Life is Strange shows that giving up control can be a good thing.
As games have gotten more and more complex, players and developers alike have become infatuated with options. Some of the most acclaimed games in recent years have pushed the boundaries of just how much agency players have not only in respect to the gameplay, but also to the direction of the story. All of this progress in interactive storytelling didn’t come without some growing pains, however; a number of these games have been criticized for their endings and how little their choices actually altered once the credits rolled. I would say that this is a bit unfair, and in no place is this as evident as the response to the conclusion of 2015’s Life is Strange.
Initially, I was also a bit miffed that my decisions were reflected only marginally in the game’s final choice. Upon further reflection, however, I truly believe that allowing a developer to hold on to the reigns in a story-focused game like Life is Strange can allow for more fully developed characters and a more cohesive narrative. In addition, the player’s decisions in the four prior episodes and the game world’s subsequent response informed the final decision far more than some players might believe.
Life is Strange was released last year by DontNod Entertainment, the French studio responsible for 2013’s Remember Me. Distributed in five episodes over the course of the year, the game was critically acclaimed for its interesting characters and narrative, but when it came to how the story wrapped up, a number of gamers left less than satisfied. For a game that hammered its choice system into players heads without being exactly subtle, the fact that the ending came down to what was essentially a single binary choice (though certainly a hard one to make) between two cutscenes resulted in some very vocal critics coming out of the woodwork, even if they had enjoyed the other aspects of the game. I think that to criticize a narrative-driven game, no matter how many branching paths there were throughout the rest of the playtime, for not taking into account your choices in the ending is missing the point a bit.
Though it is understandable that players would like agency and for that to run throughout the experience, there has to be a line drawn between each daring escapade that a player takes the characters on and the actual arc of the story as set out by the developers. This isn’t to say that to have choice-based endings in a game is a bad thing, as it can be gripping when done well, but it is unrealistic to expect writers to craft dozens of ending permutations dependent on the choices made throughout the game. In addition to all of those pretty cutscenes being extremely expensive and time-consuming, writers have to juggle making endings satisfying for the players as well as the writers themselves. When beginning a creative project, especially one as character-focused as Life is Strange, the vast majority of writers will already have an overall ending in mind, as well as the resolutions of each major character’s arcs. To make an ending truly choice based necessitates that writers let go of their own story to a degree. I have no doubt that to put the resolution of the story in players hands, to give them just as much control as they want, is nothing short of terrifying.
In the case of Life is Strange, in particular, the deeply personal nature of the story made this type of design impossible to pull off without sacrificing characters, in addition to prohibitively expensive. If the game were to be truly opened up, with Max becoming a Commander Shepard-esque figure in terms of the variety of her possible responses to a situation and, thus, other character’s responses to her, would it really be Max? Throughout the game, players have a degree of control over her dialogue options, particularly in regards to her interactions with Victoria and other side characters, but her end goal remains the same as well as her major character traits. Even if she is nothing but cold to her tormentors, she’ll still retain her overall quasi-dorky personality. In literature, film, and games alike, so much of what people will remember of a product is its characters, and to open that side of the story up for player input will lose in characterization what it gains in interactivity. Allowing players to make a character and story their own is still a viable way to craft a game, it’s just very different from the engaging personal narrative that games like Life is Strange are trying to create. Though open-world epics like the Bethesda games let you craft the central character to your liking, those games allow for a very different type of storytelling. The main narrative behind Oblivion, for example, is decent, but I know that when I came back to the real world out of Oblivion, I was thinking not of the Story of Septim Succession as much as my own tales, seen through the eyes of a shady thief, set in the backdrop of Cyrodil’s seedy underworld. Obviously, the Elder Scrolls games aren’t exactly congruent to a story-based game like Life is Strange, and that’s kind of the point.
Without extensive time and resources, to truly allow players full control over the story is to turn a story based game into something more akin to the Elder Scrolls. It is necessary for the focus of the developers to shift from the yarn and characters that they have created to the ones that players themselves can create. Neither approach is inherently better than the other, they’re just different approaches for different types of stories.
I understand that most people were irritated at the endings of games like Life is Strange because of the perceived illusion of choice presented throughout the game, but, for some of the reasons outlined above, that mechanic wasn’t really the point of the game, at least when it comes to how I consumed it. I kept coming back to the game because of its characters and world, and, rather than being something to be taken on its own terms, I saw the choice mechanic as a way to flesh out those two elements. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Sure, the choices made throughout all five episodes of Life is Strange didn’t directly set the path for how the final minutes played out, but they most definitely influenced how you arrived at that pivotal last decision. All of the minutia, the things that Life is Strange does so indelibly well, effects how you perceive the game’s world and the characters that inhabit it. This is crucial, as, in the end, it all comes down to whether or not the player’s love for Chloe surpasses that of the entire cast of characters minus her. (END SPOILERS) Every little bit of throw-away dialogue has been subtly influencing how the player will react when that crucial button press comes.
That is the amazing thing about Life is Strange and how it handles making a choice-based game without a truly choice-based ending. Though I can understand that some players were disappointed when the proverbial Butterfly flapping its wings only ended up affected the next county over, but when that predestined Hurricane did come all of the little decisions I had made and each character’s response to them certainly added up in my mind, and the writers at DontNod were still left with a great degree of creative control. The characters and narrative remained true to the initial vision; the lens that they were viewed through did not. Regardless of what you do along the way, the game’s path always leads to that Hurricane. The beauty of Life is Strange is its reminder that no matter how cataclysmic the set end may be, it’s the little moments along the way that make the experience truly worth experiencing.