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(Warning: Spoilers for Life Is Strange and frank discussion of suicide and implied rape).
Growing up is necessary. It can be a hideous, confusing and disastrous mess of an experience, but it is something we must all go through. After a certain point we have to stop being children. After a certain point we have to grasp that our actions really do have consequences.
Life is Strange is one of the more famous choose your own adventures style games that gained renewed popularity this past decade. It features all the evolving genre’s standard tropes; butterflies as a visual theme, choices with impossible to predict later consequences and a suspiciously binary ending.
Its major gaming mechanic is that its protagonist can rewind time and try to make more informed choices. Does this sound like it would completely undermine a stories attempt to make a point about living with consequences? Of course it does, and for good reason.
In real life we cannot rewind time to fix our mistakes. In Life is Strange we can. Or rather, we can up until a certain point, when we will be faced with the most blatant visual representation of our choices ramifications. The game does not treat us fairly, but who ever said life was fair. Life is strange and we have to grow up.
Life is Complicated
Max Caulfield (even her surname has hipster cred) returns to the small Oregon town where she spent her childhood, Arcadia Bay, to attend a prestigious art high school. Eighteen years old and a budding photographer, she was drawn to Blackwell Academy due to one of its teachers being the world famous photographer Mark Jefferson (more on this irredeemable man later).
Shy, introverted and acutely low in self-esteem, Max tries to hide from her problems in a bathroom one day. Then a boy bursts in, starts talking to himself, is soon confronted by a blue-haired girl, pulls a gun and accidentally shoots the girl dead. This is fortuitously the moment that Max realises she can reverse time.
She saves the girl with her new-found powers and discovers she is her former best friend Chloe. The rest of the game is technically spent uncovering a mystery involving corruption, drugs and a missing girl, but ostensibly focuses on the re-building of Max and Chloe’s friendship.
And there’s also a tornado coming to destroy Arcadia Bay in four days’ time. Life is hard.
Life is Choice
So there is a lot going on as this teen drama slowly spirals into the potential apocalypse, (and I have made it deliberately sound more convoluted than it actually is) but the most pertinent fact is that the game ends with a single important choice. This choice is more than a little divisive among fans, which is great news for me because I am about to tell slightly less than half of them that they made the wrong decision.
The more Max meddles with time, the more odd occurrences keep springing up. First there is snow on an eighty degree day, then an unscheduled eclipse. Before long whales are washing up on the beach and two moons are floating in the sky. As an enormous vortex threatens to destroy Arcadia Bay, Max realises it is her time travel that is causing the universe to unravel. The only way to put the world to rights is to go back in time to the moment when she discovered her powers and undo the first thing she changed.
Which means she has to let Chloe die, or else an entire town full of people will die. This is the final choice the game presents to you.
Life is Consequence
We will leave the divisive ending alone for a moment and take a quick tour through some of the horrible things that can happen in Life is Strange. Things can go wrong fast and sometimes time travel cannot fix them. Here is a list of bad things that can happen in this alternate reality that Max created when she began reversing time.
- Frank and his dog are murdered by Chloe.
- Chloe is murdered by Mark Jefferson.
- As is Victoria.
- As is Nathan.
- Kate Marsh (I will address this in a moment).
- David’s life is utterly ruined and he kills Jefferson in his grief (he can also be murdered by Jefferson).
- Joyce loses her family again.
This is leaving aside the tornado that threatens to destroy the town, and only focusing on the fates of the main characters. While much of this is avoidable, some is set in stone, and regardless of the exact body count, Max will leave a trail of blood in her wake. Not that I blame her in the slightest; She is only eighteen after all, and tries her hardest to help people.
The pertinent point to take away from this is that the events of the game are not pleasant for anyone. Everyone suffers along the way. This reality exists because Max saved Chloe, and it is a realty of worry and woe. This is not a timeline worth preserving.
And I have not even gotten to the worst part of it yet.
Life is Precious
I once wrote a blog post apologising to Kate Marsh. I had to take a day off after I completed Episode 2 in order for me to come to terms with her fate. For the longest time Kate Marsh was with me as I went about my life. Despite her being a fictional character, and one I barely got to know at that, I wholeheartedly missed Kate.
Kate Marsh is a reserved girl who attracts the scorn of the popular kids when she begins an abstinence campaign. She is mercilessly bullied, her situation getting even worse after a viral video of her drugged at a party is spread around campus. At the end of Episode 2 Kate climbs to the roof of her dormitory. It is up to Max (and the player) to talk her down. It is possible to fail; In fact, it is much harder to succeed. Kate Marsh can jump to her death, and no amount of time travel can bring her back.
I did not convince Kate to step down off the ledge on my first play through. She jumped, and a kind soul was lost to the world. Yet this did not have to be her fate. She would never have been driven to the roof if more people had supported her, and more people would have supported her had those who drugged her been caught.
Which would have happened if Max had not saved Chloe. Stopping the vortex will not just save a town full of people; it will also bring Kate Marsh back.
Life is Growth
(A lot of what I have to say has already been said better here, so give that article a look.)
Chloe Price is not exactly the most selfless person in the world. While she has undoubtedly been through the horrors, that serves more as an explanation for her self-centred nature rather than an excuse. She blames everyone and everything for her problems (including her dead father for “choosing” to abandon her) without ever looking at herself.
That is, until the very end of the game when she gains some perspective and finally becomes an adult. It is her idea to go back and change things so she perishes at the game’s beginning. She urges Max to save the town, with her mother being at the forefront of her thinking.
“She deserves so much more than to be killed by a storm in a fucking diner.”
Chloe grows up at the very end of the game, but it is up to the player whether or not Max will grow up too. Will you let follow Chloe’s wishes and save the town, in full understanding of the harsh consequences of your actions? Or will you fly in the face of all reason and attempt to arrest Max’s development forever?
And not to make a false equivalence, but you know who else in Life is Strange is in a state of arrested development? Mark Jefferson.
Life is Horror
Remember Mark Jefferson, world famous photographer turned trendy teacher? It transpires he became a teacher not to help mould the minds of the next generation, but rather to satiate his obsessions. Jefferson has been drugging, kidnapping, and photographing girls without their consent. By the game’s end he has also become a murderer.
Everything he does is in service to taking pictures of young girls while drugged and unconscious:
“Simply put, I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing that moment innocence evolves into corruption.
The main point of contention of the villain is the idea of girls growing up. The independence, intelligence and strength of a grown woman is a ‘corruption’ to him, a subversion of the natural order where he exercises complete control. Hmm, a villain obsessed with total control in a story about a hero with control over time itself; I wonder if the writers were hinting at something?
Even leaving aside his disgusting misogyny, everything about Jefferson screams arrested development. His appearance is a see-through attempt to look like the ‘trendy, cool, not like the rest’ teacher, a pitiful stab at holding on to youth by a man that must be pushing forty. He walked away from stardom to teach at a high school, not because he values education, but due to his need to lecture people over whom he holds sway.
Jefferson is a man that refuses to grow up. He is a terrible human being. The goal, then, should be to strive not to be like Jefferson, and the way to accomplish that is to let Chloe go.
Life is Memory
One of the most common complaints levelled at the good ending of Life is Strange is that it undoes all other choices made up until that point. History is entirely rewritten, they say, and everything that Max and Chloe did over those five days ceases to have happened. This is a complaint I have always found puzzling, because those five days did happen, even if they are erased from history.
I remember those five days. Any other player will remember those five days. More to the point, Max will always remember those five days. They are her eternal gift from the universe, five days she got to spend with the person she loves most in the world.
If not for those five days, Chloe dies without her and Max ever reconnecting. She dies without Max ever meeting her again, ever learning to miss her. Nothing can ever make those five days unreal for Max because she lived them. She will always remember Chloe now. She may have lost her, but she will never forget her.
Those five days happened for Max. And they were crucial to her growing up.
Choose to sacrifice Chloe and the story comes full circle. A long ending scene (one the developers clearly worked harder on than the other) takes us right back to the beginning. All the villains are brought to justice. Kate never goes up to the roof. The town is not destroyed, its populace are not killed and Max has matured into a remarkable woman.
Alternatively, Max can sacrifice Arcadia Bay, kill everyone in the town (including all of Max’s friends and Chloe’s mother), a gesture so powerful it will basically force Chloe to stay with Max forever (whether she wants to or not a few years down the line), and this is to say nothing of the fact that the universe still wants Chloe dead and is unlikely to stop trying. This is bad from every angle.
Is the lesson that the universe had to kill a young woman to put everything to right? No, not at all. The lesson here is that Max did have a chance to save Chloe, but only one, before she developed her powers. She could have intervened then and saved Chloe from death that very first time in the bathroom. She did not, and Chloe died.
It is the dream of a child that they can fix everything, but that is not how the world works. In real life we only get ever get a single shot and most of the time it is only clear afterwards when our shot was. No amount of wanting things to have gone differently will make it so. Being an adult means accepting the things you cannot change and fighting like crazy for the things you can.
Being prepared to do literally anything to protect the person you love most is not the sign of a good person. It is the opposite of that, a spit in the face of morality for the sake of maintaining what you want most. There are two endings to Life is Strange, but these endings are not equal. We have to be given the chance to make the wrong decision. Otherwise we would never fully appreciate it when we choose correctly.