Life is Strange is an episodic series of video game tales created by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. The first episode, “Chrysalis” was originally released on January 30th 2015. However, it wouldn’t be until October 20th that the final episode was released to cap off the episode series. Now that one year has passed since the story came to a conclusion, what impact has it left on the video game industry? Believe it or not, despite the fact that Telltale Games has sort of dominated the butterfly effect genre for quite some time now, Square Enix’s Life is Strange is arguably one of the best interactive narrative games to ever grace the genre.
Max Caulfield (Hannah Telle) thought she was just an average 12th grade student of Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. However, after walking into the bathroom one day, she overhears Nathan Prescott (Nik Shriner) and former best friend Chloe Price (Ashly Burch) walking in and having an argument. As Max hides, Nathan pulls out a gun and shoots Chloe dead. In a flash, Max discovers that she has the ability to rewind time, and promptly saves Chloe by pulling the fire alarm. However, while saving Chloe has brought the two back together after years of separation, Max sees a vision that a giant storm is bound to wipe out the town within the week. So while time travel powers may sound fun, Max has to try to figure out a way to use them and save her hometown from imminent destruction.
(Warning: Major Spoilers Will Be Discussed)
While some may argue that Telltale’s Walking Dead video game was the best episode game series, because of its equally heartbreaking narrative, Life is Strange is that rare game that addresses some of the harsher realities of being a high school student in a video game. With bullying rampant, charismatic cliques designed to outcast anyone “unworthy,” and drugs a plenty, Dontnod Entertainment isn’t afraid of reminding us that even in the most upscale of high schools that are supposed to be perfect. You just can’t escape all the hormone induced bad decisions that come with the territory. And even with a storm bound to destroy the town, that doesn’t mean Max is 100% focused on eliminating that first and foremost. Because all along the way, she has to come face first with the worst her school has to offer.
Don’t go in thinking the problems are just something casual like “oh no, this one character smokes pot!” Far from it, Life is Strange is not afraid to talk about the more important problems that are unfortunately far too common. Character Kate Marsh is the unfortunate victim of date rape in the game, and instead of getting the proper treatment, consolation, and justice she deserves, Kate instead gets tormented by fellow classmates and branded a “slut.” Despite being a religious and abstinent character prior to the event, few seem to care and are quick to jump aboard the bullying bandwagon. It is only you, the player, as Max Caulfield that can try to influence Kate’s life past this dark time. Of course, there’s no guarantees. Towards the end of episode two “Out of Time,” Kate is on the edge of a building and ready to jump. Max can either successfully talk her down, or fail and watch helplessly as Kate plummets to her death. What’s worse is that your rewind ability has conveniently stopped momentarily, so whatever happened cannot be undone. The rest of the narratives changes around the event. If you saved her, Kate will finally get the hospital treatment she needs, and everyone in the girls dormitory will write words of hope across the boards for Kate’s recovery. If she died, everyone will scribble phrases like “We miss you” and “Rest in peace.” Many of the same people who write these words of despair were the ones who bullied Kate into her demise in the first place, a perfect example of the hypocrisy of human sympathy.
And yet, for a game that already addresses so many dark subject matters, episode four “The Dark Room” decides to take it a step further by bringing up the ever controversial subject of assisted euthanasia. When Max discovers that she can jump to different periods of time, by looking at her old photographs, she decides the best thing to do with her power is to save Chloe’s dad’s life, who had died years prior in a car crash. Max knows that by saving Chloe’s dad, Chloe’s life won’t take such a dark turn in the first place. However, when Max does manage to save the father’s life, it opens up an even worse alternate universe for Chloe, who has since become paralyzed from a different car accident. With her family drowning in debt, and realizing that she’s going to die regardless, she requests that Max give her a lethal overdose of morphine. Whether Max goes through with it is entirely up to you as the player, you can do as she requests or completely ignore it all together. Either way, Max realizes that this life isn’t the better option, and decides that Chloe’s dad has to die so that Chloe may survive with a richer life.
And then there’s the ending, which is kind of genius when you think about it. All events that transpired through the game happened because you chose to travel back in time and save Chloe from being shot by Nathan. Kate’s suicide attempt, a professor obsessed with drugging, photographing, and murdering his students, none of it would have happened if Chloe had been shot at the beginning of the game because the flow of events helps you realize that everything here has a cause and effect. If Max hadn’t been so busy saving Chloe and spending time with her to figure out her rewind abilities, she would have had more time to spend with Kate and prevent her from ever attempting suicide in the first place. Nathan Prescott would have been arrested for killing Chloe, and the serial killer Professor Jefferson, in turn, would have been figured out as the evil mastermind once Nathan ratted him out to the police.
In every timeline where Max tried to save Chloe or change her life for the better, such as preventing her father from ending up in that car accident, it always resulted in Chloe’s death. The last episode alone explored Max’s desperation to save Chloe after being killed by Jefferson by jumping through timeline after timeline, but it never mattered what she did. Chloe always died (or if you chose not to fulfill Chloe’s wishes in episode four, she was bound to die in the near future.) The storm always hit, because Max always interfered with the natural order. It was only with Chloe’s sacrifice, and her choice to force Max back to the moment where everything began and allow Chloe to get shot, that prevented the storm from hitting Arcadia Bay at all. It may annoy some people to receive an ending in a time travel story where the character just goes back to where it all began and chooses to do nothing, but this game offers one of the very few instances where this makes absolute sense. As brutal as it is to realize, Chloe’s death was the only way to save Kate, stop Jefferson and Nate, and save Arcadia Bay from an impending storm that Max’s time travel powers caused.
A digital series based on this game is in the works my Legendary Studios, but I would prefer to see a sequel in the near future. While said continuing chapter hasn’t been officially announced yet, considering the amount of success Telltale has had with their brand of interactive narrative games, it would be silly not to pursue such an interesting universe further. Until that day, I highly recommend you play Life is Strange, you just might come out of it with one of your newest all time favorite gaming experiences.