Yup, I finally played Life is Strange.
First, a quick spoiler-free review. Life is Strange is fantastic. It’s part mystery, part philosophical musing, part coming of age story, part time-travel adventure. And you take a lot of polaroids. You play as Max, an aspiring photographer with no confidence in her abilities who suddenly discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, and starts using the power to try and solve the problems of the people around her. The game is visually lovely, with amazing characters and a great soundtrack, and is, in turn, uplifting, bittersweet, heartwrenching, dark, though-provoking and disturbing. And I can’t say a single other thing about it without potentially spoiling it, so if you haven’t played the game, stop reading here and go give it a try.
And if you have played the game, my spoiler-filled thoughts are below.
By the end of episode two of Life is Strange, I was really sick of Chloe. Her selfish recklessness meant that I couldn’t use my power when it really mattered, and Kate died as a result. She was awful to Max
So, of course, when I was forced to choose between sacrificing Chloe and letting everyone else in the town die, I let Arcadia Bay be destroyed so Chloe and I could drive off into the sunset together.
Yeah, the me at the end of episode two would have been surprised as well.
But that, I think, is Life is Strange‘s greatest strength. It’s not about time travel or adventure, but about characters, wonderful, believable characters with immense flaws and huge moral failings that are still, somehow, striving to be good, or at least have interesting psychology behind not being so. David hits Chloe and stalks everyone at Blackwell, but he wants to be a good step-father, and he is right that something terrible is happening, allowing him to save Max’s life in the end. Nathan kills or nearly kills multiple characters, but he’s mentally unwell, refused treatment by his father, and being used as a pawn by a sociopathic man he now sees as a father figure. Victoria and her friends bully a girl and drive her to suicide, but their grief is often genuine, and they all have their own complicated lives occurring in the background.
And Chloe is angry, reckless, demanding and often cruel to Max… but she’s also a girl who is desperately in pain, who has lost almost everyone she ever cared about and who cared about her. Her father died, her best friend abandoned her, and now her new best friend/implied girlfriend has either taken their plan to run away to LA and gone without her, or been kidnapped or worse. You get the sense that Chloe wants to trick herself into believing that Rachel has just left and is living it up in California, but even that belief is incredibly painful — another person she loves tossing her aside again.
Chloe can be hard to like, but she is so incredibly, intensely real. Her pain and her anger burn through the computer screen, and after spending five episodes with her, and seeing how much Max loves her, it’s difficult to view her with anything other than fierce protectiveness and appreciation too. Although I wasn’t a massive fan of the Big Final Decision of Chloe vs Arcadia Bay, I’m sure that choosing to sacrifice her would have been heartwrenching, even if that’s what she said she wanted… the reckless, selfish character’s time to be selfless. But I also felt so connected to her that I couldn’t possibly let Max sacrifice her. Not after Max ditched her when they were younger, not after all the promises to always be there for her, not when Chloe would die alone in a high-school bathroom with no friends, no hope, and no memory of anything that happened since. Max does selfless thing after selfless thing in Life is Strange, and my narrative, I thought, needed Max to be utterly selfish this time. Their bond was the main drive of the story, and they were going to drive out of hell together.
The sign of a good moral quandary is surely a near 50/50 split in what players eventually choose, and by that metric, the Big Final Choice was successful — when I completed it recently, 48% of players had saved Chloe, while 52% saved Arcadia Bay. But although the moment was emotionally powerful, narratively I thought it let down the rest of the game. Both options are basically a total reset. If you sacrifice Chloe, the entire plot of the game gets erased. If you sacrifice Arcadia Bay, literally every choice up to that point becomes meaningless, with the potential exception of whether or not you warn the homeless woman by the diner to leave. We don’t get to find out who survived the tornado at the end of the game, which suggests that nobody did, again erasing everything you did that didn’t affect Chloe. I almost didn’t want there to be a decision there at all. Max’s choice could have been taken out of our hands, coming directly out of how we’ve played the game and built her character thus far, making it feel like a conclusion, rather than an interjection that erases everything else.
Or we could have done away with the tornado entirely. Although it was a cool introduction to the game, it was actually my greatest disappointment in the game. The time travel element worked well in general, adding a new twist to decision-based gaming with the possibility of a short term rewind, but the heart of the game was its characters and the mystery of Rachel. I spent most of the game assuming that the tornado and Max’s powers both came from a third, overarching problem that we would learn about later. As the tornado was caused by Max’s powers, it raises a lot of unsatisfying questions. Why did Max flash forward to the tornado before she saved Chloe, if saving Chloe was what caused it? Where did Max’s powers even come from? If saving Chloe caused a huge tornado five days later, what about all her other big changes? Were the other awful things omens of the tornado, or were they caused by Max’s smaller rewinds? Did the tornado get bigger as a result of more of Max’s meddling? What’s to stop Max discovering her rewind powers without saving Chloe, and causing all of this again?
Perhaps if the tornado were a surprise, once the player felt like they’d saved the day with time travel, it would have worked better. But the game opened with it as the Big Plot Event, and then nobody ever did anything about it. Max and Chloe made no efforts to convince the people they cared about to leave Arcadia Bay. They didn’t really try to stop it or find out why it might happen. After four and a half episodes of philosophical dilemmas and human drama, the tornado feels like a confused interruption to the story, a separate narrative crashing the party.
That, combined with the rather strange and repetitive “time is breaking” dream sequence, put a dampener on the final instalment of the game.
But wow, what a challenging, thought-provoking, emotional, unexpected and at times disturbing game it was until that point. The ending wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped, but the game experience was utterly fantastic, thanks to the vibrancy of the characters. In the end, it convinced me to sacrifice absolutely everything in the game in order to save a character that I didn’t even like that much, but who I’d grown to love. If that’s not an effective emotional narrative, I don’t know what is.