Before I begin, this post will detail some issues about depression, suicide and spoil major aspects of an excellent video game, Life is Strange by dontnod entertainment. If you have major issues with any of those particular topics, this post is not going to be for you and you might want to skip this one. Alternatively, if you want to play Life is Strange for yourself I really recommend you don’t read this and play it first. It’s a fantastic game and the narrative is really shaping up to be in an extremely interesting place: Especially with what it does at the conclusion of the second episode.
Alright now, with warnings out of the way let’s move onto the actual topic: How do we use player agency in a game – in this case a video game but many of these discussion points will apply to roleplaying games – on particularly serious topics. Most notably for someone such as myself who runs a lot of Cthulhu orientated games, how do you bring up the idea that characters your PCs might care about or even love commit suicide? How should you handle such a thing and by giving agency to the players in being able to stop it, what feelings might you create should they fail to do so?
This topic came to mind recently after I played and finished the second episode of a video game called Life is Strange. This game follows the life of a teenage girl who develops the ability to rewind time over limited periods, which lets her do things like ask questions and see the result, rewind time, then using the knowledge gained manipulate the person she is questioning. One example is getting into a private dance, where after talking to the other girl you get dismissed with a brash “You wouldn’t know what a dress code was anyway”. When you rewind time with this knowledge, you can re-initiate the dialog but this time dropping a casual “I would bet you have a strict dress code” in there impressing the other girl and scoring an invite.
Major spoilers for the game now follow and then, personal experiences and discussion of player agency, suicide and so on. You’ve been warned!
So the second episode of the game follows how one girl, Kate, handles a terrible bullying video put out of her doing things as one of these parties. Uploaded online, the video spreads like wildfire around the school and causes Kate’s life to spiral out of control as other students share the video to shame her, bully her over it and call her terrible things. Kate doesn’t handle this well and Maxine (that’s who you play as) has numerous decisions to make in how she supports (or fails to support) Kate. A good example is during an argument with another person getting a call from Kate on the phone and being able to choose to ignore or answer it. In my case, I ignored the call and by the time I was done, couldn’t rewind time to do both the conversation and it (your rewind time powers have only so much leeway in this game).
This has an astounding and heart rending climax, as the bullying, shame and other factors within Kate’s life take their toll: She goes up to the roof of a tall building and jumps. Seeing this, Maxine exhausts her time rewinding ability to freeze the world around her and get up there onto the roof with Kate. Bleeding from the nose as she does so, the game informs you at this point that there is no ability to rewind time. There is no second chance. Whatever happens on this roof happens and suddenly in a game where you can go through dialog somewhat willy nilly, has made this conversation have immense gravitas.
Max (you) on the left attempting to talk Kate (right) down from jumping.
Through careful dialog options, decisions you had made previously through interacting with Kate or helping her situation (like erasing the link to the video on the bathroom mirror at the school) and finally how well you knew her family or personally all decide the outcome. In my game, as near as I can tell, some of the decisions I had made previously made the task of preventing Kate from jumping damn near impossible to actually do. When it ended…. I had failed.
Kate jumped to her death.
At the end of the game, I got a stats screen that demonstrated what other players had done and I was surprised to see that many players had actually saved Kate. On looking it up I noticed that there was a correct series of actions and dialog choices that could save her life. Many had apparently failed, because initial posts suggested a 70/30 Kate dies/lives ratio and this has slowly changed to the positive 40/60ish rating it had when I did it. People can, after all, reload the game and try again.
But I couldn’t muster the ability to try again, because in many ways my failure here with Kate in this entirely fictional video game was a reminder of a failure in reality. Many years ago now, I used to talk to a wonderful woman online, who was into Dungeons and Dragons, various video games and things that I loved as well. We used to talk for a long time and for much of that, I never understood just how much pain she was really in. After many months of chatting and becoming good friends, it culminated in a single evening where she was talking about suicide and about how angry and sad she was. I left my computer that night thinking I had done enough to convince her that there was still something worth living for. It wasn’t the first conversation we had about it after all, even if it was more intense than usual and she seemed uniquely upset.
It was the last conversation I ever had with her. Years later, I still replay what I could have done or said that was different. Was there some combination of words, platitudes or just outright trying to call the authorities or anyone who could have assisted that would have prevented it? If I had known something more about her that could have got through? I can’t answer these questions and only sadness comes from even trying to contemplate how to begin to do so. The fact is that she is gone and I couldn’t have done anything, or at least that’s what anyone I’ve told this story to has said. She lost a long, terrible and until the last couple of months of her life where she finally let me into how she actually felt, secret battle with depression.
Someone who I thought I knew so well, was so like me in more ways than I ever realized, lost their battle and was gone.
Returning to the game world where Kate had recently plunged off a roof was a very solid hit to my guts. Aside from all the memories that came back, in this narrative, I did have control. I could replay what happened, I could make correct choices and I could save Kate’s life. Yes, this is a work of fiction and it’s a video game where you can restart it and do different things any time, I get that, but it still had the same emotional impact. It still brought back memories and guilt that I had managed to keep under control for years. One of my thought processes at the time just after I finished was “I couldn’t even save a fictional woman in a fictional video game, no wonder I failed to save a real one”.
Yes, that’s a very irrational and very silly thought but that was the immediate impact upon me.
The way you build a narrative matters a lot regardless of what you’re doing. When you give players in a game control over that narrative or how the fates of characters play out, no matter if it’s a video game or a tabletop game like Trail of Cthulhu, you should be very mindful of how the game treats topics like this. A dramatic scene where players confront a beloved ally, who has lost his marbles and is going to perhaps take their own life should be carefully considered. What memories or experiences might you evoke in your players should the dice not go their way and that character does end their life? Of course, I am not saying that everyone on the planet has a story like mine – dear gods I hope not – but the effect on me from Life is Strange was quite profound for the short time after I finished that episode.
In fact it makes me wonder to a scene in Trail of Cthulhu I ran where a player characters source of stability went crazy from reading the wrong tome. The character boarded himself up in his own church, then doused himself and it in oil. Then slowly set fire to it and unfortunately, the investigator (despite my hinting) went to the scene by themselves. Without anyone to help the insane NPC proved a bit too much to handle and they could barely escape. While a dramatic, fascinating and poignant scene demonstrating the danger of mythos tomes to the sanity of every day people, perhaps it evoked terrible memories of a sort there as well?
You might wonder what is the difference between movies, books or other fiction and the situations presented where Life is Strange or even my own campaign, had NPCs who committed suicide. After all, a lot of this blog is devoted to games like Trail of Cthulhu derived from Lovecraft’s works and in many of his books the protagonists were such terrible wrecks by the end they barely functioned as people. A good chunk of them go the whole way and end their lives as a direct result of the trauma suffered from their experiences in the narrative. Likewise many other books, TV shows or movies have characters that do kill themselves – but they never made me feel the way I did after failing to save Kate in Life is Strange.
This is because the difference is agency. In those TV shows, books or whatever there is a fixed narrative. That character is always going to die and there was never any way I could stop or prevent it. This isn’t to say that these things couldn’t make me feel anything emotionally, but it wasn’t the same as being directly responsible for screwing up and having Kate die as a result of my inaction/choices. It’s what made a decision to include the suicide storyline go from something sad, to directly reminding me of my own experiences and guilt from years ago. This is important to realize in a game or narrative you’re writing, that failure can have more consequences than just numbers on a character sheet or rolling an improbable series of 1s on a bunch of dice.
Before I continue with this discussion, I want to point out that I actually applaud dontnod for how they put this situation into the game. It’s not a random narrative cheap shot and everything in the episode builds up to it. The fact you can fail and that Kate can die is immensely bold as a decision. Not to mention that it can be nigh impossible to save her if you didn’t pay enough attention to certain things early on or commit to certain actions, making it a good example of a long term consequence. I certainly didn’t send them an angry email, delete the game off my computer or anything like that after it. I’m deeply keen in fact to see how the third episode plays out in the light of Kate’s suicide.
But I also didn’t change how that scene played out. Like what happened in my own life that I couldn’t change, I’ve decided to let Kate’s death stand and see how Maxine and the other characters deal with it. No reloading the game and reading a guide to ensure I got the “correct” result. In many ways, I am hoping my faith in the significance of this event in the game pays off and the narrative of the next few episodes reflects it appropriately. It will certainly be retroactively extremely offensive – given its prominence in the narrative for this episode – if it ends up being a minor plot point to be tucked away somewhere and promptly forgotten by everyone involved.
In any event, the difference between the fiction in games and a fixed narrative point where X character dies is the impact the player (or players in your average tabletop game) make on the outcome. Failure is amplified dramatically when you had a direct part in it, where another outcome was clearly always possible but you just failed to reach it and this is what I realized from playing through this moment in Life is Strange. In fact it’s one of the reasons I feel playing through other games and stories is so important to being a good DM/GM/Keeper/Director etc. An understanding of how narrative works and how a player might experience it is insightful, which will let many of us “Forever DMs” appreciate what it’s like to be the one with agency in the story. Then how it feels to fail in that story – where generally speaking that’s the end of the road for a beloved investigator or important NPC.
A good piece of advice if you’re wondering about if you should include moments like this dramatic rooftop dialog contest in your own game is to know your players. Don’t bring out the heaviest narrative elements straight away, but rather see how they respond to other situations and get to know them a bit. One of the great things I find about having a consistent group, is being able to start pushing boundaries and include situations that might be very “over edgy” to people who don’t know you very well at first. Once there is mutual trust, in your ability as DM/GM to believe the players will handle such situations well and them (as players) having faith you’re not just doing these things for raw poor taste shock value or outright offense – this can add immeasurably to the game.
Ultimately, I don’t want this post to come off as some kind of scolding “Don’t do these things” but instead to invite dialog and find out how your players feel. After you do something like this situation from Life is Strange in a game for whatever reason (or other similar kind of themes), perhaps take the time to talk it over and gauge what everyone thinks about it. Be emboldened and have faith in the narrative you are writing for your game (especially if the outcome is uncertain), which I certainly congratulate dontnod for doing*, but be aware that you can be bringing up very real painful memories even if the source is an entirely fictional one.
Handing agency of a narrative of a game’s overall story to your player’s actions is a huge deal and one you should be very careful with. Used well, it will genuinely add to the game and the overall memories that everyone takes from it. Even for dark subject matter like suicide and the sad fact that for many of us today, given youth suicide statistics, will have lost or known someone who has lost someone to it. If you’re going to do it as a major part of the game, say from a well known or important NPC that is well established, use it well and not just as a cheap plot device. Give it the gravitas and respect it deserves in the story and your players will respond well.
*Consider this: How many other games even remotely address the issue of teenage bullying and suicide in such a direct manner? That’s enormously worthy of praise and something I feel games can meaningfully explore better than many other kinds of media.