Moral Engagement and Time-Travel in Life is Strange
by Claire Low
Due to the technological advancement of video games, possibilities for player-game interaction have grown exponentially and players can now create unique game experiences through their individual choices (Garrelts, 2003, 11). This has led to a new era of interactive engagement where players can make their own moral choices in interactive narrative-driven games. Players are the main moral actor in these games and moral decisions in games occur just like those in real life, as players experience the same emotional depth as those arising from interactions in the real world, such that they feel morally responsible for their actions (Weaver & Lewis, 2012, 610).
Therefore, I suggest that Life is Strange (LIS) is an exception due to its novel time-travelling mechanic that provides players with more free-will in determining the outcome of the game. The premise of LIS stems from the main character, Max Caufield’s ability to rewind time and her premonition of an apocalyptic storm destroying her town. Due to its time-rewinding mechanic, the game saw itself as an innovation and marketed itself via this very mechanic through trailers and features (Makuch, 2013), while gaming review sites similarly posit that LIS is “one of the most interactive games of this generation” (Wilson, 2015).
The time-rewinding mechanic allows players to see the proceeding consequences of their choice and decide whether to continue with it or revert it. Rewinding a sequence to change their decision affects the narrative through the reversal of previously established consequences on future dialogue choices and character relationships (Clark, 2017, 66). Therefore, players are more morally engaged in the decision-making process as they are in direct control of the outcome due to this option to revert decisions. If they were to continue with a harmful choice, they would only have themselves to blame and would be unable to ignore or misconstrue the direct consequences of their actions (Bandura, 2002, 103). However, this mechanic might also lead to moral disengagement as the impermanence of consequences can cause players to feel that their decisions have no concrete effect due to the subversion of choices. Players have their own interpretations of blame and moral responsibility in the game as the mechanic concurrently attributes blame to players and re-directs it, through the ability to reverse choices.
Hence, Life is Strange provides a new dimension of choice as players are able interact with the mechanic in different ways. Since the game was designed to “enable appropriate choices and consequences” (Schrier, 2019, 319), the moral disengagement of players is only an accidental side-effect of the mechanic’s impermanent consequences. Therefore, I argue that LIS’s time-rewinding mechanic time allows players to be more morally engaged with their actions.Players hold themselves more accountable to the proceeding consequences of their actions and are unable to escape the blame of their own decisions if they do not reverse the morally questionable ones.
However, most narrative-driven games provide insufficient choices or only the illusion of choice, such that players do not feel responsible for their actions. Without sufficient autonomy, players do not feel morally engaged or responsible as they might not feel like they are the actual agents of their actions (Bandura et al., 1996, 365). Moreover, today’s narrative-driven games, such as The Walking Dead (2012-2018), Until Dawn (2015) and Man of Medan (2019), still face deterministic narratives with choices without lasting effects and a singular ending. Thus, without substantial choices in gameplay, players feel morally disengaged from their choices and are unmotivated to make choices that do not harm characters.
According to Bandura et al. (1996), moral disengagement occurs when one “disengages their moral control from inhumane conduct” (364). The socio-cognitive processes “employed by individuals to avoid guilt and to justify … immoral acts” (Price et al., 2014, 3) are similar to the decision-making process of players in video games as they undergo the “diffusion and attribution of blame” (Bandura, 103). Furthermore, since in-game decisions do not have any effect on the real world, players may choose the options that directly harm the characters in order to garner a sense of schadenfreude.
The player’s ability to rewind time in Life is Strange (LIS) allows for greater moral engagement as they directly determine the consequences of their actions and are unable to diffuse responsibility from themselves. Playersare now able to directly create a better outcome for the characters and are fully accountable for the bad consequences that follow their decisions. After players make a decision, a cutscene is shown for players to see the potential outcome of this action, during which they have the ability to rewind to the start of the cutscene in order to make a different decision.
The rewind swirl that appears during cutscenes that indicate the ability to rewind time for players to change the outcome of the scene.
In addition, the game’s facilitation of moral engagement can be more clearly seen when LIS is compared to other games that do not have a ‘rewind time’ feature, since other games force players to stick with their determined outcome without allowing them to see the consequences beforehand.
This mechanic also explicitly allows players to reflect on their decisions’ consequences, on other characters and the narrative, before following through with their choices. The meaningfulness of choices in games is often interlinked with the permanence of the options provided and their consequences (Dechering & Bakkes, 2018, 4), but LIS challenges the assumption that permanence of decisions is required to attribute significance to such decisions. With the option to make an alternate decision when Max rewinds time, players are no longer constrained by the permanence of their decisions but instead take a more active role in rewinding time and deciding how they want to influence the storyline. They choose how the dialogue proceeds via their previous action and can rewind time again if the cutscene is not going according to plan. Thus, the impermanence of choices in LIS renders these choices to be more meaningful since players are more morally engaged and undergo a deeper analysis of their choices.
Social Aspects of Moral Engagement
Life is Strange further engages players’ morality by portraying gameplay as a social act (Mänder, 2017, 30). At the end of each episode, the game provides statistics that show how many players chose various actions in each episode, creating a link between individual and collective gameplay.
Statistics of each choice given at the end of the first episode, Chrysalis.
Since moral decisions are made based on both individual and collective conduct (Melzer & Holl, 2020, 6), statistics on others’ choices in the same scenario allows players to see whether their decisions are in accordance with others. Conformity is the “fundamental socio-psychological process” that causes people’s decisions to be affected by others (Asch, 1956, 2). Thus, players would want to change their decisions from the minority decision to majority decision, regardless of the moral stance of either party, in order to conform to other players. Moreover, statistics are used to give players a sense of purpose, as they are involved in a greater cause of choosing what is right or wrong in the community. When a player’s decision is in accordance with the minority, they would analyse both their own and the minority’s sense of morality. The sense of majority versus minority in the game alongside the ability to replay the episode will promote greater moral engagement in aligning players’ choices with the common good.
However, there are some choices without a distinct majority in the statistics that “reveal more complex situations or moral grey areas” (Dechering & Bakkes, 5). The inability of the community to choose one option as the unanimously better one in such situations can be seen as another form of moral engagement as players move away from collective gameplay. Players instead have their own views on which option leads to a better outcome for non-playable characters (NPCs). In particular, decisions that involve saving villainised characters from harm are usually not unanimous in percentages, with no preferred option (pp. 7-8).
When there are choices that show a large majority choosing one option over the other, this usually highlights the moral disengagement of the minority in their decisions. The minority of players who choose the worse option are seen as morally rebellious, due to their questionable actions that do not follow the moral norm of LIS players.
Furthermore, the lack of severe consequences in LIS can lead players to make reckless decisions upon knowing that they can easily revert their decision by rewinding time. The ease by which players can undo their decisions may cause them to always choose the “worse” option before rewinding to choose the “better” option. While the curiosity that leads players to explore all the possible choices is not inherently bad, it may cause them to feel less responsible for the bad events that they bring upon NPCs. Similar to violent video games, the “consequences of violence” (Hartmann et al., 2014, 311) in LIS have been distorted to the extent of insignificance among players, as these outcomes have become hardly visible to players. One key example is the dilemma in saving Kate Marsh, one of Max’s classmates, from committing suicide. Players do not directly see the consequences of their ability or inability to save Kate’s life as Kate’s death is not explicitly portrayed in the episode. Players do not see her dead body if they fail to save her, nor is she portrayed to be physically well if they do save her. Players only see the side-effects of this critical decision through Max’s journal and can remove themselves from blame if they “do not observe the suffering of their victims” (Hartmann et al., 314-315).
Max Caufield and Kate Marsh.
Thus, the lack of severe consequences poses a problem where players do not see the actual consequences of their decisions and only see the side-effects of major consequences.
The Final Sacrifice
The game tries to resolve this dilemma between moral engagement and disengagement by removing the time-travelling mechanic during critical decisions. Players are unable to reverse the final choice in LIS and have to stick with the ending after making the choice, regardless of whether they like it or not. This mechanic can then cause players to place greater importance in critical decisions that are irreversible, as they now acknowledge the permanence of terrible consequences that they do not want.
The final dilemma posed has two options: a reversal of all of players’ previous choices and time reversals in order to save the town and sacrifice Chloe; or to continue with all their decisions to save Chloe and thereby destroy the town. However, this pre-planned narrative might leave players feeling cheated as the reversion of previous choices might cause them to seem unimportant and without lasting effects. If the previous choices are reversed, the time and effort players put into deciding each action through their direct consequences would then seem meaningless.
How then, do players reconcile the seemingly inconsequential reality of all their previous choices with this final decision? I believe that the final decision was not designed to undermine the importance of previous choices, as the characters were undoubtedly still saved by players, but to emphasise the impermanent consequences of the time-rewinding mechanic. The feelings of gratification are not lost simply by this final choice and the game even brings players down memory lane with flashbacks to all the previous cutscenes leading up to this critical moment. This highlights the importance of players’ decisions in the narrative and how players had made an impact on characters. Therefore, despite the seemingly deterministic nature of this final decision, it highlights the impermanent nature of choices in LIS and continues to give players free-will in determining the outcome of the game.
Life is Strange poses a new dimension of choice through various mechanisms of rewinding time and the removal of deterministic outcomes. Players are given a broader view in making major decisions as they now can see how their actions play out in the larger context of the characters. This enables much more moral engagement rather than disengagement in players as a majority follow the social norms set by the gaming community and the time-rewinding function allows players to replace their bad decisions with better ones. With the technological advancement of game engines, LIS indicates a trend for new morally challenging games to arise with better mechanics to improve the immersive experience and simulate a more realistic experience. For example, Detroit: Become Human (2017) provides a “tree-branch narrative” that allows players to replay each episode to get all the possible endings and narratives. Thus, games such as Life is Strange poses the start of a new era of storytelling and moral engagement among consumers. Interactive games allow players to undergo moral dilemmas in the secure video-game realm without real-world consequences and allow for players to actually change the narrative, as compared to traditional media of film and text.
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