Labor Politics Overshadow Otherwise Fantastic New Life is Strange Episode


#1

There is a lot to love about this new season of Life is Strange—Before the Storm.

It really sucks that, with all the beautiful relationship-building and scene-setting and hits-you-right-there writing, Before the Storm was produced, essentially, with scab labor. Briefly: the game was in production during the SAG-AFTRA strike that affected union members that provided voice talent, including Ashly Burch, the actress who portrayed Chloe (brilliantly) in the first game. The staff made the game anyway, replacing Burch with another actress.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/xwad4a/life-is-strange-before-the-storm-labor-ashly-burch

#2

It sucks that they made the decision to replace Ashly, but based on what I know about how difficult and expensive developing a game is, I wouldn’t really expect them to stop a project that’s well into development just because of the voice acting. I wish there was a way they could get her to record now that the strike is over and patch her performance in…


#3

While I’ve decided to pass on the game for union-solidarity reasons (both not playing it myself, nor watching a let’s play), I am left conflicted because my sister is so excited to play it when it’s complete.

I tried explaining to her why I was still avoiding it, even after the strike seemed to be settled, but I think I explained it poorly and just managed to dull her enthusiasm. If she chooses to get the game, I’ll probably experience parts of it with her to make her happy, but I really wish this game hadn’t had such baggage in the first place. Another Life Is Strange game should have been the easiest sell for me…


#4

I have far more empathy for a small team using scabs rather than someone like EA. I think we know of far too many times where a singular game failing to meet deadlines kills a developer overnight that I can condemn them full-throatedly for this.

As someone who has no stakes in this, however, I realize this is an easy thing for me to say, ultimately.


#5

I’m so glad Danielle wrote this. For one, I think Ashly Burch did a phenomenal job as Chloe in the original Life is Strange. I played Mortal Kombat X after LiS (hard swing, I know) and couldn’t help but think of Cassie Cage as a weird alternate timeline Chloe.

I, uh, also named my Bloodborne character after Chloe because she kept dying all the time.

At any rate, what really grinds my gears about this is 100% the way the studio went around the strike to make the game. I’m sympathetic to the argument that Deck 9 was probably also in a precarious position and couldn’t just wait for the strike to resolve, but that precarity is just a further argument that the industry needs more unionization. And again, I get that asking an employee or a company to take that risk and stick their neck out and start making that push for unions is pretty beyond the pale. Most companies will go EXTREMELY out of their way to prevent employees from unionizing (and I feel like that goes double for tech companies).

So yeah, I’m glad the game seems to be shaping up well, but the context around this game has soured me to the point where I don’t know if I’ll ever play it. Even if I know that those “vote with your dollars” arguments are an awful lot of wishful thinking. Business folks on the other end of things won’t read my not purchasing the game as “oh, I guess we won’t use scabs in the future.” It’d be read as “well, people just don’t want these kinds of games.”


#6

I appreciate use of the term “scabs” to describe the people who dishonored themselves crossing a picket line to steal someone else’s livelihood.

However, it’s not “labor politics” that overshadowed, etc… The correct term is “labor dispute.”

Thanks for writing this. I just wish your review had ended there.


#7

It’s really a sad situation all around. Deck Nine has done such an incredible job bringing a unique experience that left me spellbound after the second episode.

If I remember correctly, it wasn’t even Deck Nine or Square Enix that was part of the strike, but rather the VA contract Square Enix had with BlindLight (which was involved in the strike) that resulted in the labor dispute.

Before the Storm is fantastic, but I also can’t really blame anyone for skipping it for the aforementioned reasons. I do wonder if we’ll see Max’s actress return for the bonus episode now that the strike is resolved(?) though.


#8

Also, it’s probably worth noting that Ashly still contributed to the game in a writing role, so it doesn’t seem like there was bad blood between them. Maybe she’ll return in the future.


#9

Ye, the Japanese game development publisher was not very involved with the deal by the US union to force all voice talent to pay them a cut from what I understand of the situation. The list of publishers seemed to be US companies. From other reporting (that includes the French Ubisoft too):

Other companies like Ubisoft and Square Enix will not be affected, as they are not part of the video game companies negotiating against SAG-AFTRA.

It all seems very strange in such a global industry (Japanese publisher with no SAG-AFTRA negotiations, a developer who is based in the USA but working on an IP and even lots of assets reworked from the IP created by a French developer) that a US trade union demanding such a deal has not led to other regions making similar demands. Surely if you want to release a game in Europe or develop games for a European audience, even with only English voice work, then you should ensure every voice actor pays their dues to a suitable European union? I mean, you can’t include non-union workers on this union project.

This is an interesting note about how SAG considers all union members to be limited to only SAG work globally. Even if they don’t currently enforce it.


#10

It’s really unfortunate to me that this game, of all games, is the one at the center of this controversy. It deals so well with so many important, underrepresented issues, as Danielle points out. And it’s SO good, to boot. I want more games like this. I want more games that deal with the pain of loss, of not being sure of who you are, of being in love, of being queer… This is one of my favorite games ever. And it really sucks that this conversation is overshadowing the praise the game earns with its writing and depiction of its themes. I understand why that’s so, because it’s a very important conversation. But the other one is important too, I think, as Danielle touched on.

Since the strike is resolved now, and Burch has worked on this game, I really hope any of y’all who are fans of the first game will play this eventually. I promise you you will love it. I love it even more than the original. Chloe speaks to me in a way no protagonist in any game has ever done before (despite me being a straight cis guy - go figure). But I also understand if you don’t. But also, there is no ethical consumption under late capitalism, as a wise hedgehog once said. In the end, you have to follow your own moral compass.


#11

So, a couple of things here about the scab labor. First, I’m sure Ashley Birch was heartbroken that she couldn’t reprise her role, but at the same time she chose to work and get paid by deck nine as a consultant directly working with the new voice actress. Working with the company and with the new voice actress, but at the same time throwing the non-union actress under the bus seem hypocritical.

I mean, if the new actress did have second thoughts surely she was bolstered by the fact that the previous voice actress was going to be tutoring her.

Secondly, this company was not on the list of 11 American company’s that the Union was striking against. So it seems wrong to just point fingers at Deck Nine and say “How dare you!”. Someone was going to fill this role eventually as the game had already started production.

The whole thing sucks and I hope someday everyone involved in game production from the top down will be properly represented.


#12

Just to make sure my last post isn’t read as flip: I am genuinely interested to know why a US union with a global rule trying to dictation union-only labour for projects created via global publishers is not just as much US imperialism (not exactly home to great union law that we would wish exported around the world) as it is labour rights?

Why should Square Enix be creating projects where any of the hired voice talent have not paid their dues to their Japanese union rep who has agreed contract details with the Japanese publisher? If we are to say that projects cannot use non-union (specifically meaning SAG-AFTRA dues paying workers) labour for this role then does that need to come with extremely clear limitations on how far those restrictions extend. Is it ok for the video game industry to move their English voice recording operations out of LA and set up in London and completely sidestep this entire thing? What if they were to fly Burch out to the Square HQ and record in a studio there? Is it right that SAG would demand Burch work under a pseudonym and even in doing so would say her membership to the union could be terminated at any time for violating their rules? How does this restrict the existence and operation of any other union of actors from operating and providing representation for their members?

To put those questions another way by looking back: was it ok for a Japanese publisher and a French developer to hire a US voice actor for the original Life is Strange project who failed to pay dues to either a local French or local Japanese actors’ union?


#13

Considering that labor law is different for each country—and must be handed as such on a case-by-case basis—yes. From what I’ve gathered, this issue only concerned the American dubbing/production/release. It would need to depend on how the French and Japanese productions were created. This was an American release, involving American union talent. At least that’s my read of it?


#14

Yes I agree. I was listening to the WP podcast the other day with Manveer Heir and it really struck me that collective bargaining/action would really help improve things for so many people who work so hard to make games for the big developers.

Meanwhile Writers Guild East has been winning elections at places like Vice and Huffington Post, perhaps it’s time to put together an organizing drive at places like Bioware…any others? I don’t know where poor working conditions, lack of paid overtime, misuse of people as “independent contractors,” etc. is rampant.


#15

It sucks that there’s such a common anti-union sentiment among game developers. What also sucks is that I’m sure this isn’t the only game to have hired non-union voice actors, but it’s the only one that gained visibility because of how beloved its characters are/were.

I’m also bummed that Waypoint decided to cover the game, especially since I know they know full well the impact that supporting, covering, and promoting the game would have on labor. This game shows that the “politics of representation” can easily be commercialized and turned against the very people it claims to support.


#16

From what I could see Deck 9 is an independent developer who hasn’t made a lot of games recently. It sucks that Ashley couldn’t reprise her role, but the developers still have to eat and take care of their families. It’s also clear that Ashley understood this hence her helping out on the project.


#18

Torn on this one . I loved the first game for all its faults . However as someone who is involved in an ongoing labour dispute with strike action pending it would be a somewhat hypocritical purchase .


#19

Thanks for the nod to this in an article, Riendeau! I personally have been thinking about this a lot around the recent Before the Storm press (I think I even mentioned it in the designated Waypoint thread, probably) and I’m still incredibly disappointed by the pushback I’ve seen some other places against even the concept of a labor dispute taking place in games.

To address this:

I would say that, personally, it does depend on the project, with a couple key consistencies. If they’re going to less-unionized country’s labor market to circumvent their own laws/local unions (which is the oldest trick in the book) then that’s absolutely worth criticizing and naming for what it is. You mentioned this in your post with the question about globally moving work to different places. So although you’re clearly aware, I do want to reiterate that tapping people from other countries to do jobs for less money because they don’t have 1) context for the strike or 2) many other options themselves is Scab Tactics 101 on part of the employers.

When it’s not an instance like that, I personally think it comes down to where the employees are locally based. Burch is from the United States and she pays taxes here. She’s employed here. She’s protected under the labor laws in her own country. The original LiS team needed United States voice actors and wanted to pull from the talent in the U.S. for exclusively creative reasons, as far as I know; if a company like Square Enix deliberately broke a seiyuu strike in Japan, by the same measure, I’d hope it’d get the same response here that Deck Nine(/Blind Light?)'s choice has.

TL;DR, there’s unions in a lot of countries and I think publishers that work in multiple countries should be prepared to deal with each and every one of them, no matter how many there are, to make sure their employees are represented fairly.


#20

Yes, from a global perspective then many international companies are going to the USA where labour laws are far less strict, benefits (enshrined in law as included in all labour contracts) fail to guarantee access to a basic quality of life, and possibly even pay is lower (the latter being somewhat less common that the earlier points). They are therefor bypassing the local unions where the creative projects are primarily created as well as the local talent. That a US union (who like to negotiate for exclusivity/monopoly clauses on agreements) benefits from this does not automatically make me think it is a victory for workers (including US-based workers who would like to be collectively represented by a different union but cannot do so without being locked out of projects due to those clauses).

The location’s labour also has some cachet attached (as you mention, many international projects source English voice talent exclusively from the USA due to how worldwide markets react to the accent/celebrity value in an era of US cultural imperialism) which means it is often sought out for this reason but I do not think that’s exclusively the reason (or that we can collapse that down to a purely independent creative decision due to the wider context of US cultural dominance in the global market and how that came to exist).