Note: This editorial assumes you have played through Square Enix’s episodic Life is Strange to conclusion. As such, this will very likely contain major spoilers. You have been fairly warned.
By now, dedicated fans of DONTNOD Entertainment’s Life is Strange have likely completed the story, and the complex whirlwind of episodes that befell Max Caulfield and Arcadia Bay have come to an end (at least, for now). Max’s drama with her best friend Chloe and the citizens of the Bay have come to a final head – the massive tornado foreshadowed at the beginning of the game, a result of the chaos that was created through Max’s time-traveling abilities as an attempt to change the fates of her loved ones. Players navigate Max through a dramatic murder mystery that aims to understand the nature and consequences of our actions and the effects of our decisions if given the opportunity to change them.
When all is said and done, the player is left with two options: take it all back and allow your closest friend to die in order avoid all of the pain that you have seen and keep the town from descending into disorder, or allow the destruction of Arcadia Bay in order to save Chloe and move forward to a new phase in life. For many fans, including myself, the former appears to be a more satisfying ending to the series, while the latter feels more rushed and hollow, given the events of the series. While the acceptance of Chloe’s death to save Arcadia Bay is more consistent with how the story would end, as well as the more moralistic approach, there is significance in the lack of finality within the second ending – a significance that warrants discussion about choices and what truly makes a good ending.
In each episode of the game, Chloe is marked for death in various points of the storyline – death by Nathan Prescott’s gun, death by shooting herself with her stepfather’s stolen gun, death by train, death by Frank’s gun or dog, and death by Mark Jefferson with yet another gun. Notwithstanding the high rate of gun ownership among Arcadia Bay’s citizens, Chloe is not long for this world. She seeks out her best friend, Rachel Amber, while finding time to blackmail Nathan Prescott for his habit of drugging people.
When Chloe pushes him for a payout, Nathan threatens her with a pistol. In the ensuing struggle, Nathan pulls the trigger, putting a single bullet in Chloe’s gut and, in a bit of parallelism, “triggers” Max’s ability to rewind time. The game arguably becomes a balancing act between uncovering the truth about Rachel Amber’s disappearance, keeping Chloe alive, and maintaining Max’s sanity.
In the end, Max must make a choice – go back in time to the moment in which Chloe was killed by Nathan, effectively exposing Mark Jefferson for the psychopath that he is and gaining justice for Rachel Amber, or accept the decisions that have been made and allow Arcadia Bay to be destroyed by the chaos she created.
What appears to be the “good” ending is the return to the beginning of the game and the acceptance of Chloe’s death in the Blackwell Academy women’s bathroom. She embraces Chloe one last time with a backdrop of the impending tornado before focusing on the butterfly picture. She returns to the moment of her awakening, rips the picture of the butterfly (Chloe’s spirit animal), and sits in the bathroom as she hears Nathan murder Chloe, refusing to react in order to ensure that her powers are never activated. She quietly sobs, letting the events play out – Nathan is arrested and confesses to the murder (and presumably the entire conspiracy with Mark Jefferson), Rachel’s body is discovered, Jefferson is taken away by the authorities, and a final scene of many members of the Arcadia Bay community come to bury Chloe. The same bright butterfly from the beginning of the game lands on Chloe’s casket, giving Max a hope that Chloe’s spirit is still around.
This ending is not intended to make the player feel any better about the story; however, this ending appears to be the closest thing to justice. Sacrificing Chloe to prevent the complete destruction of the town seems like a no-brainer. No potential of Kate Marsh’s suicide or Frank’s murder, no chance of Mark Jefferson killing or abusing any other students, no snow or beached whales, no double moons, no introduction of chaos theory tearing apart the fabric of spacetime. Knowing that so much destruction could occur by denying the death of one person can be daunting, and college-level philosophy classes have been dedicated to the degree that this could be considered a moral decision. The ending that follows this trajectory feels complete, and aligns to a very objective decision, given all of the knowledge that Max and the player know about the future.
Well, what about the other ending?
In the other ending, Max refuses to accept Chloe’s death. She tears up the original picture and stands with Chloe as they watch the destruction of Arcadia Bay. The tornado touches onto the coast, sending wooden planks and debris hurling through the air, leaving the remnants of a once-quaint town in its wake. The final scene shows the sunrise with a family of deer prancing in the streets and Max staring out of Chloe’s pickup truck with a look of sadness and exhaustion. Chloe rubs her arm gently, assuring her of their life together, and they drive away from “another great day in Arcadia Bay”. No information is given about how any of the characters fared, and we are left to speculate on if the surviving cast members of our individual stories remained alive.
At first glance, this doesn’t appear to be a desirable ending. There is no sense of resolution in a traditional fashion. We can assume a high probability of death, especially since these weather patterns were not predicted, but we’re not really sure. More than anything, the uncertainty of it all creates a lack of finality. Where are Max and Chloe going to go? What has the rest of the country thought of snowfall in this localized part of Oregon in autumn? And if these events are localized to Max’s location, can we assume that a similar pattern of destruction will follow Max around regardless of where they go? And given everything that Max has discovered up to this point, why would Max allow so many bad things to stand in history?
The real question may be, why should Max care?
With the acceptance of Chloe’s death, Max understands that she can never see her friend again. Despite having reconnected for only a few days after Max’s initial exit, they found a connection in each other that had been missing, and to let that go for the sake of the town, while noble, may not be of any concern to Max. Consider the potential events that take place.
- Kate Marsh either commits suicide or becomes committed to a hospital for treatment.
- Nathan Prescott and Victoria Chase are presumed to be killed by Mark Jefferson, who is at an undetermined location at the time of Max’s decision.
- Joyce Price and Warren are held down at the Two Whales Diner, left to fend for themselves and for those caught in the storm.
- David Madsen may be looking for Mark Jefferson at the dark room, and the survivor of that encounter. Given how it went down when Max was captured, Mark Jefferson probably got the drop on him.
- The rest of the characters… meh.
Max has not shown the love and care for these characters the same way that she feels for Chloe. The main cast of characters are typically hostile towards her, are completely emotionally unstable, are emotionally unstable for a variety of reasons, are not in a position to support Max with the craziness with which she is dealing, or have displayed some combination of these. Chloe spent the entire time affirming Max, telling her how super she is, how important she is, and how much she loves her and wants her there. No one else provided her with that sense of self, that sense of importance. And while the property damage from her time travelling escapades should not be ignored, there is not a single character in Arcadia Bay that will make a positive impact on Max’s life more than Chloe.
In a sense, once Max activates her power, the decision to save Chloe was the also the most logical ending. Max’s use of time travel is what began the series of quantum events that altered the fabric of her local space, escalating from the snowfall to the tornado. Only when Chloe produced the picture of the butterfly (and thus, intervene in the timeline) was Max given a chance to change the timeline yet again. Thus, our selection to save Arcadia Bay and sacrifice Chloe is the final intervention that sets things “right”.
The “right” ending is also the sadder choice. If we were a fly on the wall of that bathroom, we would have seen Max walk in, wash her face, take a picture of the butterfly, begin to break down crying once the Polaroid had developed, rip up the picture, and watch her quietly sob as Chloe is shot by Nathan. Chloe, the person she grew to love only in her mind, was unaware of the sacrifice that she made to keep Arcadia Bay from collapsing. Chloe dies unaware of Rachel’s fate, unaware of the evil that exists just down the hall at Blackwell, and unaware that the greatest love she was going to feel was just around the other side of the bathroom stalls. In the “wrong” ending, both Max and Chloe were able to understand the sacrifices they were willing to make, and they didn’t need anyone else. We didn’t need to see resolution of the remaining characters, because they only characters that mattered to each other escaped in a pickup truck.
Looking back on playing through Life is Strange, we realize that there are some things that just can’t be changed, and that real strength comes from knowing what will happen and having the courage to face it, regardless of which path you choose to follow. Fortunately, the game doesn’t allow players to sit on the sidelines when the major choices come to you, instead forcing them to live through each decision, big or small, and explore the feelings that exist in each episode of this strange life.
So what do you choose?