In Tragedy, 'Life Is Strange' Finds Freedom for the People Who Need It Most
Time traveling teenage drama 'Life Is Strange' offered real, true freedom at its climactic ending.
All images courtesy of Square Enix and Feral Interactive
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities. We have spoilers this week, folks!
Life is Strange is an episodic game about time travel that opens with a vision: A giant tornado moving from sea to land, toward the coastal town of Arcadia Bay. The tiny buildings are miniscule in the face of the impossibly large vortex. It's so big that, when I played it, I assumed that the world was ending. I thought that the storm was a symptom of the annihilation of the entirety of human existence localized into this one particular manifestation. And, in some ways, I still think that's right.
It should go without saying at this point that I'm going to be spoiling Life is Strange. I'd suggest going and playing the game in its entirety; it's a favorite, for me, now that I'm on the other side of it.
Life is Strange is five episodes of time hopping. Our protagonist, or at least our point-of-view character, is Max, a Polaroid-snapping teen who attends the prestigious arts high school Blackwell Academy. The game is about living her life: You meet her friends, hate on her enemies, and solve mysteries. Taking cues from the first season of Twin Peaks and the film Brick, Life is Strange puts us right in the middle of several mysteries. Rachel Amber has gone missing. What happened to her? Why is the school security guard so incredibly creepy? Who is drugging women at parties?
Max is only able to delve into these mysteries because of Chloe. The story is muddy, and if you've played through the game you know it, but Max and Chloe have a complicated relationship. They were childhood friends. Max moved away from Arcadia Bay at the same time that Chloe's father died, and they didn't speak to one another for years. Life is Strange puts them back together again after Max uses her time power to prevent Chloe from being shot, and their relationship after that moment animates the game's plot using the joy and tension of their reuniting. There is this energy between the two of them, and it plays out in a hundred different micro scenes, splicing off into the general feeling of the game like a Tesla experiment.
They solve the mysteries, or they at least run them all down to their final leads. Arcadia Bay hides a sinister set of secrets. The richest family in the town protects and promotes their young, violent, Patrick Bateman-esque son. The police are all paid off. The security guard who claims he wants to protect students is an abusive stepdad who will, when pushed, hits his stepdaughter. Rachel Amber, the missing girl, didn't just disappear. She was killed and buried in plastic in the loose dirt of a junkyard. And there's a dark room, the Dark Room, where an authority figure takes drugged high school girls and photographs them for his collection. In monologue, he tells us about how he wants to capture the moment where innocence transitions into something else. It makes the skin crawl.
Max uses time travel to figure it all out. You dip into the future to find information, and you go into the past to act on it at the right time. You see an effect, and you do some trial-and-error to alter or eliminate the cause. But most of these horrible things are unerring. The tragedy of time travel is not knowing what will happen, but realizing what people are capable of. Life is Strange gives us many instances of people at their worst, and we're supposed to rewind the world to make things better. That doesn't make me forget what their worst was, though.
At the end of the game, at the end of all things in Arcadia Bay, you have a choice. Max can travel back in time before she met Chloe again. By letting Chloe die and never using her time powers, Max can reset the game, in a way, and this storm will never appear. We're told that it is all the time manipulation that has lured this apocalyptic event to this sleepy coastal town. Solving the mysteries and delving into the deepest, darkest secrets has earned the ire of some inhuman, natural force. Never going there, staying on the surface of things, will keep this storm from coming.
Or, on the other hand, Max can accept what's happening in front of her. She can watch as the storm crests over the shoreline of Arcadia Bay. It pushes over the storm wall, reaches the first rows of shops, and sucks buildings up into its massive whorl. You can watch Arcadia Bay disintegrate. Chloe's mother, stuck in the diner she works in, will die in this. So will Warren, the boy crushing on Max. So will Frank, the drug dealer who loved Rachel Amber. All of these stories, eliminated. But Chloe lives.
The game pulls a strange move during this more-bleak ending. All of these people die, or their lives are destroyed, and we're shown a new day. A family of deer, a new family, stand amidst the ruins of Arcadia Bay. They're picking through the wreckage. The sun shines down on it all. Birds fly over the scene, unhindered, the catastrophe sprawled out beneath them in a tableau of destruction.
Max and Chloe drive through in a battered pickup. They stop, and Chloe touches Max's shoulder. Neither speaks. They drive out, beyond the screen, beyond our vision.
Patricia Hernandez has argued that this limited, shorter ending after the storm might be a punishment for our selfish choice. Max chooses Chloe and damns everyone else. But I think it's more poignant, or more utopian, than that. The catastrophic choice frees these two. There are no more stepdads, no more boyfriend-wannabees, no more investment possibilities in Arcadia Bay. This is a horizon line, and Max and Chloe are able to cross it together on into something else beyond us. The rest of the people in the game are written out of the story by a player choice, and so is the player. By choosing Chloe, we're granting them freedom, and that's freedom from us as well.
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