Can games make us more empathetic? It’s a question that’s still up for debate among designers, players and cognitive scientists alike. While videogames are often built around an illusion of moral agency, it’s still uncertain as to whether videogames can actually facilitate empathy for marginalized people and those different from us, or if they simply reinforce our preconceived beliefs. But perhaps this is because games aren’t often about empathy. Rarely are we asked to center the experience of a diverse array of people and see the world through their eyes.
Life is Strange is the exception. Almost every major choice in the series is founded on empathy, on considering how your choices affect these characters who, due to their writing, easily feel like real people. From living with an abusive parent to struggling with depression and allowing ourselves to not be okay, it has always challenged its players to understand others more, to treat them with compassion and be aware of the consequences of our actions. Christian Divine, a lead writer for Dontnod Entertainment working on the Life is Strange games, says this is what he feels defines the series. His hope is that “it does help bring more empathy to the world because that’s what Life is Strange is about—it’s about empathy for people that you’re not.”
Life is Strange was groundbreaking from its very first episode. It felt revolutionary in how it starred not just one, but two, teenage girls who weren’t sexualized and who mirrored the ordinary and complex lives of real people. As the first season went on, it would also touch on themes like mental illness, queerness, intimacy between women, abuse and disabilities, making the game immensely popular with players and critics alike. While these aspects captured the attention and love from critics and fans, Life is Strange centering two queer teenage girls almost prevented its existence. Every company besides Square Enix passed on the game—they enjoyed the game’s concept but asked the development team to change Max to a male protagonist.
Given the lack of female protagonists in games, some were skeptical when Life is Strange 2 was revealed to star two boys, viewing it as a step back from the first season. But the protagonists of Life is Strange 2 aren’t just any boys—they’re two Latino brothers, who are forced to go on the run after a racist attack leads to a deadly encounter with the police, an especially compelling and important story given the current political climate in the United States. While the game began development before the election of Donald Trump, this decision to tackle such an intense and relevant social issue was deliberate.
“Life is Strange is always about dealing with social-cultural issues and dealing with, hopefully, a somewhat diverse cast of characters,” says Divine. “And so it was important, I think, to [lead writer] Jean-Luc [Cano] and the team to expand our character base, too—to move outside of it. We all love Max and Chloe and we all loved writing them and creating them. But now there are other people that are taking over.”
The story of Life is Strange 2 would be significant even if the political circumstances were different, but they are what they are, and so the game is all the more poignant for it. “Having characters that are non-white as leads is a unique situation in games,” Divine points out. Life is Strange is a series that doesn’t and won’t shy away from embracing its politics because “games are diverse, the world is diverse, and games are going to have to reflect that diversity—and it’s important to. That’s just a natural progression of art.”
Empathetically reflecting the diversity of the world in which we inhabit requires engaging with what it means to be a marginalized person and experiencing the world through their eyes, as much as that’s possible. Although the universe of Life is Strange physically expands as Sean and Daniel make their way to Mexico, Life is Strange 2 starts in Seattle, Wash., a nod to the influence of Twin Peaks that strives to capture the mysterious ambiance of the Pacific Northwest and its mist, mountains and trees. That very ambiance is likely experienced differently and less romantically for a person of color than it is for a white person; the last U.S census, conducted in 2010, found that white people made up 66.3% of Seattle’s population, with Latinos of any race accounting for only 6.6% of Seattle’s residents. Says Divine, “You can walk into a place in the Pacific Northwest and be the only person of color in town. When you start from that, what would that be like? And then it’s also based on what’s the character, what’s the story? Sean Diaz, how is he seeing this based on where he grew up? And how does [Sean and Daniel’s father] Esteban? Esteban sees things differently than Sean because he came from a different background. All this comes into play into how you write these characters and it’s up to the audience or the reader or the player to decide if it sounds true and if it doesn’t work.”
As someone who is Latinx and has several Latinx friends who love the series, the first episode of Life is Strange 2 was surreal to play. It made us feel visible in a way that no other videogame has, from Sean and Daniel’s brown skin to their astoundingly realistic dialogue, which occasionally dips into Spanish. With characters like Jackie in Cyberpunk 2077’s demo speaking jarring and unrealistic lines like “put some pants on your culo” every other minute, it has sometimes felt like videogames wouldn’t ever get it right. “Language is messy,” says Divine, “and so one thing that I think we’re pretty good at in Life is Strange is this kind of naturalistic dialogue. Dialogue is tricky in games because you’re trying to impart information and character and gameplay, so the dialogue has to multitask in a lot of ways. In the end, it has to sound interesting and it has to make sense for what’s going on in the game, too. It is something that we do spend a lot of time on.”
To achieve such natural dialogue, Divine says Dontnod relied on the people of color on the writing team to make adjustments along the way. “One of our designers, Macha Lopez, she’s good with language. So she’ll say, ‘Well, maybe this won’t sound totally right.’ You have to walk a fine line. I know from my own experience with my friends that they’ll sometimes pull in Spanish words into sentences. And it is tricky, that balance of making it sound real and making it sound cliche. We go over the dialogue pretty thoroughly, so we just tried to get it to where it sounds real. And hopefully it sounds real—there’s certainly a naturalism that we’re trying to get across in just the way people talk, and it’s kind of messy, too.”
Many fans of the first season were surprised to see that a team of white male leads would be so successful at writing a genuine and heartfelt story about two young queer teen girls. After seeing the demo of the first episode of Life is Strange 2, I too admittedly felt anxious, despite the trust the team had established with their sensitive handling in the first season, and braced myself for the seemingly inevitable signs of clumsiness. I expected an errant written line with one or two random and simple Spanish words shoved in, a game that would fail in representing what the experience of a Latinx person can be or give merit to harmful stereotypes. To avoid making these sort of mistakes, Divine starts from his own identity as a marginalized person. “I know what it’s like to be marginalized,” he says. “I have spent my whole life that way. I’m disabled—I was born with one hand, so … I never say that I know what it’s like to be a person of color or a Latino person or anything like that. Part of what you’re doing when you’re a writer is you’re putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Anybody who’s reading this, if you’re interested in being a writer, your first order of business is to be interested in other people. You really have to step outside yourself. It’s not about you.
“Culture is different from all over the world and that’s what makes us unique. But what makes us together, what unites us, is emotion. We don’t all know the languages, we don’t all know the cultural history of a place, but we all know love and pain and fear. So that’s what you’re trying to tap into.”
While Life is Strange is often defined by its magical realism, the ways in which it shines light on the human experience are what breathe life into the series. Games often provide a fun escape—but that’s not all they can do. Some developers, like Divine, create games to address real-life issues vital to our time and spread empathy. “We should always be ambitious,” he says. “With Life is Strange 2, we’re tackling whole other themes, and it’s up to the player to decide if that works for them, but it’s important that we just keep that evolution. As an artist—as with anything—you want to keep evolving. You want to keep expanding, and so hopefully we’ll keep expanding the palette of what games are.”