An Adolescent's Power in Choice
For anyone who has played Life is Strange all the way up until it’s final episode, they know how big the concept of choice is for the game itself. They’re constantly reminded of it with that judgmental butterfly in the corner of the screen telling you that your choices have consequences. While Life is Strange isn’t the first game to have that sort of reminder (Telltale Games’ “X Character will remember that” being the one most people think of in regards to this) it doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to many characters meeting gruesome fates thanks to Max’s actions or lack of action.
Which brings us to the final decision of the game. Let Chloe live or let Chloe die.
It’s a decision that many players weren’t prepared for and it received quite a bit of backlash. I’ve made two videos discussing the initial Life is Strange and getting into why the story itself does telegraph the ending choice through its use of symbolism with Max’s camera and the sheer fact that it is a coming of age tale in the more tragic sense, which often end with a character having to cast their childhood behind. This can mean either the place they grew up, their friends or, in many interesting cases, themselves.
Which leads to this inquiry. Why weren’t we given a third option where Max sacrifices herself?
Throughout Life Is Strange we are given a chance to play an active role in the lives of everyone around us. We aren’t given a choice when it comes to Chloe, but with the other characters we are. Kate Marsh’s death can entirely hinge upon us finding out things about her that we wouldn’t have found out otherwise if we had played a passive role in the story. Chloe is our main focus but she’s not the only aspect there is to the game. Max can change the fates of people around her through her meddling or even her counsel. By the end of the game, when that final choice is presented to you, you’ve likely taken the time to get to know all the people of Arcadia Bay. This means that you are essentially bound to everyone in the town and to Chloe, leaving a binary choice to be rather nonsensical in every sense of the word.
If the events in the skewed timelines can be any sign, Max has created countless selves when she rewound time with at least one having full knowledge of her actions throughout the game. Their discussions lead to Max questioning if she was doing all the rewinds for herself and her relationship with Chloe, out of guilt for not caring about people, or because she just wants to control everyone. All of these things are a possibility as Max speaks to “herself” until Chloe comes in and tries to snap Max out of it. Yet the damage is done. Max is the reason that many of these things happened. By trying to save Chloe, she creates the storm. This much is clear, but what about all of her other rewinds? Do they make the storm grow? Every time Max rewinds time, she ends up further complicating her own timeline and even destroying others.
If Max was given the option to save both, it would have led to the story having a poignant ending that many people wouldn’t have expected. There would be two options for this. One, Max sacrifices herself in the bathroom scene, leading to an investigation of Nate and Jefferson, resulting in what would have happened in the Chloe Dies ending, but with Max. The second option would be that Max dives headfirst into the storm allowing herself to be smashed upon the rocks below or torn apart by the winds, causing the storm to dissipate and the entire town as well as Chloe to be saved.
Power is an essential part of coming of age young adult stories. More often than not, the characters in it don’t start off with the power and only achieve it through various means within the story. Max doesn’t start out with power. She’s a nobody who just so happens to be good at photography. When her ability to rewind time appears, Max is given the power to change things, to change the world as she knows it. In Disturbing the Universe Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature, Roberta Selinger-Trites states this:
“Eventually I realized that these lists of predictable and unpredictable patterns in adolescent literature share one thing. They can all be linked to issues of power. Although the primary purpose of the adolescent novel may appear to be a depiction of growth, growth in this genre is inevitably represented as being linked to what the adolescent has learned about power. Without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness, the adolescent cannot grow. Thus, power is even more fundamental to adolescent literature than growth.” (1)
It’s this sort of “power” that was missing from the ending choices of Life is Strange. I found myself desperately looking for it when I analyzed the endings. While they do convey many aspects of the adolescent journey in literature and storytelling as a whole, especially with the inclusion of cameras and their connection to death, I did notice that the power at the end is more so threaded together with the two choices of killing your best friend or the entire town, despite the story conveying much to the contrary. Those two endings would have always been options but with the developers showing in Episode 5 that Max has become aware of her actions, her place in the world, and how her power has changed it, there was a hollowness to the ending that just displays one or the other, leading many to view the choice as moralistically divisive. Which in many ways it is.
The choice becomes an entirely emotional one, not one based in logic or character development. Who do you value more, your love or the world around you? This leads to an unfortunate case of black and white thinking that doesn’t do anyone any good. I find that a third choice could have lead future installments to interesting places. It also could have shown the world of Arcadia Bay without Max pulling the strings, something that I personally would have liked to see. Now whether or not she had to die is up for debate. I find myself leaning towards her at least losing her powers so the world would have to develop organically and she’d have to learn how to talk to people without relying on the reset, something that we’ve only seen portrayed in the story once in the case of of Kate’s suicide attempt. This option is enticing because after everything she has gone through, seeing her live within the confines of one timeline and having to make up for past mistakes would have made an ending that could have impacted us like never before.
Despite the bumps on this ride, Life is Strange allows players to go through a narrative of a girl discovering her power and choosing how they want her to use it. It’s just a shame that they didn’t fully explore how she could have realized her power and used it to its fullest extent.
(1) Trites, Roberta Seelinger. 2010. Disturbing the Universe Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City: Univ. of Iowa Press.