Warning: this article contains spoilers for Life is Strange and the first compiled volume of the Life is Strange comics (Issues #1-4).
When given the choice at the end of the original Life is Strange to either save the town of Arcadia Bay from an impending storm or save Chloe’s life, I chose Chloe. While this decision was far from easy, my rationale ultimately came from a consideration of what Arcadia Bay had come to represent for the two protagonists: Chloe had lost her father, her girlfriend Rachel, and, had Max not intervened, her life. In my timeline, Chloe’s parents had split and I made no attempts to bring them back together because I saw her stepdad as abusive and controlling. Arcadia Bay had become synonymous with pain and suffering even beyond the lives of our main characters.
Using Max’s powers to reset the story would kill Chloe, fail to solve many of this town’s problems, and leave her filled with regret for not saving the most important person in her life when she had the chance. The only solution was, somewhat selfishly, to move on and reject the past for a brighter future, despite the human cost.
What right did I think I had to make this decision? It’s a question the Life is Strange comics, which began serialization in 2018, have asked of me since the beginning. As they approach their end, it’s clear they exist to expand the story’s scope into a metatextual commentary on our decision over Arcadia Bay’s fate.
Moving On From Arcadia Bay
Picking up a year after the ending that leads to the destruction of Arcadia Bay, the first issue introduces Max and Chloe as a duo far away from their old home. We meet Max taking photos with her trusty Polaroid of an up-and-coming band they have befriended. She’s in a loving relationship with Chloe where the pair have supported one another in the aftermath of the tragedy. Most of all? She’s happy. But, as is traditional for Life is Strange, it doesn’t take long before things begin to take a turn for the unusual. Suddenly, Chloe is bringing up the idea of working at the diner with her parents despite their deaths, and it’s not the only unusual thing that’s happening on the eve of the first anniversary of the tragedy.
Even though Max promised not to use her powers anymore, things are happening that she can’t explain. Chloe is acting like she doesn’t know the band one moment; the next, she’s calling Max back to watch them, as she flickers between multiple timelines to witness these simultaneous conversations. Returning to the town they left for dead feels like the only way to find a solution to this problem, but it only brings about more questions and even more timeline convergences. We witness Chloe’s mom mourning her daughter’s death in a timeline we’ve never visited. This interconnection of parallel universes is playing with reality itself, and Max can only arrive at the conclusion that these disturbances are her fault.
The Butterfly Effect is the idea that a tiny decision can have major consequences. It’s an important aspect of the game that is reintroduced at the beginning of the comics by placing Max not as the butterfly controlling fate, but as another grain of sand caught in the gathering storm. By no longer making Max the center of the universe, the comic posits the question of who’s really in control.
When these convergences become more frequent, Max makes the painful decision to leave Chloe’s side and jump into the multiverse in the hope of finding answers. This puts her in a whole new timeline where events couldn’t be more different: Rachel Amber, who is missing prior to the start of Life is Strange, is alive and in a relationship with this timeline’s Chloe, while Max is nothing more than an old friend re-entering Chloe’s life. Now trapped, she has to find a way back and solve the weird fractures in time that are seemingly the result of her liberal use of her powers to change fate.
As the story continues to develop, more people get wrapped up in the consequences of Max’s actions and what she did to Arcadia Bay. Some are mad when they learn that their decisions aren’t entirely their own. Suddenly, what was once portrayed as a power to save people and reunite with a person you loved becomes a poisoned chalice that causes harm and leaves anger in its wake.
What makes this graphic novel continuation of Max and Chloe’s story so interesting is how it weaponizes the change in medium to criticize and question our assumed right to dictate the fate of these characters. A story-driven game requires that the player has control over the destiny of its world and characters, whether that be through interacting with its universe or — in the case of Life is Strange — actively altering the direction of the story as you play. While this serves as a useful tool to make the player more invested in the story being told, it does inevitably have an impact on how that story plays out.
Chloe emphasizes that only Max can decide Arcadia Bay’s fate at the end of the final episode of Life is Strange when, in reality, Max has no autonomy over her decision at this moment. We, the puppet masters pulling Max’s strings, have ultimate control, and our own external feelings and selfish desires for these characters override their ability to take charge of their own fate.
Through the comic’s interpretation of Max, saddled with how her decisions are made without the input of others, this story challenges what it means to have autonomy and agency over one’s future. The existence of a multiverse canonizes both endings and factors them into a new story where these characters are aware their decisions may be altered beyond their control at any time. Understandably, losing autonomy leaves them feeling powerless and isolated.
The question of who gets to decide their fate is frequently reckoned with, particularly in later issues. Over the course of 18 issues (and counting), these comics expand on these characters through the lens of their agency in their own narratives. By telling this story in a non-interactive graphic medium, the fact we see Chloe, Max, and the story’s many new characters acting absent of our influence only serves to complicate our relationship with Arcadia Bay, whatever decision we made. For the first time, they’re in control, fixing their problems while we simply observe. As they find solutions without us, it’s impossible not to wonder where our past interference belongs in this story.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we shouldn’t be in control.
Life is Strange remains a poster child for the power of interactive storytelling in gaming, and this comic isn’t arguing against the merits of interactive media as a way of telling a story. What makes Max and Chloe such memorable characters isn’t just their relationship, or even the influence this game holds as an example of strong LGBTQ+ representation at a time when it was rarer than it is today. It’s the fact that we can enter the town of Arcadia Bay and our decisions have a real impact on the people we interact with. Without that connection, that final decision would lack its impact.
Yet we rarely consider what it means to tell an interactive story, and how it changes our relationship to the characters on screen compared to our experience reading a book or watching a movie. The industry chases the vague idea of “cinematic storytelling” by emulating the hero’s journey and the storytelling tricks of filmmaking, without realizing that such a goal is impossible to attain.
Beyond the difficulty of defining what it means to be cinematic (Is it a visual look? A feeling? A set of rules that stories must follow? Can anything other than a movie actually be cinematic?), interactivity brings a new dimension to any story that gives it a different narrative flow and payoff. Games can’t tell stories like other mediums. But, for all games have come to embrace the unique ways its creators can blend storytelling and gameplay, most have yet to meaningfully explore what it means to tell a story in a game as opposed to another medium.
The Life is Strange comics aren’t great just because they give us more time with characters we’ve grown attached to (although that is a nice bonus). They’re great because they retroactively challenge our relationship to the methods through which we first meet these characters, as well as the power dynamics governing our relationship. As of the writing of this article, the comics are about to enter their last arc, with the final four issues set for release before the end of 2021. Whatever direction this story takes, I’m here to witness it every step of the way. Except, instead of making the decisions for Max and Chloe, I trust them to find the answers on their own.