When is a Choice not a Choice? The Brilliance of Life is Strange

It’s no secret that I love Life is Strange, the best Twin Peaks impression going now that enthusiasm for the real Twin Peaks has waned following the departure of David Lynch. 50 minutes of prattling hasn’t satisfied my need to talk about Episode 2: Out of Time, particularly the brilliantly executed showdown that sets the stage for what should be a phenomenal episode 3.

So let’s cut to the ending.

There are SPOILERS ahead. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens.

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Still here? Good. Let’s start with a quick recap:

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In the climactic scene of episode 2, a character named Kate climbs to the top of the dormitories and threatens to kill herself after days of relentless bullying following the release of an embarrassing viral video. We know that Kate doesn’t remember the evening in question and that she was most likely drugged and filmed without her knowledge.

As Maxine, the player has to use information gathered earlier in the episode to talk Kate off the ledge. Kate will jump if you haven’t been attentive and unlike the rest of Life is Strange, you can’t rewind time to fix it.

It’s one of the most powerful ‘moral choice’ moments I’ve ever experienced in a video game, which is strange because it’s not a choice at all. Given the opportunity, I would choose to save Kate every single time, as would most players. There is an unquestionably good outcome and an equally unquestionable bad one.

The encounter still resonates because the player’s desire is not enough to sway the scene. The agency in the moment belongs entirely to Kate. You can influence the decision, but the final choice is hers. She’ll jump or she won’t, and once you reach that moment there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

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It makes for a sharp contrast with most other video games that operate as power fantasies even while claiming to offer moral ambiguity. A game like Dragon Age: Inquisition often forces players to choose the lesser of two evils, but the player ultimately retains the ability to shape the narrative. That’s part of the appeal. The ethical dilemmas are supposed to make the story feel more authentic because we know that some faction will always be disappointed.

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The point, however, is that the morally flexibility is predictable. Each option leads directly to knowable results, and the choices are active in the sense that you either do something or you don’t. The best example is Bioshock, where you can kill the Little Sisters or save them in search of a different cut scene. The moral burden is wholly contained within that moment of choice. Do you prefer option A or option B? You know where each door leads, and nothing that has happened previously prevents you from making your decision.

That’s initially true in Life is Strange, which lays the groundwork for the episode 2 finale with more traditional capital-C choices earlier in the episode. But life rarely presents us with such stark opportunities. We are aware that every choice we make has an impact on those around us, but we seldom know precisely what ramifications our decisions will have weeks, days, (or even hours) later.

Life is Strange replicates that paradoxically human combination of helplessness and culpability. It gives you the power to shape the narrative. Then it takes that power away at the moment it matters most. Earlier in the game, Maxine can wipe graffiti off Kate’s whiteboard in the dorms. More ambivalently, she can intervene on Kate’s behalf during an argument or tell her not to go to the police for help dealing with what should by all rights be a crime. Maxine is the only person Kate confides in and she desperately needs a shoulder. When Kate calls, will you answer the phone or ignore it? You could just say you had it on silent.

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That’s what makes the scene so wrenching. Though there is quite a bit of foreshadowing (especially with the phone call), you don’t know what the consequences of your actions will be until much later in the episode. You can’t stop Kate from jumping, and you have to watch her choice knowing that there are things you could have done differently earlier in the day. However, it’s far to late to go back and make changes once you realize how important those decisions were.

Life is Strange is so effective because it allows you to feel the moral responsibility of another person’s actions, which is an intensely human way of relating to the world. We want to the best for other people, but sometimes they do things we wish we could prevent. When that happens, we’ll obsess over everything we could have done better and willingly take on guilt that may or may not be deserved.

Maxine has to carry that burden at the end of Life is Strange: Episode 2. For years, we’ve praised games that encourage players to make difficult decisions, as if moral truths are revealed solely in the ideas we force upon the world. But the things we fail to do reveal just as much about our character. Life is Strange is so evocative because it shows us how much worse it feels when we don’t have the option (or opportunity) to act.

 

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