The Unsurpassable Horizon of Adolescence: Luis de Miranda speaks on Life is Strange
The following article discusses detailed events from all 5 episodes of DONTNOD’s Life is Strange including the finale. If you have not fully completed the game please be wary of spoilers.
This year the release of Life is Strange triggered a new way of thinking about, developing and receiving games. After five emotional episodes, which started in January and came to an end in October, new ideas arose, and in fact still arise, that challenge the contemporary state of games as well as their intention and reception. Hence, it is not surprising that academic papers have been written in which not only the imagery of the game is examined but also take into account various philosophical theories, creating a relation between Life is Strange, everyday life and advanced philosophical approaches.
Luis de Miranda is a French philosopher. He has published 13 books, among them “L’être et le néon” and “L’art d’être libres au temps des automates.” Currently he does research at the University of Edinburgh and is the director of The Crag – an “interdisciplinary community of interest on creation and/or reality.”
He talked about his paper on Life is Strange at this year’s FMRG24 Videogames, a conference that took place in Newcastle on October 23rd. The conference theme was about videogames and the culture behind them, with a large French contingent in attendance. His paper deals with the message behind DONTNOD’s game and how it reflects not only a philosophical approach to life but also employs metaphors in a medium that was solely used to provide entertainment and seldomly reached beyond this. The text delves deep into the game, discussing its use of hidden metaphors and motifs. Luis de Miranda examined the game in a cultural and academic context with the talk billed as “an applied attempt to approach a genetic method in the interpretation of human creative processes.” This was a method he proposed to call “creanalysis.” It is not only about the work that has been created, but also about the process that led to this creation.
Luis de Miranda states that the game is “a meditation on adolescence […] where binary oppositions continuously shift polarities” (hence the fifth episode’s title). This means that the game lets us watch the character’s youth, in which they are torn between, friendship and betrayal, affiliation and exclusion, or guilt and innocence. When you reach the end of one string, you automatically find yourself at the beginning of its contrast. de Miranda compares it to a Möbius strip, captured in an unending loop that is neither at the outside or inside, nor above or below. When you reach the end and automatically start at the beginning, you are polarised.
The author also claims that the game is existential, by virtue of allowing the player to reflect on actions as well as letting them co-create narrative. The author explains that the communities that form theories and communicate between each episode are a prime example of how the game exists existentially. Although the game is deterministic (the story, along with certain points along the way, was set from the beginning), players still have the possibility to create, theoretically resulting in unlimited experiences through their “emotional consciousness and [their] practical behaviour.” It is also notable that the most important moments are always the same, only the way to get there can vary depending on the player’s choices. There is also no perfect path, as the theory Luis de Miranda establishes in his papers indicates. By having a personal story and experiencing events not everyone shares, the player is automatically more attached to the characters and can reflect on their behaviour. Additionally only the player can hear Max’s inner voice, which is omnipresent, but restricted to the player’s ears. Another factor mentioned is that the game is episodic, which “enhances the relationality of the players,” contributing to co-creation. The developers could take feedback as the players were actively engaged with episodes as newer ones were being developed.
As one possible interpretation of the game, although Luis de Miranda says that it is necessary to be open to others (as none of them is the only true one), he suggests that the game wants to imply that people aspire for the ability to edit their own lives, which he continues to argue in his answers below. The game exaggerates, and therefore emphasizes, its main feature – which is the ability to undo actions and try out every option -until a satisfactory result is achieved. In other games the player can undo almost everything as often as they like – by loading a save file or reseting a checkpoint, but in Life is Strange these powers are represented in game, with the power to rewind time and time travel through photographs. The game gives the player this ability and he inevitably wonders what would happen if this was real, or maybe, if one has the desire to alter the past at all. The author concludes that Life is Strange is actually an example for this desire: “to edit the irrepressible.”
As we all know due to various films, books and, last but not least, the game itself, time travelling, altering the past, editing what cannot be undone never truly works out. The present and future can be changed, but often worsened. People want to go back in time, go back to unpleasant memories and sad or unsatisfactory situations and change them. Life is Strange illustrates this and gives the player the ability to do so. However, Luis de Miranda claims that Friedrich Nietzsche advocates another approach: According to him it is necessary to say yes and accept one’s decisions once they are made. Nietzsche demands to say yes without regret, even if the result might be frightening or painful. These themes are present in-game during the third and fourth episode: By preventing the death of Chloe’s father, Max creates a new situation in which Chloe is paralysed and demands the player to end her life. To some extend, the game educates the Nietzschean affirmation that accepting one’s decisions and life with all its strangeness is necessary. However, this is not the only way of interpreting the game. Furthermore, one can allege that the game has pedagogical and educational added value by teaching to reflect on one’s desires and decisions as well as the philosophical approach explained above.
Luis de Miranda also noted that, although Life is Strange was created by a French developer and published by a Japanese company, the game has an American setting in order to be sold internationally. Despite its American setting, he stresses that there is a European culture involved and a French diaspora expressed – especially regarding the fact that there are excellent Art schools in France.
Kindly, Luis de Miranda took the time to answer my questions (because, as I have to admit, not everything was clear to me from the beginning and it needed some additional explaining). Henceforth below lies the transcript of my Q&A session with him. May you be enlightened.
Do you believe in destiny? Do you believe there is something similar for Max and Chloe?
I don’t believe in destiny in a pure fatalistic manner. I wouldn’t say the future is written once and for all. But I do believe some humans (individuals or groups) are capable of recreating themselves as destinal machines. Their integrity and persistence of belief slowly manage to bind time and create synchronicities that can be called a form of destiny. In the case of Max and Chloe, I think that what their story and relation reveals is a total lack of destiny, but instead pure liberty in an existentialist sense (I’m thinking about Jean-Paul Sartre mainly). Their destiny might be possible once they’ve discovered the power of freedom, at the end of the game.
Do you think the game is a successful attempt to show players that accepting the past and the impact one’s decisions have is a good thing and necessary in order to proceed?
The will to redo things differently, to go back in time a few days or years ahead is one of the most common existential aspirations. It’s adjacent, very often, to regret, a missed opportunity, a mistake, an accident, etc. Such a sentiment or desire would be impossible if we did conceive the idea that our existence is perfect, necessary, and highly desirable as it is. To go back in time to operate a change is saying no to the status quo. For Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, the desire to rewind our existence is inseparable to resentment. The superhuman emerges through the exercise of saying yes to the past. Nietzsche advocates, in Ecce Homo, for a creative ‘Yes-saying [Jasagen] without reservation, even to suffering, even to guilt, even to everything questionable and strange about existence.’ It’s a form of responsibility rather than acceptance. Once we’ve said yes, as a recognition, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and change the situation in the future. Behind that ethical imperative, the ideal is that of a personality so unique and united that every decision and act is the pure reflection of what it is. If I were perfect, all my acts would be perfect and there would be no need to edit my past existence. I’d already, in every situation, make the perfect choice between infinite possibilities. Saying yes to the past is a means to train the will to say yes to the present and the future in a creative and active way. What we observe in the game is that many attempts to edit the past are more or less vain. Yes, the game is a successful illustration of an existentialist responsibility and freedom.
How, in your opinion, do Max’s actions influence the world around her, not only the one’s directly involved in the memories being altered?
She’s an agent in a specific world, Arcadia Bay, and as a subjective agent she has an influence on her environment. When the game starts in episode one, the young Max is a rather insecure and shy teenage girl. When she realises that she has the power to rewind and edit her biography, she’s not taken by hubris or delirious will for power. Her experiments with the past reflect her character: they are shy and empathic most of the time. She is prudent, which is an Aristotelian virtue. That sense of measure allows her to become free and to remain emphatic at the same time.
How can this be projected to real life and our wish to change our past?
Perhaps the most important aspect of Life is Strange is the Nietzschean affirmation that life is strange, but we can give it a meaning. We shouldn’t attempt to over-edit it or modify the past with perfection in mind, but perfection can be a project for the future, and that will modify our reading of the past, our perspective on the past. Etymologically, strange means external, coming from outside a system. Life is strange because it’s an overflowing creative process: equilibriums are constantly being challenged. In fact the only way to change the past is by changing the present and future, because the quality of the present is what gives value to the past.
What is your opinion regarding the supernatural happenings and how they implicate happenings related to physics?
I agree with the creators of the game who told me they are only metaphors for the emotions and what is going on inside Max’s heart and head.
How many players do you think to have recognized and acknowledged the metaphors and hidden messages the game offers? In other words, how well does the game convey its theories and how easily can it be interpreted?
I think many players understand more or less explicitly that the game is a meditation on freedom and the apprenticeship of responsibility for our acts. Existentialism is, I would argue, the implicit philosophy of our times, so young people today understand it easily. I’ve experienced that with what I call crealism: the fact that our social reality is created is usually very easily understood by people under 30. Of course, I’m not sure all players understand the message of the blue butterfly over Chloe´s coffin at the end. It’s not a sign of reincarnation. It’s just a metaphor for the fact that freedom (the blue butterfly) is stronger than nothingness (here represented by death).
Do you reckon the experience the player gains from accepting his decisions is greater or more important than trying out varies possibilities and seeing where they lead?
That’s a way of playing the game with integrity rather than curiosity.
What about extraordinarily bad decisions – is one supposed to come to terms with them as well perhaps in order to learn from them, or is regretting them and developing the desire to edit the past justified in a case like that?
It’s difficult for a human being to fully decide that the present she is experiencing is the perfect version of herself. Hence the usual regret. Even extraordinary bad decisions can become retrospectively admirable if they lead to a present of pure bliss. Again, the problem is not the past, it’s the present and its intensity of joyful affirmation.
By negating her past, Max worsens situations. What does that mean for the player and their experience, especially when they learn that there are no “right” decisions?
Again, this is pure existentialism: there is no such thing as an essential nature of who we are that would determinate what we should do. The only authenticity is in the integrity of our project and how we are faithful to our highest personal value. But I would argue that what the game illustrates is that all decisions are right provided we do not regret them.
Do you think the game is a good example for the importance and future of the medium in general?
I think it’s a good game without too much violence, and a good platform for reflection. I think it also shows the future of the medium as cinema. Formally, because of its deterministic plot and of its undetermined atmosphere, Life is Strange can be seen as a ‘playable’ or ‘interactive’ film series. All good art is philosophically awakening.
What are your thoughts about games as a medium suitable for education? Is Life is Strange exemplary?
I’m currently writing an academic paper that explains existentialism through Life is Strange, which answers your question.
Do you think games have managed to establish themselves within society? What is Life is Strange’s contribution to this development?
Today’s neo-liberal society accepts anything that makes money, from pornography to bad music and football. So I wouldn’t say it’s a proof of quality to manage to be established in our world.
Can video games, as they employ metaphors and other stylistic devices, be compared to literature?
It’s the new dominant form of art. As explained by Marshall McLuhan, every new dominant form of art steals the content of the previous dominant form of art. Cinema grew by eating the content of literature. Videogames are growing by stealing the content of cinema.
How did you play the game? Did you know from the beginning that there is more to it or did you start playing in order to be entertained?
I played the game by watching others play. In January or February 2015 the French Media Research Group based at the University of Newcastle asked me to give a philosophical talk on a French videogame in October, since I had written a book on the cultural history of digital media (L’art d’être libres au temps des automates). I picked Life is Strange because I liked the title, and luckily enough, the last episode came out 3 days before the date of my talk.
At which point did you start to involve Nietzsche? Was there a specific moment when you realised something in particular?
Nietzsche was my first hypothesis, but in fact, just after I finished the fifth and last episode, I realised that Sartre was more appropriate, because it focus is in my view the main theme of the game rather than the past.
According to my interview with the creators of the game, one of the important themes guiding their creative process was nostalgia. Nostalgia is the bittersweet impression of belonging to another temporal and spatial situation while being estranged from a present locus. Life is Strange can be analysed as an existentialist work of art depicting our contemporary loss and quest of the feeling of being at home and of having an identity – a psychological home. Along with nostalgia, and complementary to it, the most important theme of the game is the concept of focus. Focus is a polysemic term. In photography, it designates the clarity, distinctness and readability of an image. In the game, the emotionally blurred image needs to become clear anew for biographical time-travel to happen. Focus, etymologically, designates in Latin the fireplace, the domestic hearth and abstractly the notion of home, where we are from and consequently who we are. Throughout the game Max searches for her self, for a deep friendship, and for the truth of her community, Arcadia Bay. She finds none of the above, but ultimately discovers her existentialist freedom through the metaphor of a blue butterfly dancing over the nothingness of a coffin.
For the Existentialists, unless we project our liberty into the future, we remain out of focus, because there’s no such thing as a home where we could go back to, individually or collectively: there are at the most possibly shared subjective experiences of identity and belonging (as for example within the vivid community of dialogue created by the game Life is Strange). Quite logically, the game ends alternatively either with the traumatic and liberating self-destruction of its locus, Arcadia Bay, or with the self-destruction of its very narrative (back to square one) and sacrifice of Max’s only friend. Here we could almost sing the Internationale with Sartre: ‘This is the eruption of the end, of the past let us make a clean slate.’ Pure existential freedom.
In how far did your philosophical background influence your view on Life is Strange and video games?
My philosophical prism, I’m afraid, is not only a background, but also a foreground.