Warning: this is a detailed and spoilerrific review of the finale of Life is Strange, so if you haven’t played the game yet, get outta here!
With Episode 5: Polarized, Dontnod has brought Max Caulfield’s time-traveling adventures to a close. Polarized runs a bit shorter than the other episodes, at only about two and a half hours of gameplay, which lines up with the fewer opportunities for exploration and branching dialogue it offers.
The episode opens with Max trapped in a storm bunker turned photo studio with her teacher Mr. Jefferson, a much darker beginning than in any other installment. As she regains consciousness, the player can look around and examine nearby items, eventually realizing that Max’s classmate Victoria is also tied up nearby.
But this is where gameplay diverges from previous episodes. Where, in previous episodes Max can explore the environment before moving on, Polarized gives you a single option: photo-travel out of here and leave Victoria in the horrific dark room/torture chamber. This narrative device is frustrating as it conflicts with opportunities Max has in this episode and others to aid other characters in danger.
Instead of grabbing Victoria and getting the hell out of that bunker, the developers give Max one choice: travel back a few hours to a drug-induced photo shoot. While a convenient progression for exposition’s sake, her jumping back and forth through photos of herself doesn’t allow for any exploration or organic discovery by the player.
In fact, it leads primarily to lots of talking, and unfortunately Jefferson’s initial expository monologue comes off as cheesy and out-of-character, playing off of stereotypes of mentally ill villains even though Jefferson claims later that he is totally sane and his clear-headed planning seems to reflect that. His speeches also play into the trope where the villain explains his reasoning to his victim in great detail.
Rather than showing us, the game wants to tell us what’s going on. These issues in the first minutes of gameplay reflect concerns many fans and critics alike have raised about the episode as a whole: that the cliche story elements and changes in play mechanics in the last episode do not do justice to the unique, ground-breaking game.
In many scenes the player must move Max through motions that feel pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. Walking through a San Francisco gallery talking with artists has no urgency when all the characters and locations the player cares about are back in Arcadia Bay, yet shmooze we must if we want to progress in the story. Saving characters from harm on the way to Two Whales lacks meaning when Max plans to time travel away from that moment immediately after, yet the choices are reflected in the post-credits statistics.
The episode also spends a significant amount of its running time reminding the player of conversations and interactions Max has had in previous episodes. Audio is frequently re-used, but entire scenes from the game reappear as well, as in the maze sequence when Max relives every major moment she shared with Chloe.
That particular nostalgic slideshow provides much-needed relief from the trippy and disturbing mental odyssey Max has just been on, during which we see some of the most creative material of the last episode. The creepy classroom, entirely backwards scene, and endless hallway are all surprising and delightfully innovative yet emotionally difficult moments leading up to the climax of the game.
During that climax, Max finds herself at the lighthouse with Chloe once again and is confronted with her final choice. Max herself becomes convinced that the tornado is her fault and Chloe seems to agree, giving her an ultimatum of sorts: travel back to the start of it all to let Chloe die, or save Chloe and let the tornado ravage Arcadia Bay.
Understandably, this has not been a popular ending choice with everyone. In each episode, one of the game’s objectives (if not the central objective) has been saving Chloe. She’s the character players know the best besides Max, and even moments before this conversation, Max tells Chloe she is ‘all that matters.’ Letting her die just feels a little off, even if it is for a theoretical greater good.
For players who chose to pursue the romance between Chloe and Max, this conclusion also reinforces tropes around queer relationships in media like the Bury Your Gays trope, where the relationship ends in death for one or both people involved. Life is Strange has consistently received mixed reactions regarding its representation (or lack thereof) of queerness. While the end scene does confirm their relationship, it also leads to death regardless of Max’s choice.
Beyond that, when an ending choice is presented in a choice-based game, especially when it fundamentally changes the universe of the game or kills a majority of the game characters, many feel that it takes meaning away from previous player decisions. This is a challenge faced not just by Dontnod, but by the entire genre. Mass Effect 3 is infamous for its end choices, and Telltale is often taken to task for not integrating player’s choices into the closings of their games.
Dontnod undoubtedly faced obstacles wrapping up their story: they’re a small studio with a limited budget and a 6 – 8 week episode release timeline. Even though they took about twice that long on Polarized, Life is Strange’s gorgeous art style, intricate world-building, and unique characters deserved more time, space, and nuance than the episodic format afforded them.
This isn’t the first time I’ve wanted Dontnod to give a project more room to blossom–Remember Me’s beautifully designed world and intriguing story were held back by frustrating game mechanics and similar budget constraints. It feels safe to say that small studios like Dontnod deserve more freedom and financial support, that nuanced subject matter like that of Life is Strange should be treated with the utmost respect, and that choice-based games should not be shackled to the five episode arc if they have a greater story to tell.
It’s also probably safe to say that trusting our French friends to give us a happy ending is usually a mistake.
Thanks for reading! As always, your input is welcome in the comments.