Thought Bubble: Anything He Can Do Nilin Does Better

Dontnod: Publishers wanted Life is Strange’s hero to be male, but Square didn’t – Headline

I’m always a little perplexed when I read these kinds of headlines, the ones that tell us that no publishers would take Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange unless it switched to a male protagonist. I know I should be upset. I certainly understand why other people are upset. The implied sentiment – that games with female leads don’t sell – is an inaccurate, harmful manifestation of patriarchal culture that perpetuates sexism in an industry with history of bad behavior. That needs to change.

But I still find the whole ordeal more baffling than infuriating. It’s not that I don’t believe the headlines. Rather, I’m puzzled because these headlines seem to come from an entirely different planet. What parallel dimension are you living in if that’s the only reason you wouldn’t want to make an otherwise acceptable video game? The dissonance is more than I can wrap my head around.


Outside of a nakedly hateful game, I can’t think of any scenario in which a female protagonist is a bad thing, especially in the current climate. The industry is awash in monotone military bros that resemble the same slab of granite with different coats of paint. A female protagonist immediately makes a game stand out and gives people something to talk about, which is crucial for building interest and word of mouth.


Dontnod understands that better than most, having already been through the song and dance with 2013’s Remember Me. The player character in Remember Me was a woman named Nilin, who was just as much of a sticking point as Maxine and Chloe in Life is Strange.

There were a lot of things wrong with Remember Me, but Nilin was not one of them. That’s what makes the resistance to Life is Strange seem so, well, strange. From a purely technical standpoint, I could see why a publisher would have wanted to avoid Remember Me (or by extension Life is Strange). The visuals are uninspiring, the combat stutters, and the gameplay gradually devolves into an unremarkable morass that’s just good enough to not be bad.

Given the ruthless competition at the top of an industry where six million sales can be deemed a failure, that was never going to make an impact. Had publishers cited those problems during negotiations, I wouldn’t have been able to deny the logic. Remember Me lacks the polish to stand against the top tier of Triple A.


Unfortunately, the takeaway was instead that publishers didn’t want Remember Me simply because Nilin was a woman, which is ironic because that’s the primary reason anyone still talks about the game. On that front, Dontnod has been vindicated. I played Remember Me a year after it debuted because it kept turning up in conversation, usually in relation to the protagonist. Nilin was a compelling and unconventional hero who stood out because she wasn’t another rugged man.


That feels noteworthy in relation to Life is Strange. Though lackluster, the gameplay in Remember Me is good enough not to draw attention to itself and there are several cool concepts worth discussing. The customizable combos had potential that wasn’t fully realized, while the memory rewind mechanic was a great but underutilized spin on detective fiction.

But most of that stuff doesn’t totally work, and we wouldn’t be talking about any of it if the lead were anyone other than Nilin. She holds the game together. Replace her with Nelson, and the combat wouldn’t be any less mediocre. Remember Me would instead be in the bargain rack with Mindjack, another subpar action game with more ambition than execution. If it’s unfeasible to deliver the visuals of Crysis or the cut scenes of Uncharted, it’s better to offer something different than it is to offer more of the same. After all, nobody wants to bring up Mindjack. But people do have fond memories of Mirror’s Edge.


With Life is Strange, it’s weird to be reminded that many of the major power players in the industry still hold the exact opposite perspective. They’d rather make the same thing as everyone else because that seems safer than originality, a stance that willfully ignores the realities of creative industries.

Why? I said this already, but it bears repeating:


The primary reason anyone still cares about Remember Me is apparently the sole reason that publishers didn’t want to make Remember Me. It endures largely because it’s different.

That’s what I find so perplexing, and why the saga of Life is Strange makes me feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate reality. For most developers, shoehorning a male character into generic action invites comparison to well-funded blockbusters like Gears of War or Uncharted. If you don’t have access to that kind of budget, that basically means you’re voluntarily going up against better competition with an inferior product, which strikes me as a blisteringly stupid long term strategy.

I mean, why do something that makes you look worse, relatively speaking?


Of course, there are probably a lot of well-paid men in suits who would say the same about my opinion. The people who turned down Life is Strange are looking at annual sales reports and making decisions based on actual numbers. As a fan, I have the luxury of caring about what I like more than what sells.


But I’m guessing that male protagonists are not as fiscally inevitable as those suits would have us believe. Insisting otherwise only blinds you to potentially fruitful alternatives. Remember Me isn’t as ubiquitous as Call of Duty, but it carved out a small niche that has piqued my interest in Life is Strange because I know that Dontnod has the confidence to fight for its creative vision.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed Remember Me, and I know I’m not alone. The game has its fans, and that’s got to be worth something.


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