“Turn this way now or
face the lonely autumn tree
and never look back”
Covering the end of Life is Strange is difficult. I feel like I can’t review it properly. Or rather, I can review the individual episodes like a normal game, but the entire season is so much more that normal criticism won’t work. So perhaps I’ll start with the season, and then move on to the last episode.
Tons of spoilers. Please, just play the game already.
TL;DR: It’s worth your time and money. Play Life is Strange.
This game has touched me. For all of its uneven writing and dramatic tonal shifts, it has affected me in a way that fiction hasn’t for a while. Max is a bit bland, but that leaves room for the player to use her as a role-playing character rather than play someone else’s story. Chloe is a bit of a petulant ass, but as it was said in the NYCC panel “A (Wo)man’s World: Closing The Gender Gap In Pop Culture”, strong female character is a problematic term, and nuanced female character is a much more appropriate one. Chloe is that. For all of her deflection, selfishness, and short temper, I feel super protective of her. Perhaps it’s because she’s so strong and yet so incapable of taking care of herself (she wears a symbolic necklace with three bullets fora reason) that I feel the need to help her so strongly. And where Max is a placeholder for the player, Chloe becomes a reflection of the game’s world. The more things fall apart, the more distraught Chloe becomes.
pisode 5: Polarized. I enjoyed it while playing through. Yes, like the entire series there are flaws. The end comes down to a single decision. There’s an awkward to me, overly long to some, stealth portion. A good deal of players are complaining that in the end your choices just don’t matter. That is partially true, but misses the entire point of the game, and I’ll get to why.
The story has you waking up in the Dark Room. Chloe’s dead. Victoria is unconscious next to Max. Mark Jefferson monologues about purity and innocence. Through a series of Polaroid time jumps you soon achieve a super-happy-perfect-joy ending. Kate, Victoria, and Chloe are alive and well. Jefferson and Nathan are caught. You win the Everyday Hero contest and arrive in San Francisco, only to be told that you are an inspiration and the local critic and art world wants to interview and feature you. You have become Beautiful Cinnamon Roll, too good for this world, too pure. You turn off the game, hug your knees, and weep with joy. Just kidding. You get a phone call from Chloe during the storm’s landfall. She’s calling out for help and then there’s nothing. Everyone we know is dead. Max manages to reset things partially. Now it’s essentially the same as when we started, but we’ve managed to escape from Jefferson. We go into town and, thanks to Warren’s drunken photo ex machina, go back once again. Change the past, come back to the present, and it’s nearly the same except now Chloe is alive. Piece by piece it seems we can put things right. Max and Chloe are about to make their way to the lighthouse for safety (except we’ve seen a boat make it rain bricks on Max back in episode one, but whatever) when Max collapses.
This is where things go sideways. We end up in a sort of nightmare dimension, where a world has been constructed of your anger, fear, and insecurity. Mr. Jefferson makes you say things you don’t want to, you have to traverse the dorms, facing guilt. This is also where the stealth mission comes in, and you have to sneak past aggressive versions of the male figures in Max’s life who have caused her to feel somewhat powerless (smug acknowledgement to White Knight Warren’s appearance here). All of this strongly reminded me of Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s Scarecrow hallucination level. And fittingly, both are some of the strongest moments in their respective games. They really dig into the psyche of their characters and turn abstract fears into concrete threats.
But if the fear zones are a smart turn of gameplay direction, the next section is a brilliant twist in the writing. There’s a crumbling path, a literal memory lane, that takes you back through all the important moments you shared with Chloe. I don’t know how many people noticed, but in the previously on Life is Strange introductory recaps they use footage that is universal. No matter what choices you make, you get to view the same refresher at the start of each episode. These snapshots are like that. They are moments of important decisions, but usually the moment before you would make a change. That means that each player’s path is the same but the significance of each reminder can trigger something different in the player depending on how they played. The moment of Chloe whisking you away from Nathan in episode one? Is it a comforting scene of reconnecting with Chloe or a bitter reminder of how angry she was when you said the wrong thing? Is the scene of Max a Chloe on the bed a reference to happier times, when you two acknowledged feelings for each other, or a sharp reminder of a missed opportunity? It’s a reminder of the life the player had Max live, and I think it was a touching reminder of the path I’d just taken over the course of the previous episodes. Eventually you catch up to your present and wake up at the lighthouse with Chloe, storm raging.
Discussion ensues, feelings are shared, facts come to light, and a decision must be made. Chloe realizes that it’s not the time travel itself that has been ripping the town apart, it’s her survival. Each escalating weather event has been the universe trying to Final Destination things back to normal. Look at this list and see how hard the world has been trying to kill this girl.
The Daily Deaths of Chloe Price
Monday (Episode 1) – shot by Nathan
Tuesday (Episode 2) – possibly shot during target practice, definitely killed by train
Wednesday (Episode 3) – respiratory failure or assisted suicide
Thursday (Episode 4) – shot by Mark Jefferson
Friday (Episode 5) – dies in the storm
So Chloe thanks you for making her happy and smile for the first time in a long time, and hands you the photo that you took in the bathroom at the beginning of episode one, right before you rewound and saved Chloe for the first time. It’s very similar to the conversation she has with you in the alternate universe when she asks you to turn her morphine up to 11 (why not just make 10 a higher dose? But this drip goes to 11), but with 1000% more feels. Chloe comes to terms with her possible death and tells you to go back and set things right. She doesn’t want her mom to die, she doesn’t want the world to kick David to the ground anymore, and she just wants some sort of respite from all of the suffering she’s been through. As I said, very similar to the morphine scene. So here are your options.
A) (Arcadia Bay ending) Save the town by traveling back and silently hiding in the bathroom while Chloe gets shot by Nathan or
B) (Arcadia Bae ending) toss the photo aside, let the town crumble, and drive off with Chloe.
I played through both but my true ending was choosing Arcadia Bay. I was torn about it but ultimately chose to save the town. I didn’t do it because it was the greatest good for the greatest number, though. That’s the logical reason to pick it. But the real reason I chose to sit and cry (by Max and, yeah, me) while Chloe dies only a few feet away was because that’s what she asked me to do. Max has the physical power but as far as I’m concerned Chloe is the engine of this world. Ultimately I can’t refuse her and I let her go. [EDIT: dark addendum]1
So about that ending. I mentioned earlier that a lot of people say this suffers from Mass Effect 3 syndrome, of nullifying all previous choices with one final decision. You can let Kate die, make David’s life as miserable as possible, and let Alyssa get hit in the head repeatedly, and none of that impedes your ultimate goal, whether it’s to save Chloe or Arcadia Bay. I can understand that frustration, though I think it’s misplaced. Thinking about this game as a work of interactive fiction rather than a regular open-ended game helps frame what’s come before the end. While it does come down to fixing the world or not, Chloe tells you that all the difference has been made in her life because of what you’ve done for her and everyone else. While the same cinematic plays after Chloe dies (or doesn’t, the choice is yours) there’s a moment when the Max you’ve played catches up and looks around at the world she has made by not changing a thing.
From an outside perspective nothing strange happens except Max smiles wistfully just before Chloe’s funeral and suddenly has all of these memories about Chloe from the past week that never occurred. But it’s like when any loved one dies; the part of them that lives on are the memories of the living. Max made a version of Chloe happy after she never thought she’d be able to enjoy life again, and that version of Chloe has given Max a week of love and friendship. That set of alternate memories that only Max has? Those are the memories of my game. Chloe thanks Max for giving her the week that the player has provided. That final Max carries the weight of what I chose to do and not do. In a regular work of fiction the end is set, but so is the action to get there. Every page is written when you pick it up, and it’s just the same when you put it down. The power and poetry that the Max’s Memories ending has is while the end of your book remains the same, or narrowed to a Choose Your Own Adventure split, the middle is filled with your own contributions and touches. Whether my play-through was Mighty Max, Everyday Hero oriented or pandering #Pricefield2, that’s what Chloe lived through for her last borrowed week, and that’s what Max will hold in her head moving into the future. It’s a subtle thing, but once I realized that the ending seemed much more personal than just having seven different endings to choose from. It’s a secret that only Max and I share. And it’s what Chloe thanked Max (and myself) for.
Final judgement time. So what did I think? As far as construction and mechanics go, this is not my favorite game. It’s flawed in many places, and is incredibly simplistic in parts. But as far as fiction goes, this has been one of the most intimate story experiences of my life and loved playing through it. It’s an inconsistent game that manages to yield one of the best pieces of storytelling.
|↵1||I realized after playing through the whole game that the Arcadia Bae ending may not be as happy as it seems, for all of the tragedy it already entails. The storm may have been the universe’s final lashing out in order to kill Chloe, but there’s no guarantee of that. There’s also a sizable chance that Chloe will die again tomorrow. Look at the list up above. Chloe has been killed at least once a day for the previous week. There’s good odds that Chloe will still die unless Max continues to rewind. And if she keeps doing that they may just leave a trail of utter destruction behind them. Remember, it only took a week for the weather to escalate to the storm. Even if it’s a building effect, that’s less than a week before they have to more on, and even then people and animals will get hurt in their wake. I can’t imagine that as a happy ending.|
|↵2||Rooting for the relationship between Chloe Price and Max Caufield. I myself am an unrepentant Pricefield shipper.|