The saga of Teen Girl Selfie Simulator came to a close this week, and it's been quite a trip. My heart still aches thinking about it all -- I'm so attached to the characters! But boy, did some parts of the fifth episode of Life is Strange feel kind of phoned in.
Spoilers for the Life is Strange finale, Polarised, follow!
Something felt off about episode five from the get-go: I was unlucky enough to be hit by a bug that cut all the audio from cutscenes. I could still see what the characters were saying thanks to subtitles, but still. I put in so much time into this series! I played every episode; I got emotionally invested in all the dopey and loveable citizens of Arcadia Bay. At the very least, I wanted to hear their voices one last time. But no. :(
After the game opens with absolutely no audio, I was treated to a long, drawn out scene where Mr. Jefferson -- the TRUE villain, as it turns out -- monologues at Max for like 20 minutes. The game does that thing where it captures the hero and makes the bad guy explain every single part of his evil plan. What's worse, he does it in dialogue that's super cheesy. I wasn't sure if the character even sounded like the one we interacted with throughout the rest of the game. It felt over-the-top.
This set-up is not unique to the Mr. Jefferson segments. Throughout the rest of the episode, Max has long, drawn out conversations with major characters -- and every single one feels overtly like the game is trying to tie up loose ends. The way the conversations play out never feels natural; it's all very on-the-nose.
The game feels like a disappointment in the puzzle-side of things, too. It's especially jarring considering the high point that is episode 4: remember that part of the game where you have to put clues together on a corkboard to figure out what's really happening? That was awesome! How does the game go from that...to making you play awful stealth sections in episode five? I mean, I liked a lot about that section of the game...but man. Some parts of that nightmare section were rough; a complete chore to play through. They're right up there with the bottle-retrieval section of an earlier episode.
In any case, two things really marred the episode for me. One, everything I did in the episode didn't actually matter thanks to ample time reversals. I regularly saw shocking scenes...and moments later all of that stuff would get erased as I climbed into a different headline. What was the point? And two, there was just too much predictability. Just like everyone guessed, Max ends up using Warren's picture to travel back in time. And just like everyone guessed from day one, the very final choice comes down to this: do you save Chloe and forsake everyone else, or do go back in time and let her die in the initial bathroom scene -- and in doing so, save Arcadia Bay from disaster?
I won't lie: it was a difficult choice. I spent the entire game making friends with the students of Blackwell. I had rewound time to help so many of the people living in Arcadia Bay. And Chloe -- I had seen her go through so much. Deaths. Heartbreak. Murder. Time and time again, I saved her. Even when it seemed like a bad idea, I protected her. I put myself in danger to keep her safe. I ripped open the very fabric of time with my powers to stand by her side. What was it all for? Did I come this far, and give up so much, just to let her die at the last moment? Could I live with that?
She was willing to do it. She was willing to sacrifice herself if it meant that everyone else could live. Can you blame her? The universe seemed to conspire against her. No matter what I did, Chloe would find herself in a new Final Destination-like situation. Dead, dead, dead. It wasn't fair, but that's how things were.
I deliberated for minutes. I considered the potential consequences of my actions, and felt frustrated because it just didn't make sense to me. If using my powers was causing so much havoc -- if the only way to stop the tornado from getting more powerful was to STOP rewinding time -- then why would it matter if I chose to go back and let Chloe die? That would still require a massive time jump! Wouldn't that hurt Max somehow, like the other big time rewinds did? If the issue was with my saving Chloe, why did that one choice matter so much more than the hundreds of smaller changes I had made in alternate timelines? Wouldn't those have added up and made things awful in some way? I know it can't be my reversing her murder, because I had altered the deaths of many other characters, too. The game didn't present me with consequences nearly as dire for those deaths as they did with Chloe's, despite being choices of the same magnitude. It felt like bullshit. Utter bullshit, which I could see coming from a mile away. All time travel stories end like this, don't they?
Still, I followed my heart and chose Chloe. It didn't feel like the "right" answer. In the nightmare sections, the game chastised me for supposedly pretending to care about the citizens -- when in actuality, I was supposedly just stroking Max's ego by letting her "abuse" her power to tell people what they wanted to hear. Here was my chance to prove the game wrong. If you choose Arcadia Bay, the game seemed to say, then I'll believe you that it wasn't all for show. Then I'll know your love for Arcadia Bay is real. It felt like such a crappy GOTCHA!
The game wanted everyone to sacrifice Chloe. Or at least, this is a popular sentiment among the Life is Strange fandom, which has taken to comparing both of the endings. If you choose to save Chloe, the town is destroyed and you silently drive through the remains before riding off into the sunset. There is no discussion about all the people you kill -- including Chloe's mum -- or what will happen next. It just fades to black. It's over rather quickly, which is strange, considering that moments before, Chloe was trying to convince you to save the town. Where did all of that go? Would she resent me for my choice? Was the tornado just going to keep happening if I chose this ending? I'll never know. Normally, I don't mind ambiguity -- it can often make for a great ending -- but in this case, ambiguity didn't do much for the game. I just felt shortchanged, not challenged or reflective.
But if you choose to sacrifice Chloe? Then you see a much more elaborate ending. You travel back and time and have to sit through Chloe's death. When Nathan pulls out the gun and fires the shot, all you can do is look at the floor and cry. Then, you watch as every single choice you made before is undone, and is replaced with the reality where Chloe is dead. Dressed in black, you watch as the casket is lowered into the ground. It's gruelling. It's touching. It feels like an ending that got actual effort put into it making it! Watching the ending later, I can't help but regret not sacrificing Chloe in the first place, even if yes, it results in something way more heartbreaking. I've taken to considering my barebones ending as the "punishment" for being so selfish in the first place, but that's just me trying to rationalize what I've experienced.
I just spent 12 paragraphs bitching about the ending, I know. But you know what? As much as I was disappointed by the final episode of Life is Strange, it didn't ruin the overall experience for me. The last episode can't change all the good memories I have with Chloe, or the time I spent with my Blackwell friends. It can't change the fun hours I spent coming up with theories as to what really happened to Rachel Amber. And it can't change how much I love Hawt Dog Man. God, do I love Hawt Dog Man.
[Image source: hotdogmanjojo]
Even when I hated episode 5, I cherished having the opportunity to experience something like it. Few games have the guts to tackle some of the stuff Life is Strange did. I'm so glad it exists. I want more games like Life is Strange. But more importantly: A game is more than an ending.
Maybe this sounds absurd to some of you -- how could I let a game get away with so much? But y'all need to check yourselves. I'm not a part of the group who chose to kiss Warren at the end:
Those are the REAL people who need some talking to.