Life is Strange struggles with telling a solid, cohesive narrative. Though there are several elements that work well and are executed nicely, the story fails to come together in the end and apply the themes it has presented in a satisfying way.
One of the core themes of the game is heroism, specifically explored within the main character, Max Caulfield. Throughout the game, Max is clearly framed as the hero of the story. She is an ordinary girl given extraordinary time travel powers, and must wield them cautiously and use them for good. As the game progresses and Max continues to use her powers, they start to spiral out of control and lead to the convoluted final chapter where Max jumps through several different timelines. This all leads to the final choice of the game, the choice that is meant to symbolize Max’s growth as a character. Because she is the hero, she must make this difficult, albeit unfair, choice.
Although Max’s heroism is explored in very interesting ways, a much more interesting and thematically rich route would have been to elevate Chloe’s role as the hero of the story alongside Max.
Chloe, the More Interesting Character
It isn’t a controversial thing to say that Chloe is a far more interesting character than Max. Though Max gets too much hate from critics, these critiques are not unfounded. The game doesn’t do enough work with Max as with Chloe. She often comes across as a bland placement for the player to inhabit. Chloe, however, is leaps and bounds more fleshed out.
Right away Chloe is set up as someone who is going through a lot of stuff. She is dealing with the feeling of abandonment from her dead father, the loss of her best friend Max who moved away a few years ago, as well as the loss of her romantic partner Rachel Amber. This leads to a lot of attitude from Chloe and she comes off as a selfish jerk for much of the early chapters in the game.
Another hardship Chloe faces is her home life. Her family is far from poor but they are struggling. David, her stepfather, is invasive and abusive. She was also kicked out of Blackwell Academy two years prior and doesn’t have a core, stable group of friends.
Chloe displays all of the classic signs of a rebel. She has tattoos, smokes regularly, and has short blue hair. Although judging a character by their appearance can be a shallow exercise, it actually can tell you a lot about their personality. Chloe defies authority and social norms in all ways possible with her punk rocker look. This is juxtaposed with Max who embodies a very heteronormative look, dressing in plain jeans and artsy t-shirts, and has straight brown hair.
Chloe, unlike Max, is set up as a character who is working toward something. She has clear flaws and these flaws are what the game could use to help Chloe grow as a character. Max’s biggest issue as a character is her lack of flaws. The game constantly frames her as a nice person, trying to do the right thing. The only instance where Max can be a jerk is if the player chooses to have her act in this way. Nice characters who contain no flaws don’t fully show the complex range of human emotions and tend to be less interesting and compelling. Chloe immediately pops on the screen and draws players in due to her vibrant personality and appearance.
In the first episode of the game, Mr. Jefferson introduces the everyday heroes contest for his students to enter. Max has an entry, a photo of herself blurred from behind looking at Polaroids on her wall. The contest doesn’t play a huge roll in the story until the final chapter, but it serves as a way to frame Max, literally, as an everyday hero. Max rips the photo up in a moment of self doubt at the beginning of the game.
Max truly is an everyday hero. Not only does she have newfound super powers but she repeatedly stands up to school bullies and authority figures, and even runs to the roof to save Kate Marsh when she threatens to take her own life. Max also works to save the life of Chloe’s father as well as Chloe several different times in the game.
At the same time, Chloe is also standing up to opposing forces. She stands up to her stepfather constantly and she stands up to the world she believes is against her. In many ways, Chloe is an anti-hero. Her motivations are selfish and complicated, unlike Max who plays the conventional, upstanding character of the story. Very rarely does the conventional character get anything meaningful to do but watch as other characters do things around them. While Chloe’s actions are coming from a darker and less heroic place than Max, this positions her to redeem herself and ultimately become the hero of her own story and not leave it up to fate (as the game decides to do later).
Selfish to Selfless
Chloe spends most of the game unconcerned with the feelings of those around her. She acts in accordance to what she wants and nothing else, often hurting others in the process. Yet this leaves a large opportunity to allow Chloe to grow as a character. In some ways she does grow and in later chapters becomes less intrusive and mean, though this has more to do with audience reception than character work on the part of Dontnod Entertainment. Since the chapters of Life is Strange were released as individual episodes, leaving large gaps for people to comment and discuss, it is likely that Dontnod noticed Chloe’s popularity and curved her personality.
Simply shifting a character’s personality slightly doesn’t provide the framework for character development and let the character come to a place of personal growth via their experiences throughout the story. But Chloe is the perfect character who should grow from what has happened to her. After all, she and Max uncover the mysterious events happening at Blackwell and she finds the body of Rachel Amber buried at the junkyard.
Life is Strange tries to boil the games events down to fate. Chloe’s constant deaths through the various timelines are evidence that she is fated to die. But this completely negates the work that has been done in the narrative which is the friendship between Max and Chloe. The game decides to have Max make the choice to save Chloe or sacrifice Chloe. This is not just a hard choice but an unfair one. The game seems to think that this final choice is the test for Max and it is clear by the two different endings that sacrificing Chloe is the moral choice.
Yet, how powerful would the ending be if Chloe herself made the choice? Rather than focusing on Max’s ambiguity, the game could have framed the moment around Chloe’s heroism. There would be no final choice for the sake of having the player beat the final boss. The entire game would have been building toward this moment and thus make the ending much more satisfying because Chloe would have grown so much as a character.
By framing Max as the hero and giving her this moral quandary, the ending of Life is Strange feels inconsistent and unfair. Had the game built up Chloe as the hero as well and carried her arc to the end, taking her from selfish to selfless, the narrative would have felt much more earned and rewarding.
- Don’t Nod. Life is Strange. Square Enix. Switch/PS4/Xbox One/Windows/Google Stadia. 2015.