As we've previously discussed on the Arcadia Baes podcast, there's a lot to admire about Dontnod's serialised coming of age tale Life is Strange. There's also quite a lot to criticise about it too. But one thing that I find absolutely fascinating about the troublesome teenage years of photography student Max Caulfield is how Dontnod approaches the idea of video game romance.
Video games, as a medium, have often struggled to emulate courtship in any meaningful way. Typically they operate on a vending machine model wherein you put in the work - go on enough sidequests or say enough correct dialogue options - and you're rewarded with a relationship. Depending on the game, you may even get some blue alien boobs. On the surface it makes sense. Spending time with someone is how you get to know them, and hey, maybe you'll have chemistry together. But I think this model is often poorly integrated as most developers make one crucial mistake with it: they assume a romantic relationship is the goal and that this can always be achieved if you simply choose the right lines.
This idea was laid most bare in Killer is Dead's much derided "Gigolo Mode" wherein player character Mondo Zappa was tasked with bedding women by choosing the correct gifts for them while also glaring at their naughty bits when they're not looking. That last part is rather obviously distasteful (though I think a more clever game could have implemented a "male gaze" mechanic to prove a point, but I digress), but the rest is pretty messed up too. It assumes sex can be bought, even if creator Suda51 defended the idea by upping the difficulty of this sleazy pastime. Other games like Mass Effect and Persona 3 aren't so blunt about it, but the idea remains similar.
What I absolutely love about Life is Strange is that Dontnod places us not in the role of the pursuer in a relationship, but of the pursued. Placed in the Chuck Taylor's of an 18-year-old girl, we find ourselves the object of another's desire with the gawkish pop culture-obsessed Warren playing the role we're usually put into.
Warren is perhaps Life is Strange's most divisive construct. He's rather obvious in his affections, but thinks he's being coy. He's a little too excited to "go ape" with you at a screening of Planet of the Apes and is a little too willing to help out with whatever you need, be it building a bomb or dealing with a bully. As previously discussed on Arcadia Baes, many of my colleagues find him a rather distasteful "nice guy" who's actually a pathetic, obnoxious creep.
Personally, I like Warren. I just don't "like like" Warren. I think he's funny and sweet. Furthermore, he and Max have a lot in common (I love the Cannibal Holocaust references, a badge of honour for any wannabe edgy "alternative" teen) and their bond feels genuine to me. I don't see him as a deceptive "nice guy", but rather an earnest chap who's in the unfortunate position of having developed romantic feelings towards a friend. That's not an easy burden to deal with regardless of age or gender. I mean, do you tell them how you feel, avoid them until your emotions calm down, or play it cool and let whatever happens happen? Warren tries to play it cool, but he's kind of terrible at it because he's a teenager (though I reckon most adults aren't much better).
Despite my affection for the character, my interpretation of Max just doesn't fancy him the way he fancies her. Furthermore, I don't really know Warren all that well. His screentime is rather limited and while I get good vibes from him, there's still a chance he will turn into a bitter asshole once he finds out that what he wants just ain't gonna happen. Having to navigate that awkward situation of keeping him as a friend without leading him on (while remaining slightly suspicious of him, perhaps unfairly so) felt like a very, very real situation that video games simply don't emulate. We're so used to being Warren - strategising what somebody wants to hear so that you can "win" a relationship - that we're seldom put in the other position of trying to minimise tension in an inherently tense situation.
Interestingly, and completely anecdotally, the vitriol I've heard towards Warren doesn't seem to be swayed by gender. Some female friends of mine find him reminiscent of creeps they've known, while others insist that he's very respectable. Some men identify with him and defend him, while others are particularly harsh towards him. My belief here is that a lot of guys see a part of themselves in Warren and find that idea troublesome. Everyone wants to think they're much smoother in these situations than they really are, but simply condemning Warren misses the point that there's a little Warren in all of us.
Dontnod's approach to virtual courtship is an important one. By placing us in the opposite role than the one we're used to (in games anyway) it gives us an alternate perspective on how we're perceived. It's easy to imagine the Max/Warren dynamic played from the other side wherein his player-controlled actions seem perfectly reasonable. "I helped her build a bomb so she could break into the school rather than condemn her criminal activities. Look at how supportive I am!" you'd think. Or "I suggested we go to Planet of the Apes rather than a school dance because cheesy old sci-fi films are something we both have in common. We get each other!" Or, as Donlan pointed out, "I tried to give her a hug, but she wasn't feeling it, so I just rubbed her head instead. Because I care about her personal space."
Viewed from this perspective, Warren is actually not that different from most video game protagonists trying to court someone. He's a good listener, supportive of Max's needs, and shares a lot of similar interests with her. He's also socially awkward and clumsy at times (but really, who isn't?). But just because Warren makes a lot of the right choices doesn't mean he's going to receive the relationship he wants. Max is her own person, after all, with her own wants and needs. And thanks to Dontnod's reversal on the standard formula, she's also you.