I know I'm not the only one in an English class where a teacher or another student has tried to find every little piece of meaning in the setting or a character. Sometimes I'm grasping at straws when looking for symbolism, and I can't deny the enjoyment of playing connect-the-dots with setpieces in literature with guesses as to what the author meant. But sometimes that blue curtain in the character's room isn't blue to represent sadness; sometimes it's just a color.
More meaningful than curtains are actions characters have done, whether this is depicted to the reader or if it's described to the reader as something that already happened. Our hobbies and interest say a lot about us. What we choose to do with our free time shows what we care about, what we choose to invest ourselves in. Were those curtains already there, or did the character pick them out? Were there other curtains? Why blue? There doesn't always have to be a reason, but some of the character's design choices should be a statement. In Dontnod's episodic game Life is Strange, we get to learn a little more about each character by seeing what their room is like. For example, Max, the protagonist, has a dorm room similar to the one I, and probably lots of college students, had. From pictures and posters on the walls to her acoustic guitar and plant, Max seems like a pretty normal middle class girl. When we see her best friend's room, we see Chloe has a more rebellious streak. She's handwritten on the walls in permanent ink, her room is smokey from doing weed, her lights are usually dim, and it's a mess.
Characters' rooms should, in most cases but especially in dormitory situations where students have freedom to decorate, be just as important to character design as the clothes they wear. However, moral judgments make their way into writing and character design. When we only see antagonists and "evil" characters liking certain things, we're drawn to a conclusion that only bad people would like that sort of thing.
This came to mind as I played episode 4 of Life is Strange, "Dark Room." I've written about Life is Strange before, finding some truth in how the writers portray how embarrassing Max can be, but I was also worried the writers thought women who are intimately close will get engaged in romantic activity together but treat it like a platonic friendship. I'll have to wait until the final episode to get a firm grasp on how the writers are treating Max and Chloe's relationship, but I'm less worried now. Instead, something else caught my attention. Spoilers for Episode 4.
|Inside Nathan's room we see lots of dark-themed imagery as well as NSFW pictures of women. In this case, we see pictures of a woman being spanked with a paddle, blindfolded, etc.|
Since episode 1, Nathan Prescott has been a dangerous kid to himself and others. He has an explosive temper and carries a gun. He tried to intimidate Max with violence, and he assaulted Warren. In episode 2, he texts Max and her family, breaks into Max's room and leaves a terrifying message for her. If that wasn't enough, Kate opens up to Max and tells her she thinks Nathan drugged her at a party.
Nathan is an extremely troubling kid. There are still a lot of mysteries going around as to how involved he is in Rachel Amber's disappearance and exactly what he did to Kate. We learn a lot about Nathan in episode 4, and it's a grim picture for this twelfth grader. In this episode, Max is able to investigate Nathan's room while he's out. She can read his emails to learn more about his troubling family life, look at his furniture and posters, and make value judgments — which she does frequently when snooping.
The way students choose to decorate their dorm is an important design choice. It speaks to how the character feels or wants to be perceived by others. Max has several photographs on her walls because she wants to be a photographer. Victoria, who also wants to be a photographer, similarly has pictures on her walls, and she also has expensive clothes in her closet because her family is at the very least in the upper-middle class. Kate's room was dark and closed off when she was bullied and felt isolated. Getting a look into Nathan's room should be just as illustrative of what he likes or how he feels.
Nathan's room is literally dark; a lamp in his room is broken. His shades are drawn, and he has a lot of clutter. Much of the art on his walls shows photos of women who are bound or otherwise submissive. (That's usually a little more personal, so I don't know exactly why Nathan chooses to put that on his dorm walls in case a friend walks in, but I guess nobody really likes Nathan other than Victoria, soooo ...)
Similar art is found in the "dark room" that Max and Chloe discover later on in the episode, and they also find pictures of young women from Arcadia Bay, primarily Blackwell Academy. These women look spaced out, and they were probably drugged before being taken to this room. The game sets up the dark room and Nathan's room to feel similar. Emails from Nathan's father are in the room, and his jacket is lying on a couch. Furthermore, the evidence Max and Chloe find clearly point to Nathan being a great danger to all of the girls at Blackwell Academy. Even before finding the dark room, Max learns Nathan bought GHB, the "date rape drug," just before going to the party where Kate said she was drugged.
We even find out Nathan has a mental illness and that his therapist is no longer comfortable seeing him. Everything points to Nathan being terrifying, and I truly was scared for all of the girls at that night's party. It sadly isn't surprising that the game depicts the character with a mental illness as a creepy guy because this is common in media, but it's even worse that the game uses Nathan's interest in domination and bondage as a clue that he's dangerous.
(Side note: The very end of episode 4 shows the photography teacher at Blackwell, Mr. Jefferson, has a much more heinous role to play in the game. I don't know exactly to what extent, but I believe he has before, and it's entirely possible he's the one who killed Rachel and not Nathan. So, it could be that Mr. Jefferson is into domination as well, considering most of his photography is of young women with dark or sexual themes. Even if that is true, Nathan is still used as a red herring, and we're still led to cement our suspicions of Nathan when Max gets a look at his room.)
In Nathan's case (and probably also Jefferson's), I don't think the boy understands the concept of consent, and that's much scarier to me than knowing he likes to see women tied up. A person who buys GHB and drugs a woman is dangerous; a person who enjoys being dominant in sexual play in a safe, consensual environment for all parties is not scary due to that interest.
We were already led to believe that Nathan is a dangerous guy. Showing us those photos draws on judgments that people who like domination and submission play aren't good people. Kinky stuff is supposed to be only for the morally ambiguous or evil characters.
Sometimes the blue curtain is just a blue curtain, and sometimes kinky interests are just fun play and not a moral judgment of character. We don't need every instance of dominating sexual interests to be nonconsensual ones.