A young boy goes off traveling the world by himself, meets people that will change him forever, and comes back home wise, grown up, mature. If this sounds like the premise of Pokémon, it is also that of a whole literary genre, the Bildungsroman. And while the latter exudes respectability and artistic legitimacy, the Pokémon series is little more than a childish toy to most people’s eyes. I beg to differ, naturally. I will try raise a few parallels between the literary genre and the Pokémon video games, and see how the latter may even take it further.
The Bildungsroman goes back to the end of eighteenth century, with Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. A few works of German literature then drew inspiration from the eponymous character’s epic quest of self-awakening and psychological growth, and later, it spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, it may well be responsible for the still popular coming-of-age story in books, movies, and TV shows. The premise of the Bildungsroman is often a decision made by the protagonist to leave and embark on a journey without a specific goal or end date, sometimes caused by a major rupture at home. In the case of Wilhelm’s Lehrjahre, he cannot stand the bourgeoisie anymore and he goes off to do what he truly wants: to be an artist (specifically: he joins a travelling theater troupe). While this is very clichéd today, the Bildungsroman is at the origin of certain of these tropes. In the sequel, his Wanderjahre, the travelling, the different spaces, become the central part of his journey. This is in fact reminiscent of the subsequent travel literature. Travelling as trigger of personal growth is nothing new.
It is in this context that I feel like Pokémon inscribes itself perfectly into the Bildungsroman genre. The player becomes the protagonist who embarks on a long journey of growth and awakening. All Pokémon games put an emphasis on travelling from one city to the next, as the map shows, where the hero encounters a variety of mentor figures (mainly professors) and helpers (Pokémon centres, allies), as well as challenges — namely, gyms which serve to track the progress, the growth of the hero as a trainer, the core of his identity. Identity which relies on his or her ability to breed, train and utilize fictional pets. The protagonist/player is expected to learn as the game goes along, the same way that his or her Pokémon learn and grow alongside him or her. The Pokémon’s growth is made obvious by the leveling up system (an actual numeric representation of growth), by abilities that are learned (much like learning skills, mastering trades), and emphasized by evolutions (and in some cases, mega evolutions), where the Pokémon actually grows in size, age, strength, and gains a more mature look — like growing older. They sort of hit puberty, much like the protagonist himself/herself does. Both Pokémon and trainer hone their skills. These Pokémon are thus much more than pets: they mirror the protagonist/player’s growth. A symbiosis happens, which is all the more emphasized by the addition of mega evolutions in Pokémon X and Y, where the trainer and the pokémon reach a paroxysmal point of intense synergy, which triggers a hidden ultimate form in the Pokémon.
So while cities and gyms are milestones and give tangible rewards for the player and his or her team’s growth, the heart of the games themselves is the in-between cities. That is to say, the various unnamed “routes” that link precise areas. The spaces in-between is where the growth happens: Pokémon are caught and fight here, the vast majority of the times. Much like in the Bildungsroman, the cities provide a space of interaction with others, but the character’s growth happens in the travelling itself, the act of leaving these cities and going elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is doesn’t matter so much. In fact, it is in these in-between spaces that the player has the most freedom, while cities offer more or less a checklist of things the player must do in order to move on once again. The player may choose to fight and catch as many Pokémon as he or she wishes, go back and forth indefinitely, and thus, gauging how much growth his Pokémon — and himself/herself — experience. Cities are where the growth is put to the test, and also a pause between travels where the Pokémon may rest and heal. Bildungsroman also portrays cities as tests of the hero’s mettle. It is where he or she encounters the Other in all its frightening glory, must interact with other human being who inevitably (often implicitly) challenge his or her morals, ethics, decision-making abilities, and wits, among other traits of personality.
The transposition of the highly human(e) characters of the Bildungsroman onto fictional creatures in Pokémon is an interesting one. It allows for a less overt, more relatable, more playful way of emphasizing growth and important decisions-making as part of maturing. In fact, Pokémon could be seen as a fairy-tale-like allegory of the Bildungsroman in video game format. Much unlike a great number of video games, the end goal is not focused upon by the narrative or the gameplay per se. While there is a high number of elements that track improvements (number of Pokémon caught, their levels, number of badges, number of opponents defeated, items found, money acquired, etc.), the ending of the game is never really the end. You do not ‘beat the game.’ The end is when the player decides to stop playing, in which case the game itself is not finished, but the player has decided to stop his or her growth, which could practically be endless.
This is indeed taking the Bildungsroman even further, as books as a medium do not allow the same endlessness as video games do. It is however interesting that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister spans over two books, and ends with “to be continued” despite never having been continued. I interpret this as a certain future-oriented gesture at human growth which never truly ends. Wilhelm could keep growing until his death, and so the possibility of a sequel was always open (keep in mind this is way before the epoch of the Harry Potter and Twilight era, as well as the Marvel and DC era, where sequels and prequels and side stories keep coming up).
What makes the video-gaming appropriation of the Bildungsroman fascinating is the player involvement. I have discussed this at length in other entries so I shall not restate my points, but the mirroring of the player and the protagonist (who is himself or herself a mirror of his or her Pokémon) may create a certain infiltration of the game’s ethos into the player (who of course infiltrates the game clearly through the decisions he or she constantly makes). I would argue that the growth experienced by the protagonist through his travels and his Pokémon is simultaneously experienced by the player. Therein lies much of the nostalgic power of Pokémon: the generation of players that grew up with Pokémon feels very tied to the games which instilled the sense of growth present in the games into the players. The creatures, the protagonists, and the players all grew alongside each other, with each other, and caused each other to grow (the influence goes back and forth between all three poles).
This becomes even more fascinating in the case of Pokémon GO, not only because it capitalizes on the nostalgia for the Bildungsromanesque growth its players experienced with the Pokémon games, but also because of its medium. In fact, being mobile (and thus following the player absolutely everywhere), this player/protagonist identification is taken to its extreme. The very space of the game becomes the player’s space, using an actual GPS-powered map tracking the player/protagonist’s movements, becoming his or her movements. Virtuality becomes a layer of the player’s physical space, merging with it, like the player and protagonist merge. The player becomes the hero of his or her own Bildungsroman, or Bildungsspiel (game of formation), as I amuse myself to call it.
Postmodernism, if reduced to three words, is defined by Jean-François Lyotard as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” Not unlike poststructuralism, postmodern works have sought to deconstruct, delegitimize, put under scrutiny long-standing claims of truth by society – such as patriarchy, capitalism, and religion, for instance. Such master institutions, considered by many as natural to humanity and society, clearly become harmful social constructs, used to preserve a status quo which benefits the people at the top of said society, when put under a postmodern magnifying glass.
Scholars and critics of postmodernism turn first and foremost to literature as an expression of this movement, whence much of its theory stems. Fewer critics have sought to highlight postmodernism in cinema. But only a handful have looked into postmodernism in gaming. Without pondering over the eternal yet outdated – can we move on? – debate of video games as art, their legitimacy in academia is very much just sprouting.
The past five to ten years have seen an incredible rise in so-called indie games – games developed by a relatively small team (or even one single person), rather than by a huge corporate team of thousands. Without disregarding mainstream games, a free artistic approach is de facto much more prevalent in indie games, privileged over a consumerist or business-minded intent. Let us think of a few gems such as Braid, Fez, Bastion. Of course, as with anything, the line between indie and mainstream is (and should be) blurry, as highlighted for instance by mainstream-ish games such as Portal and Child of Light, both ascribing to a very much artistic approach. Or even games such as The Legend of Zelda, Silent Hill, and Mass Effect, which are sort of Gesamtkunstwerke in that their many pieces of art (the soundtrack, the storyline, the animations, the cinematics, etc.), already powerful separately, come together, creating one gigantic piece of art. In fact, I am absolutely not trying to raise a dichotomy between art and business, or between indie and mainstream, this would be quite ludicrous with the postmodern approach I am taking – let us remember: the postmodern ethos is to fight such normative boxes. Everything is and should be a spectrum, its own category which it creates through its existence. Lyotard wrote of the encouraged proliferation of “small narratives”; the destruction of globalizing, forceful, constraining boxes, in order to promote everyone’s individual story, the self-construction of their own identity, and their own willful association in small groups. I am not either trying to place artistry under the realm of indie games, and entertainment under that of mainstream gaming – again, such divisions are silly: good art is entertaining, and good entertainment often has artistic quality to it. However, the reason why the bringing up of the concept of indie gaming in this discussion is pertinent is because of freedom of expression. Rather than being the result of a huge team of developers, some of which have a full time job taking care of just a tiny aspect of one game, such as lighting, designing doors, voicing a character, or sound effects, indie games are the result of the vision of one single person or very few people (relatively speaking), who take charge of many aspects of one said game, their voices creating a choir. In so doing, they convey a vision through their game, a vision which doesn’t stem from a boss ordering employees what to do in a very top-down hierarchy inherent to a great number of harmful metanarratives. This is what makes some indie games relevant when discussing postmodernism, more so than mainstream ones. Not coincidentally, this is why I brought the corporate issue in mainstream games; money and its inherent power dynamics have not played the same role in the making of The Binding of Isaac and that of Call of Duty. They do not obey to the same market-driven driving forces. These economic power dynamics, which are central to the creation of some games, are tenets of capitalism and corporatism, which are naturalized by Western society, and which are sought to be deconstructed by postmodernism due to their latent harm and constraints.
One major goal of postmodernists, as literary critics such as Linda Hutcheon, Barbara Havercroft, and Janet Paterson have advanced, is to destroy existing norms which limit identity-building in oppressive social institutions. This destruction can involve, for instance, an appropriation of these metanarratives in order to show their ridicule and lack of legitimacy (see Hutcheon), the repetition of these metanarratives with variations or disruptions (see Havercroft), the underlining of the harm perpetrated by them (see Paterson), among many other processes. A major postmodern writer is Angela Carter, who, for instance in Bloody Chamber, appropriates canonical characters from Baudelaire, and even the writer himself, rewrites their stories, and gives a voice to the voiceless characters. The perspective is turned around: main characters and heroes become weak and helpless, damsels in distress become heroes. Anne Garréta appropriates the timeless iconography of the Sphinx, major in Western culture and society, and challenges the equally timeless notion of gender. Her protagonist is neither (both?) male nor (and?) female, and so is the object of her/his/their desire, challenging the readers themselves who come to see gender as a riddle to be redefined, rethought over again. Another writer, Nicole Brossard, criticizes literature through the dismantled use of that medium, through the fragmentarity of her writing – the disruption of preconceived notions of time and space that have stuck to the literary institution seemingly forever, as embodied in all of its Western canons. Expectations must be shattered: they are instilled by an age-old institution which dictates what is and what is not literature – an institution, paradigm of society as a whole, which decides what and who has value, and what and who does not (as a writer or text in literature; as a person or identity in society).
Can some of these postmodern tools of deconstruction be found in video games as well? This is what I attempt to see. There are games which contribute to redefining what is a game. There are games which do look away from what has been done and is being done; persons or teams developing their very own game in their very own language. There are also games which point toward or outright appropriate elements of past games, turning them around completely. There are games which satirize, parody socio-cultural elements. There are games that openly exhibit a strong critical and political component. And so on. I do not attempt to survey all postmodern aspects of games but rather create, through postmodernism, a tiny fissure in the shell of video gaming that has preserved it from much academic, theoretical, and philosophical discourse.
The main game that interests me is LISA. In fact, this is the game that inspired this discussion in the first place. The premise is set in a post-apocalyptic society reminiscent of a decadent, desperate, destructed Western society. This type of setting isn’t unusual for postmodern works. This is the setting in which men (solely men) interact in a gruesome manner. They are constantly drunk, depressed, obese, wounded, monster-like, wage war against each other, exchange “magazines” and weapons. They are constantly on the verge of death. The art has a grotesque quality to it which becomes the norm for all characters in the game – the player does not cringe at the sight of Queen Roger, a transvestite pimp; of Carp, a half-fish half-man; of Birdie, a drunkard; of Fardy, a shirtless, obese, depressed truck driver. These characters in fact join your party, come to be controlled by the player, are heroes essential to the player’s success. A new norm is created for the game’s universe, one which is very far from what the player is used to in the usual RPG virtual world – he or she does not control black mages, paladins, and archers, as (stereo)typical of RPGs, but rather, grotesque versions of people in his or her real world, confronting him or her with distorted versions of his or her reality, or ones that are completely nonsensical (such as Geese, a goose who speaks in rhymes). LISA is a parody of RPGs. It actually brings up actual elements of society and turns them around, for instance when a non-player character dramatically says “I like big butts… They cannot lie…”reminding us of a popular song, but imposing it a new context completely, or when there is a retake on the Power Rangers with the Salvation Rangers.
More emphatically, one area of the game consists of a village of worshippers of a fast food God. There are “W” signs made of fries (the inverted “M” sign of McDonalds), characters that are obese and starving, and that pray to an intercom as in a drive through, begging for food. The particular scene involves a child asking for food. Then, magically, a meal falls from the sky. Just past this intercom are two bodyguards that refuse access to everyone, safeguarding the “God,” who is in fact Wally, a suicidal, twisted mascot whose intestines are all over the place.
McDonalds is the prime example of a multinational capitalist and harmful corporation that deals in something as basic as food and that is anchored in most of the world, incorporated in and naturalized by many societies. LISA expresses an all-too-clear criticism of the restaurant, depicting it as a false God who slowly destroys an entire population that reveres it. The way the criticism is constructed as well as the object of critique are very postmodern: through clear and poignant appropriations and deconstructions, LISA destroys a metanarrative’s legitimacy, emphasizes the harm it perpetrates, and turns it into its paroxysmal caricature, parodying it.
The protagonist himself is always on the line between hero and anti-hero, never quite one or the other, and the storyline forces the player to make difficult ethical decisions. The prime example is when the player must choose to let the protagonist get his arm cut off or let a party member die permanently.
This brings forth the fascinating issue of morality vis-à-vis success. In fact, the player must not only make a choice accordingly to his or her own morality and conscience, but also in terms of gaming logic. Being the protagonist and a fist-fighter, losing an arm is a very heavy drawback that decreases the player’s rate of success highly in all future fights, while party members are quite numerous and somewhat dispensable – though the disadvantage of losing one must not be neglected, particularly if said member happens to be one which the player has fought much with, and thus is strong, has good items, and has leveled up. So, on the one hand, the player must weigh the pros and cons of both the moral and gaming elements of various decisions, but also weigh morality and gaming logic themselves. This process, whether conscious (actually measuring pros and cons) or subconscious (following one’s gut instinct and desire), is one which engages the player himself or herself with the game and with himself or herself. The reflection is not merely one which happens fictionally in order to complete a game, but happens in the player’s actual reality, bringing forth questions of morality. At one point, the game even forces the player to play Russian roulette with a party member of his choice (and eventually more), again killing them permanently, pushing this engagement with the game and with morality even further.
I personally couldn’t bring myself to kill some of the characters I like, namely Terry and Geese, simply because I like them and want to see them develop further, despite them being rather weak. Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to kill some of the stronger characters either, which I deem crucial to my succeeding the game, despite me finding them bland or boring. In The Art of Failing, Juul debunks the idea of games as purely fictional, as creating their own distinct world away from reality, highlighting the engagement of the player with the game, his or her need to succeed (the phrase “it’s just a game” is just a way to cope with failure). This blurring of the line between reality and fiction, between self and the Other, between the virtual and the actual, is quite postmodern. LISA is constantly engaging the player in its virtual world, while also using his or her own actual world morality, and emphasizing his or her agency through the presentation of difficult, heavy choices. The game is more than just a game. It opens a rift between reality and virtuality – though all games do, LISA does so in a particularly engaging manner, involving both logic and emotions.
The game opens with a flashback – one which the player controls – of Brad’s, the protagonist, childhood. A traumatic one, to say the least. Throughout the game, the present timeline is disrupted with various flashbacks of his abusive father, his bullies, and his finding of a little girl. In fact, memories seem to mesh with not only the present but also with Brad’s imagination. At the beginning, for instance, exiting a room randomly triggers Brad’s father’s apparition, holding the baby girl that Brad found and leaving it on the ground, until the player, as Brad, goes to her and picks her up, taking us back into the present. And so, three timelines are intertwined and made to interact, in a postmodern moment which is actually the protagonist’s imagination as the timelines do not cross per se in reality. They are, however, Brad’s reality as he experiences it – his traumatic experiences follow him in the present and taint his reality. And not only are they Brad’s reality, they are also the player’s reality, since he or she controls Brad even while he is imagining. It is also interesting that LISA challenges notions of first and third person in gaming. Though the player controls Brad in the third person, he or she sees through Brad’s eyes. His hallucinations become the player’s hallucinations, for instance when Brad is high on “Joy” (the infamous drug in LISA, which I could also go on about) and the player controls Brad walking in a discoloured world of blood, and also when the player sees the numerous appearances of Brad’s daughter hung, which has never happened but is only Brad’s fear, scattered through the game.
His imagination, his trauma, and his fears materialize in tangible manner in his world and in the player’s. The unusual way in which third and first person perspectives mesh in the game pose a challenge to these very clearly defined notions in gaming. These postmodern techniques of breaking away from the mold provide real, meaningful insight into the protagonist’s mind, who is obsessed with finding his adopted daughter (the purpose of the game) and his own tormented childhood, of which his father is the embodiment. Finding his daughter is an act of agency, Brad reclaims his past through fatherhood. The baby’s gender is of course central to the narrative, as she is seemingly the only woman left. Brad’s goal is to protect her no matter what, against all of society (or what is left of it) – even against her will? Even if it means the end of humanity? And so, Brad is a hero from one standpoint, but completely evil from another.
LISA plays on this blurry line, and ultimately puts the player in a position to judge himself or herself the hero. He or she must use his or her own judgment, without the game imposing its own morality, which is very postmodern. The concepts of right and wrong are, after all, informed by metanarratives such as religion which have come to be naturalized by society and imposed as norms. Both LISA and postmodernism (attempt to) break free from these, making the reader/player hyperaware of his or her own morality that is being involved in the narrative. The game forces an informed introspection and reevaluation of one’s own values.
Postmodernism in video games does appear to me as a valid and legitimate field of inquiry, one which may contribute to postmodernism as a movement. Video games are a medium which offer a relatively new and very powerful sense of agency, if only through the direct control of characters, and so, they can become great postmodern tools of deconstruction, as individual agency is so central to postmodern philosophy. The game developer(s) and the player become conarrators of a narrative whose control is ultimately shared by both of them. And in fact, many games, particularly indie ones, depict such an agency as completely separate from metanarratives and in reaction to oppressive institutions – not only in the narratives that are recounted, but also on a variety of levels in the making of the game which offer a stark contrast with what is the norm in the video game industry. Considering video games as postmodern also builds a bridge between the said industry and other art forms, giving it credibility, depth, and weight. It also imbues it with an additional well-grounded layer of legitimacy in terms of carrying social and political critiques. Indie games in particular highlight the subversive potential of video games, coming from a position of relative artistic and economic freedom, thus not obeying to direct orders and constraints.
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.
Barthes, Roland. La chambre claire: Note sur la photographie. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.
Booth, Paul. “‘Harmonious Synchronicity’ and Eternal Darkness: Temporal Displacement in Video Games,” in Time Travel in Popular Media: Essays on Film, Television, Literature and Video Games, ed. Matthew Jones and Joan Ormrod. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2015. 134-148.
Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs” in Thinking Photography. London: MacMillan, 1982. 142-53.
Cartier-Bresson, Henri. The Decisive Moment. New York: Simon and Schuster, in Collaboration with Paris: Éditions Verve, 1952.
Kristeva, Julia. “Problèmes de la structuration du texte,” in Tel Quel:Théorie d’ensemble. Paris: Seuil, 1968. 297-316.
Lauretis, Teresa de. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1987.
Marder, Elissa. “Nothing to Say: Fragments on the Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Psychoanalysis, Photography, Deconstruction. New York: Fordhum UP, 2012. 149-159.
McAllister, Ken S., and Judd Ethan Ruggill. Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2011. Print.
Metz, Christian. “Photography and Fetish” in The Photography Ready, ed. Liz Wells. 138-145.
Pont, Simon. The Better Mousetrap: Brand Invention in a Media Democracy. London: Kogan Page, 2013.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks, LLC, 2005.
Sukla, Ananta Charana. Art and Experience. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
Thabet, Tamer. Video Game Narrative and Criticism: Playing the Story. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Wolf, Mark J. P. The Medium of the Video Game. Austin: U of Texas P, 2001.
Camera Obscura. Anteater Games, Anteater Games, 2015.
Dark Cloud. Level-5, Sony Computer Entertainment, 2000.
Dead Rising. Capcom Production Studio 1, Capcom, 2006.
Donkey Kong 64. Rare, Nintendo, 1999.
Dyscourse. Owlchemy Labs, Owlchemy Labs, 2015.
Life Is Strange. Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix, 2015.
Spelunky. Mossmouth, Mossmouth, 2013.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Nintendo EAD, Nintendo, 2003.
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.
Hay, J. “Unaided Virtues: The (Neo-)Liberalization of the Domestic Sphere.” Television & New Media 1.1 (2000): 53-73.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. London: Taylor & Francis, 1990.
Miyamoto, Shigeru, and Takashi Tezuka. Super Mario Bros. Kyoto: Nintendo, 1985. Software.
Miyamoto, Shigeru, and Takashi Tezuka. Super Mario Bros 3. Kyoto: Nintendo, 1988.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. N.p.: n.p., 1975.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. 3rd ed. London: SAGE, 2012.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford ; New York: Oxford UP, 2001.
Alzheimer’s Disease and amnesia are terrifying prospects, demons lurking in the shadows that could strike at any time, time bombs that explode on entire families. However, nonetheless counter-intuitive, is it productive or even possible to turn the perspective around and see memory loss as an opportunity, an open space of agency and re-growth? Video games offer an altogether less negative outlook on the topic.
Fictional and autobiographical works of art have sought to provide a perspective on, if not an understanding of, memory loss and Alzheimer’s whether it be through Alice Munro’s forgotten husband in The Bear Came over the Mountain or the diligent Harvard professor in the film Still Alice. As valid works of art in themselves, video games also depict memory problems dramatically, shedding light on highly personal accounts, sometimes fictionalized, sometimes biographical, often both. However, there are some specific elements of the medium itself that inevitably render its depictions of memory and lack thereof differently from literature or cinema.
This paper aims to provide a fresh insight into the theme of memory loss by exploring it through the lens of video gaming, an art form still looked down upon by more conservative academics despite its obvious and growing importance in society and in general artistic consumption. I will draw out a few concepts in videogaming that I deem to be relevant in the study of memory. I will then exemplify these concepts and explore the theme at hand in some video games. This will hopefully help not only in furnishing the fan of cultural expressions of memory with one of its components, but also further our philosophical, personal, and conceptual reflections on memory loss and its impacts.
The most notable feature unique to the medium at hand is its interactivity. 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. The player’s input is indeed necessary for the visual and literary narrative to even take place. Games are indeed initially coded, so the narrative is ultimately constrained by that which is coded – however, the narrative is complete with only a fraction of the visible codes. In other words, much like a reader of a “choose your own adventure” novel, players have a certain level of agency (which varies incredibly from game to game) in the narrative that goes on – though unlike these novels, video games present a virtually infinite number of variations from playthrough to playthrough, and most games still do present a plot whose beginning and end are the same in terms of plot, but the in-between is entirely malleable. This difference from other narratives is indeed major as the visual and literary world that is presented to the player is one which must be actively explored by her. The narrative is co-created by the player as it unfolds in front of her, simultaneously as her fingers input commands. Her fingers write and draw the narrative made available to her by the developer(s), in a “dance of the hands,” as Graeme Kirkpatrick conceptualizes in Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game. 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, becomes, embodies the protagonist. The movements of the player’s hands (and also her whole body in some recent games) are emulated by the protagonist. They become one another.
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). Indeed, video game is the epitome of activeness in art, which is rendered obvious right away by the linguistic term “player” for the audience of video games, rather than simply “viewer”. To play is to be active, like one plays a sport or plays a role. But this activity is interactivity: there is not only an interaction between the player and the developers in order to narrate the game, but also between the player and the protagonist of the game. In fact, in an ever growing number of games, players get to choose an impressive number of elements of the protagonist, from their hairstyle, their voice and their favorite meal, to their race, their gender, and their sexual orientation. Does the protagonist become the player or does the player become the protagonist? This is indeed a very big, multilayered question, but in the context of this paper, I will stop this train of thought at the idea that player and protagonist are a (more or less blurry and distorted) mirror of each other, a product of the interactivity inherent to videogaming.
The notions of co-narration and of interactivity, as they pertain to videogame, take on a notable significance when exploring the themes of memory and memory loss, I advance. There is undoubtedly a cognitive element in videogaming which relates to mental work associated to memory, though this is beyond the scope of this paper. It is nonetheless worth noting that Gazzaley Labs at UCSF have developed a videogame, Neuroracer, which is intended to fight the aging of the brain in older adults, and so, dementia and memory problems. But beyond these player-centred cognitive mechanism, videogames offer a rich perspective and treatment of the theme of memory itself.
Let us first take a look at To the Moon, a game published in 2011 by Freebird Games. The game follows two so-called memory doctors, whose work consists of changing and creating memories, as they attempt to change a man on his deathbed’s memories in order to fulfil his last wish to go to the moon. To do so, they travel to the physical space of his memories, which the player and the protagonists freely explore, solving puzzles, to first and foremost figure out where the desire to go to the moon is rooted, and then to make changes to a series of memories that would make him truly believe, right before his death, that he was indeed an astronaut that set foot on the moon..
The narrative thus seems to follow the same stages of Alzheimer’s disease, that is, in reverse chronological order until the patient’s death. The protagonists are timed, as they must find a way to make him go on the moon before his death; before his complete loss of personality, pointing towards retrogenesis itself, but actually living his retrogenesis, becoming it through the entering into the space of his memories in reverse chronological order. His state in fact deteriorates the further the doctors regress into his childhood. As Tadié underlines in Le sens de la mémoire, personality does not survive the destruction of memory, citing Alzheimer’s as case in point. And, as the game progresses, the man forgets absolutely everything except his desire to go to the moon. This is how the game presents itself as an allegory of Alzheimer’s – or at the very least, as loss of memory with old age, as regression. The most interesting part however is the role played by the doctors, and by extension, the player. Memories are considered as malleable, much like identity, and so it comes down to the player to shape the memories and so the identity – and thus, the player’s own identity, as we have considered earlier the characters to be mirrors of the player. Memories become not only a figurative but also a literal space of reconstruction of the self, as they are themselves reconstructed by the protagonists/player.
In fact, videogaming as a medium seems obsessed with memory loss. This seems without a doubt linked to the previous ideas of interactivity, co-narration, and immersion. Role-Playing Games such as Breath of Fire and Final Fantasy initially present protagonists which are memory- and identity-less, blank canvases of sorts, which allows for the player’s input. This has in fact become a trope, a cliché. These games, and even games such as Pokémon, often open with a black screen requesting the player/protagonist to input her name on a keyboard. This name is then used throughout the entirety of the game. Right away, the player must name her character, the pivotal element of the narrative, a clear act not only of agency, but of player-protagonist identification. The game screen becomes a mirror, but an active one, in that it requires the player’s input, unlike that of a film. Following this, a more or less long series of questions are to be answered and input by the player, which will affect the very narrative which is created by the player and her (desired) identity or persona. This concept is taken to the extreme in online games, where interaction with other players are made through the created character. What these amnesiac protagonists ultimately highlight is that, though their lack of memory is often very much a curse, it creates a space of re-creation. The recovery of memory becomes the premise, the quest of these characters who are embodiments of the player, so rather than seeking to recover a blank character’s memory (coded as such by the game developers), these games are actually about the creation of a new identity by the player, who, let us recall, co-narrates them.
My preliminary conclusions are that, on the one hand, videogames may succeed in depicting with emotional depth and breadth Alzheimer’s and memory loss, as To the Moon does, while still retaining a certain optimism towards them which seems to be embedded in the medium. In fact, videogame protagonists’ shaky memory is not presented as a void, a black hole that sucks everything in of the patient and her environment, a time bomb, but rather as a blank space – a crucial difference. Identity is not destroyed: it is given the opportunity to re-create itself. And in fact, the medium itself does so in actuality to players, not only through the aforementioned Neuroracer and the likes that are truly offsetting the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia, but also through the creation of communities that allow for a constant redefinition of oneself, a space of agency and appropriation of one’s identity. So, not only does videogaming become relevant in the present context as artistic practice, consumption, and representation, but also as a scientific tool and as a catalyst of identity-construction.
Thanks go to pinko commie queer bastard for letting run a few ideas by him, and for inspiring some points.
(This article is to be continued. The bibliography will be added.)
Selon les données de l’Association Québécoise de Prévention du Suicide, trois Québécois s’enlèvent la vie à chaque jour, pour un total qui varie entre 1000 et 1700 suicides par année depuis au moins 1996 seulement au Québec, dont 15 à 25% de jeunes hommes âgés entre 15 et 29 ans. Au-delà des chiffres se trouve un drame humain, un fléau social qui frappe les familles et les cercles d’amis tel une bombe, et en effet, un seul suicide serait un suicide de trop. Un parallèle semble se dresser entre la démographie des plus à risque de suicide et celle des consommateurs de jeux vidéos. Une grande partie de l’industrie vidéoludique a effectivement les jeunes garçons et hommes pour public cible. Étant donnée cette relation particulière, une question se soulève d’elle-même : de quelle façon les jeux vidéos traitent-ils le suicide?
Constamment critiqués de parts et d’autres comme étant violents, abrutissants, misogynes, et nous en passons, les jeux vidéos gagnent progressivement en crédibilité depuis les cinq à dix dernières années comme forme d’art légitime en elle-même, souvent apparentée au cinéma. Les programmes universitaires de video games studies ouvrent, les théoriciens s’y attardent, les neurologues et scientifiques en général y voient le potentiel pédagogique et même médical — on analyse les jeux vidéos de plus en plus, non seulement sous la loupe de la psychologie et de la sociologie, mais aussi sous la loupe de la critique artistique, littéraire et cinématographique. C’est à la convergence de ces deux mondes que nous aimerions positionner notre étude du suicide dans les jeux vidéos, en travaillant à la construction d’un pont entre les disciplines. Il s’agira en amont de présenter quelques notions théoriques uniques au médium en question qui serviront de cadre, particulièrement la co-narration, l’immersion virtuelle, la physicalité du jeu et la résolution de problèmes, menant tous à une forte identification du joueur avec le protagoniste, puis de relever quelques exemples de jeux vidéos où le suicide joue un rôle explicite et central.
Parmi les jeux vidéos à l’étude figurent Fire Emblem Awakening (2013), Heavy Rain (2010) et Life Is Strange (2015). Notre hypothèse initiale est que, de par le lien puissant entre le joueur et le personnage, unique et inhérent au médium du jeu vidéo; ainsi qu’impliquant de façon directe la subjectivité et l’agentivité du joueur, les jeux vidéos sont de facto imbus d’une sensibilité particulière envers le suicide. Ainsi, les jeux à l’étude rencontrent le suicide, y font face et s’affairent non pas à le combattre directement tel que le ferait une campagne de prévention du suicide, mais à le traiter avec humanité et profondeur, ce qui a l’effet de forcer le joueur à y réfléchir, à vivre et à confronter le suicide à travers un personnage qui est un reflet de lui-même.
Il convient de souligner d’emblée la position particulière dans laquelle se trouve le joueur d’un jeu vidéo, qui ressort ne serait-ce que par le terme “joueur” pour désigner le public de cette forme d’art. L’acte de jouer, nécessaire au déroulement du récit littéraire et visuel, engage l’activité et l’implication explicite, non passive, du joueur. S’il n’y a pas de joueur, il n’y a pas de récit, contrairement au film et à son spectateur ou au livre et à son lecteur — d’où le concept de co-narration que Tamer Thabet théorise dans Game Narrative and Criticism. C’est ainsi que, selon Thabet, les créateurs du jeu partagent la narration du récit avec le joueur, ce qui modifie donc inévitablement le récit. La subjectivité de chaque joueur entre donc en ligne de compte dans le produit fini qu’est le jeu, résultant en une expérience individualisée, dont l’épitome est le “choices matter”, genre vidéoludique auquel nous reviendrons dans notre étude de Life Is Strange et de Heavy Rain.
Cet élément de co-narration est donc unique au jeu vidéo, mettant de l’avant le caractère immersif du médium en question, que Graeme Kirkpatrick s’affaire aussi à souligner dans Aesthetic Theory and the Video Game, s’y prenant toutefois sous l’angle visuel plutôt que littéraire. Le théoricien avance que l’espace-temps présenté au sein du jeu vidéo reflète celui du joueur. Il souligne l’importance de la manette comme instrument donnant accès à l’oeuvre d’art, la créant, tel un danseur recréant une chorégraphie. Il insiste d’ailleurs sur cette idée de “danse des mains” (quoique maintenant la technologie permet au joueur d’utiliser son corps en entier), où le joueur offre une performance physique afin d’explorer et de créer le récit visuel à l’écran, mettant ainsi en relief l’unicité de l’esthétique du jeu vidéo.
Ces composantes d’implication du joueur contribuent également à son identification aux personnages, généralement au protagoniste. Une variété de théoricien se penchent sur cette identification, dont Mark Wolf qui avance que, pour résoudre les casse-têtes et les problèmes présentés par le jeu, et ainsi pour faire avancer le récit dans une direction ou dans une autre, le joueur doit momentanément penser comme les créateurs du jeu, adopter leur façon de penser. Le joueur doit devenir le personnage. Jasper Juul qui insiste également sur l’idée de réussite au sein du jeu — au-delà de l’identification affective avec les personnages, le jeu force le joueur à réussir afin d’avoir accès au reste du récit, et donc à penser comme eux, ne serait-ce que pour ne pas échouer. Il y a donc un besoin stratégique d’empathie.
Tous ces éléments — donc la création constante d’un récit partagé par le joueur et les créateurs, l’implication mentale et physique du joueur dont les mouvements mêmes sont transposés sur le protagoniste, et l’aspect ludique forçant le joueur à penser différemment, à sortir de son propre corps — contribuent non seulement à immerger le joueur dans le monde virtuel présenté, le faisant devenir protagoniste, mais également à donner au joueur le pouvoir de modifier le monde virtuel qui lui est présenté, de transposer son monde réel dans le monde virtuel. Le protagoniste et le joueur sont donc un miroir l’un de l’autre; leur monde respectif, la virtualité et la réalité, interagissent et s’entremêlent dans l’espace-temps du jeu vidéo.
Il s’agit donc maintenant de s’attarder à quelques exemples mettant en scène le suicide afin de confirmer ou de nuancer notre hypothèse initiale et que le cadre théorique choisi semble suggérer — c’est-à-dire que les jeux vidéos, de par leurs caractéristiques uniques, proposent une représentation riche, sensible et frappante du suicide, qui touche d’ailleurs particulièrement leur public cible. Notre étude ne se veut pas du tout exhaustive, nous souhaitons privilégier une certaine brièveté afin de voir trois exemples qui se recoupent tout en présentant quelques éléments qui divergent quant à la représentation du suicide, qui joue somme toute un rôle central dans les trois récits.
Le premier jeu, Life Is Strange, se déroule dans un collège américain fictif d’une région toutefois réelle, mêlant savamment fiction et réalité, mais se voulant toujours le plus réaliste possible. Il s’agit d’un jeu choices matter, où le joueur doit prendre des décisions souvent déchirantes, tel que choisir entre deux personnes, décider de débrancher ou non une amie souffrante en phase terminale, voler ou non le fusil d’un vendeur de drogue qui menace la protagoniste, etc. En fait, les innombrables décisions s’accumulent et modifient le récit. Le jeu est donc un arbre avec toutes ses branches, qui culmine en une seule feuille — et donc le récit est entièrement différent d’un joueur à l’autre selon une variété de dilemmes moraux et éthiques auxquels il fait face, guidé par sa propre subjectivité — il n’y a pas dans ce jeu de stratégie afin de “réussir”, il n’y a pas, objectivement, de mauvaises décisions. On ne peut pas perdre et devoir recommencer le jeu, on ne peut que regretter les décisions prises.
Max, la protagoniste se passionne pour la photographie, et préconise la caméra instantanée ainsi que l’autoportrait, qu’on appelle communément “selfie”. Sans entrer dans les détails, le jeu ouvre une certaine discussion sur l’agentivité reliée à l’acte photographique — on suggère que l’autoportrait est un acte d’agentivité, de prise de contrôle de soi et de son image, contrairement à la photographie traditionnelle qui inclue une dynamique de pouvoir entre le photographe et son modèle, le photographe “capturant”, transformant le sujet en objet. On associe l’acte de photographier à l’acte de tirer, de tuer, plus évident avec le terme “to shoot” en anglais qui a les deux significations. C’est ainsi que Life Is Strange impose cette vision au joueur à travers son protagoniste, qui vient à l’incarner, ce qui est renforcer par la caméra qui adopte la première personne lors des mouvements contrôlés par le joueur, où on entend les pensées de Max. Il y a donc une interaction fascinante entre protagoniste et joueur, où ce dernier doit transposer ses propres valeurs dans le personnage lors de la prise de décision.
Sautons tout de suite à ce qui nous intéresse aujourd’hui : le suicide. À la moitié du jeu, l’amie de Max se suicide ou tente de se suicider, ce qui influe grandement le reste du récit (incluant des scènes de deuil, des visites au cimetière, etc. si elle meurt; et des scènes à l’hôpital, chez elle, et plusieurs dialogues avec elle si elle vit). Il en revient au protagoniste/joueur de la sauver ou non… le résultat dépend entièrement des décisions prises jusqu’à ce point, et des options de dialogue privilégiées sur le toit, lorsqu’elle s’apprête à sauter.
Ce qui est le plus frappant, au delà de la justesse et de l’émotion autour du drame (qu’elle ne se suicide ou pas), c’est que le monde dans lequel Life Is Strange immerge le joueur en est un où celui-ci a le plein contrôle du récit, où il a un contrôle sur tout ce qui se passe, ce qui atteint son paroxysme dans la scène du suicide (ou de la tentative). En effet, le joueur est pleinement conscient que ses actions auraient pu empêcher ce suicide s’il se produit. Life Is Strange fait bien attention à ne pas culpabiliser la protagoniste, mais il est intéressant que l’on présente le suicide comme évitable, sensibilisant le joueur à ce que le monde autour de lui vit, forçant une certaine empathie et une réflexion afin d’éviter cette situation, ainsi que de trouver quoi dire et quelles décisions prendre si la situation se présente dans le monde réel. On voit ici une interaction claire entre virtualité et réalité, causée principalement par l’interaction joueur-protagoniste.
À l’antipode de cette agentivité se trouve Fire Emblem Awakening où la soeur d’un des deux protagonistes se suicide — il est intéressant de noter qu’elle se suicide de la même façon, soit en sautant, ce qui est peut-être une imagerie claire et dramatique, mais plus douce, moins graphique, puisqu’on peut voir le saut mais pas l’atterrissage. En fait, le jeu présente au joueur/protagoniste le choix de sauver Emmeryn, mais ce que le joueur ne sait pas est que peu importe la décision qu’il prend, elle se suicide. On se doit aussi de noter que la série Fire Emblem est connue pour son degré de difficulté élevé en ce que la mort est permanente. Quand un personnage meurt, il ne revient jamais, il est absent pour tout le reste du jeu — la seule exception est dans le cas des protagonistes, où leur mort cause la fin du jeu et l’on doit recommencer. Donc, non seulement le joueur doit-il, dans la mesure du possible, protéger tous ses alliés afin de réussir le jeu, un certain attachement se crée avec eux, puisque leur vie a une valeur particulière. Ainsi, de présenter le suicide inévitable d’Emmeryn alors que dans tous les autres cas la mort, habituellement par combat, peut être évitée grâce au joueur, est particulièrement complexe. On accorde une finalité à la décision d’Emmeryn de mettre fin à sa vie, alors que dans les cas où d’autres menacent de la tuer, on peut les en empêcher. Bien que le jeu offre au joueur d’essayer de la sauver, c’est impossible. Fire Emblem Awakening continue donc la même question : le suicide est-il un acte d’agentivité? Oui, selon ce jeu, mais de la part de la personne qui le commet seulement. Dans le premier cas, Max se sent coupable de n’avoir pu empêcher le suicide, s’il se passe, mais ici Chrom ne peut se sentir coupable car il a essayé mais n’a pas réussi à la sauver, c’était impossible dans le monde virtuel du jeu. Sa mort était inévitable au sein du récit : il s’agit donc de la narration des créateurs du jeu, et non de celle du joueur, ce qui rend le suicide comme particulièrement dramatique, puisque seul élément hors du contrôle du joueur.
Rapidement, nous aimerions parler de Heavy Rain, un autre jeu choices matter reconnu pour non seulement son aspect immersif, mais aussi pour la lourdeur de ses thèmes. En effet, la prémisse est la mort de huit enfants noyés par un criminel, et les effets sur les familles qui les entourent. Le jeu ouvre de façon anodine mais justement renforçant l’objectif de clairement forcer le joueur à incarner le personnage, en le faisant se raser, se brosser, les dents, se laver, en émulant avec la manette les mouvements du personnage. Comme Life Is Strange et à l’opposé de Fire Emblem Awakening, ce sont les décisions du joueur qui mènent ou non au suicide de deux personnages. Le jeu est reconnu pour ses nombreuses fins et, en effet, le protagoniste se suicide de deux façons différentes dans quelques unes des fins, soit par pendaison ou par balle. Ce qui est unique jusqu’à maintenant est que dans Heavy Rain, c’est le personnage incarné par le joueur qui se suicide, donc le joueur lui-même, ce qui complexifie l’identification avec lui. Cette fois, au lieu d’être la personne endeuillée par le suicide d’un proche, le joueur voit le dommage créé par son propre suicide virtuel.
Ce qui ressort de ce survol rapide de la représentation du suicide dans trois jeux vidéos est d’une part la profondeur, la maturité et la richesse artistique que le médium permet, qui peut étonner certaines personnes qui se servent de jeux vidéos particulièrement violents et controversés comme référence pour généraliser, ce qui serait en fait comme utiliser les magazines à potins pour parler de littérature. En fait, il est évident que les concepts uniques au jeu vidéo auxquels nous avons jeté un bref coup d’oeil engendrent cette représentation bien particulière et nuancée du suicide, de par son caractère immersif et de par l’implication incomparable du joueur, de sa subjectivité et de son agentivité. Il est clair, dans les trois cas, quoique de façon différente, que le suicide n’est absolument jamais gratuit, bien au contraire, il constitue LE moment clé du récit co-narré par le joueur et les créateurs du jeu, et dans tous les cas, on insiste sur l’étendue du drame en instillant de l’empathie chez le joueur qui est amené à incarner une personne vivant le suicide.