While Life is Strange has a few fetch quests and some collectibles, the game isn’t obsessed with giving you stuff to do. In fact, the game encourages you to stop doing things and reflect on Max Caulfield, her fellow students at Blackwell Academy, and life in Arcadia Bay. Developer Don’t Nod Entertainment does this by offering spots in the game’s string of events to pause and rest. They do so responsibly — that is, they respect the urgency of the game’s drama and don’t, for example, give you an opportunity to read a book when you should be running for your life.
Life is Strange spoilers follow.
Instead, Max can take a break from collecting bottles in a junkyard to sit against an old tree stump; reminisce as she sways on the seat of an old swing set while visiting a house from her youth; leisurely lie in bed next to her best friend Chloe after the alarm goes off in the morning, living as if the two of them have all the time in the world.
In doing so, we are treated to some of Max’s thoughts, thoughts that we wouldn’t hear otherwise, thoughts she presumably would never have if you don’t let her take a moment for herself. In video games as in life, we can become so busy with doing things that we lose focus on ourselves and on others. But Don’t Nod recognizes how important it is for a player to empathize with characters in a game like this. And so they stay patient, giving us opportunities to connect with the students at Blackwell and the people of Arcadia Bay. They don’t rush through the narrative at the expense of its characters.
That patience is a virtue in a game where you can rewind time is probably not a coincidence. And while time manipulation in video games is nothing new (even a Madden game had a rewind ability), its purpose is unique in Life is Strange. You’re not rewinding time to fix a mistake: you’re rewinding time to fabricate the most desired possible outcome, and/or an outcome that most closely aligns with your views and beliefs. You get into the habit of choosing something and then rewinding time again and again, making a different choice each time to gather information before settling on a decision. Thus, the purpose of your ability isn’t to change a decision but to help you make one.
You get used to this power and despite Max’s own hesitations, it’s easy to abuse it. So when Max finds she can’t rewind time while trying to talk a suicidal friend off a rooftop ledge, you realize just how dependent on this ability both you and Max have become. In this scene, you make your decisions more slowly. You think harder about what you say and do. You either save your friend or you don’t but either way, you realize that the power doesn’t lie in Max’s ability to rewind time but in the choices she makes.
A common complaint about Life is Strange is the lack of effect the player’s choices have on the story’s conclusion. It is a fair assessment: as I understand it, only your final choice affects how the game ends. But despite the numerous references to chaos theory and allusions to the butterfly effect, Life is Strange emphasizes choices not consequences. To be more specific: it’s about making choices. It’s about having nothing but crappy options but making a decision anyway, even if the consequence scares you; even if your decision doesn’t affect the consequence at all. The payoff isn’t in what happens as a result of your choices but in the struggle that precedes the decision-making.
This is driven home by Max’s vision. She is caught in a storm up on a cliff, a nearby lighthouse peering over the edge and looking down into the violent waters below, a foreboding tornado not too far off in the distance. Max has this vision several times throughout the game and the recurrence hints at the tornado’s inevitability.
That sense of inevitability hangs over your head with every choice you make; it’s clear that no matter what you choose throughout the game, in the end, Max will find herself up on that cliff in the middle of that storm. And yet, you make choices. You have to in order to get anywhere, to make progress, to move towards the narrative’s inevitable conclusion.
As I mentioned, that conclusion is determined by your final choice. Your options are about as predictable as the tornado is unavoidable: you must either sacrifice Chloe to save Arcadia Bay from the tornado or sacrifice Arcadia Bay to save Chloe.
Not too far into the game, I found myself becoming disenchanted with Arcadia Bay. At first, it seemed like a simple small town but it eventually revealed itself to be corrupted by power, money, and drugs. When Chloe finds the dead body of Rachel, a long-missing friend, she cries: “what kind of world does this?” It is a good question and I couldn’t help but feel like the people of Arcadia Bay let her down.
Don’t Nod also makes it difficult not to sympathize with Chloe. Though she and Max are old friends, they have not seen each other in years. The developers wisely creates conflict here; the girls do not pick up from where they left off. Instead, they must rebuild their relationship. They must get to know each other again and learn to trust one another. Don’t Nod is patient with this too. They don’t rush this. They let Max and Chloe hang out. They let them dance and have a sleepover. They let them eat breakfast together. They let them go for a walk and take a breather on train tracks. By forcing Max to rebuild her relationship with Chloe, you are able to build a relationship with Chloe yourself. The two girls reconnect and you understand why they were such good friends. Eventually, Chloe becomes a good friend to you too and you learn to love her.
And so I let the tornado take out Arcadia Bay. Mostly, I wanted to save Chloe but I was also hoping that by destroying Arcadia Bay, the town would eventually rebuild itself into something better; the kind of town in which Rachel would still be alive.
In this ending, Chloe and Max drive off together the morning after the storm, shaking the dust off their feet as they leave Arcadia Bay behind. Just before they cross the town’s border, Chloe stops the car at an intersection, looks over to Max and lovingly rests a hand on her shoulder. Max acknowledges her with a smile and the two sit like this for a few seconds before driving away.
Even after all that the two have been through, they remember the importance of not rushing, of being patient. Of living as if the two of them have all the time in the world.