Life Is Strange #5: Max Caulfield vs The Universe

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The in-class selfie was an enormous plot point! All the selfies are crucially important! I was only joking about that! I cannot believe this!!

Struth, there is a lot to talk about this episode, so I’ll try to keep the actual recapping to a minimum. Basically, Max wakes up duct-taped to a chair in the “dark room” under the barn. It transpires that it is not Nathan’s lair of despair but Jefferson’s, who has fortunately left a few of his happy snaps of the heavily drugged Max around, allowing her to time travel back to when they were taken. She reawakens at different points in the night to learn that he is the evil mastermind behind Rachel and Kate’s drugging, as well as many others, because as a photographer he’s fascinated by the innocence and emotional openness displayed in a semi-conscious state. He’s doing it for the art.

Nathan tried his hand at it, apparently, since he looked up to Jeffy as a sort of father figure (is there no one who didn’t idolise this supremely annoying and now evidently unhinged murderous man?) but messed up and gave Rachel an overdose, killing her. And God damn it, he just couldn’t do it as well as Jefferson! He’s not a true artist! He couldn’t capture the beauty in vulnerability and innocence, which Jefferson is fascinated by, and Max is so innocent and so special, the best subject he could ever want… and so on. The dark room setup has nothing to do with finding a time travelling girl, which dashes my theory. It’s just a man being creepy, which is… comparatively dull, not to mention gross.

Not to say that it isn’t skin-crawling and dramatically resonant, it’s just, well. Creepy men who want to make art out of innocent girls has kind of been done, and Jefferson dissolves into such a one-dimensional objectifying cackling villain I feel like he personally doesn’t bring anything new to the table. What was an innovative trick was how Max gets out his grip… by getting the selfie she took in class at the start of the game, out of her nearby journal, and travelling through it. Now that is some extreme continuity.

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Fwoosh, she’s back at the start, but this time she knows things, enough to comfort Kate, smash Victoria over the head with some life advice, and sass Jefferson, who she then gets arrested, setting up a whole new timeline where justice is served, Chloe doesn’t get shot, and to boot, Max wins the photo competition! She goes to San Francisco to be among artists who won’t try to bind and murder her, only to have her triumph dampened by learning that back home the storm has still come and Chloe is probably going to die.

Lucky for Max, she can use her contest entry to travel back again, at which point she destroys the prized Polaroid so she won’t go to San Francisco… and when time resets, she finds herself back in Jefferson’s chair. She’s facing her impending death, again, until David busts in and attempts to save her. He gets wrecked the first time, but via time rewind Max finds ways to make the tussle with Jefferson work in his favour, and he finally gets to be the hero he’s always wanted to be. Max flees to find Warren, decked out in a sweet black jacket, looking and feeling like a badass.

She needs the seemingly random plot-distracting selfie Warren took before the party. All the dumb selfies were relevant. I lost my damn mind. Max pushes through the storm to the diner, saving civilians along the way (because we are Super Max!) and having a heartfelt conversation with Warren and finally telling him about the time rewind thing, which he was previously so irrelevant to the story that she had no time to do. Again, I am sorry, Warren, because you remain a third wheel not only to Max and Chloe but to the entire story. You know, this could have been a really interesting relationship, whether it was another romance option or not, but their friendship was so one-note it left me actually a little disappointed. Warren is still suspended in the Friendly Geek Boy trope he was introduced in where many of the other characters have evolved further, and he continues to be a prop. Meat shield, scientist, photo provider. He is a man of many talents/uses.

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Fwoosh, back Max goes again, to Party Night (I wonder, can Max also travel through digital photos, or do they have to be printed?). This time, Max manages to convince Chloe not to rush in and thus avoids getting her shot and Max ending up in a dungeon-come-art-studio. Time resets. David, at Max and Chloe’s warning, goes after Jefferson pre-emptively, and gets him arrested. Whether Nathan—who is apparently dead, by the way, wow, that was breezed over—is okay in this new timeline is not clear, but at least Victoria will be free of Jefferson’s evil hipster needle-happy clutches. But the storm is still happening. It’s like the universe just doesn’t want us to be happy.

No, really, that’s… kind of the implication. Fate is at play. Max and Chloe have both concluded that Max’s powers caused the storm, despite having no real evidence, and it’s all becoming a solid mess when Max faints. Suddenly, she’s back in the classroom. Is she stuck in a time loop now? Has she really broken reality? Not quite, she’s just stuck inside her own mind, which loops her through all sorts of nightmarish and guilt-filled places where the game’s men try to hunt her down and its women blame her for destroying everything. Including Max herself! It’s really quite existential and surreal.

After going through a museum of all her significant moments with Chloe frozen like 3D photos, Max comes to with the real girl, huddled together by the lighthouse. They have a perfect vantage point to see the town about to be ripped to shreds by the tornado… but Chloe interrupts their storm-gazing by producing the photo Max took of the butterfly, in episode one, and telling her she has to go back. There’s one thing she can do to fix all this.

You have the option to sacrifice Chloe or sacrifice Arcadia Bay. There can, it seems, only be one left standing.

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Cards on the table, we chose to save Chloe. But having seen both endings… I’m not really happy with either of them, and not just in a “wah there’s no way to save all my faves” kind of way. A tragic ending can still be satisfying from a narrative point of view, and this one… sort of wasn’t. Mostly because the crux of the tragedy confused me enough to uproot my suspension of disbelief: even though Chloe did end up dying or nearly dying a hell of a lot, there wasn’t ever any indicator that the cosmos needed her out of the picture lest time and space rend apart. In fact it was never actually confirmed that Max’s time travel powers and the bay-trashing storm were connected, that’s just what she and Chloe assumed.

And I don’t know if that holds water because, well… Max had the vision about the storm before she knew she could time travel, right? And before she saved Chloe? And all the weird weather stuff was still happening in the timeline where Mr. Price was still alive, in which Max couldn’t have saved Chloe in the bathroom because Chloe couldn’t have been there. Which kind of implies it was in the future whether she did that or not, and if destiny is involved I feel like it messes with the concept that Max created the problem.

Not to mention that whole “this action will have consequences” thing. I feel like so much emphasis was put on choices—the player’s, as relevant to Max’s character and Max’s story—that it feels like a bit of a cop-out to put everything down to fate, especially when both endings involve accepting that fate. I can understand that Max must learn to accept that consequences are a thing and that she can’t use time travel as a get-out-of-jail-free card (something the game has played with before, with the rooftop situation with Kate), but it doesn’t hit home as hard when the main source of drama seems to have been inevitable from the beginning.

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However, while I’d have loved an ending (or set of endings, rather) that intricately and completely reflected your choices throughout the game, I’m also aware that programming something like that would be an elephantine developmental pain in the ass, so I’m not incensed in that regard. What does get my hackles up with what we do have is the game, which has been pretty progressive in its portrayal of social issues so far, pulling the Bury Your Gays trope out at the eleventh hour. Neither choice is “good” or “bad”, but you can’t ignore that Max either has to let her lover die, tragically separating them, or know that everyone else is dying so she can have her. Either way it’s a cruel dig. We had time travel mechanics and positive girl-girl relationships, both expressedly good things, and now it kind of feels like both have led to infinite unhappiness.

Given how much longer the cut scene after Chloe’s death is, it kind of feels like sacrificing Chloe might be the “better” end even if there’s no real expressed good/bad binary in the choice, but neither result feels like it was where the story was really going, and both leave it hanging spectacularly. Is anyone okay after the storm? It can’t have wiped everyone out, right? Will the city heal and rebuild? Is Max as peaceful as she appears after Chloe’s death, which she cannot possibly be, having lived through so much Hell the past week of time loops and trauma? And does she still have the time powers? And if so, how do we know the universe (or whatever) isn’t going to come after her with storms and chaos again?

It’s also just me and my speculating, but I was kind of annoyed that the serial kidnapping mystery had nothing to do with the time travel stuff. It was a completely random occurrence, as far as I can figure, which ended up unravelling the threads of intrigue that the series had been tightly knotting. And just… Chloe had to die? Says who? The time-power-giving deities? If so, then why did they give Max the time powers in the first place if the time powers would cause this whole kerfuffle? (WB suggests it was all a metaphor, which is cool, but as it’s also a large-ass supernatural component of the story I would’ve liked at least a little explanation).

As always, there’s a whole lot to unpack, and now that the whole story is done I’m left with a minor headache. Overall, though, I enjoyed the game: it had good characters who (mostly) evolved satisfyingly beyond the archetypes they were introduced as, cool mechanics, the dialogue got better as it went along and the voice acting was great, it looked gorgeous, and brought a lot of important issues to the forefront for discussion. Not to mention that Max was a great heroine and it was a really enjoyable coming-of-age story to help her through. I hope you’re okay, kiddo, whether you’re at the funeral or on the road trip.

And of course it made me want time reversal powers even more than before. I don’t care if it brings storms of plotholes and illogic my way. Also take as many selfies as possible—never mind what the old fogies say, you never know when you’ll need them…

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2 Comments

Filed under Alex Plays

2 responses to “Life Is Strange #5: Max Caulfield vs The Universe

  1. Pingback: Choosing What To Leave Behind: Oxenfree and Grief | The Afictionado

  2. Pingback: It’s a Metaphor, Max: Time Travel | The Afictionado

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