by Lucy Ungaro
These are my thoughts on the final episode of Life is Strange. All those still planning on playing the game, beware–spoilers abound.
Max’s right hand moves, struggling, barely. The camera watches, leering. Her arms and legs? Duct taped to a chair. Her eyes, hollow. Drugged. She’s been drugged.
That’s the way Life is Strange Episode 5 Polarized opens. Max, the protagonist that players have come to know and care for, is strapped to a chair in the sinister Dark Room that was uncovered in Episode 4—the room where spoiled and violent highschool student Nathan Prescott and photographer and teacher, Mr. Jefferson, have been taking women against their will, drugging them, and photographing them.
Now, our heroic time-traveling photographer, Max, is on the other side of the camera, living the horrors we saw glimpses of in the pictures Jefferson and Nathan took of other hapless, innocent teenage girls. There is a sense of hopelessness in the beginning, because Max’s rewind powers only go so far, and she presumably has been in this room, drugged, for several hours. Suddenly, all of the drama before these trapped moments feels trivial, but not in a negative way. Instead, when I thought of the warmer days of using Max’s powers to interact with squirrels and solve teenage quarrels, I wished I could return to them, so Max would never have to face something so terrible. It was a stark, effective scene.
Max finds a way out, of course, by traveling through photographs. For those who don’t know, Max can reverse time, and she can travel to specific points by focusing on pictures that she is in. Her great escape involves circling back on time through different photographs, which means that she uses one photo to return to an earlier point of her capture, alter a couple things, return to the “present”, and then use a different photograph to get to an even earlier point than before. This “circling back” is a theme that runs throughout the whole episode until the player loses any notion of which timeline they’re in. It all becomes blurry, confusing, and scary, and it’s great. While the previous episodes flirted with theories of time and parallel universes, the spontaneously dying birds and inexplicable dozens of beached whales were never at the forefront. In this episode, you really see the manifestation of the often mentioned chaos theory as Max becomes tangled up in time and struggles to solve all of the problems she caused with her time travel in the first place. Every new instance of travel feels dangerous, like time itself is being held together by a few strands that snap whenever Max violently reverses it.
The biggest example of this, for me, is after Max finally escapes from the Dark Room and is no longer subjected to Jefferson’s evil monologues. Finally, everything is right with the world. She gets Jefferson arrested, saves her best friend Chloe’s life, and wins the “Everyday Hero” photography contest. However, when she’s on the plane to accept her award in San Francisco, something is off. Her nose bleeds. Everything outside of her current physical location is blurry and nonexistent, like when she’s trapped in a past pocket of time after traveling through a photograph. Except it’s not the past. Time speeds forward again, out of her control, and she’s at the exhibit. It leaves me wondering—who is the Max that actually exists in these periods of time while the “real”, or at least current, Max is traveling ahead to the future? It reminds me of when I know I have a very difficult week ahead of me, and wish that I could just “skip forward” to the end of it, and let some other version of me deal with my problems so I don’t have to. While it sounds nice to skip the stressful parts of life, if it were to actually happen, it would be terrifying. Our own lives would be out of our control, we would have no say in what would happen for those few days. I definitely felt that fear for Max as her life sped forward again, and she found herself in a completely different state, having no idea what had happened in the interim. This time, luckily, it worked out for her. Everything was perfect. She was receiving the recognition she deserved. The bad guys had been punished. Time travel hadn’t broken the world(s) yet, and I found myself vowing to never use her powers again even as I knew I would have to.
Sure enough, soon Max is torn from her blissful future back into the cold, harrowing Dark Room, all to save a friend. It is a sharp contrast to the timeline Max left behind, and it made my stomach drop. Unfortunately, the mood of this scene is ruined by a “puzzle” whose solutions are completely arbitrary and therefore incredibly frustrating and unreadable. It involves someone coming to rescue you, and you having to warn him of Jefferson’s presence before Jefferson gets the jump on him. The problem is that once you warn him, he still gets jumped, and there doesn’t seem to be any logical way to fix this except for going back in time and looking for something new to interact with. It’s not really a puzzle, more like a “can you find the interactable objects” mini-game, and it was the first part of this episode to really take me out of the story in a negative way. This is a pretty common problem in the Life is Strange puzzles, but I think this particular instance is the worst offender, either because it is more unreadable than the others, or because it happens during an otherwise incredibly tense scene.
After this scene, and more time traveling, the fear that has been building from the start of the episode comes to fruition. Max twists time too much, and it snaps. She is stranded in between timelines. Or is she dreaming? Or is it both? Either way, it is haunting and creepy, and I loved almost every minute of it. Max pushes through a nightmare land that transports her from the Dark Room, to Jefferson’s classroom, to her high school’s hallways where everyone around her is speaking in reverse, which is a successful nod to the disturbing and groundbreaking 90s television show by David Lynch and Mark Frost, Twin Peaks.
Max’s subconscious takes form in the people around her, who tell her that she is a failure and it is her fault that all of Arcadia Bay is going to die because of the very real, apocalyptic tornado her time traveling has caused. The poor girl, who has been trying to do right by everyone with her newfound powers (if you played her that way), is struggling with so much self-hatred and doubt, and this nightmare sequence is a great way to get the player inside of her head and really sympathize with her. The sequence also takes Max on a journey through all of her memories with her aforementioned best friend and motivator for pretty much all of her time travel, Chloe. In the dark, eerie nightmare world, I again looked back on Max’s times of innocence and happiness and wished I could return her there. The shock of how different the game was in those memories compared to this current state is felt in a sort of twisted nostalgia.
Max’s foray in between timelines isn’t all good, though. Again, it is the gameplay that suffers. I will note that one of the puzzles is fantastic, and very self-aware. It involves a lock that requires a key code in a room where hundreds of different key codes are splayed across the walls, with no clue as to which one is right. It was a funny reference to one of the game’s earlier puzzles that was similar. The solution to this puzzle is again a little arbitrary, but so clever and tricky that I didn’t mind. The other notable gameplay in this part of the game was a short but very frustrating stealth sequence. Max finds herself navigating nightmare versions of previously visited areas while avoiding two to three people with flashlights at once. You have to utilize her time reversal, because you will inevitably be hit by the light and “caught”, which really just means that time will freeze until you reverse it. While I did enjoy the tenseness of the stealth bit, it was too clunky and awkward to be successful. I found myself too annoyed to enjoy it.
After you escape back into the right timeline, you reach the final choice of the game, and boy is it a tough one that has sparked many moral debates among me and my friends. It’s a tear-jerker, and either way you choose provides you with a poignant ending. The only problem I had with it is that the player’s choices throughout the game amount to almost nothing, except for a slight variance in one of the endings. I understand that it becomes difficult to tell a story when there are so many different possible world states, but it is impossible not to be disappointed, especially when games like Life is Strange promise you a butterfly effect and don’t deliver but for slightly differing dialogue.
Overall, the final episode of Life is Strange is very, very good. It tells a gripping story with characters I couldn’t help but love, it’s emotionally devastating at times, and it toys with notions of time and parallel universes. It’s an ending that makes you consider both morality and theories of time travel, while still managing to draw you in on a smaller scale to average people you’ve encountered along the way. This episode finally lives up to the game’s Twin Peaks references in its disturbing nightmare sequence, instead of simply tacking on a “TWN PKS” license plate. Unfortunately, the gameplay suffers from time to time, and player choice was ultimately disregarded in the final scenes.