Readdressing the Issue: Cosmic Horror

Unfortunately, another short blog this week. Or at least off-the-cuff article. My job continues its attempt to extract all my hopes and dreams, then fill the sucking abyss with the turgid mixture of hate, misery, and self-loathing. Because that is what makes a better employee: depression and resignation to oblivion.

Unmarked spoilers for Persona 5, Night in the Woods, and Kona in this post. I will put up a spoiler tag before discussion, but no other warnings after that.

Continue reading “Readdressing the Issue: Cosmic Horror”

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Issuing a Break

So to celebrate my acceptance into the Science Fiction Research Association 2017 conference and because I did a long discussion on Stasis (2015) earlier this week with some friends I’m going to take the week off of blogging.

Well, not really. As mentioned, I had a discussion about Stasis (Steam page) with my fellow podcasters over at Ugly Talks (link). Ugly Talks is a monthly podcast created by Matt Campen and myself. The purpose of the show is to discuss various media artifacts, address their issues and their success, then attempt to extract useful design information for creators of interactive narrative. We tent to focus our discussion on how the design of these artifacts can be used to improve the creation of Tabletop Roleplaying games and system.

Lately we have been the amount of guests we have on the show. As such, this month we brought in James and Kevin Colmar from the Drunk and the Ugly podcast (link). Both these individuals, along with Matt, just finished a playthrough of Stasis on their Youtube channel and wanted to discuss the game.

I say all this, but the Stasis episode of Ugly Talks won’t come out for another month. However, if this conversation interests you, you can check out some of the previous Ugly Talk topics on the website or on your favorite Podcast Aggregate. Also, before you ask, yes I’m the tag line we use “We Know Things” is incredibly stupid and intentional. If you listen to a couple of the podcasts you will eventually hear me breakdown laughing at the absurdity of that tagline.

Next week, I will try to type the second half of my Kona review / critique. For warning it might be a bit sloppy as I have an open-to-close shift next week and will probably be delirious trying to recover.

The Issue of Time: The Secret Character of Life is Strange.

A hipster and Time meet in a diner at the end of the universe.

A few days ago, my partner finish their playthrough of Life is Strange (2015). At the time, we observed how the nightmare sequence in the final episode was jarring. While goal of the sequence is to ease the player into the penultimate decision of the game, there was something about it that felt odd. The voices, the characterization, the imagery, all of it seems to be a bit too pointed to be constructed from pure unconsciousness. It felt more directed, but unfocused, like throwing darts at a board and never quite hitting the mark. I could not put my finger on the issues during the sequence, not until Max, the main character of the game, had a dialogue with her doppelganger. Then it all cliqued, the sequence was odd because Max was not talking to herself. Her subconscious was not constructing a nightmare from her guilty over her actions in the game. She was talking to someone, someone who was with her for the entirety of the game, someone who could not get her attention until the climax of the story. She was talking to Time.

To those not in the know, Life is Strange is a video game about a teenage girl, Maxine “Max” Caulfield, who she develops time powers to save her friend, Chloe. The game is split into 5 episodes which take place over a single week. Over the course of the game Max must navigate the social ecology of her private school, Blackwell Academy, while trying to both keep Chloe alive and solve the disappearance of another student, Rachel Amber. Now the conventional interpretation of the game is that the final sequence is purely a nightmare, namely due to the section being called Nightmare. However, naming convention does not disprove my theory Max is talking with a personification of time.

The order of the nightmare sequence is as follows: 1) An opening sequence from the beginning of the game in a photography class which is interrupted by birds flying into the window killing themselves until their blood lights the room red. 2) A dormitory hall, where Max encounters or embodies character who died or could have died over the course of the game. 3) The reverse of the opening school hallway sequence from the first episode of the game. 4) A maze created in black space made from the locations and individuals Max has had to navigate throughout the game only experienced in reverse of her expose to them. 5) Max trapped in a snow-globe being forced to relive a scene from her past where she chooses to not to intercede and save an individual due to the disastrous personal results it has on the present timeline. 6) A torture dungeon and photography studio used by the antagonist of the game. Here she watches phantom-versions of Chloe, the individual she has spent the entirety of game saving, making disparaging remarks about her to various other characters in the game. 7) A dinner, where Max hears everyone plead with her to be saved only to have a conversation with a doppelganger about the fate of the world. 8) A walkway in black space highlighting the key moments between Max and Chloe over the course of the game.

These sequences have a method to them: They start forewarning of great disaster (1); It then has Max interact or embody characters who have died or might have died due to her actions over the course of the game (2); Physically makes her backwards to the beginning of the game (3). From there (4) has her reverse her physical progress in the story back across fractured areas of the game she explored, all while having to navigate a maze of exaggerating characters she has spent the game interacting with. (5) Has Max being confined, forcing her to relive a per plot decision this time as a reminder of the importance of this action. (6) has a phantom Chloe attempt to force Max away by being uncharacteristically both hostile to Max and friendly to other characters he is actively hostile to during the previous sections of the game. (7) has the player has walk past and heard the cried of all the other intractable characters of the game ask not to die, which then culminates in another phantom character, this time of Max herself, try to converse the player to let Chloe die. (8) ends the nightmare in a literal walk down memory lane of Max’s interaction with Chloe throughout the game.

This read like someone trying to convince the player to give up and let Chloe die, does it not? To let go of youthful stubbornness of trying to save a single individual at the cost of city. Looking at the sequence again. There is a coldness directed at Max that feel alien. All the individuals she has encounters in this sequence do not fit with what we have come to understand of them. These exaggerated caricatures strike as an attempt to scare Max into leaving and giving up her quest. That is until (7). Up until that point all the character’s talk at, but never with, Max. She is a casual observer in the scene, observing but never interactive. Then in (7) we have 2 conversation with characters, Nightmare Max (NM) and Nightmare Chloe (NC). Both have dialogue with and physical interact with you. This is where we encounter Time. Both NM and NC are Time talking to Max and itself.

The core to Life is Strange’s narrative success relies on its characters. They start as flat stereotypical clichés, then become more dynamic and realized as you interact with them and discover the history. Think how Time is portrayed in other time travel and death-defying media. It is a cold, brutal entity. It moves forward inexorably and actively searching for a means to restore any alterations to its path. If Life is Strange’s challenges character stereotypes would it not do the same for Time itself? The answer it the cold, brutal entity would reveal itself to be outside the understanding of humanity. An entity of a higher reality trying to communicate to something too stupid and imperfect to understand it.

Now a question, how would such a being communicate? More simply, consider how a a third dimensional being could possibly communicate with a two dimensional being. One option would be to pluck the two dimensional being from its original space into a specially designed space to impart a message. But still this communication would be limited as it relies on two-dimensional information to describe a three-dimensional concept. The receiver would only be able to receive small chunks, or snap-shots, of information. To speak with a being of a lower dimension, the higher dimensional being must sacrifice the complexity of its message to converse with the lower being. A three-dimensional concept must become two-dimensional. To use film media as an example: a movie would simplify into a frame, which then could be decontextualized into a photograph.

Photography is a large part of the Life is Strange game. Every episode has hidden collectable photographs. Key scenes are shows at photographs at the episode collect screen. Even the main character’s goal and prestige at her school is her talent at photography. So extrapolating this ideas from the previous paragraph, in order for Time to talk to Max it must be converting higher dimensional data into three dimensions for her to understand. Time is taking slices, something to it perception something akin to photos, of the events of the game and attempting to talk to Max using these stills. This information is lacking and indirect because Time cannot properly convey its message due to lack of understanding by the lower dimensional. So instead, Time turns to altering its message and information to scare Max. To continue to photography metaphor, it is altering and exaggerating the objects in the frame to try and convey a more pointed message to its audience. This also helps explains the over apparent over-exaggeration of characters and places in the scene. Something outside of our understanding trying to communicate to Max, and to an extent the player, through caricature and emotion.

However, none of these attempt works. As described previously, sections (1) through (6) of the nightmare do not appear to affect Max. It is only in section (7) Time decides to personally talk to Max (7). But how? Back to the issues of transdimensional communication. We already covered how a higher being would communicate with a lower being: movie stills and or photographs. There is another way of communication thought, a much harder way. This involves the use of an object existing in both dimensions of communication. Just Human’s are three dimensional beings that experience time, the forth-dimension. Because of this we understand the concept of time and that things do not just appear out of nowhere. A building starts with a two-dimensional footprint but builds into a fully three-dimensional object. This is the reverse of making a movie into a frame; a series of frame makes a movie. It also is the idea behind 3d printing. A 2d object is rendered in 3d space by adding layers to it one at time. What in Life is Strange has possibly existed in multiple dimensions at once and has the capacity for use my an entire such as Time? Max herself.

Throughout the entirety of the game Max has gone backward in time, created multiple timelines, and created time travel loops with her powers. She has either partially elevated herself to a higher dimension, or, more accurately given a higher dimension multiple versions of herself to work with. Information Time uses to construct a more precise, if still limited, means of communicating with Max in (7). This also explains why the Nightmare Chloe character shows up to the conversation as well. Chloe, like Max has had multiple timelines formed around her due to Max’s actions, she also is the reason for Max’s stubborn refusal to listen to Time. While she might not have Max’s capacity for manipulating time, she has existed on enough time lines in the game to create a shell for Time to speak. And for Time to experience her perceptions. Therefore, the Nightmare Chloe defending Max in the diner is also Time.

The creation both Nightmare Chloe and Nightmare Max results in the being coming to understand why Max has caused the fracturing of the timeline. Much like how communicating with a lower being might result in an obfuscated message, beings of a higher dimension might not have a concept that the lower beings use. Film to photo loses the overall narrative, photo to film loves the intense personal relationship of the photo. With experience and information come understanding. Time, by embodying a version of Max and Chloe comes to finally realize Max’s resistance and apprehension. Time understands that Max knows her choices and, in order let her make up Max’s mind, creates (8). This section, while build like the Maze section (4), does not rely on exaggerated caricatures trying to capture Max. This section is almost literally, a walk down memory lane. All the key moments between Max and Chloe throughout the game are shown in still, with the audio from the section playing. Events from multiple erased timelines are there as well. The idea that Time now understands Max’s action, this final section becomes more poignant. Time is letting Max relive her week with Chloe as either a final goodbye or a reconfirmation of why she needs to survive, depending on the final choice. A choice you make outside the nightmare, of your own freewill next to Chloe.

In closing, this section of Life is Strange does a fantastic job of showing how to personify and the thought process of an entity outside of human understanding. It takes a complex concept, such as personify Time, and creates a powerful experience all while working within the themes of the game. It is my hopes future designers will learn from this game and attempt to create engaging experiences in their media of choice. As well as create more scenes showcasing the complexities of life and human interactions but from the purview of a non-human viewpoint.