“As long as you’re my partner in time.”
So the Life Is Strange fan base saw a pretty big divide this week with the release of the final episode. If you take a quick look at the statistics for which endings players chose, you’d notice that fans were split right down the middle. I guess you could say that the endings were… polarizing? As for me, the minute the decision popped up at the end, I knew I was going to save Chloe.
Life Is Strange is a coming-of-age story that ultimately drives home the point that we can’t have complete control over our own lives, and that all of our actions have consequences. The two endings we get in Polarized convey this message, albeit in slightly different ways. With the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending, Max returns to the original timeline and allows Chloe to get shot. Nathan eventually breaks down and ends up spilling the beans about Jefferson. Max realizes that no matter how many times she rewinds time or how hard she tries to save Chloe, there’s just no way to save her and prevent the storm from hitting the town at the same time. In the end, it seems like the best choice is to just have Chloe take the bullet at the start of Episode 1, as she was supposed to.
On the other hand, the ‘Chloe’ ending views the tornado as inevitability, and the only thing left to do is to just wait it out and leave town when things finally settle down the next morning. With both endings, players are allowed to decide which event is inevitable: Chloe’s death, or the tornado destroying Arcadia Bay. Whatever you choose, the outcome is pretty damn depressing, and there’s just no way to get out unscathed. So the question becomes, how do you want Max to come out of the situation, and how do you want her to be affected by the in-game events?
When you think about it on a purely mathematical level, the choice seems obvious. The life of one person weighs significantly less than the lives of thousands of people who live in this small town. Why risk the destruction of an entire town when just the death of one person would make things significantly better for everyone else?
And therein lies the problem. On a story and gameplay level, the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending basically means that every decision you made throughout the past four episodes never mattered at all. Even without all the investigation Max and Chloe did, Jefferson would still have gotten busted in the original timeline. You never would’ve built up relationships with Victoria, Dana, Kate, and the other Blackwell students that you established in the alternate timeline where Chloe survived.
But most importantly, Chloe would have died while she was at the lowest point in her life. She would never have come to terms with William’s death, never figured out the truth behind Rachel’s disappearance, never accepted David into her family, and never even met up with Max at all. I didn’t want Chloe to die thinking that no one cared about her, least of all Max, whom she thought abandoned her when she moved out. In fact, I replayed that final chapter just to see what the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending was like, and the moment I saw the shot of Chloe just lying dead on the bathroom floor, I knew this ending wasn’t going to sit well with me at all.
The only positive thing that came out of this ending was that Max did the morally right thing by letting Chloe die and preventing the storm from hitting Arcadia Bay. But ultimately, she would’ve been left alone in this timeline, having to deal with all of her experiences from the past four episodes with no one around to hear her out.
Now, I’m not saying the ‘Chloe’ ending is much better than this one. On the contrary, I like to think of the ‘Chloe’ ending as a result of Max choosing the darkest timeline. Max has rewound time over and over again, and we’ve seen that you can’t fix everything, that something will always have to give. Personally, I thought it was rather poetic that Max tore the photo without even giving it a second thought, rather than abusing her power one more time and going back to the start to change things once again. I saw it as a sign of her being done with this power that she never asked for, and that she was done with messing around with timelines and people’s destinies.
And perhaps the biggest appeal of the ‘Chloe’ ending was that this meant Max was living with the consequences of all the decisions we’d helped her make in the last four episodes. In a way, you could also see the ‘Chloe’ ending as an act of defiance on Max’s part. If going back to the original timeline and doing nothing is the only way to save Arcadia Bay, then perhaps you could see the ‘Chloe’ ending as Max refusing to surrender to fate, and also an act of her choosing the future that she wants, that is, keeping her best friend (or potential girlfriend, depending on your choices) alive and by her side.
As a coming-of-age story that wants to drive home the message that all actions have consequences, I find it rather fitting that Max would have to deal with the aftermath in this ending, instead of rewinding for a second chance.
I suspect the reason why fans seem to regard the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending as canon is because it feels like we sacrificed Chloe for the greater good. But the fact of the matter is, Life Is Strange did too good a job of getting me to care about Chloe and her wellbeing. I’d already killed Chloe once in the alternate universe and that decision completely wrecked Max on an emotional level, and there was just no way I was letting that happen again in my game.
We all like to think of ourselves as heroes and noble figures like Commander Shepard, Sora, or every protagonist from every Final Fantasy game ever. But while I do enjoy playing the hero in these titles, I’ve always found myself more attached to morally ambivalent characters like Joel from The Last of Us, and even Geralt from The Witcher 3 this year. When the chips are down, how easy is it really for any of us to make the decision of sacrificing what matters on a personal and emotional level for the greater good?
When you think about it this way, the final decision in Life Is Strange was really about choosing between Max’s savior complex and the person who mattered most to her.
Sloppy ending cinematic scenes aside, I found the ‘Chloe’ ending in Life Is Strange to be a whole lot more satisfying, not to mention humanizing, than the ‘Arcadia Bay’ ending. My version of Max had decided that Chloe would be her top priority and that she’d never let any harm come to her. The game ends with Syd Matters’ ‘Obstacles’ playing in the background as Chloe and Max drive out of town, soaking in the consequences of their decision to leave Arcadia Bay in ruins, along with all the choices they’d made up to that point.
They drive off together, presumably to California, as they continue to live on in this timeline, ready to deal with whatever the future throws at them next. To be quite honest, Life Is Strange’s final decision was the easiest one I had to make in the entire game. I always knew I’d save Chloe, and that wasn’t up for debate. Am I a terrible human being for giving up thousands of lives just so I can be with my best friend? Perhaps. But, frankly, I’m hella fine with my decision.