I walked to high school with the music of my favorite male singers sharing their loneliness and heartbreak through my earbuds. I trusted these singers—usually men—with my feelings, screamed my heart out at their concerts and allowed them to console me when I locked myself in my room. I would always be a stranger to them, but they influenced me.
Playing Life is Strange, the latest game by DontNod Entertainment about a teenage girl with the power to reverse time, was like going back in time to when I was their age.
Music is a part of the lives of Max and Chloe, the protagonist and her childhood best friend, in Life is Strange. They listen to it in the car, in Chloe’s room, and the opening sequence of the game shows Max wearing a pair of earbuds and explaining the different people in her school as we both listen to a folksy, indie song sung by the gentle voice of an adult man. We hear what she hears, and she’s using the music as well as the narration to introduce us to her world.
Early on in the game’s development, DontNod decided to have separate track lists for an original score, composed by Jonathan Morali, and a licensed soundtrack from multiple artists. Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch, the directors for Life is Strange, said the music in the game always has a purpose; it’s never there as a “song jukebox.” While the original score is used as a storytelling device, with the music becoming darker as the episodes go on, the licensed tracks both ground the game in our own reality and define the characters. Barbet and Koch point to “Piano Fire” by Sparklehorse as a song that echoes Chloe’s character: to me, a little rough, lamenting pain that she turns outward in frustration.
In other cases, the music is much gentler. The very first song of the game, “To All of You” by Syd Matters, plays when Max exits her photography class and puts on her earbuds, leading you through the hallway. The beat is calm and steady, and the singer’s voice is soothing. It is such a Max Caulfield song. The songs with powerful beats and rhythms often come close to the end of episodes when the plot crescendos. DontNod’s musical choices all evoke precise moods; to Barbet and Koch, “music can be one of the strongest narrative devices at our disposal.”
Barbet, Koch, and audio lead Sebastien Gaillard started with a list of over 200 potential songs for the licensed soundtrack and narrowed that to 14 songs with perfect rhythm, tone, and lyrics for particular scenes. As for the excluded songs, some were too expensive to license, and sometimes the artists didn’t want to license their music for games.
On the soundtrack are three women: Amanda Palmer with “In My Mind,” Julia Stone as a part of Angus & Julia Stone’s “Santa Monica Dream,” and PJ Harvey in Sparklehorse’s “Piano Fire.” Amanda Palmer is the only woman on the soundtrack who sings without a male voice present as well. Out of the music we’re shown that Max and Chloe listen to, we see very few women present. Is that reality?
Unfortunately, it was my reality for quite some time. I spent my teen years fawning over white men in music—Muse, City and Colour, Placebo, Oasis, etc. It wasn’t until I expanded into pop music that I found more women artists, and it wasn’t until college that I discovered bands like Florence and the Machine. While writing this article, I listened to a top 40 station for music similar to that of Life is Strange and found the same lack of representation for women. Of the 25 songs I listened to in succession that afternoon, it took seven songs to even reach one that included a woman in the band at all. She was a solo artist. In fact, there were only two bands that comprised solely women, and they were both solo artists. Three other songs were by bands of mixed genders, each with multiple men and one woman. Overall, there were five women total across the 25 groups and solo artists.
Barbet and Koch noted to me many women artists were present in the 200+ songs they were interested in including but were excluded for various constraints mentioned earlier. Another constraint is musical knowledge. Just like I was unfamiliar with many woman artists, DontNod was limited by what they discovered. Women, particularly outside of the pop genre, aren’t promoted or contracted to work like men are.
This is hardly new; in the 1970s, less than five percent of musicians in the top five U.S. orchestras were women. It wasn’t until orchestras implemented blind auditions, where a screen hides the appearance (and assumed gender) of the musician, that more and more women were offered positions. Gender doesn’t determine skill, but it does correlate to how other people view your skill. Unconscious biases are hard to eliminate.
Game companies pushed against making women protagonists until more recently. Life is Strange was one of several games last year from big publishers starring women. However, a woman being the protagonist doesn’t mean the game gets a pass for problems elsewhere. We can’t stop here, pat ourselves on the back, and be happy with three out of 14 songs having our voices, or only two women characters with agency.
Surrounding Max and Chloe are several male characters who have significance to these two girls and the plot. Other female characters include Chloe’s mom, Chloe’s romantic interest Rachel, and Max’s classmates. Chloe’s mom shares tender moments with the girls, but like most mom characters, she doesn’t move the story along. Rachel is very important but is dead before the first episode. Max’s classmates, such as Kate and Victoria, have varying importance, but they’re also largely typecast as victims. The only characters with any sort of power are male. Rachel, Kate, Victoria, and Max all experience violence with sexual tones as a man drugs and photographs them in submissive poses. Women in Life is Strange are victims in men’s path for dominance.
DontNod didn’t blow it, though. The interactions between Max and Chloe are some of the most intimate ones I’ve seen in games. Life is Strange is at its best when it’s focusing on just these two teen girls trying to survive all of the confusion that comes with being teenagers. The lack of complexity for the other women in the story is where everything falls flat as the writing shows the abuse of women as high-stakes drama.
These two issues, lack of women in the game’s soundtrack and the story’s use of abuse to dramatize the abusers, may feel separate, but they’re signs of institutional sexism. We aren’t going to see more women getting notoriety in music until we make a greater effort to include them. We aren’t going to see more nuanced stories of women unless we make that a priority. If we don’t make an effort to criticize how women’s suffering characterizes a male antagonist, we’re going to keep being content with the leftovers tossed to women. I do not believe DontNod means to focus on women characters only as victims, but I do believe it and every other company has a duty to critically examine their stories when they do not challenge the status quo.
The reality is few women make it big in music, so I’m not surprised there are three women on the soundtrack. Even outside of games, think of the composers you can name, and they’ll likely be male. Even if that is our reality, it doesn’t have to be our reality forever. The best way to reach that future is by making changes in the present; seek out women in music, in games, in writing. Even if you have to look harder to come across our names, we’re already here.
(Oh, and by the way — if you have recommendations of women in music, performers or composers, please let me know!)
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