By: Seth Brodbeck TW: Discussion of date rape and rape culture. Brief references to suicide.(Also: Spoilers for the first two episodes of Life is Strange, but I thought the above information was more important)
Here’s what we know as of Episode 2 of Dontnod Entertainment’s game, Life is Strange: Girls who go to Vortex Club parties are getting drugged, probably by Nathan Prescott, who has a demonstrated ability to get away with a lot around Blackwell Academy thanks to his parents’ patronage of the school. It’s definitely happened twice, to Chloe and Kate, it is quite possibly what happened to Rachel Adams, and is implied to have happened to many more girls by the binders shown briefly at the end of each episode so far. It is not explicitly stated that any of these girls were raped–it’s possible that something else happened to them which is connected to the other strangeness in Arcadia Bay–but the sequence of events bears a strong resemblance to accounts of date rape. Even if the game may be setting us up for a revelation that criminal behavior of a different stripe is occurring, the stories are still evocative of the experiences of rape victims.
Following media coverage of Emma Sulkowicz’s performance art piece “Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)” in protest of Columbia University’s refusal to pursue the sexual assault complaints filed by her and other students against Paul Nungesser, a conversation began about how society expects rape victims to behave. Happening on Twitter under the hashtag #TheresNoPerfectVictim, women shared stories of how they reacted after being raped, how that behavior did not match up to the hypothetical model of how rape victims are “supposed” to act, and how that harmed their credibility in eyes of the police, their communities, and the media. In short, society expects rape victims to call the police or 911 immediately, to be visibly traumatized, to avoid the rapist after the event, to not have had intimate contact beforehand, to remember precise details about what happened, and to not have been intoxicated in any way. Any deviation from this script can, and often does, fatally undermine the victim’s credibility. And ultimately, these standards ensure that even if someone did fit the script, something “suspect” would still arise from their story. “Why were you drinking so much?” can easily become “Why were you at the party in the first place?”.
Bad Victim vs. Perfect Victim
These narratives are woven into Life is Strange in such a manner as to simultaneously leverage and comment upon them. You first learn about the druggings from Chloe Price, who may as well have “bad victim” written all over her.
Her hair is dyed, she’s got tattoos on her arms, she has a trash can full of unpaid parking tickets, she smokes weed, and she was drinking underage in a bar trying to lift money off of Nathan Prescott (also underage and drinking in a bar, but his family is implied to more or less “own” the town of Arcadia Bay), who drugs her before she can steal from him. After the fact, Chloe doesn’t act upset or traumatized; she gets angry, and she tries to extort money from Nathan over the whole incident. Chloe doesn’t go to the police because she knows her story will not be considered credible.
Her inability to get help from the authorities is underlined by the game multiple times. In the scene prior to the one where Chloe reveals all this to Max, she gets into a fight with her stepfather and, provided the player doesn’t have Max intervene, the fight escalates to the point where her stepfather strikes her; when Chloe threatens to call the police on him, he replies “You’re not that dumb.” In episode 2, if Max talks to a cop at the Two Whales Diner, he’s likely to warn her away from hanging out with a troublemaker like Chloe. No one in Arcadia Bay would believe Chloe except for Max, and so she is left with precious few options.
In contrast, Kate Marsh hews very closely to the notion of the “perfect victim.” Before the player is even aware that anything is wrong in Arcadia Bay, she is already visibly upset about something, depressed, and getting picked on. She is religious, dresses demurely, and is vocally abstinent in all senses of the word.
When she reveals that she lost consciousness while at a Vortex Club party and has no recollection of what happened to Max, she says she had only a sip of wine and drank nothing but water for the rest of the night. But there’s a video of her from that night dancing at the party, acting “wasted” and “making out with” and “touching” various male members of the Club. Significantly, the player has no opportunity to see this video themselves, they only hear references to what happens in it from other characters. Max won’t look at it, and while the URL of it, katesvid.com, is a real registered website, the only thing you’ll find there is a fake WordPress page with a jpeg of a Youtube “This video has been removed” screen. The player can have Max question Kate’s recollection of the night’s event with a series of “Are you sure?”s, but she always ends up believing Kate, and the way it hurts Kate to not be taken seriously is obvious.
Everyone else at Blackwell, including members of the staff and faculty, has seen the video absent the context Kate provides to Max and has simply concluded that she was drunk or high. The art teacher will even suggest to Max that Kate “brought this on herself” if pressed on the subject. This is the cleverness of the way the game presents the scenario to the player: To the player, Kate is very close to the perfect victim, ensuring that she has the necessary degree of credibility to get the player to sympathize with her so that her attempted suicide at the climax of Episode 2 has the greatest possible impact. But to nearly every other character in the game, Kate is a bad victim, making the degree of bullying and dismissive attitudes she experiences believable and enabling a critique of rape culture.
Since Life is Strange is the sort of game that keeps and displays statistics of how everyone who plays it responds to the major choices it puts forward, there are some interesting numbers that add color to the situation. When Kate tells Max her story, the player is given the opportunity to either urge Kate to go to the police, or to wait and try to gather more evidence. Leaving aside the question of whether Max should even be making this decision for Kate, it is notable that the majority of players, some 66% at the time of this writing, urge Kate not to go to the police yet. Now, there are many reasons why this might be the case. By this point, the player may be genre savvy enough to realize that this is the sort of story where adults and the authorities are either useless or corrupt, and so believe that Kate won’t get anywhere unless she has incontrovertibly damning evidence against Nathan. It is also possible that Max’s obvious discomfort when Kate assumes she will be her “backup witness” gives the player pause about the way this might force Max into the spotlight, causing them to rewind and pick the other option. But it might just be that the player’s awareness of what the rest of the school thinks of Kate, the fact that for them the narrative is already set, influences their decision to push Kate to keep silent for now. That is more or less the reason Max cites to Kate if the player decides to tell her not to go to the police.
In contrast, when Max is given the opportunity to point the finger at someone in front of the principal after Kate’s suicide attempt, a staggering 80% choose to accuse Nathan of drugging her. No new evidence against Nathan has arisen in the meantime, but the majority of players accuse him anyway, despite the fact that a considerable number of them likely told Kate not to make any accusations herself. Once again, there are a lot of reasons why different players may have made that decision. Max has to point the finger at someone to explain why Kate just attempted to take her own life, and the other two options are adults, so the player might feel that it is safer to blame another student; they might also feel that they are unlikely to be taken seriously in any case, so they might as well blame the person who did the most to hurt Kate. It also bears mentioning that of the three people who the player can have Max blame, one is contrite, the other is angry, and Nathan reeks of insincere concern, so the player might seek to puncture that facade. Additionally, for a good portion of the episode, Nathan has been targeting Max with intimidation tactics in order to scare her into silence (this may depend on choices made in the first episode), leading the player to defy Nathan, whether for revenge or just to not feel like they’ve been coerced into silence. All the same, it is striking that so many players, nearly half at the very least, end up considering Max, someone who has all of her information second hand, to be potentially more credible than either victim. Is it that they believe that Kate’s attempted suicide has the principal prepared to take things seriously for once, or do they think Max has the best odds of being believed because her reputation is less sullied than the victims’?
Regardless of why players have responded the way they have to the game, Life is Strange is clearly setting up a commentary on rape culture. Details in the game hint that these are part of a series of attacks on women, each targeting girls who are either considered suspect, or who are rendered so by a concerted campaign of character assassination. Even the missing girl, Rachel Adams, is the target of damaging rumors and anonymous attacks months after her disappearance. And all of the attacks have been perpetrated, at least in part, by someone already known to the victims. In all these respects, Life is Strange mirrors real life incidences of rape, and by involving Max–and through her the player–in the plight of the victims, the game pushes the player to consider their position and all the obstacles in the way of making an accusation and getting justice. Instead of being invited to question their character, the player is encouraged to help them cope. Instead of holding out for proof, Max takes the powerful step of simply believing them, and does what she can to help. By dragging the player along, she gives them a perspective they might not have been confronted with otherwise.