Thought Bubble: The Beautiful, Selfish Humanity of Life is Strange

The following contains no story specific story spoilers, though it does discuss the game’s ending and its mechanics. Consider yourself warned. 

Life is Strange finally reached its conclusion with the recent release of “Polarized,” delivering answers and closure for time-travelling protagonist Max Caulfield and her rebellious best friend Chloe Price. “Polarized” offers fewer choices and takes place in surreal dreamscapes and alternate universes rather than the more grounded confines of a boarding school for the arts, but despite some slow moments, it is a satisfying resolution for one of the most unique games of the year.

It also builds to a final decision that breaks with the established pattern. While previous episodes obscured the consequences of important decisions so you could never quite be sure how they would affect the story, “Polarized” offers perfect information. You know exactly what will happen as a result of the decision, which leads directly to one of two different endings. So far, the reactions have been mixed.

The biggest problem is that one of the endings undoes everything that has happened up to that point. It’s a reset button, the kind that could make you wonder if those first four episodes were just a waste of time.

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Me? I think it was brilliant, but I appreciated the final decision because it’s only partially about the outcome. Rather, Life is Strange is about the journey. The ending is a rhetorical question, a trigger that encourages you to re-examine events that took place earlier in the game, and to consider your emotional relationship to the characters and the story. The basic hypothetical does that far more effectively than a decision that branches into many unknown outcomes.

The games industry has always been afflicted with a need for more, whether it’s more polygons, more polish, or more content. In the case in story-driven games, that trend assumes that a game with more plot threads is somehow more realistic. After all, life has an infinite number of possibilities, so a game with a bigger number must inevitably gets closer to that complexity.

It should go without saying that that’s not always the case. With more options you create more possibilities, but life is too unpredictable to account for every contingency. There’s no way to digitally simulate life short of an all-or-nothing proposition like The Matrix. More to the point, the uncanny valley applies to story just as much as it applies to character design. The closer something gets to reality, the more we become aware of the artifice behind it.

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Life is Strange moves in the opposite direction, and the result feels more authentically human than a supposedly more realistic game like Heavy Rain. Developer Dontnod Entertainment recognizes that a story with fewer outcomes rests comfortably within the realm of abstraction and metaphor, making the lessons more applicable to our own lives because we can bend them to fit a wider range of interpretations.

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The truth is that the number of big decisions we make in our lives is relatively small. Where do you want to live? Do you take that job? Is this the person you want to marry? They’re straightforward questions with known outcomes, but they feel complex because we recognize our spot in an interconnected network of people. We know that any decision will have ripples beyond our own small sphere.

That’s what Life is Strange captures so well. The game understands that the texture of our lives is reflected in the factors we consider when making major decisions, not in the decisions themselves. The finale is achingly blunt, and can erase much of the work you’ve done earlier in the game. However, you’re not making that decision in a vacuum. We’ve had five episodes to grow close to Chloe and Max, not to mention Joyce, Warren, David, Frank, Victoria, Kate, and the rest of the town of Arcadia Bay. The decision should be easy, but it feels difficult because we want the best for everyone and we know that it will be impossible to deliver.

In other words, Dontnod was always building to one all-or-nothing decision. The nuanced choices in the first four episodes are the game’s way of adding context by weaving that decision it into other characters.

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Perhaps more importantly, Life is Strange also recognizes that answers change depending on when you’re asked the question. Players might make a different choice (or be less conflicted about that choice) in episode one than in episode five, when we’d be more willing to cast off characters we don’t know all that well. In choosing who gets to live and who gets to die, we’re forced to place certain characters over others in a personal hierarchy based on sentiment.

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That’s ultimately why I enjoyed Life is Strange as much as I did. It’s not without its flaws, and the final chapter isn’t all that enjoyable to play. It starts with an hour-long exposition dump and it lacks the moments of quiet introspection that make the first four episodes so intriguing.

The finale nevertheless demonstrates how the desire to save people can be as selfish as it is altruistic, a fact that gets to the root of much of the tragedy that happens in the real world. Our decisions, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably prioritize those we care about over those we don’t based on wholly personal criteria removed from more universal ethical ideals. The ending of Life is Strange forces Max – and by proxy the player – to make a moral decision that is as much about what she wants as it is about what’s best.

That doesn’t necessarily make us bad people. It’s merely one of the limitations of being human, because what is best is often subjective and changes with contextual factors like time and place. Max becomes more and more aware of that as the game progresses, and the climax represents the logical extension of the idea. With time travel, Life is Strange successfully condenses the emotional growth of a typical coming-of-age tale into the events of a single week. Max has to come to terms with the fact that all of her decisions will be flawed, and that there are no perfect outcomes.

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Learning to accept that selfishness is a vital part of the human experience. It allows us to find our place and form an identity. When you know that you cannot make a perfect decision – that you cannot access an omniscient viewpoint – you eventually realize that you have no choice but to weigh personal factors because the alternative is paralysis. The game ends and nothing happens. Max has to decide what she wants and who she wants to be. When she does, she becomes more comfortable asserting her presence, projecting a confidence that becomes cool and even sexy.

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Knowing that all decisions are in some way personal helps explain why different people make different decisions when given the same set of circumstances and strips away the judgment that goes along with it. We’re all doing the best we can, but we can only react to the world as we see it from our own limited perspective.

That’s why I appreciated the ending of Life is Strange. Even if your final choice erases earlier events, Max is not the same person she was at the beginning. She gains a better understanding of how she wants to affect others, which is to say that she has a better understanding of who she is, and that has a profound impact on the way she navigates the world. We all crave that level of self-awareness, and I am grateful for a game that made the journey so silly and entertaining.

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