Life is unfair isn’t it? You have to deal with all these painful realities, and it often feels like you really can’t control anything. Not only that, but you’re faced with constant reminders about how unfair things are from just living in real life, and from the stories that movies, TV shows, and video games tell us. Over a decade ago, we had Buffy the Vampire Slayer telling us that being an adult meant making difficult choices and realizing things are beyond your control, now we have Life is Strange to teach that lesson to a new generation while fully utilizing its medium of story telling (vidya gamez) to impart it. I loved Life is Strange, it’s the rare video game that completely immersed itself in its story-telling, and I appreciate the hell out of the fact that it was ruthlessly uncompromising in its message. I’m going to get into massive spoilers from here, so be warned.
The story of this game is about an introverted high school girl named Max Caufield, who moves back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay after 5 years away to attend a prestigious art school. Prior to moving, she had a best friend named Chloe Price who was grieving over the untimely death of her father when Max moved to Seattle, barely staying in touch afterwards. During her first semester at Blackwell Academy, Max has a terrifying vision of a tornado coming to destroy the town, and when she goes into the girls bathroom to collect herself, she witnesses her former best friend Chloe (who she has yet to reconnect with) get shot and killed by an unstable student while she hides out of view, unable to move to stop it from happening. This is the single most important moment in the game, one of the reasons being that it is in that moment that Max realizes she has the power to rewind time. Where she got this power doesn’t really matter, the important thing is how she uses it is. In using her power to prevent Chloe’s death, Max begins her odyssey towards adulthood.
From this point on, you play as Max as she reconnects with Chloe while they try to solve the disappearance of Chloe’s friend Rachel Amber. On top of this, you have to prevent the death of Chloe using your rewind power on several occasions as it seems as though the universe itself is conspiring to end her life. The Chloe Price you meet in this game isn’t the one Max knew in her childhood. She is angry and bitter, and most damning of all, she is entirely selfish. She isn’t above guilt tripping Max about her absence in her life to force her into being her accomplice during her many self-destructive and irresponsible misadventures. She acts as a foil to Max (who is unassertive to a fault), and will often get on your nerves, but through all that, you’ll become really attached to Chloe and her story. Chloe’s had a hard life, losing her father and both her best friends, and then being saddled with a strict and paranoid step-father (who she less than affectionately calls “step-douche”). Despite being so different from Max, the two show a deep, genuine chemistry, and also share in the central character flaw in the game. Like Max, Chloe refuses to grow up. She looks everywhere but inside when it comes to problems in her life, refusing to partake in serious self-reflection. Max on the other hand doesn’t seem to look anywhere, choosing to keep to herself and allowing life to pass her by. Together these two convey the message of this story, but not without the aid of its villain.
Mark Jefferson is a world famous photographer that Max idealizes. Despite being able to do anything he wants, he chooses to pause his career and teach at a school, seemingly in order to pass on his knowledge of photography (Max’s passion). I assumed his role in Rachel Amber’s disappearance would be as an adult who failed to be a guiding figure for the kids who depended on him because he was too busy trying to be one of them. The truth is however, that Mark Jefferson is a psychotic predator that is ultimately responsible for Rachel Amber’s disappearance and death. Manipulating the students at Blackwell Academy, Jefferson is the source of most of this game’s darkness and represents everything it strives to teach against. Jefferson is obsessed with drugging women and photographing them during their moments of “innocence” and preserving them in that state forever. When he captures Max he explains (perhaps too cartoonishly) that he only wants to trap her in a state of pure innocence forever by photographing her in a semi-conscience state and then murdering her. Represented by the colours of white and black, Jefferson is the symbol of halted growth in this game. He recounts a quote from Alfred Hitchcock comparing film to “little pieces of time”, and then goes on to say that one could also say that about photographs. The thing about photographs is that they’re stagnant, they don’t represent someone’s entire being and never will. He romanticizes innocence as the height of humanity, which is perfectly fitting for a villain in a game about the necessity of losing ones innocence.
In Life is Strange‘s final episode, all of its themes come to a head in a magnificently executed conclusion that tells its story through its characters and through the execution of the gameplay itself. By that point, Max has grown as a character, hardened through her experiences, and armed with the knowledge that her choices mean everything. Because of her rewind power, Max is able to see how important every decision she makes could be while also depriving her choices of any meaning. Thanks to her power to undo any mistake, Max begins circling. She jumps through hoop after hoop (and photo after photo) to get to the reality she thinks is best (which is just about any one that sees Chloe alive and happy) only for new challenges to pop up. It never ends, and as the player you feel the wear of it as it slowly begins to dawn on you that nothing you do can completely protect Chloe. Either she dies from a terrible accident, or the tornado envisioned at the beginning of the game comes to destroy the town and Chloe along with it. Ever since she used her powers, Max sees Arcadia Bay go through numerous anomalies, like falling snow in the summer, frequently dying birds, and an unscheduled eclipse all leading up to the day the entire town would be annihilated by a tornado. In a particularly effective moment, Max finds herself achieving all of her dreams, stopping Mr. Jefferson, and saving her friend, only for her to learn the twister came anyway to destroy Arcadia Bay with Chloe in it. No matter what she seems to do, no matter how much she alters time, the nagging call of responsibility bowls her over in the form of a town destroying tornado. This all leads up to one central choice, perhaps the only choice that shows how much you’ve learned.
Within the story, it becomes clear that Chloe becomes Max’s entire world. She bonds with her, saves her, is forced to kill her in one of the game’s more disastrous timelines, and perhaps even falls in love with her. In the final episode, you are treated to a nightmare sequence where all of Max’s fears and insecurities are a brought to bear, including a moment that involves her recounting all the significant moments she and Chloe had after they reconnecting as friends and started investigating Rachel Amber’s disappearance and murder. This all leads to the toughest choice in the game, where it becomes clear that Chloe’s continued presence is responsible for the town’s anomalies and the eventual tornado that kills everyone. The truth is, Chloe Price can’t truly be saved no matter what you do. Max’s one opportunity to save her came and went at the start of the game. Rewinding time to do so just messed with the order of the world and caused the entire mess of events to happen in the first place. Everything you have been doing was only just delaying the inevitable, and Chloe herself realizes this just as the player should have by that point. At every turn, Chloe shows herself to be a selfish person, always thinking about what the world has done to her and never about others, but in her decision to tell Max to let her die for the sake of Arcadia Bay, Chloe finally becomes an adult. She starts caring about the fate of of the townspeople and proves herself willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, and what Max does at this point acts as a test for the players. If the player chooses to allow Chloe to die, they are treated to an emotionally resonant and complete ending that builds on the themes and ideas that they’ve experienced throughout their journey and is made all the more powerful by the fact that they chose it, but if they choose to sacrifice the town to “save” Chloe, they are treated with an ending almost as hollow as their decision.
Choosing to sacrifice Arcadia Bay sees Max and Chloe driving through the desolate streets of the destroyed town as they leave, looking pensive, and halfheartedly smiling at each other towards the end. Following them on the road is the chilling omen of falling snow, the first in a sequence of anomalies that leads to the devastating tornado that just destroyed the town. It will never end for you if you go down this path. You haven’t changed or grown from your adventure at all, you’re still circling, clinging desperately to a part of your adolescence you refuse to let go of. If the seemingly endless steps it took to protect Chloe in the final episode felt tedious to you, it was by design. You were supposed to have realized the folly of going down the path you did, but instead you’re just repeating the steps to a dance you’ve done before. Your character essentially gets trapped with Chloe in a still life, probably in the kind of portrait Mark Jefferson would appreciate.
In contrast to this, the decision to sacrifice Chloe is the one that requires personal growth. Everything Max has done, the endless decisions and consequences, the mistakes and rewinds, all of it, was meant to lead her to that decision. At the end of the game, Max shares her final goodbye with the most important person she knows (potentially the love of her life), jumps back through time to that moment in the bathroom, and experiences Chloe’s final death. Life is Strange is a game that isn’t without its flaws (most of which can be summed up in this video), but all of them pale completely in the face of this one splendid sequence. The moment where Max once again experiences the death of Chloe, knowing that she could save her but shouldn’t, has to be the singular moment the writers were building their story towards. It’s such a deeply affecting scene, where every syllable is something you’ve heard before but is now twisted into something that cuts deep. When Chloe’s killer tells her that nobody would even miss her, after everything you and Max have gone through, it really stabs at your heart. So Chloe Price dies that day on a bathroom floor, never reconnecting with Max, never growing up and living up to her potential, and never fully coming to terms with the death of her father and dealing with her new family. It’s pure tragedy, but it is also the end of Max’s innocence.
In the beginning of the game, Max is shy and unwilling to confront life and its challenges. Then she watches her best friend die and does everything she can to undo that. She rewinds time and constantly changes events so that Chloe can survive her numerous brushes with death. In effect, she is constantly delaying the moment in which she loses her innocence, refusing to move on and desperately trying to maintain a frame of time where she gets to be a careless teen. But she can’t, no one can. Chloe Price died in that bathroom and there’s nothing she should do to change that, and I believe that’s the hardest part. Through her power she got to experience so much with Chloe, but now she has to let her go because that is the responsible thing to. She has to carry the burden of knowing Chloe and letting her die completely on her own, all so that others can live. I am very grateful to the game’s creators, Dontnod Entertainment, for sticking to their vision, because that sort of ending must have been a tough sell.
The trouble with videogames where your choice affects the outcome, is that the narrative is often compromised. Your story can’t really be about anything because it could end any number of ways, but Life is Strange handled that dilemma brilliantly. Throughout the game, the decisions you make are meaningful only in what they teach the player. They shape your experience and teach Max and the player about responsibility and consequences. The decisions and outcomes were all just there to inform your final decision to choose selflessness and responsibility over stagnation and a refusal to grow (a set of choices I found to be deeply reminiscent to the ones Buffy had at the end of her show’s second season). Life is Strange couldn’t be a story where Max and her cool time rewinding powers totally save the day and she lives happily ever after, because that’s not what the story was about, what it was about was personal growth and becoming an adult, and the endings served that perfectly. No one will ever know how strong Max is for choosing to let Chloe die, but that’s okay because you know she has a deeper understanding of life now. Life is unfair, life is beautiful, life is weird, most of the time it isn’t even in your control, but it’s always something you should strive to better yourself within. I’ve never played a game that conveyed that message so effectively before, and for that, I will never forget Life is Strange.
Quote of the Day:
“No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”
– Whistler, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.