Photography: Voyeurism, Vandalism and Bearing Witness
If the soundtrack of Life Is Strange puts us inside Max’s headphones, it’s important to think about where the game puts its lens, and how a relatively neutral object such as a camera can be infused with startlingly emotional properties, both positive and negative.
Photography is at the heart of everything in Life Is Strange, for good or ill. As Max says in Episode 5, “I hope I still love photography when this is done.” Its central theme is the eternal struggle between observing and doing – the same conflict that engages both professional photographers, who may risk their lives to capture images from wars and refugee camps, but risk their editorial dispassion by getting involved – and amateurs, who must often choose between being fully in the moment, and capturing it on film to prove both the existence of the event, and the photographer, on social media.
Max describes herself – and is frequently described – as a camera, underscoring her self-awareness as someone who watches, rather than gets involved. “If I’m not looking through a viewfinder, I’m looking through a window. Always looking,” she notes, with a touch of sadness, later adding both, “I’m always taking pictures with my eyes,” and “I am always taking photos. I am a camera.”
David is keen to point out, “You’re like a walking surveillance system,” and Jefferson takes great pleasure in declaiming, “Your iris… that dilation like a shutter. The pictures you’re taking of me now. Too bad you pissed away your gift,” when he has Max at his mercy.
Our principal character is a photographer, taking a class in photography under the tutelage of a star photographer, who is on secondment from the ‘big city’ for just that purpose. Not to mention, there’s a photographic competition (on ‘Everyday Heroes’) whose entries are past due that offers the chance of an escape from Arcadia Bay and a bump up into the professional leagues. It’s clear from the second scene of the game that photography is a thematic and literal preoccupation.
When thinking about Victoria’s photographs (in particularly, her hidden stash of selfies), and whether her dislike of Victoria as a person should influence her perception of their quality, Max notes, “No, Jefferson said, don’t confuse art with the artist.” But it’s clear from the game’s assignation of styles to characters, and the deconstruction of those styles over the course of the game, that Life Is Strange endorses the opposite position. We can tell a lot about these photographers from the pictures they take, and, in the majority of cases, art and artist are synonymous and inextricable, even if the truth is read by the public at large as a constructed artistic identity.
Sometimes creepiness is worn for effect, sometimes it’s a side-effect of quasi-debilitating mental illness, and sometimes it’s an intellectual pose gone sour, run through a villain like a stick of rock.
The forms and photographic techniques used by each character in Max’s class allow for quick sketching-in of personality traits and artistic preferences – and Max’s own preference offers the game a chance to explore and critique the gendered and generational discourse around the ‘selfie’.
Max, with her selfies, is introduced at the bottom of the cultural totem pole. Her classmates – and American culture – have been conditioned to see her art as solipsistic ego-stroking, as witnessed recently with the needless pillorying of a group of young women taking selfies at a baseball game.
It’s a form attributed – however wrongheadedly – to women, with the feminine, and usually condemned with the usual ‘get of my lawn’ negativity that comes with an older generation judging the present by whatever technology was unavailable when they were young.
The selfie may suffer a surfeit of cultural negativity, but it also offers a chance for those same young women – bombarded by images that wrest their faces and bodies out of their control – to take back their method of self-presentation and mode of photographic expression.
That’s not to say that a life lived in selfies can’t have its own downsides (see the recent case of Instagram celebrity Essena O’Neill, and her very public rejection of the same) – which, of course, brought her to the attention of a far wider audience than she’d previously cultivated, just as she launched a new website) only that, like photography as a whole, the form is neutral in value: it is the subject that lends the selfie its power.
There’s a sense that much of the backlash about women taking selfies comes from those who are uneasy about the collective loss of (male) control over how women are presented to themselves.
Horribly, of course, the one figure in academic authority who is willing to see Max’s tradition for the artform it has the potential to be is Mr. Jefferson:
“Shh, I believe Max has taken what you kids call a “selfie”… A dumb word for a wonderful photographic tradition. And Max… has a gift.”
But it turns out he wasn’t really looking at the form at all – he was looking at the subject. Again, it turns out the ‘naivete’ of the selfie form allowed him to read ‘innocence’ into it:
“I knew you were special the second I saw your first selfie. Yes, I still hate that word. But I love the purity of your own image. Not like Rachel, who was always looking in the wrong places.” – JEFFERSON
Nathan’s photographs, meanwhile, are dark and disturbing – but Max can’t deny he has a talent: “I feel gross even looking at Nathan’s work… but he does have some style.” Though she does add, “And everybody thinks Samuel is a creeper.”
Nathan and Mr. Jefferson share a predilection for BDSM-tinged photography of women in various stages of distress and undress: “Nathan clearly has his fetish down. He likes his tortured subjects way too much.” – MAX
It’s important to flag here that the game, through Max, does not condemn BDSM itself as a lifestyle choice or a mode of photographic expression. Even after all she’s seen and been put through in the Dark Room, Max still says, “Jefferson had plenty of women who would have totally posed for him – but he didn’t want to give his subjects a choice.” The issue of choice, of consent, is key. Such photography may be dark or disturbing in its subject matter, depending on its context, but Max is not about censorship or reducing all art to the kind she produces. The key is that the participants remain subjects, not objects.
Most disturbing for Max – and us – in this scene, is when she finds the photo Nathan took of Chloe, shortly before she escaped. His brazenness in just keeping it around, despite the potential consequences, speaks again to the fact that Nathan believes himself untouchable.
Both Jefferson and Nathan hide their predilections in plain sight – Jefferson even gets giant billboards of his work set up on the main quad; the socially acceptable form of his literally-buried perversions.
As for Victoria’s photography, it’s just genuinely good, at least according to Max’s assessments. More concerned with artifice, certainly, and with a secret predilection for selfies that she buries in her locker, she is nonetheless a deserved winner of the ‘Everyday Heroes’ contest on skill and merit, if not on moral content. Like Victoria herself, her photos are symbols of aggressive front and constructed confidence overriding a more deep-seated insecurity: the secret buried in her photography is that she doesn’t need to be a Queen Bee Bitch or seduce her teacher in order to succeed; her work is strong enough to succeed on its own.
For David Madsen, photography gives him a weapon to deploy against unruly students and suspicious faculty, in the form of his surveillance cameras and stalker-ish snapshots. But his thoughts on – and experience of – photographers give his anger towards and additional distrust of Max and the other Blackwell students some context. It turns out that David didn’t like the way his image was (ab)used by pacifist photographers when he was in the military:
“These art-farts are all about themselves. When I was in the service, I hated the photographers who’d try to pose me in their anti-war bullshit.”
As Max notes, perhaps working for an art and photography-focused college isn’t the best place for him to be, though David’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t see himself as an artist:
“Excuse me, Max, I have to get back to my camera. See – I’m an artist, too.”
But that his eye is largely untrained. He takes photos in bulk and lacks the ability to successfully analyse the images he has taken.
It’s easy to see David Madsen as a one-man embodiment of the strengths and weaknesses and contradictions surrounding a country’s surveillance of its own people. It’s still awkward to acknowledge, for those who regard state surveillance as increasingly intrusive, that Max and Chloe’s successful discovery of the Dark Room relies, in part, on combing David’s raw piles of photos and tracking information in order to get to the truth: this ‘bulk collection’ of data is essential to putting Jefferson behind bars.
We – along with Max and Chloe – may be uncomfortable about David’s increasingly paranoid abnegations of privacy, but he was the one who had the relevant information when it counted. In this metaphor, perhaps David is the blunt instrument of the state, collating our browser histories from our ISPs and reading our encrypted communications, while Max and Chloe are the trained NSA agents trawling metatags for information that is more signal than noise.
David is still a cautionary tale for the countries currently lobbying for ever-more invasive methods of surveillance, primarily because of the ease with which David’s security system is evaded; either with Max’s skilled ‘hacking’ of the padlock to the cabinet where he keeps his most sensitive files, by boning up on David’s personal information earlier, or her ‘cracking’ of it, as she brute forces the padlock off. David is not a willing participant in the trawling of his data – his files have been WikiLeaked.
Max and Chloe strike a pose much more along the lines of Anonymous than they do employees of the state, and the key question here – how do we trust the state to keep our surveilled information safe from those hackers who would steal it and put it to nefarious use? – is answered with the only answer possible. You don’t. The information will be stolen, despite any and all safeguards – so ministers and senators need to ask themselves how much it is worth punishing their own people in order to keep them safe.
To return to the concept of the photograph as a central metaphor for the game – it runs beyond Jefferson’s stock-in-trade lecture material and into the visual aesthetics of the game itself, most notably when Max unlocks the ability to travel in time (or, as we’ll discuss shortly, to project her consciousness in time) via photographs.
It’s not just the photographs that Max uses as a focus through which to project her consciousness back in time, it’s also in the way those changing timelines are depicted. Yes, animating a still concept-art photograph burning and changing to show the new timeline is a lot cheaper in game development terms than building and staging a mini-cutscene, but it’s also an instantly-recognisable and thematically-effective way of showing the changes between one timeline and the next.
And that imagery, of developing or burning celluloid, permeates the entire game. The world streaks and blurs like a polaroid taking form when Max activates her short-term rewind power. But when she has used her power too much, as in Episode 5, we start seeing its ill effects on time manifest as either entirely white areas (the liminal zones in-between realities, as glimpsed on the plane to San Francisco), or as holes burned directly into the skein of the world, as we start seeing in the second and third trips back to the Dark Room, and which subsequently work their way into Max’s nightmare.
Like the quickly-raised and sooner forgotten environmental effects of Warp Speed on the fabric of the universe in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode ‘Force of Nature’, Max’s power, when used too much, starts to fray the universe itself. But as with many things in the run up to Max’s nightmare, it’s hard to say how much is actually, empirically happening, and how much is Max’s brain attempting to parse the impossible. Certainly Jefferson doesn’t notice the burns while psychologically torturing Max in the Dark Room – but perhaps perception of such things is a tertiary ability, connected to her powers.
It’s key to the narrative that Max and Jefferson, our central photographers, are pitted against one another, and it’s the battle between their twin styles, as well as their struggle for personal supremacy, that forms the backbone of the non-time travel narrative.
It’s notable, too, that Max’s maturity is largely measured in the amount by which she progresses towards Jefferson’s style. She begins as a strict documentarian – keeping her distance, even from herself, recording; not getting involved, while Jefferson is an interventionist of the worst kind – unable to draw his subjects from life, unable to deal with chaos, with naturalism. His every image is a forced, constructed effigy.
“STAY. STILL.” – JEFFERSON
His subjects are stripped of all agency – and, whatever twisted rationale Jefferson has constructed as motivation (“I’m obsessed with the idea of capturing that moment innocence evolves into corruption, that shift from black to white to grey. And beyond. Most models are cynical. They lose that naivete. However, some Blackwell students carry their hope and optimism with them, like an aura. And those lucky few become my models. My… subjects.”), it’s flimsy bullshit papering over his deep-seated misogyny.
The origins of his misogyny go largely unexplored – not that, as a figure of white male privilege, we need to look too far to find them – but there are interesting hints in a newspaper in the San Francisco gallery, where an archive photo shows a drippy, grunge-y Jefferson yet to grow into either his goatee or his prestige.
Coupled to his own snarling confession that he had ‘enough’ of women like Chloe back in the 90s, it’s clear Jefferson struck out often in the San Francisco scene as a young man. But what were the steps that took him from a grunge Warren to a bunker-owning psychopath?
Perhaps it’s worthwhile to quickly compare the ‘bunkers’ of Max and Jefferson here, as expressions of their innermost selves (“I can only be myselfie in the Dark Room, Max!” – NIGHTMARE JEFFERSON).
Max’s ‘bunker’, her dorm room, is wallpapered with photographic images of herself and her peers. She may have difficulty reaching out to them, but she wants to. She’s observing and drawing connections, and she’s – quite deliberately – ‘putting herself in the picture’ with her selfies.
Max’s progress through the game is in stepping outside of that sanctuary and putting herself in harm’s way for others, and gaining maturity from the experience. Jefferson’s bunker offers the complete opposite: a climate controlled retreat from the world, where others are drugged or lured, a place where everything – including his unwilling subjects – has their place, their pose, their position in his perverse base.
The pictures on his walls contain nothing of himself – except the socially-acceptable face of his dark desires – as, even more intriguingly, he keeps the photos he takes of his victims for himself. Despite the colossal photo printer that takes up much of one wall, Jefferson has not run out enormous prints of Kate, Rachel, and the rest. They’re kept in conservative, even boring, red binders in a metal file cupboard, or on his computer. Even in a place where Jefferson controls everything, these horrific photos are solely for his own personal consumption: literally for his eyes only.
Where Max’s journey is one out of herself, Jefferson’s is a constant retreat inwards, the audience for his self-satisfied lectures dwindling from an attentive class down to just one, as he systematically destroys allies and scapegoats alike. Perhaps not psychopath, then, but high-functioning sociopath. Jefferson’s bunker keeps us out, but Max’s bunker is designed to welcome somebody – anybody – in.
It’s intriguing, though going slightly off-piste, to note that the game’s central conflict between photographers also reflects, in part, the wrongheaded assertions of the NRA in relation to the plague of American school shootings. To paraphrase: that the only thing that can stop a sick person with a camera is a good person with a camera. The language of photography – of taking shots, reloading, scoping, and the like – plays heavily into this interpretation.
But the game has plenty of actual firearms and gunplay – and Life Is Strange leaves plenty of space to explore their dangers, and the benefits of stricter gun control laws. With multiple, choice-driven examples of what happens when a gun is introduced into highly-tense scenarios, it is able to showcase the repercussions of gun violence in ways more illustrative and resonant than most videogames – particularly those for whom shooting is the central mechanic for interacting with the world.
We get to see first-hand, and repeatedly, how guns only complicate already messed up situations. From Chloe’s own gun-related mishaps in Episodes 2 and 4, and her execution at the hands of Jefferson, to the opportunities the game gives us to wound or kill Frank and his dog, to David’s almost bleakly-comical run-ins with Jefferson in the bunker in Episode 5 – no interaction with a gun is clean, easy, successful or desirable, no matter how ‘glamorous’ or ‘cool’ Chloe may look when waving around her stepfather’s pistol.
By showing the consequences of gun violence – and also that it is possible to resolve the majority of situations without pulling a gun – Life Is Strange expresses its ambivalence towards guns in a cleaner and more succinct way than, say, Far Cry 3, or Spec Ops: The Line, in which the form of a first person shooter is used to critique the act of shooting. The only way to ‘agree’ with the structural premise of such games is to feel guilty… or not to play. Life Is Strange allows us to witness violent and non-violent resolutions – while still showing that we cannot control ‘wild actors’ who would commit violence outside of the system anyway.
The takeaway from the game is not that stricter gun control would immediately stop all mass shootings in America – more that, by taking a majority of guns out of the equation, the likelihood that everyday disagreements will escalate into fatal shootings will be far less. And, more, this stance is articulated through action and reaction, rather than through dialogue – there are exchanges about guns, most notably with Chloe and Frank (“Don’t ever aim a gun at anybody unless you intend to kill. Though you don’t look like you could kill a bug.”), but they are short, and focus more on immediate repercussions than broader arguments or theory. Life Is Strange is not didactic on this point.
As Max challenges Chloe, after she reveals she has ‘borrowed’ one of David’s guns:
“I thought you believed in gun control?” – MAX
“Yes, I thought that I should control the gun.” – CHLOE
Which quickly segues into a discussion of the gender disparity in domestic violence in the US. “It’s the men who need to be checked,” Chloe says, and given what follows, it’s hard to argue with her. “I’m not looking for trouble, Max, just protection. If anybody in this country should have guns, it should be women.”
Chloe may be blunt, but she’s not wrong: three women are murdered every day by a current or former male partner in the US. But arming everyone is not the answer. The final word on guns in the game belongs to Max, looking at the pistol in Jefferson’s cabinet. “NO MORE FUCKING GUNS,” she says.
It’s hard to argue with her, after what we’ve seen them do.
Go Fuck Yourselfie: Third Person Viewpoints and First-Person Perspectives
Now we’ve developed the theme of photography at work, let’s take a closer look at how the third-person viewpoint informs the player’s perspective on the game’s events.
Firstly – within minutes of starting the game, most of us buy into the gamified elements of the interface that are unique to the game: they become invisible to us, even as they pop up context-sensitive hints to direct our attention to those objects and people with which we can interact.
But it’s worth thinking about the game’s viewpoint, and the various effects of distancing and intimacy the designers have chosen to lean into. Life Is Strange is told simultaneously in the third person limited form and the first person – we control, or interpret Max’s actions from outside, giving us agency over her body and her decisions, while she narrates her thoughts directly to us in response to those actions.
Partly these are the conventions of the adventure game, passed down from text parser to point and click to the 3D fusion of today – without Max’s first-person narration, our explorations would be understandably more limited in scope, and our intimacy with Max as a protagonist would be much lessened without access to her commentary and observations. She shares, too, the common aspect of an introverted narrator of prose or film; eager to carry on self-deprecating conversations with herself, keeping herself entertained with jokey observations.
But it’s also worth looking at the game’s control scheme and these duelling perspectives from inside the narrative arc of the game. It’s not a question we ask much of third-person titles: we’ve been dealing with the dissonance of playing both a floating camera and the game’s protagonist since at least Super Mario 64 or the first Tomb Raider. Just as with the presentation of the user interface, we’ve grown used to it as a gaming convention.
But do we have a role in the narrative after all? We’ll look into the possible scientific and mystical explanations for Max’s abilities later on – but it’s possible to argue that we are playing as Rachel Amber in-game – a force from outside of the game’s universe, offering assistance and direction to Max, enlisting a ‘guardian angel’ for Chloe who is able to physically intervene. Like her, we exist both inside and above the narrative of the story, able to interact with it to some degree and yet unable to live inside it.
“Even though I don’t know her, it feels like Rachel is guiding us to the truth.” – MAX
It’s true that it seems more likely that, if Rachel is present in the game in some form, it’s as Max’s spirit animal, the doe leading her to Rachel’s resting place, and to the final choice Max must make with regards to the future of either Chloe or the town.
But it’s interesting to think about our agency and role, too, particularly when multiple playthroughs of the game clearly give us a meta-knowledge of the game’s choices that even the time-travelling Max does not have.
Story Structure, Multiple Choice and Binary Endings
By the end of the fifth and final Episode, this panoply of choices has collapsed to a single, binary decision – to save Arcadia Bay by sacrificing Chloe, or to save Chloe by sacrificing Arcadia Bay.
No matter the routes each player takes to this destination, this is the choice by which everyone will be confronted. The final two cut-scenes are similarly binary, spilling out of those choices.
Yet this ending proves much more satisfying than the wildly-condemned conclusion of Mass Effect 3 [Wikia] [official site], which similarly collapsed three games’ worth of player decisions into, in that case, a decision between three different outcomes for the fate of the galaxy. Both games are predicated on the player’s episode-by-episode choices having consequences further down the line, many of which have ultimately no effect on the games’ endings.
So why is Life Is Strange‘s illusion of choice that much more successful?
There are multiple reasons. Firstly, Life Is Strange‘s final choice builds on and plays off of the emotional investment built up over the previous five chapters. Though the final hour of Episode 5 occasionally batters us over the head with reminders of how much we care about Chloe and the Arcadia Bay townsfolk, our time with the game – to say nothing of the pauses between Episodes which granted its community of players the chance to reflect, predict and, yes, obsess – means we genuinely do.
By the time we’re asked to save the girl or save the town, all that emotional investment means it is a genuinely fraught decision, laden with weight. Also, though there is not a ‘right’ answer that leads to a perfect win-state, the consequences and fatalities of each choice are cleanly stated.
In the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3, by contrast, the final selection of choices come out of nowhere, in a ‘Star Child’ section foreshadowed by precisely none of the preceding games, and robbed of all of the elements that characterised the series – none more so than the fact that wherever you went in the galaxy, you were accompanied by two squadmates to offer you advice in the face of the inconceivable. Now alone with an AI entity in the shape of a child, the end-state options for the game are laid out for the player – destroy the Reapers (the menacing, AI-endowed sentient ships that have menaced the Mass Effect universe since the first game, and which are currently laying waste to Earth) entirely, but at the cost of all non-organic life in the galaxy; take control of the Reapers, at the cost of your own life; or fuse all organic and synthetic life together by creating a new form of technological DNA, ending the war between natural and artificial forever by making the distinctions between the two arbitrary and meaningless.
At first blush, these are weighty concepts worthy of a final choice, and yes, in their thematic preoccupation with the cyclical struggles of organic and technological life, seemingly connected to the wider concerns of all three games.
But the final choice stumbles in several ways – even more than its non-sequitur placement in the game’s narrative. Primarily, the ending stumbles under the weight of player expectation, and because of how the player has been taught to play all the previous games. In the previous two outings of the franchise, players were able to maximise their resources and beef up the statistics of their characters to the point where ideal win states could be achieved.
In the first game, lead character and player proxy Shepard can become so persuasively good that he or she can convince Saren, the game’s antagonist, to commit suicide rather than fight their final battle. In the second game, careful play, maximisation of resources, and gaining the loyalty of every significant crew member means that Shepard and the team aboard the Normandy can return from their climactic ‘Suicide Mission’ with precisely zero casualties. Even in the third game, players are trained and encouraged to maximise their ‘War Readiness’ score, a measure of the allies, resources and ships that were available to Shepard’s fleet at any one time, before taking on the Reapers once and for all. Until a months-later patch, players were forced to participate in the online multiplayer and tie-in app games in order to keep this score as high as possible, and to prevent it from degrading over time before they reached the end of the game.
Everything about the game’s structure reinforced the message espoused by the previous two episodes: if players only put in the time and effort, they could get the ‘best’ ending, and save everyone. But it turned out that, other than acting as a simple gate between failure in the final assault, and success enough to reach the Star Child finale, the War Readiness score meant nothing to the endings achieved.
There is no ‘win’ state to the third game, just a series of ‘least-worst’ choices. Shepard is always sacrificed. Interstellar travel through the titular Mass Effect Relays is always damaged to a colossal extent, threatening fragmentation and collapse on a galactic scale. And player satisfaction was exceptionally damaged as a result.
As most players griped at the time, to the point where Bioware were ‘forced’ into releasing a patch with post-ending epilogues to try and rescue the public perception of the game, many of the endings were characterised solely by a palette swap on the beam used to destroy the Mass Effect Relays.
Yes, Mass Effect 3 grapples with a funereal tone throughout – Shepard’s sacrifice is no great surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with foreshadowing – and yes, the game is shaped around a lengthy series of intimate reconciliations and goodbyes. We know it is the end, of the trilogy, and of Shepard’s story. But the characters we have grown to love play no part in the game’s final decision, and therefore its success as a narrative must live or die based on our intellectual, rather than emotional responses to it. There is no final debate with our armoured Spock and Bones equivalents. Just an AI in the form of a child whom we are given no real chance to doubt.
Compare that to the ending of Life Is Strange, where Chloe, the character for whom we have the most affection, and of whose company the narrative has deliberately robbed us in the final chapter, is there beside us to help, hinder and add emotional weight to the decision we have to make.
It’s not an intellectual choice, it’s one to agonise over, a frozen moment that can stretch to an eternity before we choose – precisely because the one person we’ve fought so much to save over five chapters is there to fight for her right to live… or to accept that she is the scale that must be balanced for her friends and family to continue living.
Thematically, Life Is Strange‘s ending is also perfectly of a piece with what has gone before. Our actions throughout the game have been about saving Chloe and saving Arcadia Bay, and it’s only at the close that we are forced to confront the fact that we cannot save everyone, all of the time… and perhaps find peace in the fact that, just because someone is gone, it does not mean that they cannot always be with us. Or a chance to scream into the void that some things, some loves, are too important to be sacrificed, and that they will outlast our homes, our families, our towns and times.
Either way, the law of unintended consequences will always catch up with us.
Not everything can be rewound and replayed infinitely – we gain maturity when we attain, or are given, the strength to commit to our choices. The ending of the game flows from everything that has gone before.
Of course, on a metatextual level, the entire game can be rewound and replayed to our heart’s content – but, while Max’s story continues, her future is one we cannot participate in. Mirroring Max’s experience, no matter our choices at any stage of the game’s five Episodes, we cannot avoid making the final decision, we can only delay it or refuse to boot up the game further. If we choose to sacrifice Chloe, subsequent playthroughs are coloured by that knowledge of her future – we have become Max: moving on, but still reliving memories of the time Chloe was alive. It’s a clever game developer that can crush the player with an ending at the same time as inspiring them to return to play it again.
In Mass Effect 3, conversely, the endings offered all fight against what has already been established by the narrative, even within the game so far, never mind the often wildly-divergent franchise. Choose to destroy the Reapers by killing all machine life? You’re also murdering the AI civilisation of the Geth, which, depending on your choices, you may have just saved from enslavement and reconciled to their creators, offering the hope of an end to a centuries-long war. Not to mention the attained sentience and selfhood of your starship’s AI, granted a body and a romance in the course of the third game. That ending actively fights against what has gone before, and thus becomes a ‘bad’ ending, a fail-state.
And what of the ‘Control’ ending, spreading Shepard’s consciousness throughout the (sentient themselves) Reaper fleet, and transforming him or her into a godlike intergalactic watchman? The game has taught us through repeated examples that there is no such quasi-omniscient intelligence that cannot remain uncorrupted, no technology that cannot degrade or go sour over a cosmic timescale. We know from our experience of such ancient leviathans that this choice is just storing up problems for future civilisations, restarting the same cycle of boom and bust and relying on some future Shepard-alike to finally make the decision we could not. This, too, is a ‘bad’ ending by the terms of the game, and marks it as a fail-state.
The third and final option is the one that fuses organic and inorganic life together. Shepard is still sacrificed, but his or her shipmates and companions survive, as do all of the peacemaking overtures Shepard has brokered over the course of the series. The trade-off, of course, is that Shepard has non-consensually rewritten the basic biology of everything in the cosmos, and added some awful glowing circuitry textures onto everybody’s character model to boot.
That this ending allows the most entities to survive marks it as the ‘good’ ending, the win-state, but its supremacy is undermined by, simply, its rotten aesthetics. We know that there is no way Bioware would produce a future game in this series with horrendous glowing circuit textures on every one of their characters (the last-minute ‘will this do’ of their design completely trashes the presumably very expensive facial rendering and scanned textures of its lead human characters, at the very least), so there’s no way – as savvy genre and games industry fans – we can invest in this ending as the canonical conclusion.
That Mass Effect Andromeda, the next game in the franchise, is set in an entirely different galaxy speaks volumes as to how the next batch of creators has sought to salvage the IP from a group of creators exiting the studio and detonating the franchise in their wake. I always say the ending of Mass Effect 3 is akin to George Lucas killing all of his cast aboard the second Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi, salting the earth for any who dared try continue the story just because they owned the copyright. Like it or not, franchised series now continue until they lose their audiences or profitability, not when their originators leave or expire, and it’s a poor curator who salts the earth on company time.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 is controversial and unsatisfying not because it is a decision removed from the choices of the game, but because its three climactic decisions have little to do with the games players have played up to that point, and which do not provide satisfying conclusions by the terms already established. They are fundamentally weakened by the lore of the games, or by metatextual knowledge of the business of games.
All choice-driven, non-text adventure games are doomed to struggle with their conclusions: unless they have the budget to provide a vast number of endings, all of which require scripting, programming, animating, voice acting, they must of necessity begin to limit the choices available to players as they move towards the end.
Even text adventure games, whether in printed, Choose Your Own Adventure form, or as digitally interactive fiction, have to limit their endings, or risk a series of shallow, unconnected central branches leading to wildly divergent conclusions (or require their creators to invest years of their lives in generating all of the different material, most of which will not be seen by the majority of players). If collapsing choices is inevitable, then the interactive stories with the most successful endings will be those that deal best with the conflict between the illusion of infinite choice and the reality of limited scope.
The Mass Effect trilogy launched with only the barest of ideas about its ending in mind; heavily changed course at the outset of the second game, as excellently discussed in Shamus Young’s retrospective, here [http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=27792]; shed its lead writer by the start of the third game, and its entire creative team by the conclusion of the trilogy.
It’s understandable, then, that any ending was never going to live up to those that fandom could conjure for the games before they hit the shelves. The endings as they stand may be a ‘best-worst’ scenario, the successful wrangling of an end state from a creative team backed into a corner by their perhaps-too-ambitious plans, created seven years and a generation of consoles prior.
It doesn’t excuse the flatness and thematically-neutered nature of the endings as they stand, but it does explain them.
The final chapter of Life Is Strange has many weaknesses – overemphasis on villain monologues to fill in what most attentive players pulled out of context in the previous instalment; a reuse of assets and reliance on still tableaux that occasionally suggest the money and time ran out, rather than a deliberate creative choice; and emotive, cathartic moments communicated through transformed photographs, rather than lived experiences; a lengthy and occasionally frustrating stealth sequence that layers complex perceptions of the game’s lead male characters around an overly-gamey dodge-the-flashlight, collect-the-bottles core.
But for all those weaknesses, the final binary choice packs a suitable punch, and feels of a piece with everything that has gone before. And that’s primarily because DONTNOD knew the scope and ending of their game from the start. The only time we leave Arcadia Bay in the series is in the mid-Episode 5 ‘fake out’ when we think (hope; pray) that Max has righted the timeline at last, saved her friends, jailed her foe, won the competition that sends her to San Francisco.
Other than that brief, quickly annulled threat of happiness, Arcadia Bay – and more aptly, the school, Chloe’s home, the diner, the beach, the clifftop – these are the circumscribed limits of our world. We’re not expecting the scope to range further, nor do we want it to. The fate of Chloe, and the fate of the people we’ve met during the past week of game time, that’s all that matters.
By pitting one against the other for survival in the final decision, the game fulfils all of its earlier promises – even if the decision is not one any player wishes to make.