Should SAG-AFTRA union supporters buy Life is Strange: Before the Storm?

When you think of Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, labor issues might be the last thing on your mind. But before you plunk down your credit card to purchase this game, there are a few things you may want to consider.

By now, all LIS fans know that Ashly Burch isn't reprising the role of Chloe Price, which is a shame. Her amazing performance netted her a well-deserved Golden Joystick award in 2015. However, her reasons for not returning are complicated and deserve examination.

Union history

Voice actors who perform in video games, particularly AAA titles, are usually members of the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (more commonly known as SAG-AFTRA) union. To understand the union as it exists today, it's worth looking back at how it came to be. 

Back in the 1930s, when the studio system ruled supreme in Hollywood, the movie studios wielded immense power. If screen actors wanted to get anywhere in Hollywood, they had to sign oppressive contracts that locked them into working with a single studio. These contracts also required extremely long working days with no mandated breaks. Actors who spoke out against this treatment were suspended without pay. Simultaneously, the studios would not release them from their contract in order to find work elsewhere.

In the 1950s, after a series of anti-trust cases against the studio system and the advent of television, actors had enough negotiating power to form SAG. The union could now negotiate with movie studios for better hours, working conditions, and pay for actors. Meanwhile, AFTRA started off as a union for radio performers in the 1930s and expanded to include television performers in the 1950s. In 2011, AFTRA negotiated the original Interactive Media Agreement with game developers.

In 2012 SAG and AFTRA merged, which made sense given that many actors were members of both unions, and doing so increased their bargaining power, allowing them to fight more effectively on behalf of their members. AFTRA’s agreement with game developers carried over from the merger and expired in 2014.

The state of negotiations 

In early 2015, SAG-AFTRA negotiations began between the union and the video game companies. The union wants a few things:

  • Contingent compensation structure. Actors want a bonus if a game is extremely successful. Each principal performer would receive a small bonus for every two million units sold, capped at eight million units. Given that the game industry is even bigger than the film industry, and these sorts of residuals are standard practice there, this payment isn’t exorbitant. (The union also understands that this cost can become a hardship for small independent game developers, and have a low budget agreement for indie games.)
  • Set safety. Being an actor in a video game often involves motion capture, which can involve stunts. Video game companies don’t always hire stunt coordinators, and actors can get hurt as a result. The union wants appropriate safety precautions to be taken in order to protect actors.
  • Transparency. Actors are often required to sign up for a project while knowing nothing about the role or game. The union wants greater transparency around this issue. Voice actors have come into recording sessions and have been asked, without prior consent, to perform content that includes simulated sex scenes and racial slurs. Actors should know ahead of time what their role entails and what the game is about. There is precedent for this in the movie and television industry - actors don’t take roles without knowing what the role is and how it fits into the story.
  • Vocal safety. Video game voice acting is intense work. Think about every time you’ve heard Lara Croft scream and die. “Painful deaths, creature voices, battle sounds, and screams” can hurt actors voices. Some actors report that they are “fainting in sessions, tasting blood, vomiting, losing their voice for a day... to several weeks, permanently losing vocal range.” The union does not want to eliminate these sounds, but rather they want to shorten the recording session length from four hours to two hours while maintaining the same compensation. This is hazard pay for one of the most physically arduous parts of a voice actor’s job.

The union had been negotiating with all the major players in the game industry from February 2015 to October 2016 - over twenty months - before beginning the strike. Many video game devs and publishers have agreed to the union’s terms, but eleven companies did not, including Activision, EA, and Take 2. The strike continues to this day, making this the longest strike in SAG-AFTRA history.

What should fans do?

One of the titles caught up in the current strike is Life Is Strange: Before The Storm. Ashly Burch, a union actress, could not reprise her role as Chloe Price. In her place, Rhianna Devries will be playing Chloe.

Whenever we see a beloved actor replaced in a game, we always ask, “Can they fill these huge shoes?” By all indications, Devries is doing fine. I would propose a different question: should we, as consumers, purchase a game created by a developer that is not in compliance with union demands? Granted, there probably aren’t going to be a ton of death barks and wire pulls in Before the Storm, but exempting a fairly high budget production like this weakens the union’s bargaining position, and makes them less able to protect actors who work in more challenging and dangerous situations.

The ranks of SAG-AFTRA include virtually all the voice actors we know and love, from Jennifer Hale to Troy Baker to Dave Fennoy to Doug Cockle. Could you imagine if these actors blew out their voices on a role and we lost them for good? Or worse, if they were seriously injured during a mo-cap session? It would be a tremendous loss for the gaming world.

As consumers we can post on Facebook and rant on forums about how disappointed we are at Deck Nine’s choices, but if we still purchase Before the Storm, we are tacitly supporting their policies. Refusing to buy this game is the only power we have to encourage game developers to improve conditions for their actors.

Also, boycotting BTS raises another issue: game developers are also often overworked and undercompensated as well. You don’t have to look far to find stories of game developers working long hours and sleeping in their offices to get a game shipped. If we boycott BTS, are we morally obligated to boycott other games as well? I would argue that we are not obligated to boycott other games unless their workers organize and strike. If they strike, we should not cross that picket line. In fact, SAG-AFTRA has supported other unions, such as the Director’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Guild of America. Such principles of cross-industry workers solidarity have been integral to trade unionism since its inception. It’s not a coincidence that SAG, AFTRA, and IATSE (The International Association of Theatrical and Stage Employees) all started around the same time. IATSE represents the lighting, sound, and camera technicians / artists at the heart of TV and film industry. Maybe it’s time for game developers to join their ranks. Game developers bring joy to millions and work incredibly hard. At the very least, they deserve breaks, days off, vacations, and weekends. In fact, these common sense benefits were some of the original reasons why unions began in the first place, in industries like coal mining and the railroad.

SAG-AFTRA have also been relatively quiet about this strike. Their strike document touts a hashtag #performancematters that trended for one day and a pro-strike video that was viewed “thousands of times.” At the time of writing, the video is just shy of 3000 views. Anyone who works in new media knows that these are pitiable numbers. The average vlogbrothers video gets 250K views, easily. Particularly successful ones get a million or so. I say all of this to make the point that the Interactive Strike has made little to no impact on gamer consciousness. Contrast this to the 07-08 writers' strike, which stopped television shows and movies dead in their tracks. Audience members couldn’t help but notice. if SAG-AFTRA wants to succeed, they’ll need to get the attention of the buying public. That change may be on the way soon. Many of the games that were safe-harbored (i.e., their production began before February 2015, and can use union labor) have been released. We may begin to see new games enter production without union labor, and that may draw attention. Franchises that could lose beloved voice actors for key characters may be forced back to the bargaining table. Injustice 2 is listed as a struck title, but was released with a full cast of union voice actors. An agreement was made between the developers/publishers and the union somewhere along the line.

Despite all of this, as a union supporter rabid fan of Life of Strange, I am absolutely gutted at the prospect of this choice. The original game moved me like few games before or since. LIS’s imperfect but powerful handling of queerness is one of its hallmarks as well as one of the things I loved about it. And as someone who lost beloved friends as a teenager, Chloe’s plotline was tremendously moving. I was looking forward to seeing how Before the Storm enriched my understanding of the original. Rachel is largely a cypher in Life is Strange, and we only cared about her because Chloe did. Before the Storm tells us the story of Rachel and Chloe, and in so doing could fix one of the main problems with the first game. Truth be told, I may end up playing this game at a friend’s house or via Steam Game Share. Episode one of Before the Storm is out now, and not knowing the story is killing me.

Will you be buying Life Is Strange: Before The Storm? How do you feel about Ashly Burch losing this role? Do you support the strike? Are you concerned about queer representation in games? Let us know in the comments.