Why a bad ending doesn't have to ruin a great game

Life Is Strange

Players have been worried that Life Is Strange might not be able to stick the landing from the moment it started flapping its chaos-theory butterfly wings. It’s annoyingly common for time travel stories to fall apart in their final moments, whether by breaking their own rules about how time travel works—the rules they spent hours establishing, explaining, and demonstrating—or by using time travel to conveniently undo everything that happened so you wonder why they bothered at all. Science fiction stories love to show off some cool concept and then tell you that cool thing was really bad and no one should ever do it. Cloning dinosaurs? Bad idea. Alien contact? Bad idea. Time travel? Even worse than both of those ideas combined.

Well, we were right to worry. Though there’s a lot to love about the fifth and final episode of Life Is Strange, in its closing moments it all goes very wrong in a predictable way. Obviously I’m about to spoil that ending for you because it’s impossible to talk about otherwise (so, be warned: spoilers below), but if you haven’t played Life Is Strange yet I think you should go and do that even though I didn’t like its climax. It’s a game that gets a lot of other things right and is emotionally affecting in a way that’s rare, as I said when calling the first four episodes a gut-punch (and here's Phil's positive review).

Watching the responses arrive on Tumblr and forums there are some people who love it, and though they seem to be in the minority I don’t mean to minimize their experience. Episode five of Life Is Strange is subtitled “Polarized”, which suggests the developers knew they had something that would divide people.

Life Is Strange

Spoilers below

Here’s what happens: Max Caulfield, teenage photography student, time wizard, and fan of pleasant jangling indie guitar music, realizes that using her ability to rewind time to save her best friend/love of her life Chloe Price all the way back in episode one has had unexpected knock-on effects. Namely it’s caused a tornado to appear somehow and threaten to destroy their hometown of Arcadia Bay. Max has to choose between using her power one last time to go back to the moment of Chloe’s death and let her die, or kiss the town and possibly everybody in it goodbye.

Here’s why that’s rubbish.

It’s predictable. Since day one our Life Is Strange bingo cards have had 'go back in time and let Chloe die' on them, but the developers at Dontnod have been using the episodic structure of their game to mess with our expectations enough, through shocking twists and powerful cliffhangers, that doing the obvious boring thing seemed less and less likely. Fans also predicted that someone would namedrop the title of the game at some point and on two occasions in Polarized they almost do. “Life is... weird,” says Max, while Chloe says “Life is... so unfair.” They’ve been toying with our expectations so much that playing right into them is even more of a letdown than it would normally be.

The choices are simplistic. Like Deus Ex: Human Revolution or Mass Effect 3—you knew Mass Effect 3 was going to be mentioned in an article like this, it’s the law—it feels like being asked to push a button to select your ending from a menu at McDonald’s. The decisions you’ve made previously can lead to one slight change in one of those endings (a friendly hug can become a passionate kiss), but otherwise nothing you’ve done makes any difference except your selection from the specials of the day. It’s the total opposite of Tales From The Borderlands, which brings back characters you’ve helped along the way to make your finale feel unique. Here it’s just you and a choice between two different hamburgers.

One ending feels slight. Decide to sacrifice Chloe and you’re treated to a heartbreaking goodbye, a retelling of her death, a slideshow of the rippling effects that has on this new timeline, and then a sad funeral sequence that conveniently brings together the cast so you can see if that one other girl lived. If you sacrifice Arcadia Bay instead (“choose the bae over the Bay” as Tumblr jokers put it) there’s a single scene of the two survivors driving through the ruined town while a song from earlier is replayed and then that’s it. It feels cheap, as if the writers felt obliged to put it in for half the players but didn’t care enough to make it seem real, or even explain what actually happens to the townspeople. Who lives and dies in this timeline? We’ll never know.

Neither ending ties up the mystery of how Max got her powers, or why using those powers caused a natural disaster. There’s a vague nod to the butterfly effect—the idea that small changes to complex systems can have drastic consequences over enough time—but no causal link shown between a teenage girl not dying and the unseasonal tornado, snow, dead birds and whales, and appearance of two moons that marked the altered timeline. If the way Max’s powers work didn’t dictate the final choice it wouldn’t be so annoying that their nature is left ambiguous, but since it does that’s infuriating.

It’s got some unfortunate implications. Max can either flirt with classic nice guy Warren or her BFF Chloe. If your Max chose Chloe then in your version of the 'sacrifice Chloe' ending they share a kiss, though the ending in which she lives is exactly the same no matter who you ‘romanced’. The only ending that takes the depiction of their relationship from coy to literal is the one that dooms her, which plays into the disturbingly common trope of homosexual characters being killed off in fiction. The trope lets a straight audience feel sad about the tragic lives of gays without any of the troubling consequences of them achieving a happy ending that might be seen as a reward for being 'deviant'. Obviously I don’t think this is the creators’ intent, but it plays to a cliché we could do with less of.

The message that using your powers to change the world is wrong is a troubling one. Max has been compared to a superhero multiple times—Chloe even calls her “SuperMax”—and it’s common in fiction for teen heroes to have power thrust upon them as a metaphor for the ability to impact society that comes with growing up. Spider-Man learns that with great power comes great responsibility; the X-Men decide to protect a world that hates and fears them. Max learns that sometimes a teenage girl needs to die to prevent climate change or something, and the world would be better off if she literally curled up in a ball and did nothing.

Life Is Strange 2

And yet...

Even though I’m angry enough about the ending to write a whole piece about it and then have enough crankiness left over to argue in the comments, when I think back on Life Is Strange the ending is not the only thing I remember. I think about how much fun it was playing at Scooby-Doo while sneaking into the high school at night to investigate, how connected I felt to the characters as they grew from slangy stereotypes into real people, and how heart-wrenching it was tumbling into an alternate timeline where changing the past twisted the present into something unrecognisable.

Even episode five has a lot going for it if you ignore its closing minutes. The creepiness of The Dark Room was worthy of Twin Peaks, which Life Is Strange has referenced almost as much as Deadly Premonition did. The previously dickish spoilt bully Nathan Prescott left a voicemail that was surprisingly touching. Using Max’s powers to save people from the tornado in a possible future was a fun bit of adventure game puzzling. Being trapped in the retro zone of Max’s nightmares and tortured by her subconscious was an effective detour into horror, lightened by a set of surreal text messages received from sources as unlikely as one character’s dog.

Life Is Strange is far from the first video game to have a disappointing ending. Even a classic like System Shock 2 has a final cutscene that’s hilariously out of sync with the rest of the game's tone, and their somewhat underwhelming conclusions don’t stop Knights Of The Old Republic or Half-Life 2 from earning their place on lists of the best games ever. The original ending of Fallout 3 was so rough that an entire DLC add-on was created to rewrite it, four years before Mass Effect 3 did something similar, but we’re still drooling at the thought of Fallout 4. We’ve forgiven those games because we enjoyed the hours leading up to those endings so much we focus on that instead. We can choose which memories are the ones we care about preserving and, like with photographs, build our albums out of the moments that mattered to us. Life Is Strange is just another game for the “Flawed Masterpieces” section of the album.

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