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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Life is Strange E5: Polarized.

Life is Strange
Episode 5

(Spoilers throughout.)

So, Life is Strange has come to its much anticipated finish. Were the highs and lows worth it? Did it all come to a satisfying conclusion? Oh, lordy lord, where do I start. What do I say? This is a difficult one to untangle.

Picking up shortly where the previous episode left off, Max awakens in Jefferson's Dark Room, where he is preparing to kill her. Using her time manipulation powers, she manages to escape, but it isn't long until she has to use her time powers again, as her meddling in the past starts to change events for the worse, warp space and time, and bring the apocalyptic storm she saw in her visions down onto Arcadia Bay.

So, let's start by talking about choices: I praised several episodes of this series for giving you choices that really mattered, in a move that I thought, at the time, put Telltale Games' relatively railroaded stories to shame. Well, we can now strike all that praise from the record, because when it comes down to it, there is only a single choice in all five episodes that actually matters: Everything else gets wiped clean, meaning that no matter how you played the game so far and what choices you made, it is all totally irrelevant. You might as well have been watching a film that occasionally required you to press A to continue.

Ah, yes, the slightly odd gallery section, that was nice.

For an episodic game series which has lived and died on its choice mechanic, that's kind of unacceptable. For all their flaws, Telltale Games does at least try to have all your choices come together to some kind of conclusion at the end: In The Walking Dead, your choices could decide whether Lee would be left to become a zombie, or put out of his misery. In The Wolf Among Us, your choices ultimately decided if the fairytale characters' new government would be a benevolent or draconian one. While those narratives are very often irritatingly railroaded, there is at least an effort to give your choices weight.

In Life is Strange, though, you have one weighty choice, at the very end, leading to one of the two short, dialogue-less cutscenes. Great job, guys. Sterling.

As far as the rest of the episode goes, it's actually generally fine, if not exactly flawless. The time manipulation shenanigans to take down Jefferson (who has gone full hammy villain, but still manages to be quite intimidating and sinister) are interesting and have a sense of foreboding to them, and even though dealing with him takes up only the first half of the episode, the remaining half gives us some great, atmospheric sequences. Max struggling through the storm to get to the diner is a beautifully done sequence full of terror and chaos, and the brief moment of respite once she gets to the diner is a nice breather.

Reality and also Max are bleeding, send help.

The dream (? Reality breaking down?) sequence that follows is also absolutely amazing, even though it goes on for too long. It starts off ominous and sinister, and a little nauseating as dream!Max fawns over Jefferson, and builds to a sinister crescendo that hits its apex in a survival horror esque sequence where Max must stealth her way through a vast, dark wasteland made up of various parts of Arcadia Bay, while Jefferson and, later, most of the cast, stalk her. But then it keeps going. After that beautifully atmospheric climax, the dream-and/or-reality-collapsing sequence just continues, dipping down into more and more cliche and hackneyed territory - not just for five minutes or so either, but for a good twenty minutes or more, killing any tension built up prior to it.

By the time Max woke up, now at the lighthouse with Chloe and ready for her final (and only) choice, I was bored. I had been all dream-sequenced out (which is a shame because as far as dream sequences go, the early parts of that sequence were some of the best portrayals of dreaming I've ever seen) and I was ready for the godforsaken game to end. Needless to say, 'give me an ending or give me death' is not the kind of thing you want your players to be saying as they reach the dramatic climax of your story.

The consequences of that choice at the end are never really explored. If you're going to give me that choice, why not take the opportunity to hammer it in: Why not give me a small area to explore and people to talk to afterwards, and drive in not only the emotional and physical consequences of whatever choice you made, but also that it's a choice that can't be taken back - in a game where you can functionally just undo any choice you made if you have a sudden change of heart, stripping that ability from the players for the final ten or fifteen minutes of gameplay would be a pretty effective move, especially if you want to emphasise the finality of that choice.

The dark room is a creepy place.

Also, at the end of it all, we never really got any answers. I don't necessarily mind that too much - in a way, a clear and solid explanation for Max's time travel ability would have been a lot of exposition that isn't really important to the story, and in a way Life is Strange is geared more towards 'it's loosely sketched out magical realism that never really gets explained but ties in with various themes' than it is the dip into full-on sci-fi or fantasy that an explanation would engender - except that characters kept drawing attention to that. It was as if the writers had decided not to explain it, but continually felt they needed to sheepishly justify that choice by having characters constantly go "I don't know how you got these powers, Max. I guess nobody will ever know. There will never be an explanation, and that is fine. It's fine. Don't think about it." Which only served the purpose of making me think about it more. 

Either choose to tell me, or choose not to tell me. I am actually fine with either option, but what I'm not fine with is 'choosing not to tell me and then reminding me at every opportunity how you're not telling me.'

All in all, it was an enjoyable but actually kind of disappointing conclusion to a series with a lot of ups and downs, and I can't help but wonder if this would have worked better as a television show. I mean, the choice mechanic ultimately ended up being meaningless, which kind of saps the illusion of interactivity away from it. Still, I am somewhat fond of this series, so it gets a slightly reluctant recommendation from me.

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