Given the nature of this article, please be aware, there are some rather significant spoilers ahead.
I first played Life is Strange in the autumn of 2016. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, so naturally, this article isn’t a tribute to the game that first fanned the flames of my passion for the medium. Moreover, as a pessimistic Englishman who possesses all the artistic flair of a 60-year-old accountant, I had very little in common with the denizens of Arcadia Bay, save perhaps a few painfully familiar moments of teenage angst.
Yet Life is Strange had an impact on me like no other game I’ve ever played.
By turns poignant and uplifting, sombre and hopeful, Dontnod Entertainment’s sublime, sci-fi-tinged graphic adventure is a shining example of the growing power and emotional maturity of video games as a storytelling medium. But what sets it apart for me personally, is how, over the course of five utterly enthralling episodes, it teaches cynical millennials like myself that shedding a tear over a fictional character, and embracing the broad range of emotions elicited by our favorite titles, is nothing to be ashamed of.
If I was to try and put my finger on the point when I first realized just how deeply Life is Strange had sunk its claws into me, I would say it was the final third of Episode 2, Out of Time. I’d been moved at various points earlier in the game, but it was the growing distress of honest, sweet-tempered Kate Marsh, and protagonist Max’s efforts to help her, that really grabbed me.
Kate’s feelings of isolation and the palpable sense that she’s drowning amid a steady torrent of psychological abuse, bullying in short, are handled with an impressive level of care by Dontnod. There’s an authenticity to her struggles that, whether the player was bullied at school or not, will be immediately recognizable, making it almost impossible not to feel an acute sense of pity for Kate, as well as an irresistible desire to ease her burden.
Indeed, during any interaction between Max and Kate, I would spend an inordinate amount of time reading through the list of available responses, searching for the reply most likely to convince her there was at least one student at Blackwell Academy who cared; someone who wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon and add to the incessant teasing that was clearly having such a terrible effect on her mental wellbeing.
So attached to Kate did I become over the first two episodes, I felt a genuine burst of panic when, towards the end of Episode 2, Max discovers Kate standing atop the main faculty building contemplating suicide. That dread turning to relief, even euphoria, when Max succeeded in talking her down; a scene made all the more satisfying by virtue of the fact this triumphant resolution was due as much to Max’s unwavering compassion as it was her ability to ‘rewind’ time.
It’s a truly beautiful moment that showcases a brighter side of humanity and informs the player their actions throughout the game can and do have a significant impact on the story as it unfolds.
Viewed from a wider perspective, another crucial aspect of this scene is that it’s essentially the last plot-altering moment that can so easily be resolved and end in such an unequivocally positive manner. In the make-or-break set-pieces that follow, Pyrrhic victories are the best we can hope for.
This subtle shift in tone begins with Max’s attempt to save William Price. Using her burgeoning powers to travel back years (five, to be exact) rather than hours or minutes, she hopes her intervention will not only prevent the untimely demise of a good man, but also spare Chloe from the years of anguish and depression that followed his death.
For a few brief moments, it seems Max’s mission was a success. However, all too soon we discover that, in this timeline, as a result of a separate accident years later, Chloe is now paralyzed from the neck down and utterly dependent on life-support. It’s a gut-wrenching moment for Max that opens her eyes to the pitfalls of time travel; both the unintended and unpredictable consequences of her actions, and the overwhelming guilt that accompanies them. She knows Chloe’s injuries were the result of a quirk of fate, yet she can’t help but feel responsible.
Upsetting as this revelation is, I particularly love how Episode 4 progresses from here. Though outwardly stoic about the accident, in reality, Chloe suffers from a sort of exhausted depression. Trapped in her own body by the debilitating injuries themselves, more than anything, Chloe’s weighed down by the pressure her condition places on her parents. All of which combine to convince her that suicide is the only viable solution. And for that, she needs Max’s help.
There’s no right or wrong answer; either way, Max will be wracked with guilt. So, regardless of which option the player selects, immediately thereafter, Max realizes the only way to make things right is to go back once more and reset the flow of time; leaving William to his fate and Max, in her own mind, with as much blood on her hands as if she’d killed him herself.
It’s unremittingly bleak, of course, but it sets up the rest of the game perfectly. It shows us Life is Strange is far darker than might be presumed by its cel shaded aesthetic and moments of pure teen drama.
There’s also a sense of futility – a growing nihilism that reminds you that suffering is a part of life, whether you have the ability to go back in time or not – that comes as a direct result of the player’s impotence at certain points in a game like this. Illustrated, by Max’s attempt to save William yes, but also and slightly, more profoundly, (HUGE SPOILER) by our inability to prevent Rachel Amber’s murder as well.
We’ve spent the better part of four episodes gradually uncovering the mystery behind Rachel’s disappearance, peeling back layers of intrigue and confusion, assuming, perhaps naively given the evidence of our sense, that Rachel will eventually turn up alive and well; buoyed by Chloe’s insistence that the free-spirited Rachel is probably off in some far-flung corner of the world enjoying a life of adventure. Only to discover that Rachel’s fate was sealed long before Max returned to Arcadia Bay.
Sad though it is to learn that our efforts have been in vain and, despite her powers, Max is ultimately at the mercy of happenstance like everyone else, it’s far from anti-climactic. Dontnod had prepared us for this eventuality, after all, both through recent events and the nagging feeling that the unusual meteorological phenomena plaguing Arcadia Bay are inextricably linked to Max’s temporal interference. So, when Max and Chloe finally discover Rachel’s remains, we allow ourselves only a few moments of grief before we resolve to shift our focus from helping Rachel to bringing her murderers to justice, hoping that this, at least, will give a heartbroken Chloe something approaching closure.
In fact, more than anything, what we feel upon discovering Rachel’s fate is a sense of loss. Based solely on hearsay though our perception of Rachel might be, I still felt her murder as keenly as Aeris’ in Final Fantasy VII or Meryl’s in Metal Gear Solid, and that’s a wonderful testament to the sheer quality of the Life is Strange script and character-building. For all the ‘hellas’ and other cringe-inducing teen sound bites, we find ourselves caring deeply for each and everyone of these characters; even one we’ve never actually met.
The pièce de résistance, however, has to be the final few moments of episode five. A point at which all of the heartache and obstacles Max has had to overcome so far are encapsulated in a single, monumental decision: sacrifice Chloe and save Arcadia Bay from the approaching mega storm, or save Chloe and stand idly by as the town is devoured.
Having payed the majority of Telltale Games’ back catalog, I’ve been faced with similarly stark choices in games before, so the emotional weight of these kinds of decisions are nothing new. Yet, such is the strength of the relationship between Max and Chloe, whether it’s platonic or romantic, I might add, and the player’s feelings towards these characters, that it’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in a video game.
Even with the timer removed – in what was a masterful piece of game design that lets the player feel the full impact of their impending choice, while also giving them the time to make an informed decision – I spent a good five minutes agonizing over this one decision, looking at it from multiple angles and weighing up the pros and cons, before making the decision I think I always new I would. To sacrifice Chloe and save the town.
An incredibly touching exchange followed in which Chloe accepted her fate with tremendous courage, realizing that a now distraught Max’s decision was the correct one. Thereafter, the game comes full circle as Max rewinds all the way back to the very beginning of Episode 1 and forces herself to standby and watch as Chloe is killed during an altercation with troubled student Nathan Prescott.
I’m not ashamed to admit I found myself dwelling on my decision for a couple of days afterward; myself and many of the other 53% of players who chose to sacrifice Chloe, I’m sure.
It says a lot about the quality of these two superb characters that as many as 47% of people would sit back and watch a town full of innocents die just to spare two teenagers heartache. But it also says a lot about the human psyche and the incredible strength of our personal relationships. I defended my decision with ruthless logic, but, if faced with a similar decision in real life, I don’t think I could sacrifice a loved one to save a group of strangers; and I’m not sure many exist who could.
Suffice it to say, having played the entire series over the course of a few days, without two-month-long gaps between episodes giving me the chance to analyze my choices and decompress, this heart-breaking finale left me emotionally drained in a way I’ve rarely experienced before in any medium.
So much so, in fact, that, though my usual practice is to immediately restart episodic, interactive dramas for no other reason than to see for myself exactly how much the plot diverges if I make a series of entirely different choices, with Life is Strange, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Not because I wasn’t invested in the game, but because I simply couldn’t face watching Max, Chloe, and co. struggle to overcome all the obstacles I now knew they’d have to face. The thwarted hopes and impossible situations that, though alleviated by genuine moments of joy and hope, would take a dreadful emotional toll on each and every one of them by the end of the fifth episode.
That sudden and decisive change in my normal behaviour made me realize, as much as any individual in-game decision or moment, just how much Life is Strange had affected me. How it would stay with me forever. And how it was the game that finally taught me there’s absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that a group of computer-generated, make-believe characters with little in common with myself, can resonate with me emotionally and yes; even draw a few bittersweet tears.
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