Life is Strange as a Deconstruction of Choice-Driven Gameplay

October 21, 2015

LiS Ending

Well, the grand finale of the episodic Life is Strange was released on Tuesday and the internet is already reacting to the ending. While a lot of fans enjoyed it and find it to have been a fitting ending to the series, some fans (sometimes the same fans) find the very end of the final episode disappointing. I’m one of those fans who fit into both categories; I both liked and enjoyed episode 5, but I also felt the same kind of disappointment with the ending that a lot of us felt with Mass Effect 3. A poor ending for a great game is worse than a game that was terrible the whole way through.

There are quite a few reasons as to why the ending falls flat compared to the rest of the game (all of which will be spoiled under the ‘Read More’ button, so don’t read any further if you care about that), but what if they were all just kind of… done on purpose? What if this entire time, Life is Strange wasn’t a straight-play of a game where player-choices deeply affect the plot, but a deconstruction of the entire concept, aiming to prove how futile such mechanics are in a medium that’s interactive, yet still almost entirely scripted.

I’d like to start off by stating that even if this amateurish analysis somehow correctly guesses DONTNOD’s intentions when writing the final episode, that information doesn’t make the ending any better or worse. A game’s writing cold be the most literarily brilliant thing in the world, but if the gameplay is still disappointing, then it’s still grounds for ‘bad game’ territory. A game is more than just a story; it’s a story amplified by its interactivity. The intention of this post really isn’t to tell people that their opinion on the ending of Life is Strange is wrong (and especially not to tell people that they just ‘don’t get it’), just pose an interesting idea as to the intention of some of DONTNOD’s decisions.

We’re told over and over again throughout the game that our choices matter. It’s on the game’s Steam page and after every important choice within the game itself, you’re rewarded with an ominous UI notification that reads “This action will have consequences…”. But when we get to the ending, it really doesn’t feel like our actions actually had any say in how things turned out.

There are two endings to Life is Strange. That’s it, just two. And what one you get isn’t decided by anything more than a single choice. Much like the Mass Effect ending, every ‘important’ choice made up until that point is pretty much disregarded in lieu of having the player just choose at the very end which ending cutscene they want. The first option is to go back to the beginning of the first episode and let Chloe die in the bathroom, which prevents the giant time tornado that’s been threatening the town since the start of the game from ever forming. The second option is to stay in the present, keep Chloe alive and let the tornado destroy the town and everyone in it. And, again, regardless of what you do at any other point in the game, you are met with the exact same dialogue allowing you to choose the exact same choices. The cutscenes that follow those choices differ slightly based on things such as if you chose to kiss Chloe in episode 3. But the results are more or less the same. Chloe dies at the start, or Arcadia Bay is destroyed and everyone living there dies.

Ok, so a choice based game ballsed up the ending. Big deal, right? It’s not the first time.

But to understand why this may be intentional one has to understand why the player has to make this choice in the ending. Tl;dr, the giant tornado that Max has been getting visions of since the very first scene was caused by her using her time powers to save Chloe from getting shot in the bathroom. Throughout the rest of the game Chloe dies or almost dies repeatedly. And every time Max uses her powers to go back and prevent that from happening. As this keeps happening time gets more and more messed up and weird things start happening around town. This culminates with Chloe realizing that this is all because of her still being alive and begging Max to go back to the start and let her die, in order to save her mother, step-father and the rest of the town.

So not only do the player’s choices not matter, but nothing Max does throughout the entire game mattered in the end. I wrote a few weeks ago about how well Kate Marsh’s suicide/attempt was handled and how helpless it made the player feel if they failed at saving her. Because Kate was gone and the game tries its best to remind you of it at every opportunity. Well, at the end of episode 5 none of that is relevant anymore, because Kate lives or dies depending on what you chose in that final choice. If you sacrifice Chloe, Kate lives to show up at her funeral (what happened to keep her from attempting suicide is never explained). If you sacrifice the town, if she was still alive by then, she presumedly died with the rest of the town. This hammers home the ending’s point; regardless of how huge any of the choices we made before felt back then, in the end they were completely irrelevant.

Your decisions are futile because everything Max does is futile.

“But Exx,” I can hear you saying, “there is a choice that matters! The last one.”

And no, it doesn’t.

Think about it. Picking the option that keeps Chloe alive doesn’t actually solve anything. You still get Chloe and a few-thousand people are dead but time is still coming apart at the seams. Chloe is still alive and the universe is presumably going to keep going all Final Destination on her. If this latest attempt at getting rid of her was violent enough to destroy the entire town, what happens next after the credits roll? Will the next storm destroy the entire state? The country? Chloe was begging Max to sacrifice her at the end, she wanted to have died in order to prevent the destruction of her home town. And as the destruction keeps getting worse and worse the longer she stays alive, the more she’ll beg Max to do it. It doesn’t matter if you chose whether or not to sacrifice Chloe at the end of episode 5, because Max is going to have to sacrifice her eventually anyway.

There is only one ending to Life is Strange, and that is Chloe dying in the bathroom at the start of episode 1.

Thinking of Life is Strange as a deconstruction of choice-driven gameplay is an interesting tangent to go on. Not only are all of the player choices made before episode 5 completely useless, but the final choice that should matter is ultimately useless too. All of this attached to story about how practically everything the heroine does is useless too makes me think that the disappointing, boxed-in nature of the game’s ending might have been an intentional design choice to immerse the player by making them feel just as useless as Max does. In any story-heavy game where choices are supposed to have real impact on the plot or ending, the player is still ultimately forced down the path the developer designates. There are minor deviations from the path, but the overarching route is the same. Maybe poking at that aspect of game storytelling was the real theme here and it was, unfortunately, told in a way that was more than a little damaging to actual gameplay.

Whining about the ending aside, I really did enjoy episode 5. It had its problems but it was ultimately as enjoyable of a play as the rest of the game. DONTNOD has hinted that they’re considering the idea of a sequel to Life is Strange starring an all new cast of characters and I hope they go ahead with that, because Life is Strange is probably one of the best games released in 2014 and 15 combined (so far).

And, uh, maybe a sequel would also clear up some of the unanswered questions from the first. That would also be pretty nice.

And as long as I’m spoiling,

LifeIsStrange 2015-10-20 23-06-38-95

this happened and it was fucking awesome. And it’s wallpaper sized so our desktops could match if you want.