In a very simplistic assessment, Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange has a similar set of design points to one of its most obvious (and indeed acknowledged) influences, the classic 90s TV show Twin Peaks. With Life is Strange, it starts with a disappearance rather than a murder, but it is the investigation into the missing Racher Amber that leads protagonists Max and Chloe into the dark underbelly hidden away from small town America, and how that world would like to see itself, culminating in a finale detached from conventional reality.
That’s not to say I could see what was coming. Very far from it, Dontnod had its own story to tell, with its own mechanics, most notably Max’s time rewind ability. It’s a pure retrospective comment. At the time, I was pleased with how each of the five episodes kept my interest, with a well-paced and layered story. I can honestly say I was quite eagerly anticipating the finale and did not know how this was going to turn out. I also did not anticipate the horrible decision at the climax, though again in retrospect I can see the path that led to it. Do you sacrifice Chloe or do you sacrifice the whole town? It was one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen on a game, not least because I was so engaged with the characters.
Reaction on the internet is clearly very divided. Some people are upset about the ending. Really upset. The reactions seem to vary from “how could you do this to me?” to picking apart why the plot doesn’t make sense and it must, simply must be possible to save Chloe and the town. I too would have liked to have saved Chloe and the town. But you can’t. So what’s the point? The point is that Rachel Amber’s killers have been brought to justice and a psychopath stopped from hurting anyone else. There’s a number of hints that Max got her power because of what happened to Rachel, not what is about to happen to Chloe.
Of course, any plot involving multiple timelines can cause a bit of a headache if you try to map out all causes and effects and figure out rules and consistency. If time can be altered so Rachel’s killers can be apprehended, why can’t it be changed to save Chloe? Why not save Rachel as well? Initially the game world indicates Max can only rewind so far, and she even comments if she could rewind far enough to save Rachel, she would. But then she is given the chance through her ability to pass through photographs as “moments in time.” But as we learned, this just twists things up even worse. Again, time travel/change is always a complex proposition from a storytelling perspective, but how I understand it is that the point Max first activates her ability is an anchor in time. She cannot stop or change anyone’s death (neither that of Rachel nor Chloe). But she does ensure justice for them both, and along the way, we experience an unusually human narrative with equally unusually compelling characters which makes the conclusion powerfully bittersweet.
Perhaps the online backlash is actually indicative of what a fantastic job Dontnod has done. I remember being upset at the conclusion of Phantasy Star II. I’d worked so hard through tens of hours of game and was invested in the world and its characters. I wanted them to win. I wanted the happy ending. I remember discussing this with my RPG-playing friends at school and trying to convince ourselves it had turned out all right in the end. And of course I hated the end of Twin Peaks. My phone rang not 30 seconds after the titles began to roll with the first of many friends incensed at what had happened, revisiting clues and lore to convince ourselves we’d already been told Cooper would escape, we just wouldn’t see it on TV.
I think this is the point Dontnod wanted to make, and structured the entire series around this. Life is strange, but also doesn’t always turn out the way we want. So the best thing to do is invest in the relationships that matter to us most. Dontnod also did not leave any ambiguity to allow for any false hope that Chloe is alive in this world. But they did leave us hope for the next. An amazing game, even though it broke my heart.