Sunday, January 17, 2016

Life is Strange's Ending: A Meeting With Fate & Contrivance #1 (SPOILERS)

I recently took some time to complete Life is Strange, a narrative game not unlike those developed by TellTale. I was generally quite impressed with the game, but the ending left me a little disappointed. In this piece, I'll explain my problems with the finale to Dontnod's successful narrative project.

To establish the most important details, in Life is Strange the player takes on the role of Max Caulfield, a photography student who somehow gains the power to reverse time. This power manifests itself when Max witnesses an old friend get shot, and she uses it to save her from this fate.

From this point onwards, Max uses her power almost constantly in the story. Personally, I rather liked the concept; being a student in photography, her passion was always capturing the moment in a way she envisioned, and limited time reversal added to that in an interesting way. To me, it didn't matter so much that the game never properly explained where this power came from; but it also made it very hard to swallow how the game decided to resolve the ending.

Throughout the story, Max and her friend Chloe - the person she saved - are on the trail of a missing student called Rachel Amber. Her disappearance is suspicious, to say the least, and ties in with repeated hints that there is a darkness, a storm brooding within Arcadia Bay, and the Blackwell Academy where Max studies. A conspiracy between certain students, teachers and influential families. This concept is further supported by repeated visions Max has of a huge tornado seemingly consuming Arcadia Bay. 

All of this reaches its peak when all the player's preconceptions are overturned, and the identity of the darkness lurking in Arcadia Bay is revealed as Mr. Jefferson, a teacher at Blackwell. As it turns out, he's been kidnapping students, involving them in bizarre photoshoots and then murdering them. So consider my surprise when Mr. Jefferson was caught very early in Episode 5, and an actual real tornado then shows up to wreak havoc on Arcadia Bay. So, all of the dialogue about the Prescott family, the students that went missing, the 'lurking darkness,' the brooding storm - it all boils down to an actual tornado just appearing out of nowhere. And not just that, but according to the game, it's Max's fault. 

Even though Max had her first vision of the storm and tornado before she even discovered her power, in the final minutes of Episode 5 you're told that averting Chloe's fate is the cause of all this. Because Max saved her, the powers-that-be decided that Arcadia Bay should be destroyed by a tornado.

To be fair, the game takes several moments to demonstrate that Max's powers may have an adverse effect on the world. Starting with out of season snow and dead birds, moving on to dead whales and a double moon, it can't be said that the eventual tornado came out of nowhere. But with that said, several characters in the story can live or die - Kate and Frank, for example. But regardless of whether they live or not, nature still gets messed up. Why is it that rescuing Chloe was seemingly all it took to completely unbalance nature? It's completely contrived, and for one specific reason: the final choice.

You either go back to the moment Max saved Chloe, and let her die to prevent the tornado from happening, or watch the tornado tear Arcadia Bay apart killing who-knows-how-many people. Outside its context, the choice is actually incredibly powerful; save the few you know, or the many you don't? But the fact that it all boils down to a tornado you supposedly caused using your unexplained power - that really took the emotion out of the choice for me. The game essentially used a Diabolus Ex Machina, and then said 'Look at this. This contrived conflict is your fault.' I sacrificed Arcadia Bay in favor of Chloe because I felt that choice best reflected my defiance of this supposed "responsibility."

So, to summarize; the game hints at an underlying mystery or conflict you're solving - a conspiracy between unknown powers - along with strange occurences in the natural world. You wouldn't be foolish for thinking the two were related, but as soon as the story's major conflict - the disappearance of Rachel Amber and the masterminds behind it - is resolved, an actual tornado shows up to wreck the city for no real reason - just because you saved someone at the start of the game. Since your power is not properly explained, it can also not resolve this plot hole. 

In my next piece, I'm going to write what I initially expected the final choice to be and why I feel that would've suited the story better.

As always, nothing I've written here is fact or truth. Please feel free to respond if there's something I've overlooked. Feedback is always appreciated, even if it's harsh! See you in the next one!

Correction (23-01-16): It was pointed out that Life is Strange is not Dontnod's first project, so I changed the opening line a bit to reflect the facts. 

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