The concept of fate has always been a tricky thing in popular culture. Writers, as people who romanticize big ideas and then jot them down for mass consumption, are naturally drawn to the delicate dance of free will versus destiny—the effect of our decisions on the future compared to the fruitlessness of our actions in the imperceptibly enormous expanse of time and space. Do our choices matter, or are our paths preordained? The concept becomes especially muddied in stories, as films, music, games, and books are written with intent and end points. Writers write toward an ending, and audiences come along for the ride. If the conclusion connects with the journey, it creates the illusion of fate, of all the actions having worked in concert with one another. If the finale doesn’t land, well, just look at what happened to Dexter.
A lot of recent video games have given players the opportunity to make choices that affect the story’s outcome, but few quite so heavily as Life Is Strange. As teenage art student Maxine Caulfield, players explore a Pacific Northwest village to investigate the disappearance of a local girl and generally navigate the minefields of high school and suburbia. With her unique ability to rewind time, every decision Max makes can be scrupulously reconsidered to construct the ideal flow of events. Did you answer the drug dealer’s question in a manner that made him uncooperative? Just rewind and try again, he’ll be none the wiser. Don’t like the waffles you had for breakfast? Rewind time and order eggs and bacon instead. From the beginning, the game wants players to know that their choices matter by introducing the concept of the Butterfly Effect—a common expression for how small actions can cause big lasting effects—and reinforces the idea by having a sketch of a butterfly appear on screen with each new decision.
On one hand, those choices are more impactful in Life Is Strange than in similar games. While Telltale’s The Walking Dead series chilled with constant reminders that other survivors “would remember that” after each of your decisions, those characters would stay pretty much the same regardless. One or two conversations may take a slightly different tone, but the post-apocalyptic landscape isn’t altered in any meaningful ways. Other games, like the inFamous series, use purely binary character paths, where the casts treat the player as more of a hero/villain with each decision, regardless of context, so that failing to save a cat stuck in a tree is just as bad as robbing a bank. In Life Is Strange, each decision makes some small-yet-deliberate impact. Report a dangerous student to the authorities and you’ll find that your dorm room has been vandalized. Ignore a call from a classmate and they might not trust you in a time of need later on. These decisions don’t end the game in any sense, but they do drastically affect the way the game feels, and those emotions, that sense of community and trust in the people around you, mean everything to a school full of volatile teenagers.
On the other hand, the decisions in Life Is Strange are less effectual than in other games because of Max’s time-rewinding powers. Changing your mind within a chapter’s worth of the adventure is no big deal, but the niggling worry in the player’s mind is how those choices will be reflected in later chapters. It would just take too much time to replay the entire game, and some of those outcomes are genuinely harrowing. Some characters could lose faith in you. Others could lose their lives. It’s a lot of pressure to put on the everyday decisions of a teenage girl, but they only feel weighted when the game arbitrarily takes away Max’s rewind abilities.
The final chapter, however, introduces one long-teased decision that completely overwrites every choice made thus far. At its conclusion, Life Is Strange leaves players with one of two possible outcomes, and in either case absolutely nothing from earlier in the season matters anymore. This could be an argument in favor of fate, that our paths are predestined and that any choice we make, no matter how our immediate lives are affected, will eventually be righted to bring us back to our set-in-stone personal trajectories. It doesn’t help that the game hangs a lampshade on this ultimate dilemma by reminding players that they’ve used their power to prevent the same character’s death nearly a dozen times across the course of a week. Maybe, the game posits, you’ve meddled too much.
The question then becomes whether life is about the destination or the journey. No matter how Max treats her friends, how she performs in school, or how she lives her life, the end result is still the same. The only thing that changes is how she and the player feel about the experience they lived through. Like an inquisitive teenager, Life Is Strange raises a lot of questions without ever providing answers, and it’s here that the game’s story might be incongruous with the player’s mindset. A lifetime of stories has trained us to look forward to endings, to put weight on the outcomes of characters’ actions. Standing at the final fork in the road, it becomes immediately apparent that Life Is Strange has no interest in where the journey ends, because our memories of where we’ve been and the kind of person we’ve been are the only things that matters. The game presents two paths that are equally flawed and beautiful and asks us to decide, but the outcome is unimportant. The path that brought you there is littered with significance for you and you alone.