Back in the day when we were first picking Life is Strange apart (you know me, if I enjoy something, it’s going to end up in pieces on the floor), WB came up with a theory that kind of solved everything: the game is being literary, and anything that can’t be explained or doesn’t seem to make much sense is there as a metaphor. The tornado? A metaphor for the encroaching storm of maturity, the climax of a story that has been all about Max growing from child into young adult. Time powers that came out of thin air? A symbolic tool to help Max learn that actions have consequences in the real world and she should embrace this. The reoccurring deer? Well, they tried to explain that away with the concept of spirit animals, but that filled up with casual racism pretty fast; so let’s say the deer instead represents Max’s youthful Bambi-like innocence, hence why they disappear from her shirts by the end of the game.
Let’s zero in on the never-explained time travel powers for today. The Butterfly Effect doesn’t actually mean “shit happens” and Warren’s declaration of Max being a wizard adds nothing, so let’s run with the idea that the time powers aren’t actually trying (and failing) to be a logical plot device but are in fact symbolism for Max and her character growth.
The world is full of stories about young characters who Want To Be a Hero. Often this kind of nebulous idea is put to the test as soon as this characters gets the chance To Be a Hero, whether we’re talking Captain America or any member of the Emiya family. They’ll find out that the business of saving people is much more complicated than they first thought, or get caught up in moral binds, or realise that at their core their motivations are kind of selfish—whether this self-centred-ness is a good or a bad thing. Max falls into all of these traps, and like many heroes is eventually faced with the good ol’ “save something/someone personally important to YOU versus Save People in the sense of a traditional superhero” scenario. Ideally, their choice in the matter will line up with their character development, but we’ll get to that soon.
Characters who Want To Be a Hero never like to think of themselves as selfish—the very fact that they want to help people means they’re selfless, right? This comes up as an interesting point in Max’s story, not just in the “save the bae or save the bay” climax but woven throughout the game itself. At first, of course, Max uses her time powers to save Chloe from getting shot, and this is before she even realises that this person is Chloe, so of course it’s a selfless and heroic choice! Throughout the game, though, Max can use the time powers to basically manipulate her way to popularity and information, by rewinding and redoing conversations in order to know exactly what people want to hear and then saying it to them.
It also gives Max the opportunity to be a total asshole to people with no consequences (tell them to get stuffed, rewind, and it’s as if you never said it), but she doesn’t do this a lot because she’s only using her powers for Good! Right? Well, I don’t think it’s as simple as “good reasons” and “bad reasons”, but on some level you have to accept that Max’s motivations in Being a Hero—and yes, the Hero terminology is there, handed to us in the form of the Everyday Heroes contest right from the start—is a little bit selfish. Max feels a lot of guilt, mostly for abandoning her best friend when she needed her and not speaking to her for five years, so it makes sense she’d want to make up for that by Being a Good Person in the most obvious and objective way possible when given such a cosmic chance.
On an even deeper level than that—and this is only one interpretation and is at least 60% me self-projecting and reading too deeply into things, but hey, hear me out—Max feels guilty that she’s had such a chill time overall. Both her parents are alive and still together, her family seems to be pretty loving and functional, and she’s clearly quite well off if she can afford to go to Blackwell with all that fancy vintage camera equipment in tow. She made new friends when she moved away from Arcadia Bay and they seem quite close and fun, from the photos and notes on them that we see. She’s just your average girl with just an average little life, which would probably be described as boring by a sheltered teen narrator, but is actually pretty idyllic, especially compared to what she finds in Arcadia Bay.
Obviously, first she compares herself to Chloe, and goes “shit. I’ve had a great time while she’s been having a really bad time”, but it continues as she discovers the sad backstories and drama embedded in her classmates’ lives. There’s poor Kate, of course, who Max is protective of, but there’s also students getting bullied, girls who are secretly pregnant, and people hiding their family’s medical stresses. This is all even without delving into the sordid tale of Rachel and the whole business with the murders and druggings and Jefferson being a villainous creep. Max comes from a very sheltered background and learns that not everyone has had it as easy as her, and her immediate feeling is guilt.
And lo, the universe gives her time reversal powers. If we’re sticking with the “everything that makes no sense is a metaphor” reading, you could say the time powers are there because of this guilt, the manifestation of this misguided but heartfelt desire to give something back. Partly because of genuine empathy, but partly, just maybe, because Max doesn’t want to be the kind of person who ditches friends in need—she wants to be, or at least be seen as, the kind of person who helps others and does good. Because she feels like she messed up so thoroughly by running away from Chloe, the time powers are pretty obviously also symbolic of her desire to, well, turn back time, to either fix things or just be happy again. Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can, old sport.
Max does go way back in time to what she feels is the pivotal moment where Chloe’s life went to Hell and tries to change things, but I think what the story is trying to tell us is that she picked the wrong moment. Max thinks that she can Be a Hero and save Chloe from despair by preventing Papa Price from dying, but Max is diverting the blame. The real pivotal moment when Chloe’s life took a tip downwards is when Max decided to stop talking to her and stop supporting her. Chloe’s messy emotional state is partly Max’s fault, and Max, high on the idea that she can “fix” people’s problems via her time powers, either can’t see that or is aggressively trying not to see it. Max Wants To Be a Hero, and Heroes make people’s lives better, not worse. This aspect of her past doesn’t fit with her ideal self, and so her selfish motivations actually get even more selfish.
With this reading, I think saving Chloe is the natural conclusion—Max is forced to realise that despite her ambitions, Being a Hero is a pretty vague and complicated aspiration, and driven by self-centred reasons rather than a pure heart or whatever. If her powers stem from a selfish desire, she’s going to embrace that in a positive way by selfishly saving Chloe, who is important to Max personally, rather than pursuing the empty ideal of Doing Good for the sake of Doing Good and seeming like a good person. The final decision would be the culmination of two big threads of her arc, both involving her selfishness: her selfishness around her hero ideals and her selfishness around Chloe.
Let’s say Max finally lets herself admit that she messed up in how she treated Chloe in the past, and resolves to move forward and try to make the future better for her and Chloe (in part just by ensuring Chloe has a future, instead of letting her die) rather than trying to alter the timeline. That seems like a nice bit of character growth, and feeds nicely into letting the tornado come and moving forward from the consequences of her actions, rather than trying to undo them. We don’t know if she still has the time powers in the aftermath of the storm, but if this is the thematic thing we’re going with, it would make sense if she didn’t—Max has grown up and grown out of that part of herself, the selfish need to Do Good for the sake of doing good and trying to divert her personal guilt.
Which I think is a very real, human flaw and a very real, human arc. Instead of faffing around trying to change the past to make a “perfect” timeline, Max learns to accept her faults and simply tries to do her best, and be the best she can be to Chloe to make up for lost time. As it adds to this narrative and character development for Max, the time powers make a great metaphorical device that both tell you more about Max and drive the plot to allow her to grow.
As a disclaimer, of course, this doesn’t excuse the wishy-washy non-explanation of the time powers in the game itself, which still annoys the hell out of me given that it’s the major supernatural element in the story. Nor does it make the ending of the game less ridiculous and me any less confused and bitter, but I’ll attempt to get to more of the nitty-gritty of the storm and what it means next time. Stay tuned!