I just finished the game Life Is Strange last night.
What’s funny is that it’s more a slice of life experience with mystery and sci-fi undertones than a true adventure game. I hardly use any items, and most gamey elements appeared towards the end of the game. Instead, what I really came away with was a ton of emotion. The game packed some feels that made me think of what love can do and what we choose.
Now, I won’t do a full review of the game here. I’m sure many others have done so by now, but I will go into the reasoning of my critical choice at the end of the game and how it’s impacted me. And with due diligence for people who haven’t played yet…
In the game’s five chapters, we the players are introduced to the teenage girl Maxine Caulfield, or Max for short, who discovers she has the power to rewind time. Her first use of that power was to save a childhood friend named Chloe Price from being shot dead by a troubled classmate named Nathan Prescott whose family pretty much owns the Arcadia Bay region of Oregon this game takes place in.
This opens up the stage to the main plot of saving Chloe, helping Chloe find her friend Rachel, and maybe even saving the town from its hundred-year curse of Prescott corruption.
But that’s the grand scheme.
What Life Is Strange really delivers is a series of quieter moments and exploration of significant choices.
DONTNOD’s choice of a more 3D adventure game (unlike, say, Quantum Break’s action time-based combat), allows the player to play the game pretty much at their own pace. Therefore, I can read all the posters and flyers scattered around campus. But more importantly, I have the time to talk to people.
You might think talking to people is boring but thankfully the writers and voice actors did their job well enough to bring me in the zone, and you need to be, because conversation is where many of the significant choices occur.
I get to see what characters think and can select topics to influence the characters’ actions.
Then there are the time-rewind powers that allow me to replay sections if I thought the first try didn’t go well, or to see just out of curiosity.
That freedom to rewind can be intoxicating, but halfway through the game, you learn the gravity of what your choices can bring about.
Something as small as rewinding time and then warning a classmate of an incoming ball can ripple to an important return at the end of the game. My favorite is choosing to be nice to the class bully Victoria and eventually turning her around (though she ended up not contributing as much as I would like). But there were also tense situations like Kate Marsh where I was either glad I made choices that led to a good ending I otherwise may not achieve or just sad I couldn’t choose differently. All these moments build up to make me feel like I’m truly affecting the world and influenced me to make more responsible decisions in the game.
(Of course, DONTNOD tries to get the player to choose differently to accomplish achievements, but that’s another story.)
So why did I choose to “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” then?
The penultimate decision of the whole story comes when Max feels the tornado threatening the town of Arcadia Bay is due to her frequent time travel miles building up into a giant maelstrom. This maelstrom has already trashed a large part of the town and though Max had saved a few people, there were many casualties still.
Chloe hands Max the picture from the bathroom where Max had saved her, saying that Max could jump back to where this all began and just let time go and right itself. But that means sacrificing the very friend Max had used her powers initially to save.
The game then stops red with capitalized text prompting me to choose either to “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” or “Sacrifice Chloe”.
In the span of pretty much an instant, I ended up choosing “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” and saw the ending where the town ended up physically in shambles but with bright sunlight and a peaceful Chloe and Max driving away in Chloe’s rattled pickup.
But didn’t I just doom a bunch of people? Didn’t I just make a very selfish decision?
Somehow, I didn’t feel that way, and I looked back to see why I made the decision I had and why the game may have actually helped support either decision.
Chloe and Max both guessed that the maelstrom was caused by Max’s time travel, but that was never confirmed. And when Max reverted or changed things for the better before, the maelstrom still came on the same day, which to me meant that it’s not necessarily tied to Max at all.
Plus Max’s actions did make things better and she wouldn’t have made those changes if not for saving Chloe. In fact, Chloe had been her partner throughout, so it would make sense that without her there may be no change.
Notice that I had earlier said Arcadia Bay was “physically in shambles” in the ending I chose. That’s because whatever buildings may have been demolished, Max’s actions the course of the game had uncovered two murderers and aired out the corruption that had been plaguing the town. If not for Chloe, there probably wouldn’t have been any investigation.
Throughout the game, it has shown that what feels right or wrong in a situation isn’t necessarily the greater right or wrong. When Max chose to jump back in time through an old family photo and save Chloe’s dad, it ended up leading to a future where Chloe was the one who slowly died while her family suffered and went into medical debt. Max then took steps to revert that change.
So in this case, the result could be the same, though reversed. Could canceling her rescue of Chloe truly be a good reversal?
But then the game has shown Max could revert changes and she keeps memories of her past witnessed events (though not the memories of the changed timeline). Why not try resetting, sacrifice Chloe, and work through the days with the new knowledge? If it doesn’t work, revert again?
First, gamified life of this game dictates that any choice in caps with red background is irreversible.
But beyond that game restriction, lore-wise, whatever change Max makes through a photo is only in that past photo’s window of time, not for herself to stay there. She jumps back to the albeit-changed present after. That means her past self actually may not have the knowledge and would actually not make changes as present Max would have done. Plus, as the game has shown, other wrinkles can easily come in. (I still shudder at returning to the Dark Room.)
The game’s story also shows the toll Max’s power has on her body. Huge time jumps induce large nosebleeds that we don’t know what might result in if too many more occur. She also can perceivably be caught in time loops that played a big part in a series of puzzles near the end of the game that we players had to lead her out of.
So did I choose to “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” just for Max’s health?
Of course not. Or maybe I chose for the overall health of Max and others. I had believed Max made a positive difference in Arcadia Bay as a whole. Sacrificing Chloe could easily sacrifice all the good she did do (wipes had happened in some time jumps in the story before).
Now the harder question is if I was in Max’s shoes and witnessed the destruction of the maelstrom firsthand with true real-life implications, would I choose differently?
I’d like to think DONTNOD immersed me enough to make me feel my choice was a responsible decision outside of the game as well. They showed the stark realities of human bullying and natural disasters pretty well. Maybe not as visceral as firsthand, but I had felt the impact.
But then that’s the point of living life: each decision has weight, time of the decision is also significant, and we are responsible for those decisions we make.
I think Life Is Strange encapsulated the exploration of that statement masterfully.
One interesting note: I had finished the game the night right before Chloe’s birthday, which means today! So I guess in the calendar sense, it’s fitting I chose to save her. Happy birthday, girl!
Credit: DONTNOD Facebook
And thank you, DONTNOD, for a wonderful experience.