A little while ago – a couple of hours before a trip and desperate for something to read – I found myself frantically searching through the limited English section of a local bookshop. After looking at all the options – and amidst plenty of cursing myself for leaving it until the last minute, given most of these options were utter shite – I eventually left with (what I hoped were) the two least shite (least Sophie Kinsella-ish) options. One of these was Thirteen Reasons Why, and only after checking Goodreads later did I discover that a) it was “Young Adult” (which, unfortunately, is a ship that’s long since sailed in my case) and that b) Thirteen Reasons Why is actually taught in some schools in the US. In terms of a) I didn’t really find this a noticeable problem in the end (which perhaps says a bit about my reading skillz!?), and regarding b) after reading it, I certainly understood why it might’ve been seen as worthwhile covering some of its themes in high school classes.
Anyhoo, fast-forward a few months and I notice that Netflix have gone done made a TV version of Thirteen Reasons Why, and as much out of curiosity as anything else, I went ahead and watched it. As I did so, two things struck me; the first was that this is definitely one of those “the book was miles better” doodahs, and the second – more interesting one, I think – was that many of the exact themes and motifs of Thirteen Reasons Why are actually done better in a Video Game. Because you’ve probs read the title of this piece, you’ll likely have already realised that particular game is Life is Strange. Furthermore, because of this, and because of the whole “taught in schools” thing, it followed logically that, actually, there’s a case to be made that Life is Strange is totally worthy of being included on the curriculum too. A Video Game. In school!! Who’da thunk that, eh!?
To be fair (and partly because a lot of teachers have grown up with Games, I suspect) there actually are plenty of examples of (really cool) teachers incorporating Games into their teaching, and many have realised the value of, and therefore utilised, Gaming’s interactivity, systems, logic etc to demonstrate various things across varied subjects – from Minecraft to Portal – and it is, I think, a great endorsement of Gaming in general. However – and why this case is different, I feel – is that there’s an argument that, in a mostly like-for-like comparison, “old media” (in this case, a book and/or TV programme) is considerably less successful than its pixellated counterpart, and precisely because that Game is, in many ways, far, far superior to the alternatives. I don’t expect for a minute anybody from an education board will be reading this, obviously, but I’ma make the case for Life is Strange being a much better example of what Thirteen Reason Why tries to be anyways. Because like, my blog, iniit!?
If you haven’t read or watched Thirteen Reasons Why, the brief [*spoiler free*] precis is this: following a girl’s suicide in high school, a bunch of her classmates receive a box of audio tapes (13 sides in total – hence the title) from her, which lay out the reasons (see again: the title) for her choosing to end her life. Taken together, the tapes outline a sequence of events, which all interconnect and overlap, and which ultimately highlight that how we choose to treat each other can have cumulative, profound and often unforeseen repercussions. Given the high school setting, and given it features a lot of well-trodden themes (bullying, cliques, general teenage angst etc), Thirteen Reasons Why falls somewhere between “everyman teenage chronicle” and “cautionary tale”, with a heavy emphasis on, like, trying not to be a dick to other people.
For sure, that’s all laudable and shit, and it’s not the worst attempt in the world, but I just felt like it could’ve been a lot better. I mean, the book’s written well enough, has a bit of emotion and whatnot in there, and I think it mostly manages to get its point across without being too preachy or moralistic, but it just didn’t really hit me right in the feelz, and I certainly didn’t come away from it profoundly changed as a person. Sure, I’m a little bit dead inside, but still…..
And the TV series is, I think, even less successful, and for various reasons. To start with, and most likely in an attempt to stretch a 300 page book into 13 hours of TV, 13 Reasons Why (see, the TV programme uses the number 13 in its title because, like, the yoof and that, innit!?) crams in a lot of “present day” stuff that’s just not in the book, and it all ends up taking the show further into high school melodrama territory. What was, in the book, a fairly solitary listening to of some tapes becomes, in the TV programme, a focal point for some really rather clichéd high school dickwad-ery, and all the nuance and grey areas of the book get blown-up in a parade of stereotypes and pantomime villainy. By the end of its 13th episode, 13 Reasons Why had become just another in a long list of by-the-numbers, lazily written, overly formulaic and ultimately quite forgettable High School Dramas, with all the subtlety and nuance of a punch in the face. From a bear.
Which brings me to Life is Strange. I positively adored Life is Strange – I made no secret of that fact in my review – but I adored it precisely because I think it managed to deal with many of the subjects T/13RW does, but much, much more successfully. In fact, to use the technical comparative unit, Life is Strange is a fucking fuck-ton more successful.
Some of LiS’s advantages come from the fact that it is a Video Game, for sure – particularly in that it can take the best elements of the written word, and the best elements of live-action TV, before finally wrapping them both up in an extra layer of interactive goodness – but that’s not the only thing working in its favour. Or, perhaps more accurately, by understanding and harnessing these very advantages, Dontnod’s Life is Strange manages to become something genuinely outstanding.
By “writing” exceptional characters, populating the world of Arcadia Bay with them, then allowing you explore it all as the game’s protagonist, Life is Strange became absorbing in a way that’s hard to achieve with just passive media. That said, though, Life is Strange also managed to augment the story they were trying to tell with plenty of collectibles (i.e. old-school reading) – and by having Max read and investigate the world on this deeper level, Life is Strange also managed to overcome the ephemeral nature of TV programmes and films, and tell a much subtler, more affecting story than 13 Reasons Why managed to tell. So, from a medium point of view, Life is Strange is, I think, streets ahead not only because of the advantages of interactive narrative, but because it’s a great example of a Developer harnessing those advantages, and fully utilising (and building upon) them in order to create empathy; ultimately allowing it to deliver its message in a much more profound and powerful way.
Where 13 Reasons Why (both TV show and, to a lesser extent, book) fell back on clichés and archetypes, Life is Strange managed to subvert them, presenting an altogether more nuanced examination of human behaviour, how we relate to each other, and the cumulative effect of our interactions. The whole “Rewinding Time” mechanic in Life is Strange is ostensibly included to pry pertinent clues from Max’s interactions, sure, but it also allows the player to explore the immediate impact of her actions: perhaps that throw away comment isn’t taken the way she thought it would be; maybe Max choosing not to respond to a bitchy comment with a more bitchy comment provides a little glimpse into a particular character’s own personal demons and a chance to break a particularly vicious cycle of escalation. Because in Life is Strange you’re actually playing as Max, and are yourself a part of Arcadia Bay’s population, there’s a sense of ownership to your actions – a feeling that you, and everyone else, are part of a delicate ecosystem of interactions and cascading consequences, and it’s impressive how this element gradually becomes a huge factor in your playthrough.
Indeed, I said in my review that:
“it wasn’t necessarily just about choosing the “right” [Conversational option] for me, or that I wanted a particular ‘consequence’ further down the line, it was that I actually cared about how they’d impact upon the world I was fully invested in”
….and that was a significantly different feeling than I had watching (and reading) Thirteen Reasons Why. Again, some of that “invested” thing is obviously more pronounced in a Video Game than it is in a book or TV show, but my investment wasn’t just because I “was” Max, it was also because Dontnod had put a lot of effort and skill into creating characters that you could, and would, care about and empathise with.
Returning to my review, I also said:
“Life is Strange doesn’t specifically go for the trite, by-the-numbers approach to eliciting tears from its audience, and you’ll likely be affected because you’re already emotionally invested in the story and its characters. Not the other way around. That might seem insignificant, but it’s not; and it’s a huge part of why Life is Strange is so brilliant. Rather than throw in cheap weepy bits to make you care about the characters, Life is Strange makes you care about the characters first, makes you invest in them, and that ultimately makes the emotional elements more genuine and impacting”.
….and whilst I mentioned it in the context of eliciting emotion originally, it equally works in the context of how successful the respective morals and/or messages of 13RW and LiS are, I think. See, because each character in Life is Strange is a more rounded, complex character, it’s possible to empathise with elements of each of them, and that also makes you/Max not want to be a total dick to them, as well as allowing you to understand, to some extent, why they’re doing what they’re doing – good, bad or indifferent.
In contrast, 13 Reasons Why takes these archetypes, doubles down on their clichés, and as such, it’s a shitload easier to dismiss them, and their stereotypical behaviour, as standard dicks/dick moves, and ultimately feel no sense of recognition or empathy towards them. Why’s that important? Well, if the moral of the respective Narratives is along the lines of “think about how you treat people, and the consequences of your actions” it’s a lot more effective if you can’t play the “yeah, but I’m not a jock, and I don’t act like the clichéd jock, so that’s obviously not a thing I need to think about” card. In Life is Strange, that’s not really an option, and precisely because each character is a subtle, intriguing blend of cliché and genuine human frailty, it’s a lot easier to see, understand, and ultimately recognise them as real people; real people like you and I.
I’m at that age now where I often think about stuff I’ve done in the past and feel incredibly shitty about it, and whilst I can’t change things now, I can try to learn from them – and then apply these lessons to how I act in the future. Because Life is Strange provided its characters with realistic and universally applicable “reasons” for acting the way they do – being who they are – it successfully hits on these exact elements of recognition and understanding. Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t, and it’s a lot, lot easier to dismiss its “message” as being a ring-fenced window into a specific world that probably bears no relation to your own.
And, even though 13 Reasons why is taught in high school – i.e. that exact world – unless high school in the US really is as clichéd as it’s made out to be in 13 Reasons Why, Life is Strange’s rejection of 2D stereotypes in favour of more balanced, complex characters can only improve its chances of conveying the lesson it’s trying to, right!?
In essence, Life is Strange is an exceptional, compelling and ultimately rather useful examination of the human condition, and a genuine insight into how our actions can impact upon the world around us. Whilst this is what 13 Reasons Why tries to be, I don’t think it’s nearly as successful as Life is Strange is. A year after playing Life is Strange, it still resonates with me, and it still gives me a weird, palpable feeling of empathy when I think back to Arcadia Bay’s residents; a whole community of real, complex characters each trying to make their way in the world. Moreover, I still have a sense of my own actions having impacted on that world, and at the time I was playing, that responsibility – an understanding that my actions would have profound, long-lasting repercussions – was something I felt keenly throughout, and precisely because Dontnod had woven it into every fibre of the Life is Strange experience.
If, as a 35 year old dude playing as Max Caulfield (and not, say, a high schooler), I managed to imbibe the lessons of Life is Strange, to intimately absorb its message of “actions and consequences” (and still remember it a year later), I think that’s an indication of just how successful that message is, and why Life is Strange is truly something special.
TL; DR I wanted to bang on about Life is Strange again, and because I think it’s actually a fuckload better than 13 Reasons Why, I used this as a flimsy premise to do just that.
*jazz hands, drops mic, etc, etc*