Posted on 5 Comments

Life is Strange: What ‘Bae over Bay’ Says About Us

chloe_gun review

The following contains very significant spoilers for Episode 5 of Life is Strange. If you wish to avoid having the ending of this games spoiled then don’t read any further.

It is a tragedy of human nature, that our ability for empathy is limited to only those within the bubble of our everyday experience. We can care more about protecting a friend or family member, than the lives of small villages. When the suffering and pain is not directly placed in front of us, or plastered on the front page of every newspaper in our country, we can do a remarkable job of distancing ourselves from the pain that is not our problem.

It’s known in anthropological circles as Dunbar’s Number, and colloquially referred to as our Monkey Sphere, and is the maximum number of people who you can actually care about. It is based on the size of primate brains, and when extrapolated to humans we arrive at a maximum number of between 100 and 200. That is a hundred people we can take an emotional investment in. An emotional investment in their lives, their aspirations, their fears, and their well-being.

This limit on our empathy has ramifications in how we interact within our society. It is among the reasons why small villages are considered friendly and welcoming, and big cities are considered cold and distant. In a single metro ride to work in the morning, I can pass more people on my journey than live in some people’s hometown. It becomes impossible to really treat everyone around you as an individual, so instead you stick to yourself and worry almost solely about your own issues (this is why we get annoyed at people taking their time at the ticket barriers).

lis_sc6 (1)

With all that, it was an interesting and pleasant discovery to find that a weird story game from a small Paris-based developer blew up the consequences of this relic of evolution. Life is Strange has taken us on a long ride through the life of Max, a teenager who discovers she has the ability to rewind time, a power that is brought out by the need to save a friend’s life. From that point we navigated a murder investigation, had to talk down a friend from the edge, reminisced about past lives, hopped through alternate realities, and well and truly screwed up time as we know it. And when it was all done, we were given an ultimatum: save our best friend, or save the entire town. One person who meant everything to us, or hundreds of people.

When proposed in a vacuum, without the experiences gathered through the game, the choice is obvious: save the town. From a cold cost-benefit calculus, it is extremely difficult to place the value of a single individual above hundreds of others… but a lot of us did just that. When given the choice, half of all players chose to sacrifice the entire town to save their friend. Why? Why would we let all friends we worked so hard to help, the families we helped put back together, and all the random people we assisted face the wrath of an unnatural tornado? Because we were more invested in our friend.

Throughout the game, we had literally ripped space and time apart to drag our friend back from death over and over again. We prevented the repeated murder of our friend, we undid the crimes we committed, and we even tried to make her life better even though it ended in us having to pull the plug on her. We nearly killed ourselves through exhaustion just to keep her alive, and then we are asked to let her die, to save everyone else. Your investment is so singly directed at her life, that when asked to trade it in, some of us just can’t.

04_Life_is_Strange_VICTORIAS_ROOM

The nature of the decision also changes the moral calculations we have to do. In carrying out this decision, we have to choose between an active decision to let her die, or a passive decision to make no further alterations. A common thought experiment about moral calculations involves choosing whether to redirect a train or not, with the paths having different groups of people on either side. A young girl or four grown men, an old man or an old woman, and so on, but a different version doesn’t ask you to flip a switch to redirect the train, but to push someone in front of the train to stop it. When phrased this way many more people freeze up and reject the experiment. For many reasons, the nature of how we achieve the outcome, even when the exact same actors are present, changes our willingness to do it: we don’t want to be actively responsible for a death even if it that makes us passively responsible for many more.

To actively go back in time, and watch the friend you have spent many, many hours getting to know, and bonding with die can be harder than just watching a town be destroyed. The fan reactions to the two endings show that the above considerations have been reflected in reality. People who chose to save our friend had to then drive through the town that we allowed to be destroyed. You drive through the devastation and death, and you know that you could have prevented it all, but people in general were satisfied that Chloe lived. Hundreds dead, livelihoods destroyed, and we move on with stoic acceptance.

If you chose to sacrifice your friend, you have to watch and endure the funeral and memorial services for her. You see her mother (who died in the other reality) cry and collapse, her friends in shock, and the knowledge that all of your experiences with her never happened for her. All the happiness and hope you brought her never existed for her, and she died angry and scared. This ending is an emotional steamroller, and brutal to experience. The death of a single person was more devastating for the vast majority of players than the death of an entire town.

Finding a game that forces such deep introspection about what we value, what choices we are willing to make, and what we are really willing to sacrifice is rare and finding one that does it in such a beautiful and immersive story is even rarer. Dontnod Entertainment produced a staggeringly poignant game with their first go at a story-based game, and the influence of this game and the indecision it forced upon us could radiate out into the wider gaming industry as we try to produce more mature and considered worlds and characters.

5 thoughts on “Life is Strange: What ‘Bae over Bay’ Says About Us

  1. Yeah no I’m gonna have to disagree with you here. The ending was just piss poor writing plain and simple. The implication that everyone in the town being caught in that storm is asinine at best. We have weather warning systems that would see that storm coming from miles away. Plenty of time for everyone to evacuate. And even if they couldn’t for whatever moronically written reason the hospital and school would be more than safe enough to weather the storm.

    They also never explain the reason why there are ghost fawns roaming around. Or how Max got her powers. Or the reason for all the strange animal deaths or behavior. The creators simply ignore it all for a cheap choose A or B. If everything centered around Max never saving Chloe then WHY THE HELL WAS SHE GIVEN THE POWER TO SAVE HER?! Piss poor writing.

    Max has the power to manipulate time, to control the Universe and effect change where if she didn’t she would have to simply accept the terrible things that would occur. No here Max takes the initiative to help people where she can. To help those unable to help themselves obtain a small measure of happiness or closure in a world that does not care about you at all. She does so damn well with these events showing just how great her commitment is to help others and her sheer willpower to overcome seemingly impossible odds.

    Instead that is all thrown away for reasons that are never explained. No the ending is a mess and gives a clear statement to women to never try and change anything because you will always fail, you can never save nor help the people you love or care about, and your choices will never matter. Especially if you have superpowers.

    1. It wasn’t poor writing. It’s reflected in every step of the way. There are hints to the choice that’s coming all the way back from the very beginning. In fact, they do a mini version of it when you travel to the alternate timeline – do you euthanize her or do you leave her alive?

      And weather warning systems only work for natural phenomenon. The storm could have simply appeared on top of them, leaving them no way out. Likewise all the strange events are explained the same way – time is broken. It’s Schrodinger’s cat (hinted at by Warren’s shirt) outside the box. These animals exist as both alive (thus, not seen because they’re flying somewhere else or swimming in the ocean) and dead. The eclipse and double moons and freak snow storm – all of it are remnants of the bending of time, events taking place when they shouldn’t be.

      You talk about all the good Max does. What does Max actually do with her powers, aside from save Chloe over and over? She protects Alyssa from a few minor accidents. But mostly she just uses her powers to take away people’s free will.

      Yes, you heard me right. Let’s look at the symbolism of her nightmare. She is stuck in a maze. A maze is a system designed by someone else that, while giving you the illusion of choice, actually takes choice away from you and forces you onto the path the designer wants you to take. If the designer wants you to turn right at a particular point, you can try to turn left, but eventually that path will dead end and you will be forced to go back and take the right path the designer intended. This is a metaphor for every conversation you have (except one). The person your talking to takes a path you don’t like, so you force them to go back, over and over, until they take the path that you want them to. They have no free will.

      There is only one conversation you have where this doesn’t happen, and not coincidentally, it’s also the only time you ever manage to do something of impact. Kate. Does she live or does she die? That has to be her choice, and so you can’t use your powers on her. You are forced to deal with the situation without the option of rewinding because otherwise, it’s not her choice, it’s yours, and you would break time even more, because you now have someone else who is both alive and dead.

      I do think that there is a missed opportunity at the end. An implied ending that would let you save both potentially without breaking time. The key is Kate. Kate had to make her own choice. So does Nathan. The first time through, you take the choice away from him by scaring him off with the alarm. And in the ending, you give him the choice, but without full knowledge or context to let him make a fully informed decision. But, you could go back, and then try to talk him down the same way you talk down Kate. You used your powers to gain information about her, but it’s up to you to put that together in the way you think will reach her the most, and it’s ultimately her decision what to do with what you say. The same could be true of Nathan. You use everything you learn this week to try and talk him down, and you live with the consequences. Maybe he surrenders himself, getting Mr. Jefferson arrested, and preventing any of that week from happening. Chloe lives, without you using your powers, and so the town is safe too. Or maybe you screw up and he shoots you both. Or he shoots you giving Chloe time to disarm him. Or he still shoots Chole. Or he runs away to try and escape. More options, all chosen by him. As it should be.

      I think that that’s an ending that the game is implying with the nightmare and the scene with Kate, but I don’t think that the lack of it, or the resulting end that we did get, were bad writing. In life, you don’t always get everything explained. Not everything has an explanation.

      1. Interesting ideas you two have there.
        On the ending with talking to Nathan I have to say that if there was this third ending in the game, everyone would go for this third. It would be the natural choice because Max wouldn’t need to make such a hard decision of what to sacrifice. If she could just keep it all and get away with everything, that would have been the cheap ending.

  2. That’s very interesting, but i don’t totally agree with the final choice as it is usually presented. In my opinion, the choice is not between saving Chloe or Arcadia Bay, but more between the certainty of Chloe’s death and the potential death of Arcadia Bay’s people. And I think that the two ending present it this way. If you choose to save Arcadia Bay, then Max has to witness Chloe’s death, not letting you the hope of her being just badly injured and then healed. But if you save Chloe, then you see the city devastated but only one dead body, and the diner, where you left most of the others “important” characters like Joyce and Warren, is pretty much intact. With these details, you can still hope that most of the inhabitants manage to survive the storm.
    If you see it this way, the usually “Good ending” is not sacrificing Chloe but instead saving her, at least, I think, for Max. And personnally, I don’t know which one is the less moral, condemn one man to a certain death or condemn hundreds to a potential death.

    (Sorry if my english is bad. Hope I was clear enough)

  3. I think that letting Chloe die would have been a sacrifice of free will. The fact that Chloe dies over and over again because the universe wills it shows that determinism is a reality in this fictional world. Saving Chloe rejects determinism, and raises a middle finger to the idea that we should bow to the will of the universe. Furthermore, it is suggested in the nightmare reality that each time Max goes back in time she isn’t actually changing the one reality that exists, but instead creates a new reality, leaving a different version of her and also her friends behind in that reality. If there are multiple realities, the one I wanted to be in was the one with Chloe alive. I didn’t want to create another Chloe that never knew me, not knowing that Max was there for her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *