This will just be a brief focused piece, but I’ll kick off by saying the Life is Strange series is fucking brilliant. Although the story of Chloe and Max was beautiful, I respect DONTNOD’s decision to say their story is over and expand the universe. Their writing and game design has improved over the course of the series (let’s be honest, the original was lovely but clunky at times).
However, this is not a review, either of the series or LIS2E2. Rather, it’s an immensely spoilery comment on a particular aspect of the latest installment.
I’m going to assume you know a fair amount about the games if you’re reading something this specific, but some brief context is necessary. Life is Strange 2 has moved away from a protagonist with a superpower, to a protagonist with responsibility for a child with a superpower, making for an ethically complex experience. With great responsibility comes… great power.
The implications of this first come to a head in Episode 2, where the choices you make in interacting with Daniel determine the ending. In a nice deviation from previous Life is Strange installments, you have no choices at the climax, rather the climax is determined by your previous interactions with Daniel.
Here are the paths available (also outlined in the above video):
- If you tell Daniel to reveal the truth to Chris, you get the happiest ending; you and Daniel escape, Chris is safe.
- If you tell Daniel to protect the truth, Chris will try to save you with his imagined superpowers, putting himself in harm’s way. If you previously encouraged Daniel to use his powers to save people, he will save Chris.
- If you tell Daniel to keep the truth from Chris, and discourage him from using his powers to save people (again hiding the truth), Chris will be hit by a police car.
So basically, the more you prioritise hiding the truth, the greater the consequences for others, specifically Chris in this case.
Aswell as a self-preservation question, this poses a question of consistency in setting boundaries for Daniel. At the outset of the episode you give him a set of rules for using the power, primarily that he should hide the truth – and the episode title is Rules.
Now, if you’ll forgive brief digression, I believe this can best be understood in terms of deontological vs consequential ethics.
In brief, deontology means “the normative ethical theory that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action.” Conversely, consequentialism means “the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.”
So, deontology is about rules, consequentialism is about consequences.
For example, the rule Thou Shalt Not Kill: a deontologist might hold that this is absolute, a consequentialist might hold that it depends on the context. For example, do you kill a serial killer to prevent more deaths?
In the case of the game, Sean has established a set of rules which seem reasonable in themselves, and probably best for protecting Daniel from himself:
- Hide your power
- Never talk about it
- Run from danger
These rules are very quickly challenged by difficult circumstances, particularly the question of protecting Chris (also from himself, kids eh).
To protect Chris, Daniel must break at least one of the rules; either tell Chris about his powers, or if that fails, break the remaining two rules by saving Chris from danger. Following a consequentialist logic, you must allow Daniel to break the rules you yourself have set.
These ethical questions are deepened by the fact that you’re dealing with children, giving them both heightened emotional stakes and added ethical dimensions.
How do you teach ethics to a kid? If you set rules, is it good ‘parenting’ (brothering?) to then immediately make exceptions? Is it better to teach them to judge based on circumstances, and can you trust them to do that?
Daniel also has free will (sort of), so while he will take your guidance, it’s a question of setting norms. In the climax you can’t directly determine his actions, but your previous actions will influence his.
This is far from the first time the Life is Strange series has dealt with ethical questions. As well as the multiple micro-level ethical questions throughout the games, the climax of the original was essentially a version of the much-memed Trolley Problem; do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? Bay or Bae?
However, deontology vs consequentialism strikes me as a more sophisticated, and yet more obviously relevant, question than the well-worn Trolley Problem; follow the rules, or do what seems right in the circumstances?
PS: As a consequentialist I got the ending where they escape without drama, but my preferred ending is definitely Daniel flinging a cop car off the road. Fuck the rules, fuck the police.
PPS: I realise in retrospect that another set of rules are significantly breached, Claire’s house rules. In that case it probably would have been sensible to follow them tbh.