This article contains frank descriptions of suicide, as well as spoilers for Life is Strange.
At the age of 15, I failed to prevent the suicide of a dear friend named Sarah.
I first met Sarah on a My Chemical Romance web forum. We bonded over a shared love of the band and ended up providing emotional support to each other over a period of around eight months. Having never physically met, I felt I could tell Sarah anything without fear of consequence or judgment. If I ever needed support, she was there. I tried to offer that same support to her.
One night, she came on MSN telling me that she couldn't face another day living. It wasn't that her life was particularly terrible as far as I could tell, but she felt a consistent emptiness somewhere within her. She had failed her exams, she had no plans for the future and she just couldn't see a reason to keep living.
We spoke for about six hours that night. I tried to keep her talking by breaking our time down into seconds and minutes. I tried to scare her into fearing oblivion more than she feared her present. I tried to tell her things would get better and I tried to make her see that I cared about her. I desperately clung to what was left, hoping that I could find a way to keep her with us just a little longer. I didn't know her real name, nor where she lived. I couldn't contact the authorities.
By the end of the night, Sarah had committed suicide.
Dealing with the aftermath
In the years since I failed to stop Sarah taking her own life, I've had to find ways to cope with what happened. I told myself she was the one who chose to take her life. I told myself that I did all I could. I told myself that no matter what I did, I could not have changed how she felt. My actions alone could not have saved her life. Nothing I did or failed to do was the cause of her death. It was not my fault.
I told myself time and time again that my actions could not have affected the outcome of that day.
I've often heard it argued that video games should be treated the same as any other artistic medium when it comes to narrative design. If you can have a book feature a mass shooting, then you can do it in games. If movies can depict rape, then so can video games. Video games do not cause players to re-enact what they see on screen, so it's often argued that there's no harm in portraying emotionally difficult narratives where the consumer has agency within the situation.
The second episode of the video game Life is Strange is the experience that convinced me that agency over emotionally tense situations can not only be incredibly powerful, but that power puts a huge duty of care in the hands of creators. I think that video game creators need to treat difficult subject material with a greater degree of responsibility that creators in any other medium.
Life is Strange, which centers on the story of a teenage girl who discovers she has the ability to rewind time at will, spends the bulk of its second episode convincing the player to frivolously overuse their newfound power by goofing off all day with a close friend named Chloe.
Toward the end of the episode, the player is forced to face their friend Kate, who has spent the entire episode battling a traumatic series of events in her personal life and is now standing on the roof of her dorm planning to take her own life.
The player is made aware that they only have one chance to prevent their friend's suicide; there are no do-overs if you fail. I did everything in my power to save Kate, much like I did with Sarah, but ultimately it wasn't enough. I was forced to watch Kate fall to her death. I was powerless to stop her. It was my fault she was dead.
I initially assumed that there was nothing I could have done to save Kate. Maybe all answers eventually led to her taking her life? Perhaps the clues to save her just did not exist.
As it turns out, not only could I have prevented her from taking her own life, but almost 80 percent of players in my shoes managed to prevent her suicide. Presented with the same information, experiences, opportunities and options as me, only 20 percent of people failed to save Kate.
Where I had tried my best and not been able to save her, almost everybody else in my shoes managed to convince her that life was worth living. They paid enough attention. They found the clues. They understood her well enough to get through to her. Her suicide was preventable, and my actions could have saved her.
Games and the responsibility of agency
Having agency over that scene shook me to my very core. Being expected to relive one of the worst days of my life and experiencing the same outcome was tough. Being told five minutes later that the outcome was my fault? That was incredibly distressing. Years of convincing myself I couldn't have saved Sarah suddenly came into question. Even worse, so many others did a better job.
If someone else had been in my shoes, would Sarah still be here today? If Sarah had gone to somebody else for support, would they have been able to convince her that things would be OK?
Am I responsible for the fact she took her life?
I think that agency is one of the key things that sets video games apart from any other creative medium. If a movie had its lead character fail to talk someone out of taking their own life, the majority of the emotional burden would be on the character, not the viewer. When you give a player control over that situation, a much larger portion of that burden ends up on the shoulders of the player. It's not just the character who failed to save a life, it's you, the player, who failed.
This is the power and beauty of games
To be clear, I'm not saying that video game creators cannot insert this kind of narrative thread into video games. There is no reason that my distressing, relatively rare experiences should prevent a creator from telling this story. Your responsibility as a creator is to your work, not the personal circumstances of everyone who may play the game.
What I do want to suggest, however, is that far more than any other form of media, creators of video games need to be aware that this medium not only increases engagement but also increases the emotional burden on affected players in a unique way. I have watched films and read comics in the past that dealt with themes of unprevented suicide and, while difficult for me to get through, passive forms of media have never left me this distraught.
By giving me control of the situation in Life is Strange, developer Dontnod Entertainment suddenly forced me to inspect my own agency in my life. That has an emotional price attached. This is the power and beauty of games; what feels like an echo of pain in other art forms feels like a punch in the gut when the same topic is explored in a well-made game.
A feature, or a bug?
So how do developers handle that kind of power?
Trigger warnings offer an opportunity for players to avoid narratives that contain very specific situations that trigger traumatic memories of past events, but they inherently remove an element of surprise for players wanting to experience stories fresh.
If a trigger warning isn't for you specifically, you'll likely regret having read it; what would have allowed me to avoid a situation that I found painful would just read like a spoiler for most people.
You could bring up a menu when these scenes are about to occur, allowing players to skip the scene or hand control to the game. But this breaks the flow of the game considerably, which can damage narrative tone and pacing for the majority of unaffected players. For an experience as cinematic as Life is Strange you'd be trading the welfare of a few very specific players for a less cohesively flowing experience for everyone else.
You could even offer detailed support to players after the scene is over, but doing so is predicated on the assumption that your player is able to get through the entire scene. If a player stops playing halfway through a segment, then they're affected by the narrative you as a developer have created, but they don't reach the point where support would have been offered to them.
Ultimately I do not know the right solution here. Video games have a unique ability to touch players and alter their emotional state, but that power comes with a duty to ensure that players whose emotions are affected are properly supported afterwards.
The second episode of Life is Strange put a huge emotional burden on my shoulders that caused me to walk away deeply distressed, and the game completely failed to understand the implications of what it had done. It gave me agency over a deeply tragic moment, then very quickly introduced traditional video game scoring elements that ranked my failure against other players. Tragedy had become gamified.
As a developer you can use agency to emotionally engage audiences. Just understand the burden you're putting on players and be prepared for the consequences that come with that.
It's one thing to show me a character fail to stop a suicide; that's merely difficult and upsetting. It's something very different to put that situation in my hands without warning before scoring me on how I perform.
You're not always warned before you're shown something that could cause you emotional distress in any art form, but this is an aspect of the game I wish I could have properly prepared myself for.