I’ve been holding off on writing about Life is Strange until completing the final episode. I’ve been tempted several times, as the game feels as if it is being written by an adult that yearns to experience the life of a teenager today while retaining all their childhood fandoms from twenty or more years ago. One character, Warren, is a total nerd that keeps referencing films and anime that are well before his time, and while it is not unheard of a teenager to be influenced by older siblings or parents (this is how I grew up with Robotech myself), one has to wonder why Warren isn’t into more current shows such as Naruto or Bleach and is instead making references to Akira, a film that a large portion of the younger anime community has never seen.
Such complaints about the characters or their dialogue are irrelevant. Whether teenagers actually say things like “wowzers” or not means nothing. Teenagers have slang, much of it sounds ridiculous, and very little of it carries over through time. Geeky teens love niche or cult cinema, and they bond over sharing entertainment with each other. The specifics are inconsequential. It is literally nit-picking.
It is much more important to try and figure out what, by the end of episode five, Dontnod was trying to say or do with Life is Strange. “All the feels” is not a suitable response or endeavor, though I imagine it’s what drove a lot of players and press into the embrace of this game. What an unlikely video game protagonist as a young white teenage hipster girl that listens to safe and friendly white-guys-with-acoustic-guitars songs so wholesome your Church’s pastor would approve. She…
...is completely boring.
At least, at first. The very first episode was praised by many for being so focused on an “average” young girl, and if Maxine Caulfield is truly “average” then I pray my niece grows up to be a far more fascinating teenager. No, what makes protagonist Max “interesting” are the events she finds herself caught up in. Upon witnessing a friend from her childhood get shot in the school bathroom, Max miraculously rewinds time and prevents it from happening.
What follows becomes a story about reuniting with a friend from long ago, searching for a missing girl, uncovering a sinister plot within her school and preventing a storm from wiping out her town and everyone in it.
In a moment, I will begin to discuss the game’s story in greater detail. Before that, I’d just like to note that, on a technical level, this game is structured and plays better than Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead. An outdated comparison? Yes, I admit. However, I feel like The Walking Dead, in its first season, at least, managed to tie all of the choices within the game into a cohesive point (a story about parenthood, which I detail in this video). My first response to the ending of Life is Strange was “what’s the point?” So while Dontnod has definitely surpassed my expectations after the narrative failures of Remember Me (which you can find in this video), they still managed to teeter close to something masterful without actually managing to grasp it.
From this point on, I’ll be spoiling a variety of story elements from the game.
In the final episode of Life is Strange we discover that all the strange, supernatural occurrences, from dead birds dropping from the sky, beached whales covering the shore, to twin moons visible in the night sky, are a result of Max rewinding time. The storm is the end result of Max screwing with the alternate realities too much.
This eventually leads to a sort of “dream” sequence, in many ways recapping the events of the entire game while also delving a bit into Max’s self-flagellating psyche. We get to remember the seemingly fragile, doubt-filled girl from the first episode and consider that, despite her seemingly stronger will developed throughout the story, she’s still that self-deprecating girl inside. Max is forced to literally confront herself, holding a harsh conversation that questions her motives and spits out supposed truths.
Then Chloe shows up.
This is where I’m left wondering what Dontnod is truly trying to do with this story. They clearly wanted me to like Chloe, Max’s childhood friend whose death kickstarted the entire saga. The girl is a self-destructive storm herself filled with more insecurities than swiss cheese is full of holes. She has never been able to let go of the death of her father and has developed a severe case of abandonment issues, becoming rather domineering and possessive of those she holds close. She is not healthy, and in some moments the game is not afraid to let the player know this.
But even if Chloe is damaged to the point of being a figurative storm herself, the game wants me to care about her and Max’s friendship with her. It wants to remind me of the adventure she and Max had through the game, the events witnessed, how Chloe allowed herself to be vulnerable to Max, and just how much Max went to save her. All so Max can be given a choice. Max, by which I mean the player, can either sacrifice Chloe, allow her to die at the very start of the story, a death that leads to justice being served to the criminals hiding within the school walls. Or, they can sacrifice the town, presumably leaving everyone to die so that Max and Chloe can drive off and start a new life together.
I have to ask “why?” Why end things this way? What is it saying? And what relevance does Max’s conversation with her own psyche have as a result?
Which is where there’s a trace of actual meaning to the game, one that is relevant to teenagers preparing to leave high school and superficial popularity and vanity behind (theoretically). Max’s psyche accuses her of using her powers just to be popular. She blames herself on using her powers for inane things.
Now, this is maybe true. Perhaps it’s even dynamic dialogue based on prior decisions. Throughout each episode Max is able to rewind time to help one friend that’s frequently bullied, to learn information about mean girls in order to appeal to their good side, and even cheat at a science experiment to earn some of Warren’s admiration.
Decisions that all seem well and good, but are ultimately self-serving.
This is where I feel like the game narrowly avoids tripping and falling into a wonderful pool of meaning, but instead laughs, wipes it’s brow, and shakes it off with a comment about nearly saying something challenging before pretending to be meaningful by placing the player into hot-button controversial hashtag-trigger-warning situations. If we really go through this story, Max is often forgetting about friends, too caught up in what’s going on immediately around her. Her family had moved to Seattle shortly after the death of Chloe’s father, and communication between the two friends had ultimately ceased. By the start of the story, with Max back in Oregon for a few months, there is no sign of communication with her friends back in Seattle and she still hadn’t reached out to Chloe. As the story progresses, she only approaches Warren when she needs something from him. Otherwise the boy is all but forgotten, nonexistent.
This is even true in an alternate timeline, where saving Chloe’s father from dying results in Chloe getting into a car accident that leaves her paralyzed. Even then Max only occasionally writes letters. Even then, when her friend is paralyzed, she is back in town for months and never so much as stops over and says hello.
Max’s Psyche skims the surface of touching on all this information, by forcing Max to truly question why she’s doing all these things. It’s a moment that deserved a sense of reflection on the player. Why is Max so insistent on saving Chloe? Is it truly out of friendship? Is it out of guilt? Is it out of a desire to do something meaningful no matter how much has to get broken in the meantime? Is the life of a forgotten friend truly worth this much?
Imagine if such questions preceded the final decision, to save or spare Chloe. Imagine if the game truly asked the player to reflect on these events, to reflect on who Max is to them. After all, there is always going to be some level of projection onto a protagonist, and I confess to being horrible at keeping up with old friends. I’m just as guilty as Max, which is perhaps why I feel there’s some substance to the narrative there.
The problem with the conclusion to Life is Strange is that it doesn’t feel like anything meaningful was truly learned, and therefore was not earned. Yes, Max learned to “believe in herself”, or “trust in herself”, or that “actions have consequences”. If this is all we are left with, though, then all the preceding events of Life is Strange are not emotional story-telling. It’s little more than emotionally manipulative story-telling, playing on current socio-political fears to get a rise out of the player and crafting “down to Earth” characters that just “feel so real, man”.
Of course, the game does have two endings, and the “meaning” can shift based on player choice. However, in many ways, the choice to spare Chloe is, itself, absolutely fitting. It indicates that Max, and perhaps even the player, learned nothing. That no matter how “nice” and “good” they thought they were being, they were always a selfish and self-serving person. It turns the story into a tragedy.
If you choose to sacrifice Chloe, though, then you’re left with what? There’s nothing the game does to reinforce anything Max is supposed to have learned from the experience. At best, it makes a hero out of a damaged, broken, self-destructive young woman that was as much her own worst enemy as she perceived the rest of the world to be.
You had a lot of incredibly impactful moments, Life is Strange, but the funny thing about impacts is that they’re strong, powerful, but brief. They don’t last. They strike and then they’re gone. The game awards were right that Life is Strange is a “Game of Impact”, but that doesn’t mean it was a game with real, honest, challenging, introspective meaning.
Like Maxine Caulfield, it’s just pretending to have more heart than is truly there.