It’s late afternoon, and I’m collecting literary analysis essays from my thirteen-year-old students.
“Hey, Nate,” one of them asks me. His name is Jacob. “What would you do if I didn’t have my essay done?”
I give him a look. I have an idea of what this question means. “Well, I’d ask why not,” I tell him. “I’d make a note of it in my records. I’d sit down with you and make a plan for how you could get a draft turned in. I’d make you commit to a new deadline.”
Jacob considers this. “Would you be, like, mad?”
“Nah. Maybe disappointed.”
Jacob nods; my hypothetical reaction seems fair. A moment later, to my surprise, he hands me his completed essay.
It’s late afternoon again, and I’m controlling protagonist Max Caulfield in the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange. Max’s photography teacher, a thirty-something guy who could easily be me if I started working out, refitted my wardrobe and invested in some hair gel, is asking the class something about the history of photography. Max isn’t paying attention because I’m acclimating to the game’s interface; she snaps a Polaroid selfie because I press the A button.
Max’s teacher puts her on the spot with a question to which she doesn’t know the answer. She shrinks, embarrassed.
The central conceit of Life is Strange is that Max has been granted the power to undo her mistakes. I hold the left trigger to rewind time, and Max answers the question correctly, beaming. My kids would love this, I think.
Unfortunately, it’s not really available to them. I teach middle schoolers, and Life is Strange is rated M.
Many critics have lauded Life is Strange for attempting a kind of story that most games don’t—a story about young adults, with a teenage protagonist who grapples with teenage issues. Its uniqueness in the current games landscape is all the more conspicuous when contrasted with other media, where capital-Y capital-A “Young Adult” juggernauts like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight and a whole host of hangers-on rake in seemingly endless dollars by targeting early adolescent readers and viewers. I’m not sure I’d like to see those titles in particular emulated by games, but their massive success does raise an important question: Where are the games for young adults?
When I ask my students what kinds of games they play, if they play any at all, their responses usually fall into one of two categories: games that are deliberately “all ages,” like Minecraft or Mario Kart, and games that they hesitate to name because they know that as their teacher, I’m obliged to tut tut them: Call of Duty. Assassin’s Creed. Grand Theft Auto. (That last one usually makes me consider having a word with their parents.)
Even as I shake my head at them, I can’t help but sympathize a little. Teaching adolescents for almost a decade makes me very cognizant that their greatest desire is to be seen as adults, despite their inexperience, even though they don’t yet fully have the capacity for adult thought. Like my student Jacob, who wanted to know if I’d get angry if he hadn’t finished his paper, they prod at adults while carefully observing their reactions, pushing up against the boundaries so they can get a strong sense for where the lines are drawn. If you have an adolescent in your life, you’ve almost certainly experienced this firsthand.
One of the strongest arguments for the value of games that offer player choice is that they tell us something about ourselves. When we play Telltale’s The Walking Dead or BioWare’s Mass Effect, we have to make moral choices that tell us something about what kind of person we might be when the chips are down. Trapped in a room with a man who might be about to turn into a zombie, do we murder him preemptively in the hope that we might save ourselves? Do we kill the last remnants of a species that once ravaged the galaxy, or do we set them free and trust their promises of repentance?
The degree to which these choices affect the stories of their respective games matters little. They act as a mirror that allows the player to consider the values they hold, the identity they’ve constructed. This can be potent for an adult player, certainly, but imagine the effect it might have on a teenage player, whose identity is still under construction! To be told something about who you are is a powerful experience for an adult, but to an adolescent it is formative, even transformative.
The most fundamentally teenage thing about Life is Strange isn’t its protagonist or its setting, both of which represent adolescence viewed through the nostalgic lens of adulthood. The most teenage thing about Life is Strange is Max’s gift, the ability to take action and safely observe what the world’s reaction will be, knowing that if you’ve overstepped a boundary, you may freely rescind your decision. The freedom from immediate consequence makes it the most adolescent power fantasy of all.
And yet, like BioWare’s most celebrated epics and all of Telltale’s catalog since The Walking Dead, Life is Strange is deemed by the ESRB to be inappropriate for my students. It contains: “Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence, and Use of Drugs.”
It would be painting with too broad a brush to say that there are absolutely no games about teenagers, or no games that treat teenage issues: Many games in the anime aesthetic feature teenage protagonists, for instance, and both the Persona and Final Fantasy series have narratives that are challenging but (mostly) appropriate for young adult players. In fact, the JRPG might be the closest thing that games have to YA fiction—but a quick glance at the websites for Persona 4 Golden and Final Fantasy Type-0 shows me that my students would have to lie about their birth dates in order to log in. (Both games are rated M.)
Working with adolescents has shown me that they are hungry for narratives that will help them understand the adult world. As they leave elementary school, they also begin to break away from their family unit and start to envision themselves as independent members of society at large. It’s why teenagers are so “rebellious”—they are beginning to develop a social identity independent of their parents’. A big part of figuring out who they are comes from finding stories that reflect their newly-discovered values and allow them to conceive of themselves as true participants in adult society.
Games have the potential to offer this to teenagers perhaps better than any other medium, but until developers decide to tell these kinds of stories, adolescents will continue to seek them at the movie theater, or in a bookstore—or try to build their understanding of adult society from Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty. And I, as one of their adult guides, will have little recourse but to shunt them towards games that are appropriate for them—games that don’t offer them the opportunity to declare their values to the world and know that they can safely observe the world’s reaction.
And maybe, in a few years, when I’m no longer their teacher and I think they’re ready for it, I’ll tell them to pick up Life is Strange.
Nate Ewert-Krocker is a writer and a Montessori teacher who lives in Atlanta. His first book, an adventure novel for teens, is available here. You can find him on Twitter at @NEwertKrocker, where he mostly gushes about final boss themes from JRPGs.