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Life is Strange: Morally Didactic Games and the "Right" Choice

Every six months or so my dental hygienist (hey, Camille) and I get to chat fandom stuff, which would be even more enjoyable if I wasn’t trying to rave about anime with someone else’s fingers in my mouth. When she mentioned an adventure game called Life is Strange I agreed to play it on faith, knowing that Camille had yet to lead me astray. However, what she failed to mention was that this game would absolutely ruin me.

Taking a step back.

For those not in the know, Life is Strange is a multi-console game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix throughout 2015, resulting in five chronological episodes. You play Maxine "Max" Caulfield, recently returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay to attend the prestigious Blackwell Academy. As an aspiring photographer, Blackwell's art program provides Max with an exemplary education, she has quickly become the protégé of her idol Mark Jefferson, and her recent move gives Max the chance to become re-acquainted with her childhood BFF, Chloe. Everything is going great and the player could be forgiven for thinking (as I did) that a normal, slice of life story was underway...

That is, until a disturbed boy by the name of Nathan Prescott brings a gun to school, murders Chloe, and in that moment of trauma Max discovers she can rewind time.

The antagonist: a rich, abused white boy with access to guns but not mental health services

There's a lot to be said about LIS's narrative and I've even encouraged my non-gaming, social worker friend to play it. Because LIS tackles everything from teen suicide to PTSD, domestic abuse to white male privilege, school shootings to the destruction of an entire town. It pulls very few punches and the only thing that keeps it from going full Depression Quest on us is Max's endless optimism and the (unintended?) humor of wonderfully heavy-handed slang.


These tough issues are compounded by the actual gameplay. With this mysterious power at her disposal, Max suddenly needs to re-evaluate her every action. Should she let events take their course? Rewind time to change a conversation, a decision, even who lives and who dies? More than simply posing these questions, LIS forces the player to make them. Dialogue trees and "Choices Matter" games have been around a long time, though they've grown in sophistication over the years and seem to be becoming more sought-after by players-----just look at all the OTP possibilities in Mass Effect or the phenomenal popularity that is Undertale. Where LIS differs though is in the huge divide between the creators' expectations and the emotional satisfaction of making the "wrong" choice.

The exact moment you curse the writers

In the second to last scene, Max (and by extension you) choose whether to save Chloe or save the rest of the town. Due to your meddling you can't have both: time travel has resulted in a tornado of supernatural proportions, minutes away from destroying all of Arcadia Bay. Going back to a time before you first used your power means that Chloe will remain dead at Nathan's hands. So, save your friend or save everyone else?

Anyone willing to engage in even cursory analysis will realize what choice the creators want you to make. Chloe spends a good few minutes prior to this talking Max (and us) into letting her die, going so far as to remind us that her widowed, working-class mom does not deserve to go out by tornado. The cut scene involving Chloe's funeral is longer, more detailed, and ultimately a more fulfilling ending than the one where Max and Chloe just leave their destroyed town behind. During a gruesome, alternate timeline nightmare Max is confronted with an entire diner full of family and friends, begging her to save them and asking, "What did we do to deserve this [dying]?" The whole game is filled with talk of destiny, implying that Chloe is supposed to die, no matter what we or Max decide. Indeed, we only have Max's theory that her time travel is the cause of the tornado, but it just as easily might be the fact that Chloe remains alive past her time: a thorn in the side of the universe. The initial appearance of the blue butterfly suggests that a part of her soul was already, irrevocably detached from her body even before Nathan shot her. It seems oddly coincidental (from an in-world standpoint) that Chloe continually ends up in life or death situations: with Nathan, Frank, Jefferson, even something as innocent as lying on train tracks. And the final scene of the Save Chloe timeline provides an image of what might be pollen in the sunlight... or the start of another freak snowstorm. If it's the latter, Max should expect more disasters for as long as Chloe keeps kicking.

GIF by no-puppy-eyes

None of this even takes into account the fact that you become attached to all the other characters nearly as much as Chloe. Will you really let Kate die after talking her down from the roof? Or Alyssa, after you kept the bullies off her every day? What about Warren? Many have claimed that erasing this timeline makes all your work inconsequential---what was the point of playing the game at all? However, these arguments fail to take into account the fact that Max is still changed. Back at the beginning, she still has the memories of her experiences and the growth that came with them. Max has the knowledge now to re-build those friendships, keep students like Kate from making previous mistakes, and yes, arrest Jefferson.

Fans can agree on one thing: how much we hate this guy

If all of this weren't enough, most peoples' moral compass still takes the form of Spock in The Wrath of Kahn: "Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...Or the one." How can we justify killing hundreds to save one girl?

Yet so many players do.

A quick Google search reveals countless threads of fans proclaiming what the "obvious" choice is: Save Chloe. Reasons for this are primarily emotional, with fans explaining that these two women make up the heart of the game (and the player's involvement in it), that the "intimacy" of their relationship needs to live on, and asking, "What good is a world/town for Max if her BFF is gone?" Dontnod has succeeded in creating a game that pits the "correct" moral choice against a fan's involvement in not just a fictional character, but a relationship----and those morals are bound to lose. Metta Spencer has written a whole book on our devotion to fictional characters, demonstrating that these "relationships" not only produce the same physical reactions as real life interactions, but can often prove more beneficial to our health. In short, our brains often don't care about the difference between reality and a fleshed-out daydream, but fans already knew that. Pricefield is these fans' OTP. Fully, considering that you can romance Chloe (and one of the most compelling criticisms of the Save Arcadia Bay ending is that it makes LIS into just another Bury Your Gays story). We use exaggerations like "perfect cinnamon rolls" and "I'd walk into hell for them" to express our involvement, but Chloe and Max's story allow fans to literally let the rest of the world burn for their faves' happiness.

Art by ohnoafterlaughs

This raises a number of design and ethical concerns. In a genre that glorifies making hard decisions, is there any option that could ever truly compete with saving your OTP? (Another pairing perhaps? Any Grahamfield or Marshfield shippers out there?) Given so many fans' discontent with the ending, is it possible to satisfactorily mix player choice with themes of destiny/fate? And as the media continually grapples with the potential impact of video games---whether they encourage violence or can be crafted into superior teaching tools---these Choices Matter games fall right into the heart of the debate. Do these games have a moral responsibility to always offer, and even encourage, the "right" choice? Should they all be like Undertale? You can murder everyone you meet if you REALLY want to, but the game will make it damn hard, beg you not to, and keep you from ever taking those decisions back. It's freedom of choice with a healthy dose of shame.

I'll leave those questions for the philosophers. And I'll admit that I saved the town. As a empathetic human being I stand by that decision... as a fan I've been somewhat swayed by others' arguments.

Bae before Bay.

Image credits



Final choice:

Save Chloe ending:

Snow GIF:

Mr. Jefferson:

Pricefield art:

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