Life Is Strange: The Illusion of Choice, Part II
Life Is Strange is a serialized, episodic video game published by Square Enix, the makers of the famous Final Fantasy series, and developed by DontNod Entertainment. Released in five parts—each of which range in gameplay time from two to five hours— this game garnered a large fan base immediately after the release of Episode One: Chrysalis in January 2015. The player takes control of Maxine “Max” Caulfield, a quirky eighteen-year-old wallflower at the prestigious Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay. An ambitious photography student with a recognized gift, her senior year is drastically different from that of most other teenagers: chiefly, she discovers she has the power to rewind time and alter her choices, and therefore the consequences of said choices. Even minute decisions—such as whether or not she should water her plant—affect future episodes. But these small decisions are not what DontNod wants the player to focus on. Bigger things are at risk, such as the lives of Max’s peers and the fate of the town, possibly destined for destruction at the hands of an approaching tornado.
(Note: Spoilers follow. Read at your own risk!)
I recently wrote an article titled, Bioshock and the Illusion of Choice in Gaming. This article dealt with the way we players want to believe that we are in control of our choices in-game and the outcome of the game itself, yet mechanics only allow so much actual control. Thus, I concluded that both Bioshock and Bioshock: Infinite demonstrate the illusion of choice in gaming through their unique gameplay and storylines. Many readers responded by asking how I felt about the game, Life Is Strange, in terms of choice-based gaming, but at that point, I had not yet played it and could not offer my two cents. I am proud to say I have now played this amazing game and, boy, do I have some things to say about it.
DontNod has done something fascinating with Life Is Strange, and it likely would not have worked if the game had been released as one big game rather than in five episodes. The player’s choices can create drastically different gameplay experiences in subsequent episodes. Choice affects behavior, action, relationships, and fate. For example, if Max chooses to tell Principal Wells that she found Nathan in the girls’ bathroom with a gun in Episode One, Nathan’s attitude and behavior toward Max become increasingly hostile and dangerous throughout the rest of the game. If, however, Max hides the truth about Nathan, his suspicions of her are much less vested or intense. Each episode begins with information loaded from choices made in prior episodes, creating a story with a semi-unique experience for every player.
I say “semi-unique” because, although DontNod has indeed created something fresh with Life Is Strange, I still stand by my previous argument: even in this game, choice is still an illusion.
Choice in Dialogue is Limited
This might seem like an obvious statement, but choice in Life Is Strange—and any game, for that matter—is limited only by the given dialogue options. This game has been hailed as revolutionary for its methods of utilizing choice-based gaming, yet when it comes to dialogue, only so much can be done. For example, you can choose to humiliate Victoria by taking a photo of her covered in paint, or you can choose to comfort her. There is no in-between here, though in reality, we all know multiple options would be available. What if I wanted to say something snarky to Victoria, but not be so cruel as to humiliate her over social media? Unfortunately, one cannot choose the middle ground in this given instance. The response is black or white. Max chooses to be mean and vindictive, or kindhearted and, if I may, a bit of a brownnoser.
In spite of this, Life Is Strange does do something interesting with dialogue that other games do not. In some conversations, Max learns information that would have been useful to know prior to the start of the conversation. In these cases, an icon pops up in the top-left area of the screen, indicating that this information can be used if the player chooses to rewind. The player might use this information to get Max invited to the elite school party hosted by the Vortex Club, or to make friends with the hostile popular girls who just need someone to listen to their personal woes.
This is the most unique way the game employs choice-based dialogue. Although the player can rewind and choose other dialogue options, the game does not ignore the fact that Max can manipulate the outcome of conversations with gems of information she did not previously have. In some aspect, this indicates a self-awareness in Max’s A.I. that makes her character, and the game itself, incredibly unique in comparison to other choice-based games. It still doesn’t change the fact, however, that the player is limited by the given options. Yes, these dialogue options can shift depending on certain variables—like if Max talks to Character A before talking to Character B—but they are still limited by the given choices.
More importantly than this, however, are the responses given by other non-playable characters to Max’s questions and statements. On some occasions, the conversations become annoyingly circular. If the player chooses to remain hidden in Episode One while David confronts Chloe about smoking in her room, Max witnesses David slap Chloe. This will be mentioned time and time again throughout the remaining episodes, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense. At one point in Episode Two: Out of Time, Max mentions to Chloe’s mother, Joyce, that she saw David slap Chloe. Seconds later, Joyce will ask something along the lines of, “What happened between David and Chloe?” to which Max will reply (again) that she saw David slap Chloe. Joyce reacts as if this is new information. To go on further, in one of the later episodes, David asks Max if she knew that he hit Chloe. By this point, they have all had multiple conversations with each other about the incident. The conversation becomes redundant to where it seems like the characters have forgotten they discussed it. Realistically, this is just a poor continuity error caused by the complex system of choice-based gaming.
In other instances, the responses are the same regardless of which dialogue option is chosen. Most of the time, this only occurs in minor conversations that have no lasting effect on the plot or gameplay, but it further demonstrates the limitations of choice-based dialogue. Sometimes, the responses do not make sense whatsoever. Take the following example from the beginning of Episode Two, if the player so chooses to engage with Brooke Scott:
Max: Did you see the freak snowfall yesterday?
Brooke: I was riveted by that weird snow flurry yesterday.
Very, very few people communicate like this in the vernacular. A simple “yes” or “no” would have sufficed, but Brooke’s response is way too robotic. Additionally, Brooke’s tone sets her response aside in a way that could suggest she simply announced it to herself, without conversing with Max in the first place. For what it is worth, DontNod is a French-based company in Paris, and Square Enix is a Japanese-based company in Tokyo. The strange dialogue (strange in both terms of when/how it is spoken, and the dialect/slang itself) could simply be a misunderstanding between different cultures. It is more likely a result of the fact that some conversations can only go so far in terms of gameplay, and the game can therefore only respond in a limited number of ways. So while Life Is Strange certainly creates a unique experience in terms of dialogue, the above limitations still do not allow the player an escape from the illusion of choice.
Some Things Have Happened and Will Always Happen
I learned this during my second play-through, as many others certainly did as well. Some things happen regardless of the choices you make, both in terms of dialogue and in terms of action. This is partly because the gameplay is semi-linear. What is important, though, is that it detracts from the idea that the experience is unique. Regardless of whether or not Max turns in Nathan in Episode One, she will still receive an anonymous threat via text message later on, warning her to keep her smart mouth shut if she knows what is good for her. While this does take place after Nathan confronts her about hiding in the bathroom when he threatened Chloe—therefore justifying why he might send her such a text—it doesn’t quite make as much sense for Max to receive the text if she doesn’t rat him out than if she does.
To further address this point, Kate’s suicide (attempt) in Episode Two also doesn’t always make sense. During my first play-through, I was kind to Kate and let her know that I was on her side, yet I didn’t always tell her what she wanted to hear. She became angry when I chose to photograph David harassing her (for eventual proof) rather than stepping in and standing up for her. She was also upset that I told her not to go to the police about Nathan drugging her at the Vortex Club party. I did this partly because Nathan terrified me, and because I knew his family owned the town and the police. Kate saw this as betrayal, which made it harder to talk her down from the ledge (though from my understanding, one can still talk her down even if Max is not supportive of her prior to the suicide attempt). Even so, I said the wrong things during my conversation with her on the ledge, and she ultimately committed suicide.
During my second play-through, however, I told her everything she wanted to hear, convincing her I was one-hundred-percent on her side. Her reactions and behavior were drastically different this time around. She seemed so much more encouraged and supported—which made the suicide attempt feel almost out-of-place. Kate, the stereotypical good church girl, is clearly and understandably upset about the viral video of her making out with multiple guys at the Vortex Club party. She finds that no one will help her, much less believe that she was not acting of her own accord that night. Up against a wall, she goes to the ledge. Until that point, however, she had seemed so much more hopeful, given the fact that I had supported her every action.
Suicide is obviously way, way too complex of an issue to address here, and no one has the right to argue that a person is being unreasonable in their misery, even to the point of wanting to kill him/herself. But speaking within the context of Life Is Strange, Kate’s back-and-forth in my second play-through just did not feel natural to me. This might have been partly due to the fact that I had already been so strongly impacted by her death the first time. I therefore knew how to correct it the second time, but it still just seemed less realistic.
Of course, the producers can only make the gameplay experience so unique—ultimately, Kate is going up to that ledge, regardless of the player’s actions. To try to create a scenario different than this—one that eliminates Kate’s suicide attempt entirely—would possibly require creating another reality in and of itself, and therefore another, different game. Nevertheless, certain things, both big and small, happen during every play-through regardless of Max’s choices.
The Ending: Save Chloe or Save Arcadia Bay?
The ending is unarguably the most important moment in Life Is Strange. Many players felt betrayed and angry over the two possible choices at the end of the game. Chloe deduces that the cause of Mother Nature’s fury—like the slew of dead birds, the beached whales, the unpredictable lunar eclipse, and last but not least, the tornado headed straight for Arcadia Bay—is due to Max tampering with time when she saved Chloe from Nathan at the very beginning of the game. Chloe demands that Max sacrifice her to set everything right, which then prompts the player to choose: will Max sacrifice Chloe’s life to save Arcadia Bay and everyone in it, or will she sacrifice Arcadia Bay to save her best friend?
Either choice renders all previous choices ineffectual. This is precisely why fans were in such an uproar at the game’s end. Players had invested hours in the game and its characters only to be told that none of it mattered either way. Many declared the ending terrible and argued that it made an otherwise amazing game fall flat.
While this is justifiably understood, there is so much more going on in the game’s ending than meets the eye. If Max chooses to save Arcadia Bay and sacrifice Chloe, she goes back in time all the way to the moment in Episode One where Nathan confronts Chloe in the bathroom with a gun. Originally, what prompted all subsequent episodes and the game itself was Max’s intervention in this moment, saving Chloe’s life. By tampering with time, Max has set a chain of events in motion that are not supposed to happen. DontNod suggests that on some grand, cosmic level, these actions are the cause of the tornado coming for Arcadia Bay. As the butterfly effect explains, one tiny action creates a reaction somewhere far into the future, so large that the connection cannot be made with the naked eye. This is the relationship between Max saving Chloe’s life and the approaching tornado.
Understanding this, it is only necessary that Max should sacrifice Chloe to save her town. DontNod obviously wants the player to choose this option, because the entire game is ultimately about saving the town from the tornado, its impending doom. If Max chooses to go back to that day, she allows Nathan to murder Chloe, and the subsequent reality that would have followed in the wake of her intervention disappears completely.
The term “sacrifice” is the key here. Both Max and Chloe make a sacrifice, regardless of the choice made. If Max saves Chloe, she is sacrificing her best friend and all the memories of their time spent together during the game (and by extension, the game itself). Chloe is, of course, sacrificing herself and her future. A sacrifice is not meant to be simple, easy, or without struggle, which is precisely what DontNod wants its fans to understand. Giving up Chloe is the harder of the two choices because we players and Max have become so attached to her and their shared reality that we cannot even imagine surrendering her to fate.
But throughout the game, Chloe has several near-death experiences. In Episode Two, during the bottle-shooting scene in the junkyard, if Max instructs Chloe to shoot the wrong piece of junk, the bullet ricochets and kills her. Of course, Max can and is supposed to rewind this, thus saving Chloe’s life. Just shortly after that, Chloe is nearly ran over by a train. Again, Max manipulates time to save her. At the end of Episode Four: Dark Room, Jefferson kills Chloe before abducting Max. Max spends all of Episode Five: Polarized attempting to save Chloe, which ultimately leads to Chloe telling her that she is not meant to live, and that Max must save Arcadia Bay.
The important thing to note here is that fate does not want Chloe to live. The game has been rebelling against her survival since the beginning, which drives home the point that the player should choose to sacrifice Chloe in the end. It certainly feels like a cheap shot, and on the surface, this is how one might see it, but upon closer examination, sacrificing Chloe is what the game has been gearing toward all along. As in Bioshock: Infinite, the conclusion of both these games shows that everything must be reversed, and that the source of the protagonist’s and the game’s distress must be smothered at the cradle of its life. Here, the cradle of life is the point in which Max saves Chloe from Nathan in Episode One.
On the other hand, if Max chooses to sacrifice Arcadia Bay, the results come across as a form of punishment exacted on the player by DontNod for saving Chloe. The tornado destroys the town and presumably everyone in it. Max and Chloe return after the storm has passed to find everything in shambles. Both Chloe and her shared reality with Max exist, and Jefferson has been arrested, but even in the wake of this outcome, what matters most has not been saved: Arcadia Bay. It is also important to note Max’s final words and actions if she chooses to sacrifice the town. She rips up the photo that would have taken her all the way back to the beginning and declares, “Not anymore.” Max has made a very conscious decision to put her powers to an end, presumably for good. Regardless of which option the player chooses, Max gives up her powers and allows the world to function according to its rightful destiny, either in the original or modified timeline.
It is a moral choice that Max and the player face together, and DontNod wants us to apply the ending to ourselves as well: if faced with the same circumstances, what would we do? Would we sacrifice our loved one for the world, or would we sacrifice the world for our loved one? Is Max to be selfish like Chloe, or is she to make the hardest choice she has yet to make?
The Future of Life Is Strange
Given how well the game was received (even in spite of its controversial ending), there have been talks about a sequel, possibly coming this year or in 2017. Rumor has it that the focus will be on new characters, but it is safe to assume that the “rewind power” will probably still feature in the new story. How, then, do the results of Episode Five affect any future games? Will season two load the results and choices from the original game (assuming the player has played the original game), or will the developers create something fresh, completely unrelated to Chloe, Max, and Arcadia Bay? Will a new game function outside of Max’s world as a standalone game, as many of the Final Fantasy games do?
There are different ways the developers can handle a sequel, but if they ultimately decide that season one and two are unrelated, it almost makes everything about the first game ineffectual. This, of course, is a matter of opinion, and it can be successfully done. But as many felt about the ending of Life Is Strange, I personally feel that ignoring the first season would be the same as ignoring all the choices made in-game prior to Episode Five.
Again, we have a game that has attempted to experiment with choice-based gaming, and despite my arguments, I still believe it is a darn good game that defies the traditional format of both linear and non-linear gaming. Games like Life Is Strange push the boundaries of what we are limited to in terms of mechanics in the gaming world. Though choice in video games still remains an illusion, we are continuously being exposed to new games that challenge that illusion, creating experiences for us that make us wonder just how far choice-based gaming truly can go.
Life Is Strange. DontNod Entertainment, 2015. Video game.
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