Why Life Is Strange’s finale proved so divisive
The gambit was a bold one, but Dontnod clearly hoped that the climactic decision of Life Is Strange’s finale would split players – it did, after all, call the episode ‘ Polarized’. The French studio might not, however, have anticipated that the episode itself would attract such opprobrium from certain quarters, especially after such a warm receptions for both Episode 2: Out Of Time, and Episode 4: Dark Room. If you don’t wish to have any specifics spoiled, however, return to this page after you’ve played the series through to its conclusion.
Still, Polarized has done exactly what its title threatens, dividing Life Is Strange’s critics and playerbase. Some of the criticisms are easy to understand. It’s hard to credit that anyone thought a forced stealth section, however brief and simple to complete, would be a good idea; likewise, that an opening exposition dump was a suitable way to explain the revelation of Dark Room’s cliffhanger ending. Otherwise, its perceived weaknesses can easily be interpreted as strengths.
Take, for example, its daring decision to disempower the player throughout. If Max isn’t trapped in some way or other, helpless to change what’s unfolding in front of her, then her abilities are only prompting negative outcomes. Moreover, none of these have any tangible narrative impact, since it all comes down to a single either/or choice at the very end. To some, this fatally undermined the strong sense of agency we’ve felt as Max. And yet it makes perfect sense in light of Dontnod’s desire to examine the physical and emotional devastation her choices have wrought. As the storm rips Arcadia Bay apart, we’re given the chance to witness how the lives of its inhabitants have been changed – for better and worse – by Max’s interference.
The game does this in an unusually confrontational way. We’re usually given to believe that the choices we make in games are about doing what we think is right. As Max argues with an alternate-reality version of herself in the Two Whales café, we’re invited to consider that there are other contributory factors at play. Here, the camera pulls in close to ‘our’ Max as the other one sneers: “Thought you could control everybody and everything, huh?” while looking out of the screen as if addressing us directly. It’s a discomfiting moment that invites a certain self-reflection; little wonder it left some feeling uneasy.
Perhaps more significantly, this sequence presents an all-too-rare opportunity to truly get inside the head of a character. Max’s inner monologue has given us some idea of what she thinks about the potential consequences of her actions, but suddenly we’re afforded an extended glimpse into the insecurities, doubts and fears that helped drive those decisions. At times, this seems almost unforgivably harsh on a character who never asked for the powers she was inexplicably given – not least when she receives a text from Chloe’s father, blaming her for his death. At the same time, these nightmarish scenes are a valuable – not to mention creative and vivid – insight into the mindset of a woman increasingly realising she faces an almost impossible choice.
Meanwhile, the time spent away from the central pairing is thrown into sharp relief when Max wanders through a series of dioramas of key moments between her and Chole, an idealised perspective of their time together. If what precedes it was designed to show that life is more than just a series of highlights, then this might seem like a contradiction, but it’s a valuable shaft of light in an episode that’s mostly shade, not to mention a devious way of making that final choice of what to sacrifice all the tougher.
Whichever choice you opt for as Max and Chloe cling to each other in the face of the encroaching maelstrom, it soon becomes clear the end justifies Dontnod’s means. The stats after the credits told us the final percentage split was 53/47. Polarized, indeed.
While many choices are swept away in the final one, the climax does play out a little differently based on your bond