This past week I played the first episode of Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange and Techland’s Dying Light. Both of these games were made by European developers—French and Polish respectively—but neither are set in the countries where their creators live and work. Dying Light at least takes place in a fictionalized version of Turkey—a nation we don’t often see represented in mainstream titles. Dontnod, though, follows the more typical route of setting their story in the United States, a decision that introduces a few wrinkles to an otherwise great experience.
Life Is Strange is supposed to work, in part, as a slice-of-life drama. When it isn’t playing around with the consequences of its protagonist Max’s newly discovered time-reversing power, the game’s plot is concerned with presenting a realistic depiction of the high school experience. While it largely succeeds at this, it also stumbles in a number of ways often related to the studio’s attempt at portraying a foreign culture. In Life Is Strange’s version of small town Oregon armed security guards patrol the halls of a private arts high school and everyone speaks a strange, slang-intensive form of English. Sure, these elements could be attributed to some poor writing—trying to craft “hip” teen dialogue is creative tightrope walking, after all—but that doesn’t explain away every fault with the game’s tone. In essence, what seems to be the biggest issue underlying Life Is Strange’s slightly off take on American school life is that its development team is French. Its writers and visual artists can’t be expected to create a natural-feeling replica of this setting because it isn’t something they’ve personally experienced.
This problem isn’t confined to Life Is Strange. The larger concern is that its developer felt the need to set their game in an America they have likely experienced second-hand—through films and television. If Dontnod Entertainment made the decision to set Max’s story in a French high school, the resulting game would likely feel quite unfamiliar to North American players, but it would also have a greater chance of avoiding the kind of writing issues that take away from its otherwise solid plot and character creation.
So, why couldn’t the game have been set in France? The expectation in videogames (and in many movies and TV shows) seems to be that most works of fiction should take place in an American city—likely as a way of courting the largest possible audience. Since Hollywood began its domination of international cinema in the first half of the 20th century, places like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle have become global icons. Americans expect to see their nation represented in media and those of us who live elsewhere have come to accept the U.S. as a kind of de facto setting. In games, this phenomenon has only really ever been challenged by the immense influence Japanese developers have had on the medium since its early days. Now, as Western studios dominate the mainstream space, the vast majority of titles seem to take place in the U.S. or at least star American characters. This is truly unfortunate, especially in light of the fact that creative work like videogame development is international. A Swedish studio like DICE should be able to present the military action of a Battlefield game from the perspective of its culture; a Canadian team like Ubisoft Montreal should feel encouraged to place the events of an open-world game like Watch Dogs in Quebec, not Illinois.
While this is probably to be expected in mainstream art and entertainment, the idea that games like Life Is Strange—a title obviously hoping to channel the aesthetic of an independent, art house film—do the same speaks to a larger problem. It suggests a medium already settling into the grooves of a widespread cultural issue where non-American, real-world settings aren’t seen to be as “valid” as others. We can hope that games will begin to better appreciate the fact that so many prominent developers work throughout the world. We must encourage the creation of titles that take advantage rather than hide their national origin. We don’t expect all international authors and directors to set their work in the United States. And many books and films are richer for the fact that they expose audiences to cultures and histories they’re not already familiar with. Why shouldn’t videogames enjoy the same freedom?