You know, this wasn’t the article I wanted to write. It really wasn’t. Let me get this out of the way: I love Life Is Strange. I love the empathy it shows in giving even most of its villains depth and meaning. I love how most of the time it manages to tap into that inexperience, that imperfection, that unbridled optimism that makes the best kind of teen fiction. I love Max and Chloe’s tender, confused, multi-faceted relationship with each other; and all those things that I love are in here. In fact, some of the best moments of the entire series are nestled amidst this final episode. Little pieces of humanity that represent the very best this series has to offer.
And that’s why the ending is so terrible.
The second half of episode five takes place largely inside what is implied to be Max’ own head, where she is forced to face her greatest fear: Terribly designed mandatory stealth sections. There’s plenty to criticize here, but let’s be honest. The gameplay of Life Is Strange, especially the puzzles that involve the rewind mechanic, have always been clunky. I can get over this bit of below-average gameplay, especially since the environmental design here is really cool. The way it manages to recall some of the scenes from earlier in the game and make them feel both familiar and yet alien, is well done and creative. No, the real ending, and the real problem I have with this episode, starts after Max has made her way through all that.
In one of the last scenes of the game, Max finds herself in a representation of Joyce’s diner. It is filled with the residents of Arcadia Bay who are all blaming her for their deaths. As she walks through the crowd, she finds herself confronted by a mirror image, who accuses her of being selfish. Her motivations weren’t pure, the doppelgänger claims. She only used her power to make people like her more, and in doing so started a chain reaction that destroyed their lives. It is without a doubt meant to be an emotionally devastating scene, forcing both Max and the player to reflect on their action throughout the adventure. They have to face the consequences of their actions now that there is no rewinding, only taking responsibility. This is followed shortly after by the final choice of the game: To either sacrifice Chloe and turn back all the changes Max has made, undoing all of her damage to the timeline but killing her friend in the process, or to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and its residents in exchange for Chloe’s continued existence.
It’s not a bad ending. That is to say, it’s not a bad idea for an ending. However it’s not the ending this game needed. In fact, this ending undermines the entire point of the series. The choice here and what it means is rather obvious: Max has to either commit to her selfishness and accept that saving Chloe quite literally means letting everyone die, or she has to turn everything back, letting Chloe die but in doing so not fuck up the lives of everyone else. The tornado here is a metaphorical butterfly-effect turned literal. It is the result of her actions doing countless things beyond her control, and others suffering for it.
The reason the ending ultimately rings false is that the criticisms thrown at Max are unjustified. They are not backed up by anything that actually happens in the series, and they fundamentally contradict the main focus of the games themselves: Max’ powers allow her empathy. There is an obvious parallel between Max’ passion for photography and her powers, with a lecture in the first episode referring to photography as “framing little pieces of time”. This is fundamentally what Max’ powers allow her to do to capture a moment, and to examine it closely from multiple angles. Her powers allow her to explore not just the possibilities she has, but the people around her. And in doing so, it allows her to see the sympathetic side of people that she would normally just dismiss. This is something that comes back constantly throughout the series. Victoria’s aggression and hate come from a lack of certainty about her own work, coming from a rich family and never knowing whether people actually care about her work and her as a person, or just her money. Nathan is a rapist and a murderer, but he’s also obviously an addict with an unclear mind who is groomed and manipulated by a man far more in control than him. Frank is a drug dealer who doesn’t care what his product is used for or how it damages other people, but he also genuinely cared for Rachel. While he is apathetic about the lives of most, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. The principal is an obstinate man who protects Nathan from scrutiny until he can no longer avoid it, but he does genuinely seem to care for his students and cannot help being forced into a position where most of the money for his school comes from the parents of one of the greatest threats to his students. The game never pretends these reasons absolve any of these people, but it understands they are humans and have their reasons for doing the things they do, and through her powers Max is able to understand these reasons as well and use that to find the best solution. Max’ power is fundamentally one that creates empathy and understanding, and it’s this empathy and understanding that guides the decisions Max makes.