How the fictional school in Life is Strange falls into the same traps as real-world institutions.
Max Caulfield Speaking to Hayden Jones. Image: Rusty Walker / YouTube
In many ways, developer Dontnod Entertainment's episodic adventure game Life is Strange is a believable portrayal of teenage awkwardness at a fictional high school, Blackwell Academy, a private boarding school that specializes in the arts. Though the language can feel a bit forced, the DeGrassi-esque high school drama was initially the game's appeal. Gossip, fights, breakups, and make-ups helped make Blackwell feel like a school with students trying to find their own identity amongst their peers.
It's a fairly convincing game about high school life—unless you're a student of color, in which case it completely ignores your experience.
Life is Strange revolves around the mystery of Rachel Amber, a former Blackwell Academy student who disappeared six months prior to the beginning of the game. You play as Max who, along with her friend Chloe, must work together to uncover Rachel's story, as well as the darker secrets of Blackwell. Max learns about Rachel and other characters related to the mystery from students, faculty and family members, and these little clues help shed light on the secrets hidden in the fictional city of Arcadia Bay as well.
Unfortunately, all of these mysteries revolve around the white cast.
While we do see glimpses of students of color, their lives are never something we're forced to acknowledge. This is nothing new to the thousands of Black students (including myself) who attended well-known institutions—especially colleges that, like Blackwell, are considered to be top tier.
I attended private college preparatory school during my high school career, and I was one of only four Black girls in my graduating class. The school's administration tried desperately to celebrate the diversity of the campus with cultural events celebrating Ramadan and Diwali. Discriminatory behavior like racism was never tolerated, assuming that behavior was observed and reported to a person of authority.
But that didn't always happen. My race quickly became my identity, whether I wanted it to be or not.
One boy nicknamed me Starchy because my relaxed hair didn't bend and flow like other girls', water-like hair. Another asked why I didn't say the N-word like other Black people. At a gift-exchange theater party, a kid gave me a candle titled Midnight because I was, you know, Black.
There were more painful moments. A friend once said I would automatically get into college because of affirmative action. That same friend, when first meeting my mother, told me he was happy to hear my mother speak African American vernacular English, because I didn't speak Black enough for him. I was the punchline to every joke about being Black. My experience is not new.
Life is Strange had an opportunity to expose this teenage ugliness that feeds off of race. But instead the game focuses more on gendered stereotypes, where girls gossip in bathroom stalls and boys play football.
The game is bound with archetypes: Nathan Prescott is the rich, super powerful drug dealer and possible rapist who can get away with it; Victoria Chase is the stuck-up leader of a group of mean girls who gossip in bathrooms about other girls; Chloe is the blue-haired punk rock troublemaker.
These characters, though initially defined by their stereotypes, are also able to break out of their molds. Victoria, for example, who is introduced as unkind to Max in the first episode can become compassionate by the third. Though the relationship between Max and Victoria can alter depending on choices the player makes, Victoria ultimately has an opportunity to grow.
What I learned by briefly talking to minority students, however, is that they had little to say about themselves and more to say about the main, white cast's involvement in Blackwell's mysteries. If the player encourages Daniel, a Latino student, to continue photography, the player is rewarded by learning more about Nathan's whereabouts. This is also true for Stella and Hayden, the school's only black students. Instead of having an identity, and an opportunity to grow, these students exist simply because they have knowledge Max needs. Why aren't their stories embedded into the mysteries of Blackwell Academy, a campus they too call home?
As writer Sheva puts it atFemHype, the problem with placing these characters solely as background is that it "suggests that the stories of characters of color are somehow less than those of white characters; less interesting, less evocative, less powerful, and less poignant." Life is Strange falls into the same trap real-world institutions do, where it's assumed white people are the truly talented, most deserving.
What's missing is an opportunity for these characters to develop beyond their race and to show they belong on Blackwell's campus. Let these characters show they are an active part of Blackwell, and not just people who observe the white characters. Let these students be a part of riddles Max must answer to learn the truth of Blackwell, and not just optional rewards the player can ignore. Giving these characters autonomy outside of their relationship to white students would have earned them a real place on campus.