Life is Strange is an excellent game and deserves a long, in-depth write-up on its many positive qualities. But with the recent release of the 5th Chapter and having just finished the game, I can’t help but start with writing about the game’s ending. Basically, the ending is really bad. It’s not the worst video game ending in the world, but given how tightly scripted and logical the rest of LIS is, its ending is a huge let down. It’s a failure of theming, logic, gameplay choice, and basic storytelling. So here is everything wrong with the ending of Life is Strange:
The Ending is a Thematic Reversal of the Whole Game
At the center of Life is Strange is Max Caulfield, a shy 18-year-old girl with a talent for photography and an intellectual disposition, but who is unsure of her identity, especially as she transplants from her home in Seattle to a new school in her old home town, Arcadia Bay. As Max discovers her time travel abilities, she realizes not only the enormous power at her disposal, but also that such power impels her to be more assertive. Max can no longer sit quietly in the back of the classroom or hole up in her dorm room, instead she chooses to go out into the world and use her powers for good.
Throughout LiS, Max is remarkably successful in her endeavors. It would be exhausting to list all of her accomplishments, but using her powers, Max saves Chloe’s life repeatedly, she (can) save(s) Kate, she exposes two murderous psychopaths in the town, and she helps dozens of townspeople in other small and large ways, from comforting Taylor after her mother’s hospitalization, to protecting Alyssa from numerous injuries. As a result, Max’s demeanor visibly shifts as the game goes on, and her ambitions become bolder in turn; in the last two chapters, numerous characters even comment that Max seems remarkably capable and confident compared to her usual self. Max realizes that she has the inner strength to be a force for good in her life and those around her.
Thus one of Max’s defining arcs throughout the story is her transition from a shy girl who is unsure of her place in the world, to a bad-ass confident individual who knows who she is and what she stands for. By extension, this arc creates a narrative theme of efficacy and benevolence. Max’s attempt at helping people and improving the world are successful and pay dividends by strengthening her self-esteem and will. This theme is negatively reflected in Chloe and David Madsen, who have both gone through traumas, but refuse to attempt to better themselves and instead wallow in their misery. In this sense, LiS is an extremely uplifting game about the efficacy of individual will, even in the face of enormous odds… until the very end of Chapter 5
It turns out that all of the great things Max did for herself and the people of Arcadia Bay was completely pointless, since the very first thing she did inadvertently caused vastly more damage than all of her good deeds combined.
Somehow rescuing Chloe at the very beginning of the game tore a hole in the universe (or something, I’ll elaborate on how stupid this is later) and caused a series of environmental anomalies which concludes with a massive tornado completely annihilating Arcadia Bay and every single person in it, except for Max and Chloe. So not only did Max screw everything up by taking initiative and being a good person, but she didn’t even screw it up in some sort of logical way, instead the disaster she causes was the result of unseen, unexplained, unknown, omnipotent, and presumably magical forces.
Rather than continue LiS’s themes of efficacy and self-improvement, the ending completely reverses course and casts Max’s behavior as a series of errors beginning with one massive mistake. In the “Sacrifice Chloe” ending, Max’s attempt to save her friend were pointless and all of her good deeds throughout the entire game are undone. In the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending, Max’s attempts to help a friend succeed at the cost of killing thousands of people, including multiple friends, a quasi-boyfriend, and a mother figure. The ending is dark, grim, and depressing, but not because it forces the player to choose between saving a great character who Max loves or an entire town full of great characters, but because it completely strips the game of its uplifting core, and leaves nothing behind but malevolence and empty determinism.
Max Causing the Storm is Complete Nonsense
Yes, according to the game’s official canon as revealed by the “Sacrifice Chloe” ending, Max caused the storm by saving Chloe’s life in the women’s bathroom. Great. Except the causal connection between the storm and Chloe is completely nonsensical, as is any reason for Max, Chloe and Warren to suddenly come up with that hypothesis and then wholeheartedly believe it at the very end of the game. It’s simultaneously a testament to the game’s quality and the failure of the ending that at no point in LiS’s entire convoluted time-travel storyline did I doubt the logic of its events, until this damn idea of Max causing the storm came into play.
It’s not only permissible that LiS never explains how Max’s powers work or why she got them, it’s actually preferable. Diving into that quagmire would be an unnecessary distraction from the already considerably sized plots concerning the impending storm and Rachel’s murder. Given that Max knows just as little about her powers as the player does, it’s baffling that she thinks she can deduce such opaque causal chains as the connections between Chloe and the giant storm. At other points in the game, Max’s time travelling occasionally causes negative outcomes, the most notable instance being her attempt to save Chloe’s father, but those failures had at least somewhat logical connections between Max’s changes and the effects. For instance, when Max saves Chloe’s father from a car accident, Chloe gets in a different car accident instead.
So how on earth could stopping Chloe from getting shot in the bathroom cause snowfall, a lunar eclipse, thousands of animal deaths, and the formation of an enormous tornado? And why did only Max’s first time travel-induced change to reality cause a catastrophic storm while her dozens (or hundreds) of other time travel-induced changes to reality had no visible effect on the weather? How is there any connection between those two events at all besides the writers wanting to introduce an incredibly arbitrary twist at the end of the game?
Max, Chloe, and Warren offer some arguments, but they are all nonsense. The first time the connection is mentioned is during Max’s final conversation with Warren in the diner. Max tells Warren that she had a vision of the tornado, saw Chloe get shot, and that she can rewind time. Then the player has a choice between saying “I started the storm” and “He (Mr. Jefferson) killed Chloe.” If the player chooses the first option, then out of nowhere, for the first time in the game, Max comes up with this insane idea that one of her hundreds of alterations to the timeline somehow caused a tornado to form. If the player chooses the second option, Max explains that Mr. Jefferson killed Chloe and that she has to go back in time to stop him. At which point Warren says…
“Max, going back in time is what caused the storm!… I’m not a real scientist, even though I play one at school, but this seems like pure cause and effect, maybe Chaos Theory.”
…and then he changes the subject back to Mr. Jefferson.
What the hell was that? How could this gobblygook get into what is otherwise an extremely well-written game? None of what Warren said means anything. It clearly was not cause and effect. How does stopping Nathan from shooting Chloe cause out-of-season snow, a lunar eclipse, whales to beach themselves, and a tornado? Chaos Theory isn’t some mystical incantation which causes any random event on earth, it’s just a reference to long and opaque causal chains. And how or why did Warren come up with this nonsense immediately after Max told him about her powers? He knows next to nothing about the situation, yet thinks he can assert this grand hypothesis? It’s idiotic!
After Max uses her powers to save Chloe from Mr. Jefferson and then ends up with her near the lighthouse just as the tornado is about to destroy Arcadia Bay, suddenly Chloe arrives at the same hypothesis as Warren. Her big addition to his argument is that Max’s first use of her time travel powers was to save Chloe’s life, and that Max repeatedly had to continue saving her from dying throughout the last few days.
For some reason Max doesn’t bother to bring up that she received her first vision of the storm before saving Chloe, which, by the completely arbitrary use of logic at play here, would suggest that the very existence of Max’s powers caused the storm, and not anything Max herself did.
Then there is Chloe’s “Final Destination hypothesis” that the universe was upset or something by Max saving her life, so the universe keeps trying to kill her, but Max keeps saving her. Let’s recap all of the ways Chloe almost dies (I’ve only played through the game once, so it’s likely that I am missing instances):
- Chloe is killed by Nathan, a severely deranged individual who drugged numerous girls at his school, and killed one, so they can be photographed by his equally psychotic mentor, after Chloe tried to blackmail him.
- Chloe is hit by a train after her foot gets caught in the tracks.
- Chloe is shot by Mr. Jefferson, the psychopathic antagonist who drugs girls so he can take pictures of them in his studio, after investigating his activity for several days and digging up a murder victim connected to him.
Here are some other things Chloe does that don’t cause her to get murdered:
- Chloe steals a gun from an unstable military veteran suffering from PTSD.
- Without training or proper safety procedures, Chloe fires the gun in a junkyard and actually wounds herself numerous times before Max’s time rewinds.
- Chloe borrows money from a knife-wielding drug dealer and repeatedly refuses to repay him.
- Chloe attempts to distract a protective, former fight dog with a bone.
What’s the common denominator between nearly every point on both lists? Chloe constantly engages in extremely risky behavior! She is pissed off at the entire world, so she lashes out self-destructively. Max actually encourages this behavior implicitly by repeatedly bailing Chloe out with her powers whenever she screws up too much. Chloe even explicitly states numerous times throughout the game that she isn’t worried about the dangers they may face because of Max’s powers. And when she does die, her deaths aren’t caused by crazy Final Destination-style Rube-Goldberg Machines, but rather logically result from her risky actions.
Given all the shit Chloe does throughout the game and how she does it (it’s worth noting that Chloe is high on pot throughout most, if not all of the events listed above), it’s almost surprising that she didn’t die more often.
So the idea that saving Chloe caused the storm is nonsense. Yes, the cannon explicitly makes it true, but it makes no logical sense, there was no reason for any of the characters to believe it, and it completely took me out of the game at a crucial, emotional climax.
Everyone in Arcadia Bay Dying from the Storm is Really Stupid
Shortly before the final scene, Max and Chloe stand on the shore of Arcadia Bay, a mere few hundred yards from the tornado. I won’t claim to be a tornado expert, but if they can survive from that distance, there is no reason that literally everyone else in Arcadia Bay has to die from the storm, as implied by the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending.
The obvious question to ask is why the hell didn’t everyone just leave the town? Max drives to the center of town during the storm and has quite a bit of time to navigate through some rubble, talk to everyone in the dinner, meet Chloe by the shore, and walk up to the lighthouse before the tornado reached the town itself. Surely everyone could have, you know, gotten in their cars and drove inland during that time span. Or if not that, people could have gone into basements or something. At the very least, David Madsen and Mr. Jefferson probably survived since they were last seen in a legitimate bomb shelter.
This may seem like a petty complaint but it has a massive impact on the ending. The final choice would have been much more interesting if the damage caused by the storm was indeterminate. This would be much more believable and throw open the question of which of the many beloved residents of Arcadia Bay would pay the price for keeping Chloe alive, instead of having this ridiculous 100% casualty rate which makes the exchange of life seem much more straight-forward.
Ripping up the Butterfly Photo in the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” Ending is Moronic
As illogical as the build-up to the final choice was, the execution of one of the two choices was even dumber. If Max decides to allow the tornado to hit Arcadia Bay for the sake of Chloe, she rips up the butterfly photo which she could have used to alter the past, and throws it away.
Why on earth would she do that? Pretty much everything Max had done throughout the entire game was pretty damn smart. Even her mistakes were reasonable within the bounds of her intellect and the incomprehensibly weird situations she was facing. But ripping up the photo… is unbelievably stupid.
Max is a goddamn time traveler. The best thing about being a time traveler is that she has de facto infinite time to solve any problem. But only if she has photos to access the past. So why does Max destroy the only link to the past she has left?
Here’s an idea, maybe Max can go back to that moment in the bathroom and write herself a list of tasks for her past self to accomplish. Or maybe she can just tell her past self via a note to take a lot of pictures and then hide them somewhere very safe so Mr. Jefferson never has a chance to burn them. That way, present Max can find the photos and proceed to fine tune the past through dozens of portals spread out over the last few days. At the very least she could convince a few individuals she personally knows to get the hell out-of-town for a while.
I just came up with those ideas in ten seconds, and I don’t even have time travel powers. Imagine what Max could do if she really devised a plan and experimented? Maybe Max could figure out a way to save Chloe and then get the residents of Arcadia Bay to dodge the storm. How? I have no idea? But if I had infinite attempts I could probably figure out something eventually.
But no, instead Max destroys the photo and condemns the entire town to death so Chloe can live as an orphan, presumably with Max and her parents in Seattle. They will also probably become national celebrities for being the only two people in an entire town to survive a freak-tornado, but I digress.
The Ending is Derivative of Every Other Sci-Fi Time Travel Movie
The ending of LiS, or at least the “Sacrifice Chloe” ending, is basically a mishmash of major ideas from Donnie Darko, The Butterfly Effect, Looper, and Final Destination (ok, the last one isn’t a time travel movie).
As in Donnie Darko, LiS has a protagonist who attempts to collapse a split timeline into the regular timeline in order to prevent a cataclysmic event, and to do so the protagonist has to sacrifice a human life.
As in The Butterfly Effect, LiS has a protagonist who can alter the past by focusing on representations of certain past moments, and the protagonist uses her time travel abilities to sacrifice a major component of her happiness for the greater good.
As in Looper, in LiS a major character from the past is killed to prevent the negative effects of a long causal chain derived from the character being alive.
As in Final Destination, a major character in LiS avoids death via a supernatural occurrence, and subsequently has to avoid numerous incidents which could cause her death in the ensuing days.
Yet again, the discrepancy between the writing in most of LiS and at its end are staggering. Not every element of the game is unique, but it does a lot of new things with its material, especially in the realm of video games. The characters, their relationships, and how the protagonist uses her powers are all well-thought out deviations from the norm in sci-fi time travel stories. But then at the very end of the game, suddenly the writers can’t come up with any better ideas than to mash together pieces of every famous time travel movie of the last decade and a half. It’s just… disappointing.