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).
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.
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.