Note: spoilers within.
There is a certain challenge that stems from how you end a story, and if we’re being honest, most people will have an issue with how a narrative ends. A characters arc fails to end the way someone wants, something is left unfinished and unexplained, and, other times, things just don’t end in a way that satisfies the player.
This is particularly notorious in choose-your-own-adventure style games, because these games are developed in a way that brings everything back to a controlled state. For every choice the game offers, it must also rectify it to bring the game back to a similar conclusion regardless of the choice. This is why it can be stated that these games simply have illusions of freedom; they hint to the player that their choices matter, but will seek to rectify any story differences as soon as they can, with few exceptions.
Take for example Telltale’s The Walking Dead, more importantly the second season. [Spoilers follow. – ed.] In the second episode, you have a chance to save a fellow survivor, Nick, from a walker. If you make one set of choices he dies, but make others and he will be saved. However, what is most notable here is that, even if you save him, he’s still barely present in the third episode. You will find him lying on a bed, not actively involved with the rest of the group, like he isn’t even there.
Then he dies off-screen in episode four, and you will stumble across him while following the main plot. The game plays itself and places it back to a controlled state that is similar for all players. Your story may be somewhat different but the end result is the same: Nick still dies. You have no power over life and death, you just choose to delay the inevitable. The game is always controlling you.
With this in mind, I want to talk about Life is Strange, a game that I loved for the brilliance of its narrative more than its choices. The complexities of Life is Strange’s story is something that adds to the game’s charm. Some of the subject matter is tough to swallow, and the inevitable doomsday situation makes for an interesting game. How does one life affect everything? As we know, death always has a plan, if it’s your time to go you can’t run from it, but only greet it like an old friend.
Considering most of Life is Strange is about saving one girl from her inevitable death, you have to expect that death will happen. As the saying goes where there is death, there will always be death, someone always has to die and messing with the plan will further push towards catastrophe. The world was kind, it gave Max time to set things right, to let Chloe go and set life back on its natural course, but the balance was further pushed, causing others to die.
You might be wondering, why is this important? Well, this is an attempt to provide reason to the game’s ending. While many loved the story that followed Max and Chloe on their reconciliation, the mystery of The Dark Room, and the complex characters, people could not seem to stomach the ending. For a game about choice and using your rewind powers to make them, the game seemed to fall down to a generic save-the-girl or kill-the-girl situation. What is one life worth to you, do you love her, and is she worth more than an entire town?
Being logical for a second, I can see why this ending annoys so many people. One life is not worth an entire town, and Chloe was destined to die anyway. So you are being asked a pointless question; unless you really hold no care for life beyond a single person, you are obviously going to choose to save the town. In the end you can cherish those memories you made even if it hurts that you had to let her go.
On a much greater note, though, I want to say that this ending is not as bad as people think. Yes, it is bland and generic, akin to a Telltale game, where a series of choices falls down to one of two possible options: save the town, or save the girl, and yet this was the only way it could end. If you think about it, the game told you its end goal in the first ten minutes, and all you need to know is that, while making the obvious choice to erase all your actions, you return with knowledge that erases much of the worse elements.
When you think about it, one girl’s death has more meaning when put into context. In one timeline you lived five days together, you danced, you played, you laughed, you cried. You saw the world through different eyes, one that was forced to face hardships for the benefit of the town and its inhabitants, where you worked together for a better world where Chloe became an unsung hero, where her death had meaning even if it was only for Max and the player. I think it’s a great legacy that builds more meaning behind a death even if their story together never happened. Time travel is confusing, after all.
But, back to the point, I want to argue that Life is Strange actually has a truly wonderful ending. We often expect too much and know that writing an ending is not always the easiest; it is going to be subjective and not everyone will like it, and I find that it’s because people don’t always take the chance to think about it. People forget that a choice-driven game needs to find control by the end, and, as such, a generic choice that asks you to think about how much one person means to you is actually pretty good. Put yourself in the situation. If this happened to you, what would you do? Now this is a good ending.
Sometimes you need to feel for the character. Think about what they have been through and the significance of the characters that surround them. Life is Strange manages to conclude all its stories and leave that one lasting choice for the player and Max. After everything that has happened, who are you willing to let go; what is one life worth? With a little bit of thought, Life is Strange manages to create a wonderful ending that challenges the player with considering the question as themselves. If Chloe was your friend, would you let her make a noble sacrifice and redeem herself, or let a town die because you don’t want to lose someone so important? How about you consider that for an ending.