In ‘real’ life, however --- Kirk’s assertion notwithstanding --- we’re often confronted with the no-win scenario. Sometimes the result is one’s life, sometimes it’s considerably less. But is it fair/right/justifiable/insert-your-own-label to do this to protagonists in stories? At the story’s climax? I ask this because I was hit with it recently on buying a quiet little Xbox game called Life is Strange.
(Now, I need to pause and quickly offer a disclaimer before losing all credibility: yes, I play video games from time to time. But I’m not: a hormonal teenager with lots of repressed anger or penchant for blood; a moron; violently or passively misogynistic, nor socially withdrawn or inept. I’m aware a distressingly large percentage of people who play video games --- particularly males --- are some or all of those, but not me.)
Okay. Still here? Whew. Good.
So... back to Life is Strange. It certainly can be, and so is the story. You play the protagonist, Max (Maxine) Caulfield, a shy female high school senior studying photography at a private school in a sleepy coastal Oregon town called Arcadia Bay. And like any high school, there are both the usual bright spots and unsavoury blots on the human condition. Well, actually more, because after all, this is a dramatic story, so if everything was sweetness and light, there wouldn’t be a story, would there?
Your best friend is Chloe Price, a sweet girl deep down, but she’s developed a crusty exterior since life fell apart following her father’s accidental death. Chloe was expelled from your school. You haven’t seen her for years after moving away, but now you’re back, navigating the plotline together.
There’s a bunch of heavy duty issues in the story: a mentally unstable student with violent propensities, whose wealthy parents just happen to be major benefactors to the school and community (sigh --- some clichés apparently never go out of style); a missing female student; cyberbullying (which may or may not lead to a character’s suicide, depending on how you manage the situation); euthanasia; the usual assortment of kids practicing petty cruelties; and a psychotic, murderous teacher who turns out to be the surprise villain. Whoops. Did I mention spoiler alert? Oh well. Won’t be the last.
Oh yes... one more twist --- pretty major one, actually: early in the story, you accidentally find you have somehow acquired the ability to “rewind” --- go back in time to change events. You discover this by saving Chloe’s life as she’s shot and killed by the mentally unstable student. Yikes.
This isn’t a new plot device; years ago, a film called The Butterfly Effect explored the same idea: changing events in a timeline will have major impacts, and even good changes (saving someone’s life) can actually wreak havoc and cause terrible things later that are much worse than existed originally. But it works quite well here. Mostly. Until the climax.
Along with all other mayhem, there’s been a series of progressively weirder, more ominous weather phenomena --- and you slowly realize that somehow, it’s directly related to your rewind ability. (How? Dunno. It’s never explained. Just go with it.) So finally... at the climax... you’ve survived all the crap life has thrown at you --- Chloe in particular has died/been-saved several times, so you have really bonded --- and there’s a monster tornado bearing down on Arcadia Bay... and you have a choice to make (just as you’ve done throughout, directly influencing the story’s course). But this time, it’s way bigger:
You can save Chloe, or Arcadia Bay. Not both. Choose Chloe, and Arcadia Bay is destroyed, with hundreds dead. Choose Arcadia Bay, and Chloe --- your BFF whom you have literally been through life and death with over the story’s course --- dies. That’s it. Nothing else.
And I said... “Excuse me?”
I really didn’t want a ‘one or t’other’ at that stage. I’d met Arcadia Bay’s people and, on the whole, liked them. But I was also very invested with Chloe. And now I was supposed to just choose, like picking an ice cream flavour?*
Folks, you can’t do that to readers/viewers/players. It ain’t fair.
Yeah, I know... real life does it all the time. But as creators... we can inject a note of fairness life sometimes seems to lack. In stories, there are times when we seek --- hell, need --- some of the redemptive fairness we don’t always get in our lives.
I also know we often throw no-win scenarios at characters. I’ve done it myself in Gryphon’s Heir. But not at the final climax. Not when This Is It.
Imagine if, at the climax of Deathly Hallows --- after spending hundreds of hours plowing through seven books growing steadily larger and more complex, becoming heavily invested in all characters --- Rowling says to Harry/us, “Okay, here’s the choice: either Hermione dies, or everyone in Hogwarts does. No other options. What do you wanna do?”
People would put an Unforgivable Curse on her, that’s what they’d do.
So... just say no to the Kobayashi Maru... and leave it to Starfleet. Spock would disagree; he said the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. But Kirk, bless him, countered that sometimes, the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. So there you have it.
P.S. By the way... I saved Chloe --- just couldn’t let her die.
Sigh. I’m such an old softie. Which leads us neatly into... next time.