*SPOILERS ALL OVER THE PLACE!
Since finishing the video game Life is Strange recently, I took a breather to get my mind around what I thought of it. Despite a messy last episode, overall I enjoyed the series. Life is Strange is the kind of game that will likely linger for a long time — not just because of the story (which I might forget details of), but more for the feelings it gave me. If you want to play a game with real heart, this is a great choice.
If you don’t know about this game, it’s an episodic series created by Dontnod and published by Square Enix. It’s five episodes long, each taking about two to three hours to play. It puts you in the shoes of a teenager named Max Caulfield, who’s attending a private arts school where she studies photography. While there, she discovers that she has the ability to rewind time.
What I Thought
You know how in RPG video games, sometimes you can save your game, make a choice, see how it plays out, and then reload your save to try a different choice? Life is Strange builds that ability right into its mechanics. When Max makes a decision that will have consequences, you see butterflies in the upper right corner of the screen. Sometimes she’ll make a comment about how she could go back and rewind… And then you can, if you want. Or you can stick with your first choice. Or try the other choice and come back to your original one. It’s so much fun.
Since Max is attending a high school, you can guess there’s a lot of teen drama to deal with. Normally I shy away from that kind of thing, but it’s explored with great depth in Life is Strange, so I enjoyed it more than usual. There are cliques and bullies, but with modern day twists I didn’t personally experience as a high schooler in the early 2000’s. Relationship jealousy revolves around sexting. A girl is bullied when someone posts a video of her, drunk at a party, online. At one point, Max is able to rewind time to save the girl from suicide. There’s also a local drug dealer, the possibility that girls are being fed date-rape drugs, and elitism as one student’s family basically runs the town.
It all plays out like a series of mini-tales and character arcs taking place in the realistic life of Max Caulfield. Teaming up with her childhood friend Chloe Price, she searches for clues about a missing girl in town, Rachel Amber. (Nobody knows what happened to her, but she and Chloe were close — perhaps more than just friends.) This could tie all of the storylines together, if rich kid Nathan Prescott is involved in drugging girls at parties — but would he really be capable of killing Rachel? If not, where did she go?
All the pieces fit together pretty well by the end. Even the twist of who the real villain is feels pertinent. At the end of the the fourth episode, you learn (out of nowhere, in my opinion) that Max’s photography professor is the culprit (and he had Nathan Prescott help him). He drugs girls and takes them to his underground studio, where he poses them — mostly unconscious — to photograph them. He says this is to capture that moment when innocence becomes corrupted. It’s an interesting, novel, disgusting theme that fits with the game’s other topics. Since the game spends a lot of time exploring teenagers dealing with big issues like pregnancy scares, gun violence at schools, bullying, drug use, and suicide — all at an art school, by the way — this is a pretty tidy way of commenting on all that.
The other big storyline involves Chloe Price. Max saves her from death numerous times — even, at one point, in an alternative timeline. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to that fact until one of the final scenes brings it up.
The town is being torn at the seams from a massive storm, and it seems like everyone is going to die. Chloe says it’s because of her. She’s supposed to die, but Max has messed with fate too many times using her rewind ability. If she wants to save the town, Chloe needs to accept her death. Max needs to let her.
I thought I would be able to rewind that decision. The whole game is all about that. That’s why I chose to sacrifice the town and save Chloe. I wanted to see what would happen… and then the game ended. There’s no rewinding that final choice. In some ways. I kind of wish the game had let us take advantage of its key mechanic right up to the end — it felt to me like it cheated players by forcing a single final decision on them.
But whatever. Screw the town, I saved Chloe.
The last episode had many other issues for me. When she rewinds time too much, Max experiences nosebleeds. That, combined with the weird weather in town and early visions of that last big storm, imply that Max’s powers could be dangerous.
The butterfly effect is strong. I get that… but why a storm? I guess it was supposed to symbolize the chaos messing with time, but because the rest of the stories feel so realistic, adding in a crazy storm just didn’t work for me.
Max also starts hallucinating in the last episode. Her nosebleeds get worse. She starts time-tripping and landing at different points, like it’s beyond her control anymore. It’s interesting in theory, but playing an entire two-hour game of running around in dreamscapes is a drag. I wanted to get on with the real story. For instance, as beautiful as it was to open doors into the same hallway over and over again, I have no idea what that had to do with anything and found it boring after a few minutes. Plus, saving people from the storm just seemed melodramatic after all the other drama.
That’s what I thought of the game. It’s at its best when it’s exploring real-world issues that teens face and the immediate, personal effects of time travel. It’s at its worst when it sinks into melodrama or leaves the real world entirely.
What I Felt
What I felt about the game is different and much more important, I think. Because I totally loved this game. It really resonated with me, because even though the experiences Max and other characters go through differ from my own, they felt incredibly real to me.
The friendship between Max and Chloe is the star of the game, and at its base is the strength of each character.
Max is one of my favorite characters in games ever, because she’s a shy character who feels real to me. In high school, I was probably a lot like her. I kept a crazy diary, I loved art, I tried to be a good person but was never popular or all that confident. Max is just that way. She rings very true to me, and there’s no other character in games out there like her.
Chloe is more rebellious. She dyes her hair blue, wears grungy clothes, smokes weed, complains a lot. I can see why she turned out the way she did. Her dad died when she was a teenager, Max deserted her to move to Seattle, and now her friend Rachel is missing. She has abandonment issues and feels misunderstood.
Even though they’re very different characters, their friendship rings true. In Chloe, Max sees someone who is authentic and probably more exciting than most other people she knows. Chloe brings adventure to her life. I believe Max’s introversion and introspection make it hard for her to connect to others. She probably finds much of the world fake or shallow. But because Chloe is desperate for an authenticity, she gets Max like nobody else does. Meanwhile, Chloe may bitch about how messed up the world is and how nobody gives a shit about her… but Max is the one exception to all that. And she wants to make the world better. They complement each other.
It’s fun to see Chloe both encourage and poke fun at Max when she comes out of her shell (getting her to dance, making fun of her dorky comments). It’s also interesting to see Max get into trouble with Chloe while still being the voice of reason, such as when they break into the school after-hours or when Max gives Chloe (cheesy, well-intentioned) advice at different times.
I love how the two of them create this colorful world for themselves, separate from everybody else. Sometimes that kind of closeness — even when platonic — can feel a lot like falling in love.
Despite the last episode being a little too gushy to me, I really enjoyed their conversations and time together. The best moments were the small ones. Life is Strange excels at them. There’s a reason some of the game’s most memorable images are of the two of them sitting on a car at a junkyard or walking down railroad tracks together.
Dontnod did an amazing job of setting up simple scenes and letting you live and breathe them. An example is when Max wakes up at Chloe’s and can spend a few minutes just looking around, listening to music, chatting. (The game lets you get up with a button press whenever you’re ready — no rush.) And watching Max and Chloe break into the school at night and jump in the pool together almost makes me feel nostalgic for a memory that’s not even mine, that’s not even real.
Even choosing breakfast or playing a song on the guitar in a quiet moment can be memorable. Life is Strange isn’t afraid to spend time on those little things, knowing that players will appreciate them. They certainly helped me relate to the story and characters more than I otherwise would have. It makes the game feel like one of the “realest” I’ve ever played.
One of the most interesting explorations of both characters and time travel is when Max goes back in time and saves Chloe’s father from dying. The result is a brand new timeline in which Chloe is in a wheelchair, paralyzed after a car accident. That reveal was a shocker for me.
What makes it so fantastic is that Chloe is characterized so well here. Her hair isn’t blue, her voice is softer, and she seems gentler at first conversation — but she’s the same alternative culture girl she was in the other timeline. She laughs at old photos with Max, swears more than Max, listens to music, gets upset at her situation sometimes, feels like a burden (that’s her issue now, rather than feeling abandoned).
When she asks Max to give her a morphine overdose to take her life, I hesitated but eventually felt it was the right thing to do here. It’s what Max would do for Chloe. It was interesting, how that moment helps define their friendship… even though later, when Max returns to the other timeline, Chloe has no idea it ever happened. I loved exploring their relationship in multiple versions of their lives. It’s like their emotional closeness blankets all of the realities, even though each person’s exact experiences (or memories) will be different based on which timeline they lived through.
In the last episode, the final choice of saving the town or saving Chloe is pretty epic. In retrospect, I think it’s the perfect way to close the story. However, I’ll admit that in the moment, it felt a little forced. I might have enjoyed it more if it had a stronger set-up, instead of taking place in the midst of a conversation where Chloe basically tells Max she needs to make this decision, out of nowhere. If it had happened during a moment of saving Chloe, and if Max had figured things out more on her own, I might have liked it more. I don’t know.
What I do know is that a part of me wishes I had made the “right” final choice (to me) and sacrificed Chloe to save the town. I probably would have cried my eyes out.
That’s how Life is Strange lingers. In a few months or years, I might forget all the details of Max’s time traveling and the other students’ drama. But I’ll remember Max and Chloe.