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What keeps you loving Life is Strange, Flaws and all

Updated: May 17, 2023

If you have returned to Life is Strange after a while, you might've noticed two things. First, its writing is... not very good. The story is prone to poor pacing, strange decisions, weightless choices, and a hundred flaws that have been pointed out by as many critics. A lot of it you can justify, of course. "The ending makes my previous decisions redundant". Yes, you're right, but not every story is designed to build the previous narrative. Themes can be more important than the plot. We knew the storm to wipe out the bay was impending and the only commodity Max (and maybe Chloe) is left with is the truth. Truth about Rachel, about Prescotts, about Jefferson, all of it. And that's the weight of the story—what affects your decision. If you had the same decision at any of the earlier points in the story, you wouldn't have the same train of thought. The inevitability is an intentional mechanic that serves the story, not harm it.

Max's decision

However, some criticisms, you have to either accept or act apathetic towards. Why was Max unable to take the photo of David harassing Kate, turn back time and still have it? She has been able to take objects through time throughout the game, so why not this one? Better yet, why couldn't she photograph the many horrible actions made by Nathan? The simple answer is that the writers probably didn't consider it when they wrote the story down. Coming up with any explanation in retrospect is cheating.

Still, if you play the game today, you'll fall for it all over again. You weren't oblivious, you knew the first time around about the contrivances, the inconsistencies, and the lack of depth in some of the side characters. Yet you, the target audience for this article, people like me, love this series so much. For a lot of them, it is even hard to put a finger on it. Many just found themselves some LGBTQIA+ representation in gaming, but the first game is pretty light on that. Some music lovers were in it for the West Coast Acoustics. But few can ever find themselves wondering what it was about the story itself that evoked such strong emotions from them. The voice acting, the songs, the quirky aesthetics?

Chloe dancing

I'd say, it is the one aspect of a story not dependent on the plot itself. What makes Life is Strange something you keep jumping back to is the tone. You can't write a set of events and expect the tone in your head to always be translated appropriately. Within media, we've seen comedic death scenes, unsatisfying confessions, and heart-wrenching jokes. A storyteller must work even harder to match a tone with a contradicting action. Tone is everything to the experience. That is why children prefer to tell horror stories under a blanket with a flashlight under their faces, why comedians need to set an environment where their punch-downs cannot be construed as opinions. If you can convey to your audience what the content you're providing them is all about, they will know if they want to stick around or opt-out.

The heart-throbs, lovers of romanticism, and people who appreciate the cringe of the mid-2010s high-schoolers stuck around past the walk to the bathroom of Blackwell. Here on, you were always aware of what you were getting. Life is Strange was rarely ever about surprising you, it wanted you to pace slowly through its environment. Kill the pace if need be. They love it when you examine every item in the area. The creators feel accomplished when you sigh at Max's pushover attitude yet couldn't help but find it a little cute. That's you spending time in the world they built, with the characters they wrote.

The main story, the one about the disappearance of Rachel Amber, doesn't start till the THIRD episode. And once it starts, it goes on at a pretty good pace. Most people have noted how every episode of this game tends to be better than the previous one. I believe that's because it dedicated a LOT of the opening to building up both Arcadia Bay and Chloe Price, one of which you can get some closure on in the end. You're not at a place where you want to scoff at the story's shortcomings.

Max and Chloe on the tracks.
That's okay. We will. Forever.

How else could a cheesy exchange like,

"My powers might not last, Chloe."
"That's okay—We will. Forever."

Still hit so damn hard? You're not here to have your tropes picked apart by a metanarrative God like in Community, nor do you want to rush to the thrilling mystery like in Holmes's stories. Your stakes in the case aren't related to you as a detective, but as a friend (or something more) who can't see another friend in so much pain. Of course, Jonathan Morali's Max & Chloe theme playing over the scene helps it too. So does the voice acting, the blue butterfly that's starting to be a... bit scary, and the railway tracks—your place of comfort.

Place of comfort? This is where a drug dealer threatened us... Where Chloe almost got crushed by a train... where we later find Rachel! Bet you didn't think of all that when this exchange happened. No, because... that's how this game moves. One of the tools it has for building tone. The distinctions between a comfortable area and a dangerous one become arbitrary as the villains corrupt your sense of security. They have Nathan paint a threat on your dorm room wall, have David patrolling Chloe's house, and bury Rachel in your junkyard.

This is why, in the end, when you return to the lighthouse in your nth playthrough, you don't remember Victoria's awful "sad face" comeback, you think... she deserved a chance at redemption too. She could have gotten it. You don't think about Max's inconsistent power with David and Kate, you think... how small and petty David must've felt after Kate tried to jump. When he learned just the previous night how he failed Chloe too, and let Jefferson kill her. You don't think about how weak Chloe's arc can feel, where she hasn't been showing remorse over her worst actions, you think... how she hasn't been showing remorse over her worst actions... but she doesn't like being this person. She wants to be strong enough to apologize... and she does exactly that at the lighthouse, hoping once it ends, the least she would leave behind is a good memory of herself for Max. Because this game can have you set aside your gripes as need be and leave you emotionally vulnerable. I believe in consistent writing. I don't want to ever have to bury my pedantic-half to enjoy a story. However, I would never find myself wanting to forget the experiences Life is Strange let me live.

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