It’s a Metaphor, Max: The Storm

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I remember the fateful day when the final chapter of Life is Strange—appropriately titled “Polarized”—came out and the internet as I knew it, even parts I hadn’t known were invested in the game, collectively exploded. The starkness of the final choice, now dubbed “save the bae vs save the bay” because you have to laugh otherwise you cry, was the main topic of discussion and/or ranting, for good reason. I’m not saying it’s a bad dichotomy to present the player with (and as I wrote about in my last post, can be interpreted to represent Max’s character development and contribute to the story nicely), it just could have been done so much better. One aspect of this, which bugs me personally the most, is the fact that the entire scenario is kind of… nonsense. Which, like last time, I’m going to try to break through using WB’s “everything that makes no sense is a metaphor” theory. Let’s take a bite out of it.

Here are the bare bones facts, without trying to tie any logic or lore to them: Max has a vision in class of a storm destroying the town. She then goes to the bathroom and sees Chloe get shot. She’s so shocked by this that she rewinds time without meaning to, and uses this newfound power to prevent Chloe’s death. Then, signs of the burgeoning apocalypse begin appearing all over town, such as birds swarming, whales dying, weird weather, and double moons. In the final chapter the cyclone Max saw in her dream comes and starts destroying everything. She can either let the storm rip the town apart, or travel back in time to let Chloe die, which is implied to create a timeline where the storm doesn’t happen.

Now, here are the holes I’m peering through when I hold this story up to the light: if the implication is that Max upset the universe by reversing time and saving Chloe’s life, which is supposedly why the storm comes… why does she have a vision of the storm before she saves Chloe, and before she’s even aware she has the time powers? It’s a much more dynamic way to begin your game than just a bunch of teenagers sitting in a classroom, I’ll give them that, but putting the storm first leaves the implication that the storm isn’t actually Max’s fault, and is instead a foregone conclusion. Which works for the metaphorical purposes I’ll attempt to talk about later, but kind of blows a breach in the idea that Chloe not dying is the cause of the storm. How do they know that the storm won’t come if Chloe stays dead?

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If we read the whole chain of events as “Max screwed with time and the universe is angry”—which is a reading I think is more likely than “the universe straight-up wants Chloe Price dead”, though given the way it comes across that’s a totally valid interpretation as well—we understand that Max’s action in the bathroom is the catalyst, in which case, why did we see a premonition of the storm first? One little scene has thrown with the entire nature of cause and effect in this game into question, making the storm look like an inevitable device of destiny rather than something Max creates by making active choices… which is kind of meant to be the point of the game. That whole “this action will have consequences” thing they keep telling us.

Because hey, “actions have consequences” is a very real and valid thing you have to learn as you step from childhood into the responsibilities of adulthood, which is what Max is doing. She gets given the chance to play around with time reversal, creating a world where her actions don’t have consequences, because if she gets something wrong, upsets a friend, makes a bad life decision, she can rewind and “fix” it. Real life unfortunately does not work like that, which is why the rooftop scene with Kate was so poignant—more so, I’d argue, than the ending of the game. The time powers are suddenly gone, and Max is faced with very real stakes after being able to play with time—and people—at her will all day.

If Kate dies, she can’t “fix” that. All she has in that scene is herself, her knowledge, and some (hopefully) cleverly-chosen words. She becomes an ordinary scared teenager in a literal life-or-death situation, and what she says matters, and will matter for the rest of her life, and the rest of Kate’s, however long that is. Your words and actions have impact on the people around you, so you have to be thoughtful rather than just doing whatever, in the knowledge you can rewind and do it over if the interaction doesn’t seem “right”.

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The ending attempts to use this metaphor, but kind of falls flat, mostly because it gets tangled up in too many of the logistical problems I talked about above. Talking Kate down from suicide (or not) is a much more grounded application of the “your actions have consequences, so don’t mess around” message that’s integral to the game and integral to Max’s coming of age—it weaves nicely in with Max coming to terms with what an asshole she was in abandoning Chloe, and like with the ideal ending to that thread, forces her to stop stuffing around with time, suck it up, and make the mature decision to try and make a better present and future rather than trying to change the past. Ideally, she saves lives in the process (Kate and Chloe), becoming A Hero in her own personal way rather than pursuing the nebulous ideal of one. Doesn’t that sound deep and literary? My God, to think what we could have had if we weren’t saddled with a haphazard “kill Chloe or Save Everyone” climax…

The storm represents oncoming adulthood. No matter how hard she tries and how good her intentions may seem, Max can’t rewind to the innocence and fun of childhood—since coming to Arcadia Bay she’s confronted with all sorts of adult concepts, ranging from burgeoning curiosity about her sexuality to confronting the mortality of those around her. In the sense that the tornado is inevitable because the scary realisations and responsibilities of adulthood are inevitable, sure, it works as symbolism. The storm raging outside when she’s trapped with Jefferson, having the horrible death-of-innocence realisation that her idol is one of many predatory men who exists in the adult world, is a nice bit of visual/sensory metaphor that ties that together.

Being faced with the reality that she can’t save everyone is also a departure from her childish ideal of heroism, so that works too… on its own. All these aspects combined don’t really gel into something meaningful and coherent in the chapter itself, though. There are too many questions and awkward implications, again, mostly the notion that the universe wants Chloe dead, given that letting her die is accepted by everyone as what will trigger the “correct” timeline… even though nobody has any idea how the time powers work or why, so there’s no saying that rewinding will fix it. The writers know it will, of course, but how do their characters come to this un-budgeable conclusion?

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In theory, the storm as a consequence to messing around with time is a neat metaphor that represents Max’s coming of age—it’s scary, it’s inevitable, and you can’t just keep rewinding to avoid it and glue yourself to your realm of childhood innocence. I feel like there could be a neat additional message there about “getting through the storm together”, because The Storm as a concept is something that everyone faces, but the game gets too caught up in making you either condemn the entire town to (presumed) death or watch your best friend/lover die in order to erase the entire story. As I said last time, reading the storm as a metaphor tangled up with Max’s personal growth seems to leave saving Chloe as the most logical decision, since she then lets the consequences of her actions happen and tries to move forward and continue to grow with what she’s learnt, rather than faff around reversing time.

As I said, letting Chloe die and asserting the “correct” timeline means the story of the game never happened, which, while obviously the experience will still affect Max, just doesn’t work as neatly as a narrative. Character development represented as a physical journey is a trope we see all the time because it works. Granted, one of the reasons the ending(s) are also unsatisfying is that we don’t get much of an epilogue for either of them to demonstrate (or even hint at!) what these new worlds Max has created are like and how the experience has moulded her.

Which was possibly a time thing or a budget thing, so I won’t come down too hard on the developers for it, but… this leaves all the thematic weight in your final choice as Max. Which, in the “storm = representation of consequences to actions” theory, kind of comes down to “accept that what you did had some negative consequences but resolve to grow from your mistakes and create a better tomorrow” versus “refrain from doing anything, thus avoiding consequences entirely”. I don’t know about you, but I know which one sounds more narratively satisfying to me, not to mention more resonant with Max as a character.

I didn’t mean for these posts to be one long “you should save Chloe because the other ending is dumb!!” soapbox session, I swear. Some of it is personal preference, for sure, but the more I look into the literary devices the game is trying to play with, the more it just seems to make sense as the endgame to Max’s development. And Max’s development is what the game is about—it’s the heart of the story, what makes it so powerful, and what has me caring so much about this interactive mess even when so much of it is baffling and disappointing.

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1 Comment

Filed under Alex Plays, Pop Culture Ponderings

One response to “It’s a Metaphor, Max: The Storm

  1. Pingback: Never Smooch the Robot: May ’17 Roundup | The Afictionado

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