ethereal consideration of photography is indeed a paradox which is at the heart of the medium, which also comes forth in the tension between presence and absence that we have discussed. The material at hand is difficult to unpack: a photograph is born yet its flesh is not human, it is both an illusion and a reality (see Baudrillard), much like the language that is used to describe it. Photography disrupts time, and this is why it is imbued with magical, spiritual properties. It is striking that Ivan Vladislavic writes in The Last Walk that “Photography is the negation of chronology” and that there is no “meantime” in photography.
A person, confronted by a photograph of himself or herself, faces a clone — a clone which is inevitably younger, since the act of viewing a photograph is always ulterior to the act of pressing the shutter-release button – and so, the past is brought to life in the present when the photograph is viewed. The viewer is then confronted to a twisted, distorted chronology, where someone that was him but is not anymore keeps evolving, and changing when it is viewed, in the space of the frame, as well as in the off-frame (see Christian Metz, Teresa de Lauretis). The space created by the photograph is thus not only tangible and physical in the space of the photograph itself, but also ethereal in the time and space that it creates. As such, one feels compelled to use a lexica of magic and mysticism. I wish to add my metaphor: a photograph is a spell book. When it is read, it brings about its own world which is unique to the subjective reader. The magical world is still present when the book is closed, which is a physical reality in itself, but its existence is brought forth every time it is read, differently so. As such, the same spell book creates a different, subjective world for every viewer. It also creates a rupture, inevitably disrupting chronology, hence its magic. It relentlessly creates illusions which are nonetheless real — both metaphysically (hence the frame) and figuratively, though more so the latter.
This metaphor becomes productive in the context of its literary qualities. A spell is little more than a poem – Roland Barthes would say (Camera Lucida): a haiku, which is self-contained according to him – but I would rather say a spell, since there are no barriers to the ethereal space created by a picture, despite having clear physical boundaries (the frame), much like a spell which begins with the first letter and ends with the final period, but its purpose is to create an open world in which the reader is brought, “interpelé” as we say in French.
In this case, the interpellation might take on the form of the punctum, where a viewer is struck by a specific element for a variety of conscious and unconscious subjective reasons. Interestingly, Vladislavic’s The Last Walk, literary narrative whose premise in the interpretation of photographs, ends with “Google him.” These two words are a direct interpellation from the writer to the reader. Much like the lady who observes the hung men strikes him on a photograph, he strikes the reader of his literary narrative by addressing him or her, which is, for me personally, a punctum in his text. I had to go and google the Danish explorer. I was struck by this literary moment, which disrupted my own temporal reality in the reading of the text. I was faced with a moment in the text that inserted itself into my own life — like a foreign body inside of my own mind, my own body.
The relationship between literature and photography in the context of chronology, of a discourse on life-giving and afterlife (let us compare the two components of Vladislavic’s TJ/Double Negative which take on a separate life of their own, creating their own parallel chronology) is valuable and fascinating. It is all the more so in photographic novels, where one is presented with both pictorial and textual elements in the same physical frame of a piece of art. Where does one draw the line between the physical and the ethereal spaces and chronologies? Let us think, as a final note, of Faucon’s Chambres d’amour who presents us “rooms of love” in complete disorder (1, 7, 4, 5, 11, 8 and so on), a chronology of its own, already disrupting our chronology as viewer/reader, accompanied by text which states that chambre d’amour 8 is in fact the “première fois” (first time), and some poetry. Text and image contradict, disrupt each other’s chronology while assisting each other in disrupting the reader/viewer’s chronology. In fact, Jean-Paul Michel, in his preface to Chambres d’amour, writes that “toute l’écriture est de la sorcellerie” (all writing is witchcraft). It is, indeed, witchcraft because it disrupts chronology, reinforcing the imagery of photography and the reason for this imagery I have discussed here.
Growing up as a nerdy unpopular awkward teenager is difficult in any time and space, I would imagine. Add “gay” on top of it, and you have the perfect recipe for becoming bully-material. But the perks of growing up in the advent of the internet (the dial-up/early broadband era) was that my internet connection allowed for human connection, beyond the tangible, palpable. My main support network was allowed by my internet network. Enough with puns.
In this day and age, we lament the anonymity of the computer screen. People feel entitled to voice their racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. ideas. Cyberbullying is also a very serious issue — I actually encourage everyone to watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk. But that is just one face of the coin, the one people enjoy talking about, but the same exact thing that can afflict bullied teens can also save them. Indeed, much like bullying extends beyond the classroom, so does support. After spending a horrible day at school, one may find solace in chatting with online friends, their real support network. That was indeed my situation. For someone with serious body image issues, online is the real way to connect with people, as fake as some people claim it to be. It is connection beyond the image in a world overwhelmed by images, it transcends the body. The friendship is based on written words alone, which is a beautiful thing, considering the depths of the conversation you can have without the barrier of the image and the difficulty of speech for people with social anxiety or simply shyness.
As well, the online medium allows for the complete reconstruction of one’s identity. Popular discourse likes to bash its apparent masking of identity. But is wearing a mask lying about oneself, or an act of agency towards the appropriation of oneself? I very much think it is the latter, and it is the main point I make in a forthcoming published academic publication. Without going into the 25 pages of details I provided in my paper, the creation of an online persona is not a lie, it is a work-in-progress, an eventual truth. Indeed, my online coming out prepared me for my real coming out, my online social circles helped me create my own in real life, and the many skills I’ve acquired online, from writing to community-building skills, all transpired in my everyday life. There is also something to be said about ostracized people forming communities on the margins of society. The cyberspace allows for the destruction of the whole idea of space. Borders do not exist — only time zones do. The language barrier is still there, but the written language masks it better. A best friend you talk to every day could in actuality reside in India. We are now accustomed to these notions, thanks to Skype and other apps, but it was truly groundbreaking as I grew up, and generated lot of skepticism and incredulity around me.
I was 12 when I joined my first online community (back when message boards were in vogue), and have remained extremely close to some of the friends I made there, talking to them almost daily, which is more than most of my real-life friends — not because I like them more, but perhaps because our whole relationship is based on our online communication, so “keeping in touch” isn’t a concept that exists in the context of our relationship. I never leave the cyberspace no matter where I move to or travel to, so I never leave these friends for as long as I have an internet connection. We always share the same space. This was always a problem for me, as I’ve led quite a nomadic life, made very many friends along the way but that I always ended up leaving, which makes keeping in touch difficult, as I couldn’t possibly find the time and emotional energy to contact 50 people regularly (it is very draining for me to be so close emotionally to someone and work at this connection online when it was based on real life connection). But that is not the case with my online friends, because we’ve never had this physical, bodily proximity. I still sincerely care for all the friends I’ve made in any time and space, and it is not a lack of love for them that makes keeping in touch difficult, but rather too much love which puts me in a spot where contacting them online underlines our distance, which hurts. However, I’ve already gone off-topic with this idea, so I might eventually write an article about this.
I love you, you love me.
We’re a happy family.
With a great big hug
And a kiss from me to you
Won’t you say you love me too?
Family is a concept I’ve always had difficulty to grasp, despite it being so basic, so fundamental to the way our societies are built. How on Earth are people that you’ve never met or chosen supposed to be the most important people in your life? Why do we have so much pressure to like, let alone love, people that are imposed to you? Why are we relentlessly taught to love our family unconditionally? Everyone has a family, from the best, most generous people, to the abusers, the criminals. And sometimes, which is even worse, your family is the best to everyone around them except to you.
I would dislike my brother if he were not my brother. In school, we would have had the typical jock-nerd clichéd relationship. We have no common interests, very different values. We talk a few times a year, always in the context of family reunions. It used to make me very sad, as I grew up, to see the big brother I always looked up to become close to a stranger. But as an adult, I now see him as this person with whom I have very cordial relations. Someone I care for from afar, an acquaintance. My efforts to get closer have been in vain, so now we have a semi-neutral relationship. But this is okay. We’re two persons that, due to circumstances out of our control, were born in the same household. Why would our mere genetic similarity make us de facto very close, when our personalities are not? I do envy some of my friends who say their sibling is their best friend, their dad is their hero, their mom is their role model, their aunt is like a cool big sister, their grandma spoils them with food and affection, and their grandpa is a source of wisdom and courage, and such stereotypes that seem to come from everyone around us.
All of these idealizations and protection of one’s family at all costs as I understand them are rooted in a long tradition in most (all?) cultures, if only for the survival of our species and our lineage. But haven’t modern times shaken up these concepts enough to rid us of the constant pressure of fitting into the familial mold society enforces upon us? Is family as a concept outdated? In fact, isn’t the mere fact one may adopt destroying our conception of family? — That is, taking a stranger with no biological relation to you as your own child, on the same exact level as a biological child. And if “family” can be so broadly defined as to include strangers, what does it mean? Is there even a signification to having a family if a sibling can become a stranger but a stranger can become a daughter? If, as some common usage suggests, we can call very close friends “family,” then is family an entirely subjective concept, coming to have a different meaning to any individual, and so being void of any a priori value?
I launch these questions up in the air without any answers as I fail to really comprehend it all. Right now, I feel as though family strictly speaking is only hurtful insofar as, much like the American Dream, it is an unattainable ideal, the pursuit of which makes us suffer. And much like other normative concepts, our conception of family further marginalizes, victimizes, and stigmatizes individuals who are farthest from this ideal, usually for reasons that are entirely of their control. The more obvious forms of this are victims of incest and child abuse, who face even more difficulty in denouncing their perpetrators because of the notions of family that are embedded in society and in our legal systems. But they also makes it harder on a daily basis for those that were abandoned, orphaned, mistreated by relatives, reminded of their pain day to day from the age of 5 by the simple questions of “what do your parents do?” that follow us until death, and having to either lie or create a malaise, and by the recurring holidays from Mother’s Day to Christmas and Thanksgiving in which society forces guilt upon us for not loving our family enough or not being thankful for having relatives who treat us poorly.
As I was going through my files of texts I’ve written over the years to see if any of them should be reanimated by Dr. Krabby, it occurred to me how the older the text was, the more shameful I felt reading it. It is a common feeling that any artist or student has, I imagine, to feel that way about past work — because, obviously, we’re so much better than we were. Are we really, though? Does this sense of shame, of a sort of Fremdschämen towards another Self, not anymore recognized as one, really stem from we being so superior to who we once were? Of course, we are in constant change. We are shaped by our experiences, but do these make us objectively better at our art? Not at all: just think of the art you prefer. Very often, I like a singer’s first albums more than their later ones (e.g. Adele), a theorist’s first ideas rather than their latest (e.g. Judith Butler), a writer’s first texts (e.g. Amélie Nothomb). So why would I see a progress in me that I do recognize in others? When critiquing others, we do not consider their progress as artists, the growth in the mastery of their skills, we simply consider different styles, variations, artistic directions taken. There is a clear rift between the art and the artist that we see in others. We recognize our own subjectivity in saying “I personally prefer Romeo and Juliet over Hamlet,” without implying that Shakespeare got worse with time, and without considering that his writing skills should have improved.
So why are we so different? Are we narcissistic in thinking we’re so much better than our past self, we evolve so much, but when it comes to others, it’s a non-variable? Why are we ashamed of our own past work? Aren’t we hypocritical in almost always preferring our own latest work, while we almost always do not prefer our favorite artists’ latest work? I’m simply thinking out loud here, but to answer my own questions, I wouldn’t say hypocritical per se, and not quite narcissistic, but lacking perspective, navel-gazing. We always see our own improvement in what we do because we know exactly the amount of time and energy that has gone in any piece of work, without thinking of the life the piece of work we created has. Once something is out there, it’s not ours anymore. We try to control everything we create like possessive parents, but much like kids, the work of art is out there on its own. We are responsible for its content, but not for its reception. And without any reception, we are doomed to be both the performer and the public, and we’re a terrible public, in that we are unable to see the work only for what it is, we see the work we’ve done. We see a mirror of ourselves. And so, when we view a piece of art that was created by what seems a different us, we feel shame not because of the piece of art itself, but because of the artist we once were. The mirror is reflecting a different person who is supposed to be us, but is not. I don’t think it’s fair to be ashamed of ourselves, because it’s not so much that we lacked experience and skills, but that we were in a different time and space, a different emotional, mental, and physical state which gave rise to a piece of art we would not create today. We have to learn to see our own art for what it is: art. Not our art, it does not belong to us anymore. We also need to stop focusing so much on improving constantly, because that perpetually sets impossibly high standards, and because it is simply not true. We gain more knowledge and skills from which our art benefits, but that does not de facto make our art better to every single individual that receives it, because they also come with their own baggage and will interact with our art differently than we do. Fear not: your skills are improving, but this isn’t about you. It’s about all of us as individuals.
I do not wear the poppy. I feel guilty and shameful for not doing so and therein lies the problem. There is a problem when not wearing a symbolic pin makes more of a statement than wearing it, when local shops and restaurants all sell the same pin that gets thrown to the garbage every year so that people can buy it again the following year — basically, when the State implicitly forces its members to mourn strangers with a tangential capitalistic, imperialist, and wasteful component. Let us remember British journalist and newsreader Charlene White who has faced racist and sexist abuse for not wearing a poppy on-screen, and that many people in the UK have been arrested for burning poppies.
The poppy is a pin people wear in the Commonwealth in the few weeks before (and often after) Remembrance Day to honour the victims of World War I. I would first like to raise the question: until when will we commemorate these people? Considering all of them are deceased, and many of their children are as well, when will we stop mourning these people as a nation? At this point, aren’t we just mourning idealized, semi-fictional people? Turning people into heroes as a state effort to align its people behind them? In fact, there is nothing romantic about the war. This is not something we should strive to turn our young men and women into. The people that were forced to fight are not heroes, they are victims. Victims of their heads of state that play chess with them in an unquenchable thirst for power.
By guilting us into wearing the poppy, into admiring victims, the State, as our ultimate patriarch, is telling us boys to look up to our fathers and walk into their steps — steps that It forced them to walk into. It is telling us what real men are and what we should strive to become. By refusing to wear the poppy, I’m not disrespecting our men and women that died on the front, on the contrary, I’m refusing to obey to the implicit order of grieving them, in order to respect people who truly should grieve them. Grief shouldn’t be used as a political tool, as something that people must forcefully flaunt. Columnist Dan O’Neill wrote that “presenters and politicians seem to compete in a race to be first – poppies start sprouting in mid-October while the absence of a poppy is interpreted as absence of concern for the war dead, almost as an unpatriotic act of treachery,” while in the past, the poppy was only worn on Remembrance Day itself. Poppy-wearing becomes shallow, void of the emotional baggage mourning is supposed to bear, and becomes used by the capitalistic State to control the masses. It is an insidious tool that society has internalized, its members surveilling each other to make sure that everyone is falling in line, mourning and admiring the same unknown dead people. It is indeed an Ideological State Apparatus, as Louis Althusser would call them. The State sells poppies with one hand and guns with the other. It preaches remembrance one month of the year but wages wars the other eleven. Attention is indeed distracted from current geopolitical and economic crises when we (pretend to) remember events from a century ago.
It is out of respect for the humanity of each fallen individual that I choose not to buy a poppy, for mourning is not meant to be flaunted, forced, or marketed, but subjective, much like any healing process. I do not want to appropriate this symbol when none of my close relatives have fallen in the war. Individuals may indeed find solace in the unity of this mourning, so I do not criticize people who wear the poppy, as most of them only see it as showcasing respect, much like holding the door for someone behind you. But the process itself has rotten over the years, and some people perpetuate this forceful grieving by imposing a manner in which one should grieve, and grieving is indeed entirely subjective. Two siblings affected by the same death of a parent may heal in opposite ways: one by wearing a poppy and relishing into beautiful memories, one by not wearing it and moving on as fast as possible. It isn’t up to society or the state to impose a way, or to impose grieving. Showing off your grief doesn’t make you a better person. It might help you heal, which is entirely legitimate, so do not feel bad if it helps you personally to commemorate. But do not perpetuate this silent (or not so silent) shaming of people who don’t wear the poppy. They are not any less respectful than you are. Some might be even too hurt to want to show it openly. And please understand how it is used as political tool if you decide to wear it. You might not personally see it as such, or may wish to disregard this aspect of it, but people who do not wear it are not doing so out of disrespect, on the contrary, they don’t wanna appropriate your grief, they have too much respect for it, while also making a statement against its use as an Ideological State Apparatus. Lest we forget but lest we be distracted from the actual catastrophe of warfare and manipulated into remembering strangers.
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 DeadRising (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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The advent of new media and technology has brought in the fascinating field of internet studies. Much at a similar time, another new media appeared in the entertainment and visual field: video games. Much neglected by scholars, video games are nonetheless very heavy in semiotic and visual meanings, and can be considered both as a reflection of and for its effect on society. For being at the artistic crossroads of music, literature, and visual art, very much like cinema, video games are endlessly analyzable, whether through semiology, discourse analysis, psychoanalysis and any other method of analysis of visual culture. The context and audience, however, is quite different from that of movies. The first main difference is that characters in video games are played. The player becomes the protagonist and controls his or her very actions. The player is made the master of the narrative in which he or she is immersed. This brings Laura Mulvey’s argument in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema that cinema forces viewers into a position of voyeur to a whole new level. Not only is the player a voyeur, but he or she controls the object of his or her gaze. He or she decides how the character moves, what it eats, how it fights, how it drives, whom it loves, whom it kills, and even if it lives. Mulvey argues that the power dynamics in cinema inevitably perpetuate a male gaze that is much hurtful to considerations of women as agents, as subjects rather than objects (11-12). Is this the case in video games, in light of the control the gazer has on his or her object of gaze? I wish to analyze here if this necessary agency of the voyeur shifts the gaze in video gaming, and if so, how? To answer this question, I will take a look at female characters in a long-standing video game series: Super Mario. Tangentially, I will ponder how best to analyze video games as visual media.
First of all, it is necessary to split video games into categories, for video gaming is a broad field. Much like cinema, one should not pretend to speak for all video games at once. Using Discourse Analysis I as coined by Gillian Rose in Visual Methodologies, one could split video games into their genres (e.g. fighting games, role-playing games, horror games), into their graphic style (e.g. anime, realistic, minimalist, dark), into the protagonist they use (male, female, animal), and so on, all of which would be quite relevant for the subject at hand. Using Discourse Analysis II, categories could be video game companies that make the games (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony), or the gender and age of targeted audience (children, teenagers, adults), and so on. That is to say, Discourse Analysis I would focus on the content, on the interpretation of the visual images themselves, while Discourse Analysis II would rather look at the institutions that produce and market them, as well as the audience. There are indeed many ways to discuss this matter, all of which are relevant. Many of these categories will be equally considered in the present analysis so as to provide a multi-layered and broad – though not pretending to be all-encompassing – analysis of one particular character, as well as to highlight the specificity of the video game media.
In this particular case-study, I wish to take a look at female depiction of the most famous princess in video games: Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom. Super Mario Bros. (1985), created by the Japanese company Nintendo, one of the very first games in home video gaming systems and certainly a pioneer in the platformer and adventure genres, showcases Mario, an Italian plumber, who goes on an adventure to defeat Bowser, a giant dinosaur-like turtle, who has kidnapped his belle, Princess Peach. The player thus takes control of Mario in a very classical ‘save the damsel in distress’ plot. The damsel in distress trope is nothing new, whether we think of fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty), movies (King Kong), comic books (Superman), literature (Goethe’s Faust), and so on. It is in fact the driving narrative of much of the artwork that has come to be central to Western cultures and define us as people. Now heavily criticized by feminists, who very rightfully argue that such narratives reinforce the position of women as weak objects longing for a man to save and possess them, the damsel in distress is still omnipresent in our society, and the video game industry is no exception, on the contrary.
It is nearly impossible to understate the influence of the Mario franchise. It has spawned over 200 individual video games, and it is valued to be worth over $10 billion US. It has totalled 856 million sales worldwide, and is the best-selling video game franchise of all times. Having made its way in many Western homes starting in 1985, it has come to define a generation and represent the main entertainment of millions of children and teenagers. It has entered private households by the hundreds and continues to do so. In fact, the video game industry as a whole, particularly the Nintendo company, and the Mario franchise even more so, targets a young market. They are simple games, with an equally simple narrative: saving the damsel in distress. The simplicity and centrality of the damsel in distress, added to the fact that this franchise is immensely lucrative and targets children internationally, makes it all the more relevant to analyze. It is not a coincidence if so many fairy tales, often told as bedtime stories, are about pretty princesses being saved by strong men. The simplicity of the damsel in distress narrative appeals to children. Let us look closely at the character in question.
Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom’s appearance is almost always the same throughout almost 30 years and over 200 games. She has a very virtuous and distinctively feminine appearance, reminiscent of English nobility: a pink Victorian dress that covers the entirety of her body, long white gloves, earrings, big blue eyes, pulpy lips, blond hair, a pale complexion, and a crown. Her static visual representation is already quite evocative. Her femininity is emphasized, almost exaggerated. Visually, she fits all Western beauty standards. It is notable that a Japanese company would appropriate what is close to a caricature of femininity from the West in order to indeed market to them. Even her voice fits her overly feminine, vulnerable character. She has a soft, high-pitched voice. In the first few games of the series, where characters were not voiced, the only thing she could be seen to say is “HELP!” on every level selection screen.
Her sole role is to be captured by the antagonist, and to be the goal of the game. At the end, she rewards the player with a kiss, and the game ends. Therefore, the only two things that are emphasized about Princess Peach is her femininity and her helplessness, the two playing on one another and being inextricably linked. In fact, she is helpless and an object exactly because she is female, and she is female because she is the object(ive) of the game. The hero would have no reason to save her if she were not female, for she would not be his love interest in the first place. The whole narrative is centred on her being an object. Moreover, Mario games are completely linear, moving from left to right, leading directly to the woman as endpoint. She has no agency. She is merely a conclusion, an end to which the means amount to the narrative of the game.
One can also apply Freud’s concept of scopophilia to this franchise, as well as Mulvey’s theory of the female in cinema. Building on Freud’s concept, Jacques Lacan argues in The Mirror Stage that certain moments of seeing, and particular visualities, are central to the formation of sexuality and subjectivity (290). Children and teenagers therefore use visual elements to define their sexuality and their subjectivity, their identity. They are particularly sensitive as they are developing their own identity, and ‘looking’ is a central tenet of identity-building, as argued by Lacan. Having previously shown the importance of the video game industry and particularly the Mario franchise, this inevitably also underlines the paramount role of the characters in such games in creating gender constructs. Mulvey has shown this in film theory, but I argue that video game is no exception: it is actually even more influential. In fact, it specifically targets children, and specifically boys, as many studies have shown that boys tend to play more video games than girls. This therefore suggests that Mario games contribute to the male gaze, targeting young boys and already ingraining them with the idea of the woman as weak and as object. Furthermore, I argue that this is further emphasized by the very idea central to video games of playing – that is to say, players control the character and really become him or her. They do not only watch it act and associate with the characters, as shown by Mulvey, they are forced to make it happen. Althusser’s concept of interpellation, as brought up by Sturken and Cartwright, explains how viewers are made to recognize themselves and identify with the ideal subject offered by images” (73) is taken even further. Viewers become players (as well as being viewers), they take control of the narrative and save the helpless woman in actuality. Children of all genders, when playing these games, are empowered only insofar as they take on the role of the man. Children save the weak woman. The effect of the male gaze is, I argue, exponentially increased in video games. The Mario franchise, as I have shown through its content and its outcome, thus contributes, with its prevalent and overemphasized damsel in distress trope, to the harmful gender constructs in society.
On top of the elements reminiscent of cinema, there is also a way to relate a video game analysis to television. James Hay associates television with the idea of privacy, of the domestic sphere. In fact, video game systems hook up to televisions, so the setting is quite often the same, in the sense that they are played at home, in private. They become part of the (neoliberal) household, much like television. Interestingly, though, unlike television, video games are quite overlooked by adults. Video games become an inherent part of the children’s lives at home, often without the interference of their parents, influencing freely on these children’s process of identity-building.
Therefore, many aspects of video games can related to cinema, while some others to television, while many aspects are also unique to them, such the agency involved in playing, and the targeting of children and teenagers. So, even if television and cinema scholars offer many avenues for the analysis of video games, the latter are not a hybrid of these two, but something distinctively different which deserves particular attention – especially since it targets the most vulnerable and easily influenceable age group. Voices have arisen to criticize the violence in video games, but therein is not the real problem, I argue. Such games are rated by the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board), and retailers do not allow their sale to children and teenagers, unless a parent is present and consenting. Violence is therefore not readily available in video games. Harmful gender constructs, on the other hand, are omnipresent and extremely pervasive, especially since they are not considered as much. Princess Peach is not considered as harmful in any way, shape or form, on the contrary, but I argue that she – and I am using her as scapegoat for the whole phenomenon – causes more damage than violent video games could, for instance. Parents actually give Mario games to their children, and no one sees anything wrong by the gender roles therein, and so these games become part of these children’s education. The situation has not changed in any way: Princess Peach is still portrayed the exact same way that she was almost thirty years ago. There is a clear lack in video game scholarly work and critical thought, which leads to many misconceptions and obliviousness. As technology develops, gender roles (as well as other social constructs) take on new representations, and this is definitely seen in video gaming. With the advent of the Wii and the Kinect, which allow the player to actually move in reality and the character on screen executes the same movements, the agency I was explaining earlier takes on new layers of interactivity and control. As well, much of video gaming has now gone mobile, following us everywhere. Some games even have interactions with the outside world, such as an inner clock, a movement detector, a light detector, and so on.
If anything, I hope to have shown the urgency to dedicate attention to the ever-growing video game industry and its latent yet immense role in children’s identity- and sexuality-building process. Cinema theory and television theory both provide fruitful concepts to analyze video games with, but they also take on a unique dimension of their own. With new technologies being constantly implemented without the proper critique that comes with it, companies are infiltrating private households and educating children through video games. An analysis of Princess Peach, the ultimate object of the most famous video game franchise, has shown that this character perpetuates very harmful patriarchal ideas and gender constructs, and will apparently continue to do so, as it has for the past few decades.
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