Accepting consequences with Life is Strange
Author: Corey Leigh
I played Life is Strange with two of my best friends. It’s an amazing game. It lifts you up. It tears you down. It draws you in with the gratification of solving its mysteries, anchors you there with its characters, then puts your emotions through a wood chipper before rewinding time to do it all again. But for me it also taught me about consequences, how little changes can make big differences – but also how sometimes things are too big for one person to change.
If you haven’t played this game then, first off, I envy you. You get to pick it up and play all five episodes without waiting months in between each cliffhanger, and, if you are reading this, then you are probably the kind of person who would get a lot out of Life is Strange, so go play it.
If you want to play it and come back to this story – go now, because I want to talk about the ending.
Life is Strange is a game with plenty of options for the player. Where a normal narrative game would see you picking a pathway and find out what consequences lay behind it, LiS lets you peek into the possibilities and pick not the choice, but the consequence you can live with. And in a game about choice and actions some of my favourite moments come when you need to accept the consequences of things you can’t change.
Throughout the story you can plop Max down on a seat, usually a park bench, and let her process the events unfolding around her. You can let her sit and narrate for a moment. There are a lot of moments of joy in the story but there is also so much pain and these interludes of Max just processing, entirely optionally, are amazing. Even in Max’s worst nightmares there are benches for her to just sit and process. And when we rejoin Max in her changed present at the end, she’s sitting in the sun on a park bench, the town-destroying cyclone nowhere to be seen. As we are processing the choice we just made. The space it creates here is unexpected but welcome.
A lot of heavy stuff happens in the game. And having these quiet moments let me and my friends listen to Max and mull over the events while never actually leaving the world.
Between episodes four and five, my world changed and I didn’t want to play the last episode. Life had moved in ways I wasn’t coping with and despite counselling I still wasn’t equipped with the tools to understand or articulate this pain. I think it’s safe to say that my friends weren’t equipped to deal with me either. And with all of the heavy stuff in the game so far, it didn’t seem like something I could handle. They encouraged me to play it anyway.
The ending is polarizing. There are plenty of people who were put off by it, plenty of others who swear by the other ending (bae before bay), to the point where I am still arguing with a friend over which ending is the better one. It’s easy to see why. In a game about control and choice whose recurring tagline is ‘this action will have consequences’, this ending appears to make all of those irrelevant. But I think the ending is about coming to terms with the things you cannot control. Like most detective stories, many of the major events in the game have already happened before you are given your powers. You cannot change them. By undoing the choices made and letting events unfold as they initially happened, Max is forced to come to terms with the things she cannot change. It’s the same event but viewed from a very different lens. What was once shock is now quiet acceptance.
And we hit that ending together. We made our final choice. And we were forced to watch. And, just like Max, you are forced to sit through the opening of the game again, this time burdened with knowing exactly what is going to happen. You cannot change this. There’s silence in the bathroom. Nathan Prescott talking himself up. Chloe bursting in to shake him down. And it’s all going wrong. Just like it did at the start. You cannot change this. In a game about changing your decisions, you cannot change this.
It happens. And it hurts. And you have to sit through it.
And you watch as the photos of happy memories of your playthrough are burned away, replaced by moments of consequence and grief, all events which would have played out regardless of the actions and choices you made. You watch as the villains get their comeuppance but it’s easily overshadowed by the images of the grief of the loss.
My friends and I watched this in silence.
We made that final choice together and we talked about the sense of grief and loss that came with it. Being an active part of the experience brought a greater sense of impact, closeness, and empathy with the events, compared to a more passive medium dealing with the like.
We talked about the choices we made together, about what had just happened in that world. Once again it gives you space to process. And it let me look to my friends and say that this, this is what I felt. And we found that with the shared experience and the space we had been given, we could talk about that too.
There were things which I did not have the power to change. Things which I had to be okay with. There are some things which you are not in control of. Max comes to terms with this over the course of the game.
That a game could give us that…I’m hella grateful for it. I’m glad that we can have games like Life is Strange that help us heal, and teach us that sometimes you have the power to change things, and sometimes you need to live with the outcomes.