Pip and Alice have been enjoying Life Is Strange [official site] and getting together for little chats about each episode of Dontnod Entertainment's coming-of-age time travel bonanza as they came out. Episode 5 wrapped everything up last week - or did it? - so they've come together one final time to chat about that, look at the series as a finished piece, and maybe even answer the big question: just how strange is life?
This chat is, of course, oozing spoilers from every teenage pore.
Pip: Hi Alice.
Alice: Hullo Pip! What brings us to this big white space today?
Pip: Well, I said we would do a Life Is Change chat full of spoilers, but as usual with that game I don't know where to start. Oh! Hang on – I did episode 4 solo so do you want to say a little about how you were feeling about the game prior to this episode? I was a bit worried it was going to go all wrong.
Alice: The game or its story? I... hm. It's been a while, but I do remember the middle-ending of episode 4 was wonderful and awful and great, but by the actual ending of 4 I was a touch worried 5 might hurtle on through at breakneck pace trying to tidy everything up. Are we caught up now? I also am not sure what to say. I did like the pacing of 5, crashing through possibilities then returning over and over to the slow dread of the dark room itself to wipe out those hopes.
Pip: Maybe we should start there like the game does.
To recap a little, you start the game having found Rachel Amber's body buried in the junkyard where Chloe has her little hideout. There's a dark room/photo studio/drugs cabinet under a barn owned by the rich Prescott family and that's where someone has been taking pictures of abducted and drugged girls. You (or rather your player character, Max) suspect Nathan so you go to a party to confront him but then receive a text from him making you think he's destroying the evidence in the junkyard. Rather than y'know GOING TO THE POLICE you and Chloe head over to find... Mark Jefferson. He drugs Max and shoots Chloe. Now you're duct taped to a chair in the dark room while he takes gross awful photos to capture your innocence and alternately croons over you and gets mad with you.
Alice: The rozzers are in the Prescotts' pocket, man! It is a bit "Only we, two plucky teens, know the truth and can solve this!" and it goes about as well as that would. I... well, I don't like what happened, but I like that their plans collapse and lessons are learned and all that. It's now tricky for me to talk about any part of episode 5 without talking about it all.
Pip, should we skip straight to the big, difficult question: how did you end Life Is Strange?
Pip: I killed Chloe :( Or rather, I let her die when Nathan shot her in the bathroom. Is that what happened in yours or did you save Arcadia Bay?
Alice: I let her die too. It felt the whole game was leading to that. Accept what you can't control and grow up. Ditching Arcadia Bay and everyone in it would've seemed wildly out of character for both Max and Chloe. Or for my Max and Chloe, at least.
Pip: Something I saw people being irked by was that it felt like there was one correct ending. Does that bother you? I mean we both picked the one that was judged as "correct" so perhaps we're not best placed to discuss that, but GIVEN I'M GOING TO ANYWAY, I was okay with it. The game's been doing that all along and I mostly stopped fighting it in episode 2. That's when I started to really enjoy the game. I think that given Dontnod clearly had an idea of how Max and Chloe should/would react to things they clearly had an idea for how the game would end "correctly". But I guess the question is, should they have even dressed it up as a choice given their game is all about making choices?
Alice: Looking at the stats, it's a 54/46% split on letting Chloe die/ditching Arcadia. I don't know whether that figure is affected by people going back to see the other ending or not, but I can definitely imagine a fair few people would take their wild young friendship (or romance!) on the road and leave that awful place and their difficult lives. I've no romance in my soul, though, only guilt.
I'm okay with it having (from my view) one clear correct answer. It seems right that it would still have the other option, that nagging longing to blow it all off and escape together, that little voice saying "But we could..." which makes it all the more difficult when you choose to let her die. I knew which I'd pick long before it even presented me with the choice, and I still agonised for a while. Good, that. And awful.
Pip: Thank you for articulating the thing I was deleting and retyping and making a complete hash of! I think it needed the other option to be there because otherwise I wouldn't have sat there agonising over it and being tempted by the "wrong" option and it would have taken away some of – actually, a lot of – the emotional gutpunch.
Something I will say is that all the way through I've fought the game on one point, though, and that's Warren.
Alice: GO AWAY, WARREN.
Pip: Like, every time I cave and do something that is intended as basic friendliness it feels like the game takes it too far. In the diner towards the end of the episode you tell Warren what's been going on with your time powers and then you're about to disappear into a photo to return to the night of that party before you got abducted. The game is all "do you want to kiss Warren or hug him or JUST LEAVE LIKE A STONE COLD BUTT?" I felt like I had to do something other than just leave because they were supposed to be friends but then the hug seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time and was more... I dunno? Loaded? It was certainly more *something* than I'd intended. There's also a bit at the end when you're at Chloe's funeral and Max – slightly older, slightly more self-assured, slightly more worldly – FUCKING SIDLES CLOSER TO HIM. STOP IT, MAX. THAT IS NOT WHO I COMMAND YOU TO BE.
Alice: I don't like Warren, but I think he's a good character. It's that awkward, ill-defined friendship where they wish it was more and you do like them but their longing grates and your shared inability to confront anything head-on makes it grindingly awkward. I dislike him because I remember those feelings. Good character - but get over it and give her some space, man.
At the funeral, ah, I didn't see that because, as far as I was concerned, Max had just lost her girlfriend. It's always tricky, games trying to interpret responses. It perhaps could've used a "Yo, seriously, not happening" line at some point, but Max would've only became confident enough to say that towards the end. There would be no escaping those first few episodes of awkwardness.
Pip: I think that's fair. I'm bringing a lot of my own interpretation here because I, personally, didn't like Warren and would have shut off from him given half a chance but he was a friend of Max's so he kept popping up and I kept feeling obliged to be friendly. It's so weird to feel that much social pressure from a game situation and I think it made me more uncomfy than it should have.
Alice: That awkwardness and discomfort is one of the stronger teenager-feeling parts of Life Is Strange for me. On a similar note, I did like in the dream sequence (or whatever it was - I don't care, its exact nature is unimportant to me) towards the end when everyone you know is assembled and telling you what you think they believe. And that one of those people (I can't remember who) points out you spent ages using your time-travel powers to make people like you. I'm glad that doubt was somewhere in Max's head. It was kinda correct too.
Pip: It wasn't just about wanting people to like her either – it was about taking shortcuts to make that happen, like using the time powers to find out the right answer and using that instead of having a real connection with that person. When it came up I had a guilty memory of doing that exact thing to find out Juliet's surname with her being annoyed I didn't know it the first time around and then touched I'd been paying attention to her when I rewound and got it right.
How did you feel about the dream/alternate reality/hell stuff, by the way? I thought it did some really smart things. Some of them creeped me out – I hate sections where you have to creep around and avoid being seen, especially playing them at night, but with the rewind it wasn't so bad that I couldn't play it and it wasn't particularly time consuming – just part of a creepy surrealness as time (or possibly Max) unravelled. It also has that joke when you start finding bottles that this must really be hell. As someone who took a billion years to find that final bottle in the junkyard I appreciated the reference. And further appreciated that you did NOT have to actually find them again.
Then going through all of the tableaux with Chloe and Max from all the previous episodes was lovely. I stood for a while with each and every one of them. It stripped out a lot of the little frustrations of the actual episodes and just told the story of their friendship. It was like a eulogy, which I guess was the point. But it also gave you time to reflect and wander up and down the most important timeline before you had to say goodbye.
Alice: I liked that section. The shoehorned-in stealth was sloppy, as shoehorned stealth will be, but the emotion of being hounded it worked and rewinding made it simple enough anyway. You know, finding the bottle is the only wink to the camera I can remember seeing in Life Is Strange - I laughed, but I'm not sure if I like it. But yeah, the timeline is beautiful - the staging and framing of it all is really nice too. I lingered, knowing by then what was coming. It was a good moment to have. Normally I'll grumble about dream sequences not being remotely dreamy but this had heart.
I have a question: do you mind all your choices and actions across five episodes culminating in Option 1 or Option 2?
Pip: No. I think it's because even though they ended up not resulting in changes that persisted in the game world, they culminated in a change in Max and that change felt like it chimed with all the things she had been through as a character in the course of the game.
Alice: OKAY GOOD I agree. It's the story told and the life lived along the way that matter. We touch lives as we move past them, but ultimately most things won't matter at those key moments of crisis, at those endings. I've liked Life Is Strange's restraint in all that. It's not a system to master and unlock an optimal ending, it's a life to go through. The choices made along the way do matter and they do change the story, a constant stream of endings and beginnings.
Which, obviously, is me being snippy about people who've grumped that most of their choices didn't 'matter'. They absolutely did, they just didn't unlock an ending where your bestie David stormed in backed up by a limping Frank with that bluebird you saved sitting upon his shoulder. Most things in life don't change anything, but we still do them.
Pip: So I have a question off the back of that. How do you feel about the ending Nathan got? After Mr Jefferson's Bond-villain style reveal-o-chat in the photo bunker you learn that Nathan is responsible for Rachel Amber's death, but you also learn that Mr Jefferson insinuated himself in Nathan's life as a father figure to take advantage of the Prescott fortune (his real dad being an unapproachable jackass). Nathan, by this point, is being portrayed as having mental health or behavioural issues which his family seem really bad at dealing with and he accidentally kills Rachel with an overdose while emulating Mr Jefferson. None of this is to excuse him, but his ending is so bleak. Your decision to sacrifice Chloe also means you decide not to stop Nathan pulling the trigger. The developers focus on Max at that point but yeesh, it's dark.
Alice: It is a bit odd. I felt increasingly sympathetic and unhappy about what happens with Nathan, but he's basically off-screen the whole time, even when you travel back to times when he's alive and around. I suppose it's a life beyond your reach, something your powers can't change (he's already deep down that path, isn't he? having already killed Rachel Amber) but still, I wouldn't have minded another opportunity to at least try to reach him. It's also that scamp Jefferson robbing you of a conclusion you thought you had control over. Rachel was already dead, and then Nathan too. He's a rotter, that one.
Speaking of, what did you make of Jefferson's photographic murdermotivations - capturing the exact moment people accept 'lose their innocence'? As Goofy Serial Killer Logic goes, I'm onboard with it. He's also wrong - Max's loss of innocence and naivete comes from the big decision she makes, not what he does to her.
Pip: Technically by the time the episode ends he's... not a serial killer? Like, Rachel Amber died because of Nathan and the other victim that you know – Kate – actually ends up back at school not dead. So I was trying to work out whether he was actually a killer or not. Like, there are a lot of files so there are a lot of existing victims and he doesn't seem to have any qualms about killing people from that point onward but I was trying to work out at what point he becomes a killer.
That's a kind of sidenote though. Life Is Strange has always had that exaggerated character thing going on so I wasn't expecting a subtle villain. I was expecting something pretty much in this vein. I think it worked and it made me truly uncomfortable to be there as Max, listening to him talk about innocence and crawling about her semi-conscious body taking pictures (YUCK YUCK YUCK NO). Actually, at that point I was still worried about the episode and remember thinking that I might just be done with the game and that all of this stuff for shock or for discomfort wasn't going anywhere fruitful, you know? As the episode went on that worry dissipated, though.
Alice: It is mighty unpleasant. Max freeing her leg, jumping into photos, and gaining confidence raised hope, but these kept being dashed when she'd find herself back in the dark room. Grim, that.
OH, BUT THEN: FRUSTRATION. Life Is Strange's puzzling continued to be its weakest side. The bit David arrives in the bunker to rescue Max but keeps getting trounced by Jefferson was annoying, and for a fairly typical Life Is Strange reason. I'd figure out part of the sequence I was supposed to do, but then it wouldn't be the whole solution, so I'd go rewind and try the other options presented and they wouldn't work and eventually I'd realise one path at least let me get further, so I should focus on that more and more and rewind and look around and try again and... it's not a good puzzle. Often its puzzles have been bad.
Pip: I got that one quickly but a couple of others from earlier episodes seriously outstayed their welcome. Dontnod have definitely been unadventurous with the structuring as well, you're right. The bit which annoyed me the most was when you're in the diner convincing Chloe you have these powers. It went on far too long.
I wish Dontnod had switched that stuff up a bit, or at least improved the basic formula they would be iterating on forever. I remember back at the beginning I also wanted to have a few more moments where Max could just use her power for silly things or teenage things or whatever. There was a moment I saw watching a friend play where you get one of the skaters to try and do a trick for you. He flubs it and hits himself in the balls with the board. I wanted to see Max maybe stepping in poop and rewinding or falling over in class and rewinding. Being able to dodge embarrassing moments by controlling time but SURELY be the ultimate teen fantasy.
Alice: When I tried to learn to skateboard a few years back (as teenagers in their thirties will), I mostly got cool wounds and almost hit a child. I wouldn't have minded time-rewinding. Or I'd master some goofy trick. Coin tricks. Pen tricks. Sleight of hand magic. I'd think that was 'hella' cool. Everyone would be real indifferent to it.
So, one thing we've talked about before is: mostly, the whole time travel thing is unexplained, right? Warren pops up at the end to wank on about chaos theory and whatnot to explain the tornado for folks who really haven't twigged by now that time travel is ruining things, but it's never explained, is it? Or the ghost deer that would guide Max? Or Samuel's mystic vibe? Or the curious homeless lady behind the diner? Or... I like that its two big plotlines come down to 'kooky teacher' and 'yeah whatever you want I guess time stuff maybe magic idk'. I had worried episode 5 might be mired down in explaining the mechanics of everything, but it launched happily into expanding themes.
Pip: I'm fine with it never explaining the deer and fine with it not explaining where the powers came from but that's because, after what had happened to Rachel was resolved, the point of the game was how the relationship between Max and Chloe played out. I think if you're still playing it as a mystery about time powers (and I can totally see why you might be) then that's going to be a let down.
By the way, I feel like we haven't addressed how right I was yet. I said it would be Jefferson from the start and that Nathan would be a puppet having his strings pulled. I also said Rachel Amber was going to be dead already and that David would turn out to be a good guy. I have basically watched and read a LOT of teen fiction. LOOK. I even said in an article: "I don’t trust Nathan not to end up being positioned as a victim of someone else before the game is out."
Alice: Well done! Your narrative eye is a keen inspector. Me, I was too hung on on trees and deer and whales to notice, and probably too keen for something X-Files or Twin Peaks-y.
We haven't stated it simply, because obviously this is how we feel given how fondly we talk about it - and the amount we talk about it - but Life Is Strange is really good, isn't it? No game has had this tone and feeling for me. I like it an awful lot. It's clearly flawed, but as a whole I'm so into it. I almost said something quite personal then but I will save that FOR LATER okay.
Pip: It's something where I think it's really good but I'm aware that my experience won't be a universal one so I find myself approaching it like Deadly Premonition in terms of recommending it to people. Like, I want to make sure they know how good I think it is but there are also a lot of points where I think people might lose patience with it or it might just not be their sort of thing.
Alice: This is true. I agree. Especially because you mentioned Deadly Premonition - a game I love like few others, but struggle to recommend. Guys, have you played it?
OH I can't believe we've barely mentioned this: isn't Life Is Strange one of the prettiest dang games? Like, whoa, the painterly style and the lighting and the cinematography, dang, it is pretty.
Pip: It takes Instagram-style effects and uses them as its aesthetic. They're attractive but I find them grating at times. There's a dishonesty in Instagram, a kind of reverence for a staged or cropped reworking of reality. A sentimental longing for an alternate version of reality where the light was just so and there was no clutter just out of shot. I like Instagram, but yeah, I also think of it in those terms. There's an oversaturation and an unreality and a lack of subtlety that I think lends itself to this as a teen story though, It's appropriate for how the game works and what it's trying to get at.
Alice: I like that thing you just said.
I also look how the sketchy style presumably let them create loads of art assets relatively quickly. Yeah, loads are re-used a lot, but I do dig how much is unique.
Pip, you're giving me that look like when we'd be eating cherry pie and watching Twin Peaks and you'd say "Are you going to make the last Tube?" And I'm giving my keyboard that look of "It's Friday night and I need something flammable to get the log fire going." Shall we part? Any parting thoughts?
Pip: I wish I had a cherry pie.
Alice: You never know, Pip. Life... is strange.
Pip: I'M LEAVING.