A few weekends ago I played the final episode of Life Is Strange. Many thoughts have been swirling in my head about the story and the episode itself. After giving the episode entitled Polarize a chance to sit and percolate in my brain banks for quite a bit, there’s a lot I want to discuss about it and how successful Dontnod Entertainment’s take on the episodic video game genre has wrapped up the ongoing story threads of Life Is Strange. Please read the following post with caution. There will be plenty of spoilers about Polarize. If you haven’t played the game or episode yet, it’s best to avoid reading this one until you have.
I touched upon the game briefly in a past post. What I feel Dontnod Entertainment does get right is how they push players to truly take a moment and think about how smaller choices and other weightier choices will possibly impact the rest of their gameplay experience. While Telltale and Bioware also implement player choice as an important part of their game playing mechanics, looking back on the games I’ve played so far in comparison to Life Is Strange, I don’t get the same sense of unpredictability like I do with Life Is Strange. Seemingly inconsequential choices, like answering your phone when a friend calls or deciding to take the moral high ground when a school bully has just gotten paint all over her designer clothes, don’t reveal how important these decisions will become when you’re faced with an even bigger choice to get the desired outcome you want in the moment. Despite Dontnod Entertainment taking episodic games and choice base systems to another level, it does fall short in some areas.
A major problem most choice based games seem to have is whatever choices you made in previous games or episodes ultimately won’t matter once you reach the end. At least in the grand scheme of things. Some decisions might be taken into account, but to wrap up a story, certain narrative directions are still solely within the control of the writers and developers as they see fit. As the player, you’re just along for the ride.
I’ve read a few articles and comment sections addressing this very issue in Polarize where certain actions and decisions ultimately don’t really matter when the main heroine Max is constantly jumping around in time, therefore changing and negating a lot of the stuff she either tries to fix or avoid in the new timeline. It also becomes glaringly less impactful when a key character in earlier episodes will actually live regardless if you managed to successfully talk this person out of committing suicide. To address that last point, this character did in fact die in my game. As Max, I was unsuccessful at convincing this person to live in spite of the crushing circumstances they were going through. I also somehow either chose the wrong dialogue response or missed a minor action point in an earlier part of the episode to have gotten this character to get down from the roof. Did it devastate me? Yeah, at the time it did and it purposely made it impossible for Max to use her rewind power when she didn’t succeed at saving her friend. It also had the added revelation that Max’s rewind power to go back in time has its limits and it definitely cannot fix everything.
The release of Polarize may make certain decisions and actions from previous episodes irrelevant, but to the credit of Life Is Strange this is a story with a time travel element. It’s expected that previous actions and decisions will get erased or altered in some way. Max is jumping through time and into many different alternate realities. Playing through the game you see many different possibilities of how Max’s life and the lives of others could have played out. Unless Max stays with the timeline she traveled to, none of her decisions or actions will stick once she moves onto another timeline. For that reason, I can sort of forgive the idea of “your choices don’t matter in this game” argument. I think choice base games have yet to master that happy medium between making a player’s choices matter within the confines of the story the writers and developers are creating.
Life Is Strange isn’t a perfect game. In fact, it’s a flawed game with a number of issues and stumbling blocks. This doesn’t mean the game isn’t worth playing, as many other reviewers have stated in their own thoughts about the game. The gameplay is fun and the way choice is structured is a lot more complicated than it seems. There are different ways to get to the goal you want to achieve, but it depends on if you’re okay with the tiny details leading up to you achieving that goal. I can’t say the writing is always strong when much of the character dialogue can be downright painful to listen to. Among the biggest problems the game has is creating an interesting villain.
Episode 4 revealed photography teacher Mr. Mark Jefferson as the culprit behind the disappearance of fellow Blackwell Academy student Rachel Amber and a whole number of shady activity going on in the town of Arcadia Bay. Once the final episode dropped, it’s unfortunate that Mr. Jefferson ends up being written as a two-dimensional mustache twirling villain. He details all his nefarious plans to Max when he kidnaps her but by the time Mr. Jefferson gets through his dirty laundry list of evil things he plans to do, you’re no longer interested. Another issue I have with Polarize is the plot leaving behind story holes and plenty of unanswered questions.
A big question left unanswered is how Max got her powers and why. I’m not sure if the writers are able to answer this one themselves. It’s sort of left suspended in the air without any real resolution. The way Life Is Strange ends, and I’ll go over that in detail in a little bit, also left me wondering if Max still has her powers. Probably the hardest part about writing a sci-fi narrative and tying up all the loose threads raised earlier in a story is doing it in such a way that it’ll all make sense. Unfortunately, the story is all over the place and a lot seems to get ignored in favor of just ending the whole game. Not the best storytelling practice.
Despite the game’s faults, the biggest draw about this game is the friendship between Max and Chloe. They’re the beating heart of the entire narrative. Everything Max does is all for the love of her best friend. And yet when Max first uses her newly discovered time travel power to save Chloe from getting shot in the girl’s bathroom, it seems to set Chloe on a course of just delaying her death in whatever timeline they happen to be in. When you play the game and follow Max’s time jumping adventure, there’s always one common thread going on in each of the different timelines she’s in––Chloe is always in danger of dying. Max may always manage to save Chloe in some shape or form but it seems that no matter what, Chloe is on borrowed time. As determined as Max is to ensure her best friend lives, it almost seems like Chloe is destined to die.
This does call into question the whole fate vs. free will debate. If Max is doing everything she can to avoid Chloe’s death by her actions, why does it always seem Chloe is in danger of dying anyway? Was Chloe always meant to die? The direction Polarize went with the story does remind me of how the anime Steins;Gate explores this very idea. Are certain events meant to be? How much control do we have over our own lives? The only difference here is Steins;Gate does a better job of explaining the possibilities and much more coherently than Life Is Strange does. The effort is there with Life Is Strange, but it comes off as largely weaker in comparison to the anime.
The game’s final episode may have struggled in the overall execution of the ideas and themes they wanted to explore, but the ending I chose to conclude the story of Max and Chloe was emotionally satisfying and the best ending I would have wanted for the characters. There’s no denying how much Chloe and Max love each other. Theirs is a friendship that will go through hell and back to ensure the other is safe. Max’s actions alone prove she’ll travel back in time as many times as necessary to save her best friend from dying. It’s in the final moments of Life Is Strange you’ll see how far the characters have evolved and changed and how you cement those transformations in your ending pick.
As convoluted as the explanation is, it’s revealed that the tornado Max kept having visions of are caused by her having rewinded time too much to create a cataclysmic storm that will inevitably destroy the entire town of Arcadia Bay and all the residents in it. With no way of figuring out how to stop this storm from happening, Chloe concludes that if the storm is linked to Max’s time travel power, then the only way to keep the storm from ever happening is Max traveling back to the day she saved Chloe from getting shot and killed by rich boy Nathan Prescott. Max’s final entry point into that timeline is a photograph of a blue butterfly she took a picture of that Chloe still had.
Before you’re given two choices of how to end this story, Chloe makes an emotionally moving speech to convince Max to choose to let her die. For once, Chloe wants to do something selfless and sees how saving her over the lives of many others wouldn’t be right. From the moment you meet Chloe at the start of Life Is Strange, she’s a rebellious, selfish, and trouble making girl. Depending on what kind of influence you want Max to be in Chloe’s life, she does end up being her moral compass. Max has selflessly put herself on the line to save Chloe many times. By recognizing Max having done more than enough for her, Chloe is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. After Chloe makes her case for doing the right thing, you have two choices: travel back in time to the first day Max discovered her time travel power and saved Chloe and instead let Chloe’s death play out as it should have or stay in their current timeline and ride out the storm. I went with the time travel option and let Chloe die.
Many of the reviews I’ve read complained how the developers and writers seem to push you into choosing Chloe’s death. While that may be the case, for me personally, the Chloe death option felt more complete from a narrative standpoint. Character development may not be as fully fleshed out as it could have been from start to finish, but I think the final moments leading up to your final decision to wrap up the story gives you an opportunity to see Chloe finally growing up as the case may be. Traveling back to that fateful day sort of undoes every single moment and memory Chloe and Max ever had, making those memories technically like they never happened, but just because the Chloe from that moment in the bathroom may never remember or know she had a chance to reconnect with her best friend doesn’t make it any less real for Max who will remember Chloe in all the timelines she traveled to. It’s a gut wrenching scene watching Max hide behind the stalls and hear the gun go off as she lets her friend go. By the end of the game, Max is certainly much older and wiser beyond her teenage years after the experience. It also drives home the idea that sometimes certain things are beyond our control and maybe some things are meant to happen as they should no matter how painful or tragic it is. Trying to fix things against what should be is messing with the natural order of things.
I did go on YouTube and watch the other ending I didn’t go with, which many other players have said felt largely unsatisfying. In the other ending, Chloe lives but the town of Arcadia Bay is completely destroyed. That ending sort of leaves things up in the air with plenty of questions left unanswered. It can be seen as a “happy ending” of sorts because Chloe and Max are together, but at what cost? Sacrificing the lives of many to save one? This other ending is meant to be seen as the selfish and the “wrong choice” to choose. No matter which ending you go with, both are heavy experiences to watch.
Life is Strange is an imperfect game playing experience, but not a waste of time to play. They do get some things right with how the decision aspects are drawn up, but could have done better with the overall writing of the story. It’s a memorable game that hits all the right emotional notes and portrays a positive female friendship rooted in love and sacrifice.