004. Life Is Strange
We’ve all been there. You read a book, watch a TV show, or play a game, and there’s something about it that captures your imagination. You can’t stop. You binge on it for several hours in a row to express your curiosity for the rest of the story. This happened to me when I started playing the episodic story-driven game Life Is Strange.
Life Is Strange, though, ran into pitfalls with its mystery plot. It turns out that one of the oldest “tricks” in the book to capture your imagination, so to speak, is the withholding of information. If you cut away to a mysterious man speaking in the shadows or present an inexplicable phenomenon, your curiosity as a viewer is piqued. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style of storytelling even if it can at times seem formulaic. However, when it comes to long-running plots like that in Life Is Strange, there are going to inevitably be issues.
LiS (Life Is Strange) released in 5 solid episodes over the course of a year starting with Episode 1 on January 30, 2015, and finally ending with Episode 5 being released on October 20th that same year.
The first episode is enthralling. It really captured my imagination the way it introduces so many characters and presented me with the unique game mechanic of time control. Even if some parts were a bit cheesy, it wasn’t difficult to look past them and immerse myself into the world. Episode Two very strongly continued this trend and even ended on a very emotional and heavy climax. It made me think, “If this is in episode two, how will episode five end?”
Every episode presents several mysteries and is not at all quick to answer them for you. The principal doesn’t seem very trustworthy - I wonder if he’s hiding anything? The creepy janitor seems to know a lot more than he’s letting on. The Prescott family is controlling the town - I wonder if we will uncover a plot and have to take them down? What is this spirit doe doing that keeps watching me? Why is the security guard being so rude to Kate?
With a two month wait between every episode, the suspense can kill you. Fortunately I discovered the series after four episodes were released and I only had to wait for the final one. But even then the anticipation was killing me.
So here’s the problem. Many people had to wait 10 months to get their questions answered. I myself only had to wait a few weeks, but I already had so many wild theories for how the story would play out. My favorite personal theory was that perhaps something inevitably tragic would happen to Chloe, and Rachel Amber was going to be revealed to be Max going back in time posing as a new girl so that she could regain all the years she lost with Chloe. I thought of this because Rachel seemed to disappear right before your character Max comes along, and also people reference often that you look like Rachel and are her size. After reading online I discovered there were also tons of wild and interesting fan theories for how the game would end, even silly ones like that Alyssa (the girl who you save from several accidents) is also a time traveller who puts herself into situations where she’ll be hurt because she is testing to see if you are also a time traveller. But the true ending - naturally - was disappointing. My ideas were so grand at that point that there was no way the ending would ever satisfy me. To me, the climax boiling down to just that the teacher was the only bad guy and that there is a storm coming and that you must choose to save Chloe or save the town, was all too “easy” for a writer to settle on. It didn’t feel nearly as creative as all of the cool or interesting mysteries they themselves presented but didn’t conclude and simply ignored.
Sometimes, as an author you want to write a story such that you can “prove” you had planned ahead. That you didn’t just make it all up as you went. Perhaps as an author you might think that the audience will truly appreciate your story as long as it comes full circle in the end. But it’s a tragedy to become stuck in this line of thinking, just as LiS did.
The TV show “How I Met Your Mother” is a prime example of this. I won’t go into spoilers, but it is widely accepted that the ending to the 9-season show was disappointing. It was painfully clear that they had this ending written ever since the first episode. However, as the show became close to wrapping up, everyone wanted and expected a different particular ending. You see, the writers of HIMYM had foregone the current state of the show. They ignored everything they had built and all of the development the characters had gone through over those years just to prove that they had a “plan” from the beginning.
LiS was no different at all. And before I continue to explain why, I must first explain to you that there is a very clearly authored “wrong” ending, and a “right” ending. Sacrificing Chloe is rather poetic - it wraps the story around back to the beginning, and ultimately it turns out that to save the bay you have to reverse all of your changes. It pulls the “How I Met Your Mother” here by “cleverly” making you go back to that special picture of the blue butterfly in the first scene. This is how you know that they intended this to happen from the beginning. After you make the decision on that hill-top, if you had kissed Chloe before, you’ll get the “satisfying” kiss here in an emotional culmination of your relationship as you say goodbye. And the rest of the ending scene is very cinematic, colorful, and emotional while “Spanish Sahara” by Foals plays in the background, which is the first time you ever hear this song in the game.
Sacrificing Arcadia Bay, however, is obviously the intended incorrect choice. Even if you’ve kissed Chloe before, you don’t actually kiss her in this ending, when arguably this decision is admitting how much more you care about her than the other decision. The rest of the ending scene is boring - you and Chloe ride through the torn up town quietly where you can only assume everyone is dead. Even though you saved your closest friend, the scene is pretty set on focusing on the destruction that you caused with all of its bland colors. On top of this, the background song that is playing is “Obstacles” by Syd Matters, which is the song that plays at the end of Episode One when Max has another vision of the tornado. In other words, this ending didn’t even receive its own dedicated soundtrack song - it was re-used.
All of this is to say that the authors intended for you, from the beginning, to sacrifice Chloe and save the bay. And here inlies the problem: The entire game is spent cultivating your friendship with Chloe. You save Chloe’s life countless times, including the alternate timeline in which you decide to re-kill off her father (which is forced on you) in order to prevent her from being paralyzed and eventually dying young. The game already makes you do tons of things to change the future in which Chloe would die, so why is it all of a sudden the “wrong” choice to save Chloe one final time? It’s okay to sacrifice her father to save her (which again is forced on you), but you can’t sacrifice the whole town? And finally, why is it okay to have the player erase and invalidate every single decision they ever made in the game by returning to the beginning and deciding to not use your powers? That’s an excellent to way make the player feel like they wasted their time by playing the game since they ultimately didn’t achieve anything.
After being played out, the story could have had plenty of other more surprising or more interesting endings, but the authors were not flexible enough to change their plans for the way things ended. And I suppose I’m not saying that they should have fixed it because I do concede that it would have been very difficult to pull off. It’s just that in the end, this is just something that’s a very potential pitfall when you have a long story like this in which the ending is written first. And even if they had wanted to change it, it was most likely too late considering all of the development that goes into a game. Which brings me to my final discussion point.
We finally reach what I believe to ultimately be the true problem with any long-running story such as that in Life Is Strange. It’s a two-fold issue that boils down to one in the end: time and money - the amount of money you have dictates the amount of time you have. It’s pretty straightforward here. The more money you spend on a project, the more time your staff has to make it perfect. But nobody has infinite time or money.
Let’s say you are taking a five question test. You likely don’t have a grasp of how to spend your time, and so you work hard on the first problem or two because you feel like you have a lot of time, and once you realize that the time is halfway up, you have to rush the other three questions in order to finish the test on time. You could say the same happened here in LiS. The first two episodes had a lot more “oomph” and detail than the last three, and if I’m being more generous to the series, the first four episodes were a lot more entertaining than the final episode. It’s entirely possible that the authors did plan for more in their final episode but the development team couldn’t pull it off, which could explain the unanswered questions and the lackluster “wrong” ending scene of saving Chloe.
Perhaps the biggest tell that the fifth episode had less development involved in it aside from the rather disappointing endings is the extremely long and drawn out nightmare sequence. It’s difficult to explain its purpose. You could try to explain its purpose, but in the end it just doesn’t feel like it needed to be there. In this sequence there’s very little dialogue, a lot of assets are re-used, and the background is just black which to me says that they found an easy way out of not having to craft new environments. Ultimately, the nightmare sequence serves no purpose story-wise. It doesn’t present any new information and it only re-caps the events that already occurred. Many characters are even randomly and rather uncharacteristically mean to you, all for really no reason other than that it’s “a nightmare”. The only positive I could say about it is that it helps to set up sacrificing Chloe so that it doesn’t feel so sudden.
If you wanted to assume nefarious intent, you could also say that the publisher actually did influence the development team to spend a lot of time on the first few episodes and less time on the final one(s). From a sales perspective, it doesn’t really matter how the game ends. Many people who loved the first few episodes, like myself, instantly bought the whole package. Many reviewers reviewed the game before Episode Five came out considering they had 10 whole months to do so. The sales were already made and people are probably more likely to remember their first impressions of the game rather than their impression of the ending anyway.
If you are funding a large project, the only reasons you have to actually make sure the ending is perfect are personal ones. After all, the goal is to sell the game, and if you could have a choice to either spend more time on the beginning or on the end, you’re going to choose the beginning. If your project contains a lackluster start then even less people will stick around to see that idealistic “better” ending.
With any franchise or project with a long story you’re always going to run into this problem. When Episode Five came out it was around the same time as Metal Gear Solid V, a game which carries similar baggage (no plot spoilers here). In fact both of these games coming out within a month of each other is why I gained the fire to write this article, albeit I’m writing a year late. MGSV had absolutely rave reviews when it was released. The beginning was long and interesting and the gameplay was fantastic. Since the game is so long, reviewers realistically can’t spend the 50+ hours it takes to complete when it comes down to having your review out before someone else, so of course you’ll write about your first impressions. However, the game is unfinished. It’s really not even “arguable” considering all of the material you could find through a few quick google searches indicating such. But again, in the end, it doesn’t matter how it ends because as long as you can make sure nobody actually gets to the end before they recommend it to someone else, then you’ve made another sale.
This doesn’t stop at LiS or MGSV either. Everywhere you go you can see evidence of this. Free-to-play games for mobile devices which spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on just making sure that you have a good first impression of the game despite not providing any truly satisfying gameplay or ending. Similarly, the original Assassin’s Creed trilogy (as a whole), Grand Theft Auto games, Elder Scrolls games, Mass Effect 3, and even the Witcher 3 (which I do love overall) are all large games which suffer in some form from this disease of not having a satisfying ending.
As I mentioned in the beginning this isn’t an issue strictly for video games. Any medium really, typically an ongoing series of something that doesn’t require a solid ending, will tend to skew toward not having that solid ending. Budget is always a problem, but even if the budget exists, you still will run into the problem of invoking someone’s wild imagination and being unable to match their expectations.
But as a gamer, video games are where my focus is. I would love nothing more than to see games which have so much to offer us story-wise actually “respect” (term used loosely) us enough as players to try and see it all the way through. But it’s just extremely rare to happen. I wish that Life Is Strange had the ability to explore all of the plot pieces that it opened up but never followed through on: the creepy janitor, the spirit doe, the Prescott family which was “ruining” Arcadia Bay, and so on. But it was never going to.
Can you recall a game with a long running story that had a truly satisfying ending? If so, leave a comment! And don’t forget to like and subscribe, it really helps me out.
Anyway jokes aside, if you made it this far I want to thank you for reading. I honestly did enjoy Life Is Strange, and also recommend it to friends. But the way it ended (and I see it as the way it inevitably ended) it just sadly leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I hope that as there is a Life Is Strange 2 in development, they manage to address this issue, even if it really is unlikely.