Archives for posts with tag: Remember Me

Have you ever wanted to turn back time? Sure you have. We all make mistakes after all, wishing at times that the ground would open up and swallow us, embarrassments and all. And during the cautious, nervous years of adolescence, as we’re trying to understand the world and our place in it, these slip-ups seem all the more important.

But what if you could go back, rewind time to find a better outcome, or better yet, make sure you never stuck your foot in your mouth to begin with? This is the situation that Maxine “Max” Caulfield finds herself in at the start of episode one of Life is Strange, the new title from DONTNOD. The Parisian studio seems to have something of an obsession with our perception of time, first allowing us to mess with people’s memories in 2013’s Remember Me, and following that up by empowering us, through Max, to directly affect their actions by learning from them, and then rewinding to exploit them.

Comparisons have been made to Quantic Dream’s output, but in truth Life is Strange is something of an amalgamation of Gone Home and Telltale’s recent output seen through the lens of a lo-fi indie flick. For the most part, we’re on fairly familiar ground in gameplay terms; as Max, you’ll explore her environment, examining everything you see and talking to everyone who will talk to you, all the while moving from one small objective to the next, each a step along the path to a larger goal. You’ll also be making a number of choices as you go, and you’re encouraged to rewind and try again to see what might have happened under different circumstances.

Life is Strange's Max

This means that you can easily see the immediate outcome of each choice and then go with the one that seems to be the ‘best’, but while this sounds like it could have an adverse effect on the consequences of your actions, DONTNOD alleviates this concern by forcing you to accept your choices before moving on. These decisions will no doubt come back to haunt you later in the series, as well; already, there are some that seem right at the time, but by the end of the episode have you wondering whether that’s really true. An early decision offers you a choice between capturing photographic evidence of a friend being harassed, or to just step in and stop it right there and then, and one option certainly seems more valid in that moment. But maybe that photograph could come in handy down the line when you’re trying to prove someone’s wrongdoing?

The tone is quite far removed from the creeping dread and suffocating tension of the likes of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, too. Max’s adventure is possessed of a more gentle, autumnal feel, as she returns to her bucolic pacific-northwest hometown of Arcadia Bay after five years away to begin her studies at the prestigious Blackwell Academy, and this first episode is infused with a lazy, ‘school days’ vibe, the pacing deliberately and appropriately slow as Max explores her surroundings, her new abilities and herself, making observations about fellow students as she goes. That’s not to say Life is Strange is particularly light-hearted. There’s a dark thread of small-town alienation threaded through the entire episode, and while there are moments of tension, a couple of which are tantalisingly front-loaded and tied into Max’s newly-awakened powers, after these passages are over we’re returned to that languid, measured pace as we venture out onto the school grounds to immerse ourselves in Max’s new surroundings.

Max is something of a socially-awkward, unsure lead. She’s the quiet nerd in all of us, and as she struggles to find her place in the world, and subsequently understand her new gift, we get to experience it through her interactions and her playfully sardonic internal monologue. It’s a great way to anchor the player in the setting, and while we may not all be as shy as Max, we can surely all relate to being new to some thing or some place. She’s not much more settled in this environment than the player, so it makes sense that her inner thoughts are mostly centred around trying to make sense of her world, a design decision that does as much to inform the player as it does to reinforce Max’s character.

Life is Strange, Nerd cred,

Nerd culture references come thick and fast, and can sometimes be a bit overbearing, but they mostly work. The writers clearly know their audience, and it’s in these moments that the game delivers most of its humour.

Max also keeps a diary that gets updated as events pass, but go back a few pages and you’ll find there’s plenty to read that leads up to the start of the game, too. You can (and should) take a few minutes to read these earlier entries right from the off, and they serve as a good foundation for Max’s character, expressing her love of photography, her excitement at being accepted into Blackwell as well as her hesitance at starting a new chapter of her life. Some of the writing in Max’s diary can hew a little close to being obviously written by someone outside of their teenage years trying to think like a teenager, but it mostly holds up. In fact, Max is actually a pretty well-written character in general: while she loves her area of study, she’s also a proponent of the ‘why do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow’ school of thought; she hates the rich-kid cliques that enable and encourage bullying, but she’s not above rifling through a fellow student’s belongings or rearranging a photo wall to resemble an upturned middle finger; she’s somewhat unsure of who she really wants to be, but she’s also hesitant to find out. Basically, she’s a teenager, and her flaws and her contradictions make her all the more believable.

Then there’s Chloe. Max’s old “BFF” is almost unrecognisable to our heroine when their paths finally cross, and she’s very far from the girl Max remembers. Loud, brash, tattooed and blue of hair, she’s a good foil for our introverted, reserved heroine, quick to act where Max is more deliberate, and it’s immediately obvious that she hasn’t had an easy time since Max left. As Max and Chloe begin to rediscover themselves, their friendship and each other, their interactions are at first awkward and strained, and here we’re afforded another big choice: do we step in and help her out, strengthening the bond between the two young women, or do we stand aside and put our own interests first? It should be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the course of the series, and to what extent our decisions affect it, and it’s obvious by this first episode’s end that Max and Chloe’s friendship will form the core that the rest of the narrative revolves around.

Which is quite handy really, as the rest of the cast is filled out by a group of fairly typical high-schoolers; there’s the nerdy guy who’s clearly interested in our lead, the distant, troubled girl, the bitchy rich girl and a whole group of meathead jocks. And of course, every school setting needs at least one unstable psychopath to ratchet up the tension. While they’re clearly drawn from a bunch of archetypes, it’s a little early to label them stereotypes from one episode alone, and already there are a few characters whose arcs should hopefully be interesting to watch unravel as the episodes continue.

But at the heart of all that sits the mystery of Max’s new powers and the reveal at the episode’s climax of a looming threat to the small town, though we are of course none-the-wiser about what it will be that causes this unnatural catastrophe – only that Max, through her powers, is the only one that knows it’s coming. If future episodes of Life is Strange can deliver on the promises teased in this opening chapter, it’s sure to provide an interesting mystery story wrapped up in a poignant coming-of-age tale.

remmeAs I was trawling my usual gaming haunts this morning, one article in particular caught my eye. It was a piece called “Why publishers refuse games such as Remember Me because of their female protagonists”, by Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell, and it deals with some of the issues faced by Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director of upcoming adventure game Remember Me, as the team attempted to shop their project around to interested publishers.

Now, you can already imagine what these issues were, given the title of Mr Bramwell’s article, and it’s not something we haven’t seen before. It is, however, another indictment of the state of the industry and its focus on what publishers think its audiences want (and their subsequent refusal to move away from that narrow cone of experiences). Moris told Penny Arcade that some publishers had simply dismissed the concept out of hand because of the protagonist’s gender: “We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'” It raised some thoughts in my mind, so I’ve decided to tackle a couple of them here.

An increasing number of gamers are women. This shouldn’t need pointing out, but the quote above suggests that, sadly, it needs to be. According to the Entertainment Software Association, almost 40% of American gamers are female (I don’t know what the percentage is here in the UK, but let’s assume it’s similar). Why is it ok to alienate them, but not male gamers? Almost half of their addressable audience is apparently of no consequence to these people.

Another quote from Moris:

“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”

You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game. Just… wow. Now, this seems to be Moris paraphrasing what was said to him, so in the interests of being fair we can’t say for certain whether the person who said it meant just that, or that this is what Moris took it to mean. If it’s the former, we have a serious problem. This suggests that the people at the top (the publishers, the business people who, more often than not, decide whether a game lives or dies) think of gaming as a uniquely male pastime; there is an expectation that ‘the player’ essentially equals ‘young male’, and there seems to be this complete and utter refusal to see that there is a large base of female gamers that perhaps feel they aren’t being catered for in any meaningful way. I can only imagine how they must feel when they see a quote like this. Perhaps they’re just so used to it by now that they simply groan and move on with their day. But if publishers truly believe female protagonists will alienate male gamers, how can they be content to alienate female gamers who make up almost half of the game-playing (and buying) public? Are they simply that short-sighted?

(As an aside to the kissing quote: from a male standpoint, why would I care that the character in the game is kissing a man? People in relationships kiss one another! What does this say about the perceived maturity (or lack thereof) of their target audience? I feel like I should be offended!)

Tom Bramwell’s article also touches on the numbers that might help explain these decisions – publishers are, after all, businesses out to make money. Looking back at a report from Penny Arcade, Bramwell notes that games with female leads tend to sell significantly fewer units than games with male leads, while games with optional female leads still managed to sell less than games with male-only leads. This doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The figures that caught my eye showed that “from a sample of 669 current-gen games which had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women.” Twenty-four. Twenty-four of six-hundred-and-sixty-nine. That’s pretty shameful, and given the fact that most people are therefore more likely to be used to be playing as a male protagonist, perhaps that’s why male-fronted games tend to sell better – there are more of them, and it’s what people are familiar with.

But again, there’s more to it. Those figures above came from Geoffrey Zatkin, COO of consultancy firm EEDAR. He also had this to say:

“Games with a female-only protagonist got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 per cent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,”

So they don’t sell because no one is trying to sell them. They send them out to die, then claim they don’t sell so that they can strangle the next one at birth? This all seems incredibly counter-intuitive to me; if you’re going to fund a game, why wouldn’t you want it to sell? Why wouldn’t you want to draw in a bigger audience, especially if it’s an audience that has historically been under-represented? Surely by opening up to this audience, this large, 40-per-cent-of-the-market audience, you’d have a captive audience?

Something clearly needs to change here. And perhaps, slowly, things are changing? Here in the U.K., Tomb Raider still sits atop the all-format charts, into its second week of release, so far managing to see off God of War: Ascension. The game has been a massive success for developer Crystal Dynamics, and, speaking as a male gamer, I don’t feel the slightest bit alienated by playing as a female protagonist. Lara is a strong, determined character who goes through hell, fights her way out the other side, and then dives back in to save her friends. She’s a strong person, a good character who cares about her companions and will do whatever she must to help them. Surely we can all relate to that? Her gender is incidental, not defining.

While not as important as the above issues, the article also brought an old question back to the forefront of my mind. It’s something I’ve often wondered about, but the quote about the character kissing a male brought it back to the forefront of my mind: do people really get so into a protagonist that they truly think it’s ‘them’ in the game? I’ve been gaming for almost 24 years at this point, and I know I don’t. Not even when it’s a silent protagonist that’s supposed to make you feel like you are the lead, such as Half Life‘s Gordon Freeman; all of this work to draw the gamer into the eyes of the beardy scientist is undermined, for me, when everyone looks you in the face and calls you Gordon. I’m not Gordon! The vast majority of game characters are just that: characters, constructs. We see them in cutscenes, they have voiced dialogue. They are not ‘me’, can never be ‘me’, so why expend so much effort on trying to drag me, kicking and screaming into the narrative? When I’m playing a game, I’m fully aware that there is usually about six-to-eight feet, a television screen, and often the back of a virtual head between me and the lead character’s mind. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel immersed in the world; I do. But that’s achieved by creating an enjoyable, believable world and filling it with interesting characters, not by trying to trick me into thinking I’m there, because that will never work. Give me a good story, and likeable, well-written characters, and I’m good. I don’t need to be a character in the game, and besides, it’s just not currently possible.

Now, you may have read that and thought, “hold on! Videogames are an interactive medium! Sounds to me like what you’re looking for is a book!” Well, no. I love videogames, I love the interactivity inherent in videogames, but I take issue with the belief that they have to make you believe you’re in the game, as if you’re an actor in a play – physically there, but following direction. Games are not like that. You are not physically there, and until we have holodecks, you won’t be. At most, they’re puppet shows; you’re pulling the strings and moving your puppet, maybe even deciding what they say from time to time (from a limited script, of course), but you’re not there, in the world. It’s Punch and Judy (invariably) with guns. No game is ever likely to make me feel like I’m the star, the lead actor, like this is happening to me (unless I invent the holodeck and write the game myself from my own life experiences – and wouldn’t that be a dull game?), so I don’t need the game to worry about catering its characters to me, because it never truly could. I’m not interested in being a demographic and being spoon-fed what people that don’t know me think I should like based on my age and gender. Just create the best game you can, and I’ll either like it or not. I mentioned that I love the interactivity in gaming, but the aspect I love the most is that they allow us to do things we otherwise can’t – travel to other worlds, save the galaxy, see things from a new perspective, be other people for a little while. So why seek to limit that scope, why seek to limit the viewpoints that you can depict?

And why deliberately seek to turn away almost half of the people out there that are buying your games?

Tom Bramwell’s article for Eurogamer: