Foreshadowing and Narrative Construction
From the perspective of a ‘play fair’ mystery, Life Is Strange’s narrative is an exquisitely-composed exercise in foreshadowing and laying the majority of its cards out on the table from the very beginning. I’m not just talking about the importance of the storm to the game’s final choice – that’s made abundantly clear from the opening. Rather, the way the game is designed to include suspicious-yet-innocuous dialogue and objects that payoff in the final chapter, while also adding additional levels of meaning to subsequent playthroughs, is terrifically well done.
Chloe’s trait of speaking her mind, coupled to her dark sense of humour, make for some pieces of dialogue that become wince-worthy in retrospect. Her declaration in Episode 3 that, “If he pops a cap in my skull, at least allow me to have a little carefree fun for a few minutes,” is especially memorable, given her fate at the end of the following Episode.
A lot of the foreshadowing is deliberate and playful on Jefferson’s part, of course – his dropping of overt innuendos that only have meaning if you know what he gets up to out in the woods are core to his character, to his desire to prove himself smarter than everyone. He can’t resist walking up to the line of outright confession, waving his involvement in front of those he believes to be powerless to stop him, or, given his snarling misogyny, beneath his notice:
“Stupid bitch! You never listen, do you? In fact, you never paid attention in my class. If you had, you might have seen all of this coming.” – JEFFERSON
The objects in his classroom, too, flaunt the wealth he has defrauded from Nathan and his father. To Max’s eye, it initially looks like he is ‘just’ a super-successful San Francisco photographer who has chosen to come slum it in Arcadia Bay, but items like the camera on his desk flaunt an excess that in retrospect gives him away:
“Jefferson is not messing around. He probably paid $20,000 for that camera. I bet he gets pristine digital images.” – MAX
But it’s not just Jefferson and his on-the-nose lectures and conspicuous consumption that give us all the pieces early. There are more mystical elements – Max’s spirit animal (Rachel?) standing atop the location of Rachel’s shallow grave in the junkyard, in Episode 2 – along with items of physical evidence that only become more horrifying in retrospect, such as when Max finds a discarded checked shirt in that same junkyard, and notes, “This is the scariest thing here.”
Keen-eyed players may start to put the pieces together as soon as the next Episode, in which Max cosplays as Rachel in very similar clothing (Rachel’s reliance on headshots means we haven’t had a good look at her wardrobe until that point). A similar shred of distressed fabric can be seen right next to Rachel’s grave.
On a first playthrough, the revelation of the Dark Room and Jefferson’s plot can seem to come out of leftfield, but, again, the pieces are all there from the start, it’s just that we lack the context to make sense of them. Kate’s description of what happened to her at the Vortex Club party gives us the first description of the Dark Room, barely an hour into the series:
“I went to one Vortex Club party and ended up making out with a bunch of people – and I have no memory of it. I remember getting sick… and dizzy… then Nathan Prescott said he would take me to the hospital. All I recall is driving for a long time. Then I woke up in a room – I thought it was the hospital because it was so white and bright. Somebody was talking to me in a soft voice – until I heard Nathan and felt a sharp sting in my neck. And that’s all I remember.” – KATE
There’s even a clue there that Nathan isn’t acting alone – but it’s so subtle that most of us skipped right past it. Jefferson – and the developers – know the value of a loud, angry, unstable young man in drawing attention away from what’s important.
Chloe’s confession of what Nathan put her through that concludes the Episode subtly takes all we have learned about Nathan so far, couples it to the player’s righteous anger about seeing him shoot Chloe earlier (along with the injustice of the Principal’s seeming dismissal of a Prescott waving a gun around on campus), and channels it into a laserlike focus on Nathan as a threat – one that obscures Jefferson as a suspect completely.
The wider Prescott family are the biggest ‘victims’ of Red Herring Syndrome in the game, with the bulk of Episode 4 seemingly leading to a confrontation with Nathan – and his father, Sean: the cause of all of Max and Chloe’s ills, and the rich, untouchable patriarch who has been covering them up. Even the paperwork in Jefferson’s Dark Room points towards a Nathan-shaped conclusion, and a Sean-led conspiracy.
But, though Prescott Senior is the opposite of a supportive father, and though he has been throwing money and the weight of his influence around at Blackwell Academy, that whole teased-out aspect, of a citywide conspiracy to drive Arcadia Bay into the hands of the Prescotts, is summarily dropped once it becomes clear that Jefferson is the true threat. The developers lead us by the nose, based on the tropes of similar smalltown/big property tycoon conspiracy mysteries, and use it to pull the rug out from under us at the last minute.
It’s true, of course, that Nathan did kill Rachel – he is guilty of that. And of dosing Chloe, and of aiding Jefferson with the abduction of Kate. He’s the opposite of an innocent party: whatever his protestations of being ‘used’. But the complexities of his involvement, and the “weird father/son thing” he had going on with Jefferson, make for a more complex ‘villain’ than we may have expected.
We’re led to think that Nathan is the ‘boss’ we must defeat, the foe that needs to be brought to justice – and Chloe is certainly eager to crack her knuckles and get down to business – only for it to become apparent in the game’s final stretch that Nathan was in need of just as much rescuing as Chloe, Victoria, or any of Jefferson’s other victims.
Max’s subconscious recognises this dichotomy more than her waking self, even if it misapportions the blame:
“Nobody ever helped me, Max. Specially you.” – NIGHTMARE NATHAN
If Max sacrifices Chloe to save the town, the best she can offer Nathan is his life, in a cell, rather than death at Jefferson’s hands.
Serial Killer: The Benefits and Drawbacks of an Episodic Structure
As DONTNOD had the whole series planned in advance and, in fact, were working on each of the Episodes simultaneously, before finishing and shipping each Episode in order, it’s worth taking a look at how Life Is Strange’s release as five separate Episodes informs the way in which its storytelling is crafted, and what the gaps between each release – and the cliffhangers on which each chapter leaves us – add to our conception of the whole.
The benefits – and drawbacks – of an episodic structure are most visible in the game’s final chapter.
The benefits of time to breathe, to think, to absorb, to speculate between each Episode and the next are easily grasped. That a vast online community has sprung up around Life Is Strange and populated Tumblrs and Reddits and blogs and boards so fast speaks to both the deep connection thousands have found in these characters, and to the space left for speculation, anticipation and fan fiction in the structure of each chapter’s release.
Had the game been released whole, it’s likely it would not have captured the collective imagination as it did. It was, of course, impossible to ‘spoil’ a theory or prove a speculator wrong until a subsequent Episode is released, so at the outset of the game, and for at least three subsequent Episodes, almost every theory was as valid as any other (and, thanks to the game’s thematic depth, many still are).
In a single release, on the other hand, lines of thought can be quickly shut down by those who have raced ahead to the conclusion, strip-mining the game for videoed assets and proof for their theories they can post to YouTube as validation.
But the gaps between Episodes also allowed DONTNOD to deviate and expand upon their initial plan in order to encompass the feedback and speculation from fans. The developers say that they didn’t deviate from the endings they originally planned – and that’s easy to believe: as noted, they’re too baked into the structure of the story from the first Episode to believe otherwise – but their willingness to engage with and incorporate nods to fan theories, feedback, and memetic pet hates, in ways both entertaining and disturbing, shows the benefit of such adaptive storytelling.
These nods can be of the self-deprecatory style, such as when Max’s subconscious ‘forces’ her to collect a series of bottles, while in her hallucinatory state, she comments, “Oh, no! Bottles. This might be hell,” and, just a short while later, “I need proof that bottles were out to get me, just in case.”, both of which call back to the gamified trawl for empties that guides players around the junkyard in Episode 2.
But they can also draw from fan-fiction to characterful and horrifying effect, as with the parade of ship pairings Max’s nightmare-trapped subconscious calls to mind in the final stretch of Episode 5. All the major /Chloe ships are here, drawn straight from Tumblr fanart and given voice – from the sublime, to the ridiculous, and on to the terrifying, as ‘Chloe’ confronts the stricken Max directly.
“Max is a fucking child.” – NIGHTMARE CHLOE
“Oh, Christ, I know.” – NIGHTMARE JEFFERSON
“Max should see me make a move on you.” – NIGHTMARE WARREN
“God damn, you are a sexy bitch. How come you hang around with Max, anyways?” – NIGHTMARE NATHAN
“Boredom. Plus, she’s like my personal puppet.” – NIGHTMARE CHLOE
“Damn, Victoria. You’re a real woman. Not a little girl, like Max.” – NIGHTMARE CHLOE
“Why did you even get rewind powers? You don’t know how to use them. Rachel’s dead and you’re still alive. Life is so unfair.” – NIGHTMARE CHLOE
It’s important to note that the scene still speaks to Max’s unspoken desire to have Chloe for herself, independent of its intertextual references to the fandom.
Every woven-in reference speaks both for itself, and for its referent, serving a story- and world-building purpose beyond Tumblr- and queer-bait. These are not gildings of the lily, they’re structurally and thematically important to how Max perceives herself; fan-accommodating additions to an already-extant edifice of plot.
The downside of spreading a game across five Episodes and eight months is that, in order to have all the emotional scaffolding in place for the big finale, there are increasing elements of repetition, parts of the game in the final stretch that begin to whiff faintly of those horrendous DVD boxsets with unskippable ‘Previously On’ summaries: elements that recap and reinforce the emotive messaging that has guided Max’s journey so far, in ways that can prove a little much if played in a marathon session.
From Jefferson’s gratuitous monologuing (that, admittedly, only reinforces the terror, disgust and discomfort we feel on Max’s behalf, and which speaks volumes about Jefferson’s self-satisfied, only-happy-when-listening-himself-talk personality)…
…to the literal walk along memory lane that recaps the game – and our relationship with Chloe…
…to, at the last, the diner of frozen facsimilies of the Arcadia Bay townsfolk, bargaining for their lives en masse, many elements of the finale can feel like handholding. Emotional, effective, these-aren’t-tears-it’s-my-allergies handholding, but handholding nonetheless.
But that’s also one of the downsides of the videogame format as a delivery mechanism for story. Though the episodic format allows them to control the pacing far more than an open world game, DONTNOD still have as little control over the speed at which their game will be digested as any other game developer. Not every player will rush to the new chapter on its day of release. Not every player will have played and replayed the previous four Episodes before they dive in. Some may play the game only once, and may have missed characters or significant dialogue along the way, or may not have been paying attention to anything beyond what Nathan was doing.
Two, five, ten years from now, new players will still be discovering the game, and so the conclusion, with its simple, but world-shattering, choice, requires this bald restatement of core principles, a St. Peter-like weighing of moments versus lives, of intimacy versus expediency, Philia versus Agape versus Eros.
The episodic format also allows for some breathtaking experimentation with the way in which the narrative is delivered and experienced. Quite aside from Life Is Strange’s unique, brilliant, beautifully-elliptical pauses, where we – and Max – are given time to sit and think, it’s characteristic, too, that no two Episodes of the game are alike – and none follows a trajectory predictable from the Episode previous.
Segmenting the game into five discrete chunks does much more than offer the chance to deliver brutal cliffhangers and buy the developers time to work on the game while revenue – and positive word of mouth – build.
It gives the chance to cleave off areas of story, or throw in curveballs – like the alternate timeline sequence that opens Episode 4 – that seem out of place at first glance, before resolving themselves into essential cornerstones of the overall theme.
Five acts is also a more of a theatrical or TV structure than the three-act movie template that is often haphazardly applied to ‘cinematic’ games, offering a broader volley of emotional peaks and troughs.
In terms of unique elements, it’s worth a cursory glance over what each of the Episodes is doing.
Episode 1 keeps Chloe off-screen for as long as possible. We see her early on, getting shot, but her significance to Max beyond that only becomes clear when she and her beaten-up pick-up screech to Max’s rescue in the parking lot, and we realise that they are former best friends. (The backstory between them is laid out in hints in Max’s diary from the off, but it takes the car journey back to Chloe’s house to join up all the threads in scripted, animated action). We’re introduced to all of the principal players; talk to all of them about Rachel Amber, and begin to form a composite image of her; and are given all – or much of – the ammunition we need to discover the Dark Room conspiracy, before all the other things we have to do cunningly draw our attention away from it, and from Mark Jefferson.
Episode 2 deepens our knowledge of Chloe, and Chloe’s immediate family, just as it deepens our understanding of both Rachel – and her flaws – and Max’s powers. We’re given safe and then increasingly dangerous spaces in which to flex our temporal muscles, before having those powers stripped away at a moment of high drama – during which we can either save, or fail to save, Kate from her suicide attempt.
Episode 3 works hard to make us fall for Chloe, as she and Max have a ‘first date’: sneaking into Blackwell in search of clues, breaking into the Principal’s office to pick up classified files. This is followed by a dip in the school’s pool, and a dreamy, curtain-billowing morning after in Chloe’s bed, along with the opportunity for the pair’s first kiss – as a dare that reveals more than Chloe intended. The mythology of Rachel that Chloe has invested in begins to splinter, as the pair discover her relationship with Frank. And, in an attempt to push her powers further than ever, to save Chloe from the trials of her past, Max uses a photograph – of the last time Chloe was happy – to travel back to their shared childhood, and to stop her father from leaving on the day he was killed. That action creates a parallel timeline in which William is alive, but Chloe is paralysed.
Structurally intriguing, Episode 4 begins with a narrative cul-de-sac in that parallel timeline, ultimately forcing Max to euthanise her best friend in order to spare her further pain. Back in the main universe, the overarching mystery begins to be pulled together at last, as the clues are assembled and the location of the Dark Room is revealed. Everything points towards Nathan’s involvement, and that of his father. With the aid of photographs discovered in the Dark Room bunker, Rachel’s body is discovered, and Chloe goes on the warpath. At the End of the World party, hatchets are buried and hackles are raised. Sent chasing back to Rachel’s gravesite to preserve the evidence of her murder, Chloe is shot, and Max is captured by Jefferson – revealed to be the true villain of the piece.
Episode 5, an inverted reflection of Episode 1, also keeps Chloe off-screen for much of its running length, though this time, Max has a perfect conception of what she’s missing, and what – and who – she needs to get back to. Chloe gets a number of standout moments towards the end of the Episode, but the writers use every trick in the book to keep her off-stage during the main events. Max is tortured by Jefferson, and works her way back to Chloe via a tangle of alternate and fractured timelines, the linearity of the narrative fracturing in sympathy with her increasingly distressed mental state. Every key location and character is revisited, often from multiple angles and in multiple states of (dis)repair, with the aim of holistically summing up the story. At the conclusion, we return to the beginning of the story: as an impossibly-large tornado bears down on Arcadia Bay, we must make the decision whether to save it by sacrificing Chloe, or to spare Chloe and let the tornado work its destructive magic.
You can see that the story structure is mirrored, both in structure and location – from the manner in which Episodes 1 and 5 keep Chloe away from Max for emotional effect and suspense, to the way in which the tornado forms a book-end around the narrative.
In terms of emotional peaks, depending on the player’s choices, the dare-driven kiss in the middle of Episode 3 forms the centrepoint of the story. “Damn, Max, you are hardcore,” Chloe says, if Max takes the challenge lips-on. It’s possible to argue that Max’s discovery that she’s in love with her best friend is the eye of the storm around which the tornado revolves – and all that’s truly important.
The principal downside of the serialised episodic format, of course (as opposed to just releasing all five chapters at once, which is another possible release model), is that it builds unreasonable expectations for the final part, while also burdening an increasingly tired development team with sticking the landing, in what no doubt became an unreasonable timeframe.
The final chapter of Life Is Strange may be its weakest, when viewed and played in isolation, but that’s only in relation to the four very strong parts that went before. Its weakness is one of fragmentation, rather than of lack of vision – and as that fragmentation is deliberate, it seems almost churlish to call out the chapter for it.
Reflecting back on the high points and memorable moments of the final chapter, most players will be easily able to reel off a list: the initial escape from Jefferson’s clutches; the rewriting of history; the false-positive happy ending in San Francisco; David’s tragicomic rescue of Max in the bunker; driving through the hurricane; facing the storm; Max’s trippy hallucinations; The Diner at the End of the World, the tearful goodbyes, and many more.
But unlike previous Episodes where there was a consistency and near-linear continuity of action throughout, despite the rewinding and reworking of time, in Episode 5, we’re treated to a game built of the iconic polaroids on Max’s wall: isolated moments that accumulate into a greater whole.
As mentioned, it’s also amazing – and, of course, very deliberate – how much Chloe is kept off-stage in Episode 5, after being an essential presence throughout the rest of the game.
Like any uncomfortable leave-taking, we’re made to feel her absence – or long for her presence – long before we have to make the decision that legitimises one of those options. Perhaps her absence (and the lack of the now Golden Joystick-winning performance of voice actor Ashly Burch in all but a few sections) also plays into how many players and reviewers felt and feel about the final part.
Max, at last, has to carry the weight of the story on her own.
For most of the runtime of the fifth part, Chloe is Schrödinger’s Cat, both dead and alive, for even in the many timelines where Jefferson has put a bullet in her head, while there’s hope, while there are photographs, Chloe can still be saved – and it doesn’t matter how much Max’s nose bleeds, or how devastated the coastline may become.
Even when the game offers the choice to Max to break the truth of Chloe’s violent passing to David, to Joyce, she can still do so with one hand crossed behind her back. The past isn’t written yet… but it has to be written eventually.
Until it is, we’re the ones keeping Chloe alive and present, whether she’s on-screen or not.
So with that as our cue, let’s discuss the endings of the game at last.
If only because it’s the one I chose on my first playthrough, after much agonising, let’s first address the ending in which Chloe allows herself to be sacrificed so that the town can live.
(At the time of publication, an option also chosen by 54% of the players on PC).
Having played through both endings, it’s clear that sacrificing Chloe is the ending the writers are nudging the players towards. Chloe’s impassioned speech before Max has to make the choice is practically begging Max to let her die to save the town – it closes Chloe’s character arc in a satisfying way, travelling from:
“I’d like to drop a bomb on Arcadia Bay and turn it to fucking glass…”
“Maybe you’ve just been delaying my real destiny. Look at how many times I’ve almost died – or actually died – around you. I know I’ve been selfish, but I think for once I should accept my fate.”
It’s Chloe’s perfect moment of realisation, redemption and redefinition: her chance to be a hero, just like Max has been for her. To choose the ‘selfish’ path and let Arcadia Bay be swallowed by the wave is dramatically inconsistent with this performance… but it’s also a pleasure to see the fallout from that decision be presented as a valid option anyway. In a choice-based game, players need to be able to make choices that the writers don’t want them to.
As to why Chloe’s sacrifice seems to be the ‘preferred’ choice of the writers – some of it is based on the extent of the final cut-scene that plays after each choice. Choosing to let Arcadia Bay be destroyed plays a relatively short cut-scene afterwards, of the pair driving through the now-devastated town (though it has to be said, the art direction and rendering of the now-destroyed town is anything but cheap – perhaps the ending is relatively short because so little extra needs to be said, beyond presenting the stricken aftermath of the tornado).
The Two Whales Diner is ambiguously intact (its shattered sign now spelling out ‘DIE’) giving faint hope that Joyce, Frank and Warren may have survived (though there are now literally two whales crashed right on top of the Price house by the waves: dark irony at play). No signs of life are visible inside.
The occasional body-under-a-bedsheet or sprawled across a telephone pole speaks to the death toll on the streets. A small herd of Max’s spirit animals – the deer – have appeared on the streets, nature reclaiming the town… and perhaps suggesting that this is Max’s ending.
Max and Chloe share a hand-squeeze and cast one last look back at the town before driving on to parts unknown… just as snow begins to fall.
There’s a chilling nod to the Final Destination movies here – has Max only delayed the inevitable, once again? Will the tornado, and Chloe’s inescapable death, follow them to Portland and beyond?
The cut-scene when Max chooses to sacrifice Chloe is much longer and more involved, and nets the use of a brand-new song on the soundtrack, too: Foals’ ‘Spanish Sahara’, whose downbeat opening soars to a powerful refrain of acceptance: “Forget the horror here, forget the horror here”.
If Max has genuinely fallen for Chloe across the course of the game (which in gameplay terms seems to amount to kissing Chloe in Episode 3 and not rewinding out of it), we also get a ‘tragic love story’ ending here, a passionate kiss in the rain, and a declaration of eternal love, before Max travels back in time to let Chloe die.
“Being together this week – it was the best farewell gift I could have hoped for. You’re my hero, Max. I’ll always love you. Now get out of here, please. Do it before I freak. And Max Caulfield: don’t you forget about me.” – CHLOE
“Never.” – MAX
We’re forced to watch as Max rewinds to the fateful bathroom and must this time do nothing, her friend shot and bleeding out in the bathroom while Nathan instantly regrets his mistake.
The timeline rewrites, and we find Max, this time in a black funeral dress, wearing a doe necklace, (having become, and claimed, her own spirit animal), looking out over the perfectly calm Arcadia Bay. Accompanying Max to Chloe’s funeral are Warren, Kate, Principal Wells, Dana, Trevor, Justin and, perhaps surprisingly, Victoria, along with, of course, Joyce and David. Frank and Pompidou watch from the woods, aloof, but at peace.
Our last shot is of the same bright cyan butterfly from the bathroom descending to alight on Chloe’s coffin. (If the deer on the streets in the ‘save Chloe’ ending make it Max’s, then this must be Chloe’s chosen ending?)
Chloe’s spirit animal lives on, and so does her memory. Max smiles, gently, and we cut to the credits, devastated but reconciled to the end.
So why does Chloe’s death at the close form a satisfactory ending to this story, while something like, say, Gwen Stacy’s death in the film Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2013), continue to rankle years after release?
As with our comparison between Life Is Strange and Mass Effect 3, some of it is the narrative scaffolding and exquisite foreshadowing – Chloe’s fate has been hidden in plain sight all along. The first time we meet her, she dies. The first time we meet Max, she’s walking headfirst into a destructive tornado. The first time we meet Mark Jefferson, he’s telling a class of teenagers that he wants to trap them in a dark corner and take photographs of them. Only our natural desire to save a life brings Chloe back into Max’s orbit. Only our natural desire to see the best in people stops us from seeing what Mr. Jefferson has so plainly and coldly laid out.
Some of it is the resonant symbolism, which similarly underscores the idea that Chloe’s fate was written from the start. Chloe’s treasured necklace, its three bullets symbolising each possible death by gunshot in the prime timeline – at the hands of Nathan, herself (in the junkyard) and Mr Jefferson.
The blue butterfly that sparks a tornado. The deer that leads Max on.
Many theories continue to be espoused about the nature of the game’s two iconic creatures – the iconic doe, a deer, attributed to Max, and the cyan-bright butterfly which represents Chloe. Chloe’s three bullet necklace, and the relationship between the blue butterfly, blue bird and the faun, are not the only symbols in this rich and satisfying game, but they are some of the most powerful.
To return to a spiritual, rather than scientific slant on the story, as we touched in in the section on Samuel’s Buddhist leanings, there are enough signifiers in the text to argue that Chloe’s butterfly, seen alighting on her coffin her, is the achronological cause of the game’s events, or at least the genesis of Max’s powers. That is, it is the butterfly, emblematic of Chloe’s spirit, which travels back in time, from her funeral, to the moment of her First Death – in order to buy her a week’s worth of additional time with the best friend she thought she’d lost.
To follow this train of thought, there is then a suggestion that the spirit animals are unbound from the causal, linear universe – that, even if Max chooses to save Chloe, there is a parallel universe nearby where the opposite decision was made, and that it is from this universe that the spirit-butterfly emanates, whatever the choice of Max Prime.
Likewise for Rachel, and the spectral doe that appears to Max: both Rachel and Chloe guide Max, in spirit, to the point where she has the potential to save the woman she has grown to love – though the choice remains in her hands. The spirits can only guide and point the way: they can no longer exert any physical influence over events.
Is it greedy for Chloe to have two spirit animals? And if so, is it green on her behalf, or on the developers’? Or is it merely appropriate for a young woman who dies as many times as she does over the course of the game.
Her indicative hair colour, mirrored in the butterfly, crops up again in the blue bird at Chloe’s house, which Max can save in Episode 1 (by opening Joyce’s bedroom window, to stop it from crashing into the window and dying), an action which then traps the bird in the house (though it, or its kin, can be seen on the winding path up to the lighthouse at the end of the Episode: “Birds are so lucky,” says Max in response, “they can always escape.”).
In Episode 3, we find the bird has taken up residence in the Price’s bathroom – comfortable and safe. In the following Episode, just after Max returns from the alternate universe in which she was forced to euthanise her best friend, she finds the bird still trapped in the bathroom: “Oh no, that poor little bird has been trapped in here.”
In a metaphorical re-run of the trauma she has just undergone, the player can choose to chase the bird out into the hallway and shoo it out another open window. This bird, like the other Chloe’s spirit, is left to fly and be free.
That’s resonant to one reading of Chloe’s temporal resurrection in Episode 1: that her half-life is circumscribed by the limits of Max’s powers. There’s a suggestion that Chloe is never truly alive, only given a cul-de-sac of time in which to make her peace with Max, her friends, and her family, before being ‘freed’. Chloe has not escaped Death, only outpaced Him: the question is not whether she can be saved, but how much time can be bargained for.
Among the many nicknames with which Chloe dubs her best friend, ‘SuperMax’ is perhaps the most applicable here. Max is both a superhero who’ll keep on saving Chloe for as long as she can – and the prison in which she is trapped.
The Mechanics of Time Travel
Though the game never makes their rules or source explicit, it’s worth exploring how much information we’re given about Max’s abilities in the course of the game – all of which are bootstrapped through Max’s own experiences and discoveries.
To be clear, Max’s time travel abilities largely rest in the realm of magic realism, rather than science – there’s no mutant ability made suddenly manifest, or technological accident that sends her Quantum Leaping on her way.
“So what’s the point of this power? What’s the lesson? To keep fixing what I keep fucking up? No. Because I didn’t ask for this shit. But I was able to stop Mr. Jefferson. And now I can stop Chloe from dying. For the last time.” – MAX
The reasons and rationales for Max gaining the power when she does are as much emotive as evolutionary, and their use and expansion seems particularly psychosomatic – kicking in in subconscious response to her best friend getting shot to death, becoming useless when trying to talk Kate down from the roof, so that she is forced to rely on her own abilities; discovering that she can project herself into old photographs just at the point at which her guilt and shame over ‘abandoning’ Chloe for five years in the wake of William’s death have reached their apex.
That’s not to say the scientific possibilities aren’t explored by the characters, but – to be as fair to professional scientists as I have been to the developers – these are scientific terms (ab)used by writers interested in the connotations they raise on the layperson, not in the quantum physicist.
Just as Blackwell Academy is a collegiate school fusing the arts and sciences, so the talk of chaos theory and wormholes is a surface gloss that allows interesting visual and environmental effects to be linked to personal, character moments. On that level, it’s almost frustrating that there are no mentions of ‘entangled pairs’ or ‘spooky action at a distance’ in Life Is Strange, as those are the kind of pseudo-quantum pairings whose metaphors would be worth exploring through Max and Chloe.
It’s not that the use of scientific terminology is wrong, per se, just that Max’s confidants are fellow high-schoolers. Though she ekes out some interesting possibilities from both Samuel and Ms. Grant, Max doesn’t have access to, say, Donnie Darko’s Professor Monitoff, much less the staff of the Large Hadron Collider. She has Warren, instead. And, as Warren lays it out in the diner at the end of the world, “I’m not a real scientist, even though I play one at school.” Technically, his potential explanations carry words in the correct order, but in many ways they’re a sop to science, a way of saying, “It could be, yes, but it’s really not important right now.”
Ms. Grant, herself the face of science tuition at Blackwell Academy, also raises the possibility that Max’s powers might be tied to mystical elements in Arcadia Bay itself, drawn from the hundreds of years of Native American history and tradition in the area. “Lots of power in this region,” she says – and yet, just as equally, when Max checks in with her two Episodes later, she doesn’t have much to add: “Max, you know how fascinated I am by Arcadia Bay legends. But I haven’t found any apocalyptic signs yet.”
Again, perhaps because of fears of cultural insensitivity or appropriation on the part of the developers (a welcome reticence, to be true), this is an avenue largely left unexplored in-game, save for the Tobanga totem which overlooks the dorms.
As others have noted, ‘Tobanga’ is a language spoken in Chad, with no roots in actual Native American languages. It’s not stated whether the totem was inherited from the local area with that name, or, as is the case with many college mascots, named in a fit of inspiration by a long-gone alumnus in a manner that stuck. It’s also not raised in-game by the characters enough to provide a suitable line of speculation – though it does keep watch over Max, and the other students:
“The Tobanga does look pretty scary at night. Please don’t destroy me.” – MAX
Built of six carved sections, stacked on top of one another (or carved into six pieces out of single log), it’s difficult to tell what each section is supposed to represent, though the wings sprouting from the second, squirrellish head could suggest those of a blue bird, if we reach for it. More importantly, the Tobanga (for reasons of storytelling or, perhaps, texture efficiency) is double-sided – the heads face both forward and back, Janus-like. Looking into the past, and the future and, perhaps, standing on the shoulders of those who came before in order to see furthest and most clearly.
But the source of Max’s powers is not the point of Life Is Strange – their deployment, and their emotional effect, are key to the narrative. And neither Max, nor Chloe, seems especially bothered about finding out where they came from.
“I guess we’ll never know if it’s magic or science.” – MAX
“Then for whatever scientific, mystical reason that we’ll obviously never figure out, we were meant to be together, at this exact moment in history. I have to think of Rachel as somewhere behind the scenes, fighting for justice.” – CHLOE
So, origins aside, how do Max’s powers work?
It becomes apparent – and to me, only on my second playthrough – that there are two distinct abilities in her toolset. The first, and most obvious, is her ability to rewind time to a limited extent, while her memories and physical position remain unaffected (thus allowing her – and us – to solve puzzles like that of the Principal’s locked door, or gaining access to the locked entrance to the Dark Room).
This ability is limited by her own endurance (if she uses it too much, too often, she gets nosebleeds, feels dizzy, and even passes out), and by its duration (there is a ‘snapback’ effect – she cannot rewind an indefinite amount). The ability is so constrained both by gameplay reasons – it doesn’t make sense to waste the resources on allowing players the ability to rewind back through the entire game, especially when most puzzles and dialogues are focused on bite-size chunks of time – and by narrative ones: if Max can rewind time at will, and with no consequence to her physical health, she could just pop back to the last time Rachel was seen alive, and find out what happened – or stop it from occurring in the first place. She may be SuperMax, but her abilities are not godlike. It suits both game and story for Max to have strictly curtailed limits – at least until her second ability kicks in.
The second ability is also where layperson use of quantum terms like ‘entanglement’ come in useful, because it is not an extension of Max’s rewind power. At first, it does seem to be a hyper-extended rewind, if only because that’s the natural assumption for the player to make: Max has looked at a photo from her childhood, focused, and rewound time to that exact point. But, as becomes clear later, this is not what is happening. Max has gained the ability to shuttle her consciousness between times, and between parallel realities.
“Somehow I existed in this whole other alternate reality. The more I use my power, the more I see how little control I have over what happens. Now ‘Max Caulfield’ exists in two, maybe three different realities. How can I have a destiny?” – MAX
That this is what is happening only really falls into place when Max explains to Chloe what’s been happening to her across the course of Episode 5, when she ends up back outside the Blackwell gym, thanks to diving back through the photo Warren took. In fact, it feels a little bit like some Max monologue has been cut – or I missed it in the playthrough – because Max seems a lot more assured about the parameters of her photo-jumping power than we’ve seen her be up to this point.
“In a minute, I won’t remember any of this. You’ll have to tell me exactly what I did and said just now. Just explain that I travelled in time using the photo.” – MAX
“Will you believe me?” – CHLOE
“I’ll always believe you.” – MAX
The implication becomes that Max’s consciousness – ‘Max Prime’, the Max we are following throughout the game – has become unmoored in time and space. This is flagged up during the ‘happiest timeline’ segment, as the plane begins its descent into San Francisco. Max notes that, “It’s so weird to be in-between realities. Everything is out of focus and in the distance,” in a way that suggests she’s not being metaphorical about intercontinental air travel. She has genuinely jumped into an unresolved portion of the timeline.
This is underscored by her further comment, “Christ, another nosebleed. You’re not just screwing around with time,” just before time takes another leap, and she skips out on landing, check-out and the journey to the gallery, to regain herself inside its walls. It’s important to note that this isn’t just a jump-cut in location for the benefit of players – the ‘burning polaroid’ overlay at the edges of the screen indicates that Max has made this jump along with us.
On some level, it could be her subconscious excitement ‘skipping to the good bits’; on another, it’s because she’s broken loose of her linear timeline, so damaged has it become by the wear and tear she has inflicted on it in the Dark Room. Max becomes aware that her timejumps have become spacejumps as well – from the moment she discovered her ability to travel into photographs, she’s been creating, or just leaping into, alternate universes.
Which also suggests the developers have chosen a conservative version of the multiple universes hypothesis – rather than budding off an entirely new universe with every decision, no matter how tiny, a new universe is created only when the timeline changes to a significant extent. So Max can rewind and replay events within a scene without budding off a new universe, but if she makes significant structural changes to history, a new universe pops into being, and she travels to and from it.
“I don’t think I’ll ever know how much destiny I’m changing. But whoever said we only have a single fate? Time travel is such a mind-fuck.” – MAX
Appropriately, Life Is Strange’s multiverse behaves like a computer – Max has five minutes or so to make changes to the ‘document’ on which she’s working, but if she wants to go back and create a wholesale redraft of a previous document, she has to save a copy, and make the changes on that. Time is malleable like clay in the instant, and fractal like a snowflake when viewed in its entirety.
As a fun visual aside, don’t forget the ‘HOLE TO ANOTHER UNIVERSE’ graffiti that pops up throughout the game… It’s only when we get to Chloe’s bedroom and see the same graffiti, in her handwriting, on the wall, that we realise it’s she who has been defacing Blackwell, long before Max got her powers:
We touched on the concept of Max as a ‘superposition of Maxes’ before – the idea that there is no ‘true’ Max, only a set of Maxlike parameters in which we as players make decisions that shape the game, and character, simultaneously. But here we’re saying that there is one version of Max’s consciousness that is coherent across a single playthrough.
Each time we begin the game at Episode 1 and play it through to Episode 5, the Max we accompany remains the same, no matter the reality. So it’s also worth asking: “What happens to the other versions of Max that ‘Max Prime’ displaces as she moves through time?”
As the loops in which Max participates become longer and more convoluted, the game grapples with the nature of persistent consciousness in a non-linear universe.
Admittedly it’s a question deftly raised and briefly touched upon, rather than explored in great detail, but the idea of what happens to the versions of Max from the non-prime timeline is a curious one. In the quote above, Max primes Chloe to brief her on everything that happened from the moment she journeys into the past to change time, to the point where she knows she will come back to herself, during the final, fatal moments of the storm.
We’re left to wonder: who was the Max doing the walking and the talking, during that ellipsis of consciousness? Especially as Chloe exclaims, when we rejoin her on the cliff, “I see that the real Max is back. How was your time trip, dude?”
Who has Chloe spent the night with, and what happened to that version of Max when Max Prime returned?
Are those fragments of Max, as suggested by the bitter, truth-spewing Mirror Max in the nightmare diner, stacked up and discarded in alternate realities, the detritus left by Max Prime, as she leaps from timeline to timeline leaving truncated branches in her wake? Max herself isn’t sure:
“I’m afraid I’m fucking up all these alternate realities.”
Though she’s spitting venom from her favourite stall, this Mirror Max is also just as likely a projection of Max’s fractured conscience, one last devil’s advocate to weaken our resolve.
The same nagging worries dog rewatches of Back to the Future, of course, where a victorious, time-travelling Marty McFly comes back to a family he doesn’t know, and a life turned upside down. What happened to the Marty who grew up with this family? To the memories that were made during this time? Did the Marty we’ve followed since the opening scene displace his temporal doppelganger somehow, the rules of reality blending in the wake of the Delorean to accommodate his presence – or did this particular timeline only come into being when he returned – thirty years of alternate backstory hastily scaffolded on the quantum scale at the moment he rematerialized?
No time travel story stands up perfectly to scrutiny – they’re not supposed to. Character-based logic and internal consistency is far more important. But the questions they raise about the uniqueness of the self in a quantum universe are both fun and terrifying places in which to dwell.
“Wherever I end up after this, in whatever reality, all those moments between us were real, and they’ll always be ours.” – CHLOE
“Chloe, I can’t make this choice!” – MAX
“No, Max. You’re the only one who can.” – CHLOE
In the game, at least, this is Max’s true superpower – the ability to choose which timeline, which universe, gets to be ‘real’. But that doesn’t stop her – and us – from contemplating the idea that every choice, and both of the possible endings of the game, are equally valid, creating equally co-existent parallel universes. Max loses and keeps Chloe, both at once. They only distinction is in which of the many superpositions of Max we choose to side with, and encourage Max Prime to live in.
A more depressing view, of course, is that Max truly is unique, as is her timeline, and that the only reality that exists is the one we choose. In some ways, that argument is akin to the atheist’s plea that, if heaven is false, we should do our best with the time – and planet – that we have. An infinite sea of possibilities is only comforting if we are able to move between them – if we are constrained to one reality, then knowing our loved one, or ones, survive in another world, is a balm only in the abstract.
Life Is Strange confronts us with recurrences of pairs and twos throughout the game, highlighting the idea of mirrored realities and binary choices – from the Two Whales Diner, to the twisted ‘father/son’ combo of Jefferson and Nathan being opposed by the loving mother/daughter relationship of Joyce and Chloe.
The most important ‘two’ for our current purposes, of course, are the two moons that appear in the sky on the night of the Vortex Club party. The second moon is hazy and flickering, suggesting the temporary overlap of two timelines, two alternate universes meeting at a temporary crossroads. (We’ve already noted Another World as an influence on the developers – a film in which a secondary, parallel Earth, populated by exact duplicates of ourselves, appears in the sky) The second moon also fades from the sky just as Chloe and Max leave the school – on the cut to the puddle in the junkyard, only one moon remains visible in the watery reflection. The timelines – and universes – have diverged again, and only one result is possible from this course of action.
There are two possibilities we can infer from that evidence – one, that when an event significant enough to create an alternate reality is committed to by Max Prime, the other universe dies or fades away. Two, that the second moon was visible in Episode 4 because it’s where Max’s own timeline crossed over. The second moon is from the timeline in which she used Warren’s photograph (in Episode 5) of the night to come back to the same moment – to use the language of photography, it’s a double exposure. The original timeline still exists, as its own separate universe, but from our current perspective, following Max Prime, we’ve now gone down the other leg of the Trousers of Time, to pluck a term from Pratchett.
Max Prime isn’t causing devastation in these parallel universes: those choices would have been explored anywhere, in a multiverse of infinite possible. Her only ‘crime’ is to choose to park her consciousness in the ‘best’ timeline and displace the Max who was previously resident. Which has deep metaphysical implications of its own!
But in the end, does it matter that the origin of Max’s powers goes unexplained?
No, no more than the Force was improved by the addition of Midichlorians. Whether the powers were granted by Fate, God, Time, genetics or Rachel Amber, it only matters to the story that Max was given a second chance to do right by the best friend she’d abandoned five years prior. It’s the emotional consequences that we as players are able to explore as a result of the ability that are important, not its origin.
There’s something to be said, too, for ambiguity in the mechanics of time travel stories. I’m not sure how many fans of Donnie Darko would go to bat for its more expositional Director’s Cut over the cinematic release. Sometimes a strong character moment is all you really need: the more explicit you are about the means of travel, the more plot holes and fridge moments you create for the inevitable critical aftermath.
Under The Influence
Speaking of Donnie Darko, perhaps it’s worth one last run around the block before we finish, acknowledging – as the game is keen to do – its many influences and forerunners in movies, television and literature.
Charmingly, the game uses the license plates of the various cars and trucks to draw attention to both these influences, and the characterisation of each vehicle’s driver. This is by no means a complete list, but between the Blackwell Academy car park and that of the Two Whales, players can find the following:
TWNPKS – Twin Peaks (Chloe’s battered truck – appropriate due to her obsessional quest for the Laura Palmer-like Rachel. There’s also an explicit nod to prequel movie Fire Walk With Me scrawled – by Chloe? – in the Two Whales bathroom.)
THXFLS – The X Files (Warren’s pride and joy – and he’s always ready to believe)
SXFTNDR – Six Feet Under (Nathan’s RV – a horrible nod to the fate of both Rachel, at his hands, and Nathan, at those of Jefferson)
BRKBD – Breaking Bad (Frank’s RV – for obvious, drug-dealing reasons. It’s worth noting that Frank’s RV is in the Academy car-park in Episode 1, right next to Nathan’s pick-up. Even those characters unmet are present from the very start)
GRNDHGD – Groundhog Day (Stuck in a time-loop in a small town)
DNNDRK – Donnie Darko (Donnie and Max’s comparable time-travelling superpowers, The Tangent Universe, the storm, the smalltown aesthetics, the doomed romance, the charismatic teacher with a Dark Room and a hidden secret… I’m not saying Life Is Strange is a genderflipped Donnie Darko, but you could certainly write a further essay on the comparisons!)
THKLLNG – The Killing (Another smalltown killing of a missing girl, this time in the Seattle area – at least in the American remake. Another series of smalltown secrets being unravelled, this time in the shadow of a Mayoral campaign)
NTHRRTH – Another Earth (As mentioned earlier – pertinent in its depiction of a parallel Earth that co-exists, however temporarily, in the same physical space as our own)
THFCLT – The Faculty (Perhaps as relevant to Life Is Strange for its charged atmosphere of ‘anyone could be guilty’ paranoia and ‘students versus teachers’ set-up, rather than the alien invasion that forms the basis of the film. Its most direct visual influence may be in the section of Max’s nightmare where she is forced to evade versions of Nathan and Jefferson as they stalk her around an American school bus. The parking lot escape scene in The Faculty conjures up much the same aesthetics and adrenaline)
LPHNT – Elephant (Gus Van Sant’s semi-fictionalised film about the Columbine Killings speaks both to the dangers and unpredictability of guns on campus, and underscores much of Nathan’s unstable but unsuspected character, too)
BRDCHRCH – Broadchurch (A small coastal town begins to divulge its secrets when the murder of young boy brings a press frenzy… and the murderer turns out to be closer than either of the protagonists could suspect)
TWLGHTZN – Twilight Zone (Too many Episodes to narrow down, but its general atmosphere of oddness in small towns, coupled to moralistic or emotive conclusions, makes it influential on the whole ‘American Gothic’ sub-genre. Certainly the ‘twist in the tale’ elements of the nightmare sequence, particularly the part where Max ends up as the ‘Snow-Doe’ in the snowglobe atop the Price’s fireplace, owe much to the Twlight Zone. )
RLSFTTRCTN – Rules of Attraction (Privileged, beautiful but morally-corrupt college-goers at an ‘End of the World’ party exploit one another in a dark, achronologically told black comedy of excess)
The novels and short stories of Ray Bradbury feature prominently – both in the form of the short story, A Sound of Thunder, which is most pertinently related to the story of Life Is Strange, in its famous evocation of the butterfly effect through the trampling efforts of its protagonist, Eckels; and in the short story collection, The October Country, which Kate has shared with Max. This seems to have less direct connections with the game’s story, and more with the autumnal, Halloween-horror mood which the early Episodes indulge in. Perhaps ‘The Wind’, with its tale of a man terrified of the winds he has defied around the world, has the most relevance for us, and for Max: less Joe Vs. The Volcano, more Max Vs. The Tornado.
And Warren is kind enough to give Max, and us, a primer on time travel in pop culture, just in case there was anything we missed:
Life Is Strange is far from the first work of fiction to contain its own reading list (certainly the backmatter of issues of Gillen & McKelvie’s Phonogram rivals it in the, “I should go and check these all out, immediately” stakes), but it is certainly one that rewards close reading of both itself, and its influences.
While the game proudly wears these influences on its sleeve, it is more than just a reconstituted gruel formed of their blended parts. It succeeds in its pitch-perfect evocation of the Pacific Northwest mystery vibe, while bringing elements new and modern to the table, and offering twists and characterisation of its own.
In this way, it shares its ethos with another cult hit of 2015: the TV series Mr Robot, whose creator is only too happy to give plaudits to Fight Club and American Psycho and yet produce something wholly new from the blend.
Perhaps we’re on the verge of a more general shift from a reboot to a remix culture: in the future, rather than chasing down the next franchise or story to be reset back to the first chapter every five years, we’ll find more creators willing to publicly acknowledge and accommodate the elements they’re riffing on, albeit in a wholly transformative fashion, without having to pretend that every new piece of fiction arrives fully formed from the ether, without parents or antecedents.
In conclusion: Life Is Strange is an endlessly fascinating box of surprises and delights, a game that rewards thoughtfulness, intuition and friendship; one mindful of its characters and its environment and the impact even small gestures can have on them both; moral without being moralistic.
As an evocation of a friendship, a relationship, and a world; as a simulation that understands the power of a place to sit and reflect; as a character study that revels in a novelistic unfurling of depth through context and repeated exposure; as a story that manages to balance love and horror in a way that seems deeply human, it was, and is, almost inexpressibly wonderful.
For all its flaws as a game, I hope it will continue to rank as one of my all-time favourite pop culture experiences for years to come, one in which every time I return to examine another part, I discover something new and exciting and worth talking about. Certainly even this lengthy thinkpiece has only scratched the surface of some of its many elements.
Despite that, I hope this epic exploration has proved interesting, and sends you back for another playthrough, if nothing else!
We’ll see you back here in a couple of years for discussion of the just-announced sequel.
Coming up next on Dubious Ideas: something completely different…