“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
If you’re at all a sociable fan of Life Is Strange—or even if you’ve just existed in proxy to gaming fandom spaces in the past few weeks—you know the series ending wasn’t exactly hailed with tearful applause. There were a contingent of people who really liked it, and there was a relatively balanced number of those who really didn’t.
What’s interesting to me is examining why the endings of Life Is Strange didn’t work for so many people. Let’s put aside the people who they mostly did work for, right now; that’s certainly a viewpoint shared by a notable portion of the fanbase, and I do hold those players as equally valid audiences with a crucial opinion underscoring this discussion. They were also the majority until the release of “Polarized.”
So why did audiences react with such a huge, noticeable divide to Episode 5? There are a lot of reasons for that, actually, which all come from different components of what makes up the game itself. One is as simple as the fact that episodic gameplay lends itself to huge, gigantic gaps between installments, which leaves fans with plenty of time to speculate about future episodes or meanings of things glimpsed and referenced in already released ones. People also assume future credence or space will be given to plot points that have been brought up but not fully addressed, and are willing to wave away shorter term narrative problems with the assumption that it’ll be a longer term narrative device.
[Warning: Spoilers for Life Is Strange all the way through “Polarized.”]
It’s also a game built around time travel, which is a notoriously tricky genre to sell to audiences, particularly with a time travel story’s climax and denouement. Time travel—and magical realism, and often broader science fiction or fantasy works set in an otherwise modern world—requires a suspension of disbelief, but if it can’t keep that suspension going (or, alternatively, begin to explain why its surreal/fantastical elements work or convincingly sell why we shouldn’t need an explanation for them), audiences are quick to tune out.
“Polarized” had the unfortunate luck of including both bleed-over for most of the larger game’s climax(es) and the entirety of both its denouements, as well as wrapping up a time travel story that fundamentally wasn’t interested in giving or directly attributing a reason for Max’s powers beyond its use in the larger morals/metaphors of Dontnod’s story. “Polarized” was never going to be a guaranteed sell on those points alone.
And then we come to the biggest sticking point of them all: agency and choice.
Much of Life Is Strange’s story was based around choices—both for the player, Max, and the player as Max. Did you water the plant or not? Did you kiss Chloe, go to the drive-in with Warren, or do both? Did you examine the world carefully to snap every photograph, rush through every section, or just sit to take a couple minutes to collect your thoughts? So much of Life Is Strange asks you to consider your choices carefully as you’re making them; as previously proven with Kate’s storyline in “Out of Time,” the decision to look or not look, to say hello or walk away, to pick up a photograph or read through a letter all matter severely in other characters’ lives and deaths.
This is where “Polarized” first struggles to grab all of its players, because at its core, the endgame of Life Is Strange comes down to two choices. Max is asked to sacrifice either Chloe, thereby saving the citizens of Arcadia Bay, or to sacrifice Arcadia Bay, thereby saving Chloe’s life—all from a massive oncoming tornado looming in the background as players make that decision. Whichever of the two a player chooses, it leads to its own three to five-minute cutscene, both of which are read by a substantial portion of audiences (both fans of the ending and not) as making your choices far more important in the “journey” (i.e. your experience playing the entire game) than the “destination” (i.e. the final results dependent on your gameplay).
That journey versus destination argument is reflected in the Save Chloe ending (meaning everyone else dies and your interactions with them inevitably lead to their offscreen deaths) verses the Save Arcadia ending (which requires the entire game’s events to be reset and to never transpire at all). These conflict with the considerably more common approach where choices in your journey contribute toward your chances of getting specific endings by consistently following storyline X, Y, or Z.
Choice-based games with a similar preset pair of endings, namely The Walking Dead’s first season in the shoot-or-leave dilemma, can make a bid to work against this popular standard by attempting to draw in players emotionally and make some presentation towards a future for those characters or even a sequel. Yet the first installment of The Walking Dead didn’t prompt this kind of negative reaction from so much of its fanbase. Neither did The Wolf Among Us, or any of the other popular choice-based games that still follow a heavily linear storyline. In fact, the only example I could give with an equivalent reaction is the player uproar at the end of Mass Effect 3.
So why was Life Is Strange received the way it was? I’d argue that its selling point of a “choice-based story” is also its weakest one. The truth is that there are no completely choice-based games, just like there are no fully immersive open-world games. It sounds simple, but in the heat of any dramatic or unsatisfying moment, players can (and do) think about the possibility of getting to play any game differently.
That’s something that haunts the shadow of every game with either branching plots or explorable areas, ready to pounce at any moment and remind players of its existence. The amount of work that goes into our current level of choice-driven stories and vast expanses of worlds is already staggering as it stands; to create fully flexible programs with any and all player-decreed plots accounted for by a human developer or worlds where nothing is off limits for any kind of gameplay just doesn’t exist in a way we could really create or realize it.
More than anything else, that means choice-based game developers are constantly asking their audiences (or the biggest chunk of their audiences, in any case) to be content with the options we’re given as the only ones they feel like exploring in that moment of gameplay. When this works, it works so fantastically that most players don’t even consider the level of orchestration going into every scene; when those choices aren’t enough for the audience, all that contentment comes crashing down around them.
And that’s why audiences—fans, critics, and critical fans alike—can’t seem to agree on whether these endings “worked” for this story, while recent titles similarly focused on player decisions like Read Only Memories and Undertale are much less split in audience opinion. Life is Strange’s illusion of choice could have shattered so easily for anyone under the pressure of all the different factors struggling to reconcile with one another in an appealing way. For audiences who have additional problems with the game based on their own personal preferences or values—including queer women who drew distinct parallels between the last scenes depicting Chloe and Max’s relationship and how queer women are often poorly portrayed in popular media—it fractured all that much faster.
The time travel portions of Life Is Strange dictated that something had to be done to resolve any ripples Max would cause, while the choice-based ones demanded at least two endings, whereas the underground “dark room” and the oncoming “vortex” loomed as equally terrifying threats to Max that raced to top one another for number one antagonistic force. Many of the secondary characters who had been such key presences in Max’s life, similarly, struggled for screen time that didn’t take place in our protagonist’s brain.
Its preset plot could have never lived up to what people imagined or theorized or hoped for in those months of long breaks between every episode. More and more, games are beginning to include choice, leading to the presence of any choice no longer being unique enough to sustain a game, and all of Life Is Strange culminating in “Polarized” after the cliffhanger of a climax in “Dark Room” meant that some heavily dramatic and contrasting beats had to coexist in the space of one episode.
I don’t think Life Is Strange is a poorly made game. Some of my initial thoughts on it turned out to be completely off the mark in some aspects and an absolute bullseye in others. I tuned out at specific points during “Polarized,” but had to pause and get up to walk around during others. A lot of the creative decisions were ones I questioned and am still puzzling out while other ones were wholly captivating to me.
I do think that experiencing this game is a deeply, intensely personal journey, more visibly so than The Walking Dead’s story at the height of zombie apocalypse enthusiasm and more so than the nostalgic Read Only Memories and Undertale appeal in their own formats. I think it was a personalized story that suffered from too many cracks in suspending the belief required to create those personal experiences. For all its messages about self-acceptance and investigating what you really want, Persona 4 never had a self for Souji/Yu to conquer in the way its other characters did. Life Is Strange confronts Max with Max, and confronts you with the actions of your past self to ask what you really wanted to accomplish.
It just wasn’t prepared for its audience to ask the same questions back.