One of our staff writers released a game last November. Considering it is a game that features a middle-aged woman as the protagonist, it seems odd that we never actually, you know, provided our readers here with a link. What game would that be? Life Flashes By by Deirdra Kiai.
The game’s premise is one that is familiar to us as consumers of story, but probably less so as people who game: slice of life stories told in a retrospective manner. Charlotte wakes up to find herself in a strange forest, finds out she’s been in a serious car accident, and with the guide of Trevin, a flying man-pixie-faery person, is guided along to explore significant moments in her life, alongside alternate selves that would result from a different decision being made during those scenes. It’s a far cry from the usual amnesic protagonist we see in games.
Deirdra has an interest in seeing her game played by more people, and since we at the Border House like to highlight games that feature non-sexualized, diverse women in lead roles, I asked Deirdra if she wanted to both promote the game and engage in a conversation with me. She agreed. You’ll find the conversation behind that little cut, but it is spoiler-laden, so I would recommend playing the game first, which can be found here (available for PC, Mac, and as an .slg file).
The format results from starting three threads, and then Deirdra and I e-mailing each other back and forth, expanding on thoughts in each thread. The topics start off specific, but also reach into general thoughts on creation, games, and communities.
Denis: I recall early on your mentioning that some people were surprised by Charlotte not being incredibly likable. When playing the game, I found myself not liking her, per se, but still felt empathy for her. Particularly as she wasn’t a consumable, market-produced female for an audience. When did her general personality start taking shaper, and how did you decide on how it would shift in her various alternate paths?
Deirdra Kiai: It was always in my head that Charlotte had to be a person who feels real, with a complex personality that includes both positive and negative characteristics. Honestly, it’s such an obvious thing to me that I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, I see a lot of well-meaning male creators in various media who aim for what we call Strong Female Characters, and while that’s way better than using women as decorative set pieces or not having any women around at all, I keep feeling like there’s too much idealizing going on at least in comparison to the variety we have in sympathetic male protagonists. It’s been my personal experience that I can relate better to a socially awkward nebbish protagonist like Guybrush Threepwood from the Monkey Island games than I can to, say, April Ryan from The Longest Journey — and I say this knowing that April’s still one of the best Strong Female Characters we’ve got in gaming. Something’s got to give.
So, Charlotte emerged with this strong reactionary stance in the back of mind, but I wanted to write about her, simply because I found her interesting. Our culture devalues middle-aged women far too much, which is a shame, because I look to a number of older women for wisdom and sheer biting wit. And with this, I figured she’d possess a mix of outward self-assuredness and inward self-consciousness stemming from awareness of failing to be what society expects of a woman — something I already feel all too well in my mid-twenties. The same, I think, goes for all the alternate Charlottes you meet in the course of the game. It’s just the outward means of self-expression that change, really. The way I personally see the alternate paths is that none of them are really better or worse; they’re just different. And, as you dig a little bit further, you’ll find that none of them are really THAT different after all.
I indeed selected the option of telling Trevin that I saw their lives as no better or worse when it came up at the end. Looking back, I was particularly thrilled at going back to her high school, for instance. I’m not quite middle-aged, but I’ve had many of the same thoughts she was having regarding nostalgia and how the entirety of high school was just… daft (are there people who haven’t?). It was curious how as time progressed, she seemed to be more critical of a particular self (or so it appeared to me), and aware of her own inhibitions that were holding her back. It’s as if her own standards for herself kept being raised.
In fact, it’s rare that we even get games that are merely slice of life dramas, to use a phrase. Particularly since this is a bunch of those little slices. Instead of asking for a changed person though, what we get is a woman who is telling a story at even this junction of her life.
DK: Indeed. I was inspired to do smaller slice of life pieces prior to this one after being exposed to a few interactive fiction games I’ve played in that genre — Photopia, Best of Three, and Rameses are excellent examples of what I’m thinking about, here — and the next logical step was to do several of those pieces all in one, telling a greater overarching story about one person’s life and how it evolves over time. And Charlotte’s story, as I like to say, isn’t even over yet. I don’t mean this in the sense that I’m planning a sequel (in fact, the only sequels I’ll be writing to this story will be of the spiritual variety) so much as it’s left open-ended because this is a story about me (in a highly metaphorical sense, mind you; this isn’t self-insertion fan fiction) and MY life is far from over, and still full of a great deal of uncertainty.
So, in a huge way, the continuation of the story comes from what people take out of it, and how what they’ve just played will affect them going forward. Not to mention the conversations about the game I hope to see more people having as more people play it. This, in turn, will affect who I become in the not-so-distant future, and consequently inform the creation of future games of mine. I’ve always been big on the idea of games being a means of communication between the player and the designer. Some people take this to mean “create a sandbox”, which is totally a valid approach, but I also think it’s valuable to do something that’s deeply personal and author-driven but still understand that this kind of communication exists and is important.
I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but part of what thrills me about games now, that didn’t even occur to me back in the day, is a new process of telling a story. Arguably, we could call what you’ve created very akin to IF, and yet, there’s that hint of something more. Even traversing Charlotte’s memories in any order we choose? While it seems superficial, it all depends on how we discover a person, doesn’t it? Part of what I don’t understand is the thought that we have blank slate characters, which I just can’t ever see being fully achieved–the system itself creates our characters, much as I believe the world’s system shape our own beliefs. Whether we are in tandem or opposition with those systems informs us, as well. The fact that you decided not to force my discovery of Charlotte down a strictly linear format in terms of time, though it might be suggested, seems to hint at such.
DK: That’s exactly why I never really understood the game design philosophy in which one puts as little “character” in a player character as possible so that players can have an easier time projecting themselves into said character. And that’s a valid stance to have in, say, MMOs, where the players actually shape the system itself; however, in single player games, what you really wind up getting is a character who represents either the game designers or whatever marketing believes the largest demographic for the game in question is going to be. There are so many unchecked assumptions in play that it’s a lot harder for someone like me to consider the character a proper representation of myself.
So, as you can imagine, I’m a lot more interested in the idea of a game showing you what it’s like to be someone else, someone who’s probably not like you at all. And to do that, you actually need to go through the work of creating a compelling character, just like you would in any other storytelling medium. But you can’t just leave it at that, or all you’re making is a movie. You have to decide what kinds of gameplay interactions are possible based on things your character would or would not do.
As for the non-linear exploration, that was something I’d had in my mind near the beginning. I’d flirted with the idea of releasing each vignette alone in an episodic format, but then decided I wanted more freedom of movement, to take better advantage of what interactive media has to offer. And I enjoy the idea of working in a medium where you don’t have to tightly control what we’re supposed to feel at each stage of the story. For instance, I like the idea that someone’s first impression of Aaron could change depending whether they first see him in the cute meeting scene or in the breakup scene. Or that people could interpret any part of Charlotte and Trevin’s conversation as either actual argument or sarcastic banter. Things like that fascinate me.
On your blog, you’ve mentioned isolation and exploring feelings of such in your games. This game certainly has it, but often in a questioning manner: during certain creative processes, are we more prone to be shut-off, for instance. It’s certainly a feeling I think many people who become aware of the larger world around them, and how they stick out from mainstream discussions of topics. Yet, as Charlotte learns to break from mainstream expectations from her, largely with age and experience, she does become more isolated in a sense.
DK: This is true. I think as people age and gain more experience living in the world, some mellow out and become more tolerant and accepting of others around them, whereas others go the opposite way and grow sharper and harsher. Charlotte is definitely of the latter category, and it’s a scenario that scares me, because I WANT to live a more open and less lonely life as I get older, but I keep finding myself pulled in the other direction in response to the injustice and oppression I see going on everywhere, and the so-called mainstream’s refusal to do anything constructive about it. The thing that draws me away from complete cynicism and misanthropy — something, I note, that Charlotte lacks — is a sense of community in which those of us of various marginalised groups can come together and make each other aware that we’re not alone in this. I’ve always loved Shakesville’s analogy of trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon; it’s futile if you’re doing it alone, so any reasonable person would just shrug and give up, but if you’ve got a critical mass of people shovelling their teaspoons right there with you, everything feels so much more hopeful.
It does seem as if Charlotte is set up as isolated from the very first. What resonated with me in particular is moving to a completely different country and having your accent being a point for people to ridicule (I was about child Charlotte’s age when that first happened, actually). From the start, it seems she’s set up to isolate herself, and her primary passion, writing (and reading), is one that keeps being mentioned as waning in culture as a whole. On top of being intelligent, she’s female, which obviously even sets her against her first rival in maths–his being picked on, follows him picking on her, which causes her to leave maths behind entirely.Perhaps somewhat more foreshadowing of what this would mean is the high school era (it all comes back to adolescence, doesn’t it?), where she can’t bring herself to just go away with her friend, and then reflects that they never really had anything in common except bucking the normal trends. Which is oddly at ends with her telling her father she just wants to be normal; she gives up a field of study for it, but finds she’s not accepted even when she pursues what’s considered more friendly to women’s interests.
Which always begs the question of when you find that community. It seems like in Charlotte’s mind, as she’s never had it in either a large family or her social circle, she wouldn’t be able to conceive of so many people working together at such a monumental task.
DK: That’s very true, and I think another element at play here is the privilege Charlotte DOES possess in the society in which she lives. For instance, as a white woman, she’s never had to go through some of the things I’ve experienced as a woman of colour. And it kind of echoes a lot of a sentiment I see from similarly privileged people I see entering anti-oppression spaces and being like “I’m straight, white, cis, and middle class; I don’t know anything about oppression!” and instead of doing the understandably difficult work of examining that privilege when it gets called out, they find themselves feeling alienated and pushed away by what’s perceived as hostility.
The solution to that, I want to say, is to just get over yourself, which is what I’m sure a lot of people want to yell to Charlotte sometimes, myself included. But it’s a long, hard process to figure out that it’s not all about you, and that’s something even I have trouble with a lot of the time. I still struggle with feeling like an outsider, even knowing of the importance of community. The things I know from an intellectual standpoint often seem far ahead of what my emotions understand, and I’m not surprised in the least to see that come out in the art I create.
I couldn’t help but wonder about Aaron in that regard. He almost seemed a polar opposite end of the spectrum from Charlotte, even if under that umbrella of creative artist. He also seemed to be a POC (to be honest, I couldn’t at first tell if perhaps he was just slightly more tanned than Charlotte, but the daughter also sharing his skin tone seemed to argue against that–a habit probably culled from cynicism in games), and their ability to communicate was so fundamentally flawed. If anything, it seemed he was a consoling entity that was able to sneak under her normally rigid exterior when her father died–which was further highlighted because she wrote a book about a gnome that came to symbolize both of those men. After all, Charlotte’s work, from the bits we get, are influenced by the world around her–the very same world in which her privilege allows her to escape a lot of it. What struck me was her ability to recognize some of it, such as her friend in high school coming from a wealthy family, but then losing that ability to scrutinize anything beyond just herself. Her ‘last’ alternate reality, for instance, is having writer’s block from not going on a blind date–a seemingly dull event where she just droned on in a bored manner with a man to whom she had no attraction or connection.
DK: The awkward dinner date seemed pretty pointless in the grand scheme of things, yes, but at the same time, she had to take that chance of putting herself out there to know that for sure. And the alternate reality there was trying to show what might have happened if she’d mentally blocked herself from the outside world TOO much, taking that kind of extreme reclusiveness to its logical condition. If you finally give up completely and shut yourself away so you don’t have to deal with people you hate anymore, then there’s nothing more to really write about, is there? (Well, except yourself, of course, but unless you possess a certain amount of narcissism — which Charlotte doesn’t, aware as she is of her flaws — you get sick of yourself pretty quickly.)
I was amused by Trevin, and particularly how he interacted with Charlotte. In many ways, it seemed the two were constantly engaging in duels of wit and word. It was also very endearing how, in my game, certain responses allowed a relationship to strike up–painting Charlotte’s isolation as largely one of her own doing. After all, what we see displayed over the course of the game is a story about a friendship in the making.
DK: You’re absolutely right; that’s exactly the kind of feeling I wanted to convey in their relationship. I think the guided life review in this game is sort of a metaphor for the concept of “letting someone in”; as you get to know a person, you learn their stories, the little vignettes of lived experience that made them who they are today. I think that’s a big reason why when I was growing up, I considered characters in fiction as dear friends, and I think many of us introverted, geeky types can relate. Charlotte, as a fictional character, is like that too, except it’s a little different, because you’re actually playing the part of the person who’s sharing the stories. For many of us, it can be terrifying to open ourselves up in that way, something that Charlotte feels at first — but then, as we learn to trust and be more comfortable with who we’re sharing with, it only feels natural.
Yet Charlotte’s forced to do so, through our very desire for a story, isn’t she? Not in a sinister sense, but we are directing her life–though in a sense, the lack of choice makes it feel less about controlling her, and more about guiding her through these scenes. Something that struck me is that she is very obviously one of those literary types that’s not in the public eye, so there’s not even a sense she has any connection with an audience. She seems to disdain outright any artistic endeavor purely made to cater to an audience, in fact. When it comes down to it, even the lack of agency comes down to authorial control–Charlotte is having a direct influence over it, she won’t let us take those reins.
DK: There’s something very “old school” about Charlotte’s approach to art — I say “old school” in quotes because it’s not really that old at all — in that she considers herself separate from the audience, that what she does is “high art” because she doesn’t need to pay anyone any mind but herself. And that brings me back to the idea of community versus isolation. She’s definitely got a bit of a “lonely at the top” feeling going on, even if, arguably, she’s nowhere near the top. It’s a coping mechanism I see in a lot of highly intelligent people who have difficulties with social interaction; you convince yourself that you’re somehow superior and more evolved than all those plebs, or what have you.
Yet, to pull that into a more abstract view, isn’t that the same discussion we always have around art? I’m not of the belief that games, for instance, are the only interactive method of creating art, or what could be considered art of varying levels. Even in theater (using my own background), there is the question of audience participation and reacting to the audience so that you can take the same package and deliver something completely different depending on who’s there. Yet you’ll always have those plays that have a very strict fourth wall. I often wonder if we’ve falsely constructed this dichotomy where suddenly, now, there are more creators, rather than admitting now we’ve created more tools to make that creation easier and more visible. Even your creation of this game, funded through KickStarter, speaks to more channels to engage in the same arguments–it’s just that the argument is being made more often, and they’re made more available, if that makes sense?In other words, I never see us getting rid of the Charlottes, no matter how much progress we make in interactivity, as the computer programmer Charlotte points out. There will always be an audience for various entertainment. It’s just disheartening to see someone so removed from the audience that they can’t connect with them at all–something I’d argue we’ve also always seen in terms of superstars (again, something I think we’ve always had, but that has become more prevalent). After all, can Charlotte cope with criticism, despite being able to give it in spades?
DK: The superstar thing was what I was trying to get at; it could just be an artifact of growing up and gaining more means to discover niche interests, but I find that as time passes, “superstars” and other aspects of mainstream culture become less and less relevant and visible to me, personally. And yes, niches have indeed existed before this day and age, but it seems to me like the internet has gone a long way in amplifying that, since you have a way to connect people that’s comparatively more agnostic to geographical region and economic class. So, now you have these small-scale “minor internet celebrities” who create works I really enjoy, but still manage to be accessible as real people to me. The end result of this is that I can’t go back to thinking of creators of media I enjoy as god-like, for lack of a better word, and consequently, have very little patience for creators who embody this god-like persona in interacting with their fan bases, if they choose to interact at all.
As for criticism? Of course Charlotte can cope with it (in that it doesn’t destroy her) but does she do so in a healthy way? I imagine her as dismissing most of it as irrelevant; she expresses on many occasions that she has little patience with what she terms “mere critics”. But it is indeed sad that she doesn’t really see a middle ground between this mindset and “pandering”.
At this point, Deirdra and I decided the conversation had grown large enough that we could present it to people. If you enjoy Life Flashes By, you might consider becoming a Facebook fan, or following Charlotte and Trevin’s Twitter accounts.