SPOILERS. Wow, there will obviously be game spoilers in this op-ed piece. Of course there will be. Did you see the headline? I actually pointed out that the subject of this piece is the game’s final ending choice. It’s right there. If you complain about spoilers later, I don’t know what to do with you. Find whoever was supposed to teach you reading comprehension and slap them (but not backhanded, that’s just disrespectful).
On with the show.
Life is Strange is an episodic graphic adventure. It’s a mystery thriller with a sprinkling of sci-fi that came out in 2012. You the player are put in the role of Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a young woman who has returned to her home town after being gone for some years and leaving her best friend Chloe behind. A student at Blackwell Academy, Max is wandering around and musing on the personalities and habits of her classmates when she witnesses a confrontation between Chloe and another student. The confrontation ends in Chloe’s death, which seems to be the catalyst that activates Max’s power to rewind time to limited degree and alter events she’s just witnessed. Saving Chloe is when the game truly starts. Max reunites with her best friend and sees how much has changed in the past few years, while also investigating the disappearance of a student named Amber, and learning that other friends and classmates are dealing with various personal dramas, at least one of which involves assault.
Throughout the game, you repeatedly use your power to undo harm done to others, obtain information from others, make certain people more responsive to you, save your own life, or save Chloe’s life because holy crap, that lady is a magnet for danger. If you play the game a certain way, you can help lot of characters in this small fictional town of Arcadia find inner strength, form stronger bonds with others, and even recognize uncomfortable truths about themselves and their behavior. You can, in effect, improve a small portion of your town for the better. And since this game very much hinges on the idea of a butterfly effect, that changes ripple out from every decision you make, that implies you are helping change the world for the better. That’s great.
At the same time, there are consequences. Reaching out to help one person can result in angering another. Finding out certain truths can cause a family to split apart, which causes guilt in Max even if it seems to be for the best. This is also great. Consequence is key and in the last episode of the game our hero is confronted about how often she’s using her power for good and how often she’s using it to become popular or avoid consequence for herself, which can only take you so far.
The problem really rises at the end of the game. Max has been warping time and space so much that it’s been affecting the natural environment for days now, and this comes to a head with the appearance of a tornado, a vortex that she’s had visions about since before she used her power for the very first time. During several parts of the game, Max suspects that her own continual use of power will lead to this tornado’s creation, but pushes on for what she thinks is the greater good. This is a great moral quandary to put a player in. Even if you don’t agree with Max at times, you can respect her worries and behavior (assuming you’re not so turned off by the game that you stop playing altogether).
But on seeing that the vortex is coming and will damage, even destroy, a good part of the town of Arcadia, your friend Chloe suggests that this all started when Max saved her life. She argues that if Max never did that, the dominoes wouldn’t have started falling (and maybe Max wouldn’t have discovered her power at all) that led to this. She will die, but the town will be saved, and she also presses that perhaps it is her destiny to die this week, considering how often she’s almost been killed and that each time she only survived due to Max. The player is then left with a choice, to either accept that this is what’s happening and let the tornado hit the town, or go back in time far enough to undo saving Chloe, and thus undo most of the adventure that has happened since the start of the game.
Sacrificing Chloe for the greater good is often referred to as the “good ending,” while letting the tornado hit so you can save Chloe is regarded as a selfish ending. On this, I disagree. If I were Max in real life and in this situation, yeah, maybe Chloe could convince me that this is the better choice. But it’s not real life, it’s a game and a story, and from a storytelling perspective the “good ending” is a little bit crap.
First, by choosing this, you are telling the player that life would have been better if Max had never used a natural talent that fate or nature or God or all of the above provided. That’s a warped moral to end the game on. You should not be punished for being given a supernatural power and then actually using it.
Second, there’s an implication that Max should’ve known this all along on some level and left well enough alone when she saw someone get murdered, that she shouldn’t have done what she could to prevent that if it involved a supernatural ability. And these two lessons/ideas very much contradict the earlier confrontation about consequence.if Max needs to learn to live with consequences for her actions and stop relying on time travel to fix everything, it does not make sense story-wise to then end the story by having her use time travel to literally try to fix everything and remove all consequence except for the guilt she will now feel about Chloe, her friend and possible love interest (depending on how you play the game).
Third, the game shows Max assaulted by visions of the vortex before she ever uses her power. Chloe’s explanation works if time is strictly linear, cause to effect. That means going back far enough and creating a new timeline where Max doesn’t use her powers at all will undo any damage from using her powers. But if Max is having visions of the vortex beforehand (and are they visions or is she traveling into that possible future on instinct?), then it indicates that in the world of this game time is not linear, not entirely anyway. And that means there’s a possibility that Max going all the way back will cause further damage rather than erasing damage, that it might lead to a timeline she will ultimately conclude is worse.
Fourth, as stated earlier, you can play the game in such a way that Max has a positive impact on the health and self-awareness of many people in Arcadia. Going back to Chloe undoes all of that and in several cases it seems unlikely Max will be able to still achieve the same results with some of those people, which may lead to bad things happening later for them and others. You’ll undo the tornado that happens that week, yes, but what about next week? What if something truly awful happens a month after that? If the lesson is that Max has to stop using her power to solve things, then she has to stop right there, because Chloe’s death is not (and should not) be a magical cure-all. And since there’s no indication its occurrence will take away Max’s power, she will be tempted to use it again if certain people fall victim to the new timeline a week later, which puts us back on a path towards another tornado.
Storywise, and I think morality wise, the best option is to say no. We will stop using the power now. We will deal with the damage to our town and look to help our friends, but we must accept the consequences of our actions and, frankly, the town must accept the consequences of years of corruption, cruelty and ignoring uncomfortable truths.
Or, as my dear friend and colleague Kiri Callaghan put it: