WARNING: This article may contain spoilers.
It’s been a few months since the conclusion of Life is Strange, and yet we still can’t determine if the game had a “bad” ending. It’s hard to say when death lingers around each one. Dontnod Entertainment has certainly outdone themselves in crafting a beautifully tragic story. If you’re anything like me, playing the first chapter was a neat experience but nothing life changing. It wasn’t until episode 2 that I became riveted by its dark story.
But what about the endings? After making a slew of difficult decisions throughout the game, the player is forced to make one final choice. Neither are pleasant and neither make you feel great. They’re both just bad … yet good. So which one is the “sucky” ending? Does it even have one?
Is it: Sacrifice Arcadia Bay?
Okay. So the people in this town aren’t exactly saints but letting them suffer through a violent tornado isn’t really A-OK either. After theoretically killing off almost everyone in the game, it should be safe to say that this ending was the bad one, right?
When we play video games, we’re often playing through someone’s personal story. We begin to understand what makes them happy and what makes them sad. For Max, a big piece of her personal happiness comes from being with Chloe. Episode 5 shows this in full by allowing players to walk through Max’s subconscious to gain a sense of how she views the world and the people around her.
Arcadia Bay and its citizens aren’t so bad, but Chloe remains at the forefront. The majority of Max’s decisions revolve around Chloe’s happiness and safety. She even goes out of her way to impress her by looking cool. Depending on how the game is played, Max will see Chloe as either her best friend or potential lover. But no matter which one you choose, the relationship remains strong. Consider Max’s alternate journal entries:
October 11, 2013
Chloe will always be my best friend, but who knows how she really sees me? I know she wasn’t mad I didn’t kiss her… I feel like we’re more family than couple…
October 11, 2013
Chloe is more than my best friend, but who knows how she really sees me? She did dare me to kiss her, but she seemed surprised that I actually did. I am too, but I don’t regret it for a second. Maybe that’s why I hated watching Chloe being so cruel in the nightmare, calling me names and flirting with all those people…
As we can see from her journal entries, Max doesn’t have to become romantic with Chloe in order to care for her. If the player takes the best friend route, Chloe becomes more like a cool big sister, but Max’s desire to save her doesn’t disappear. Sacrificing Arcadia Bay is undoubtedly terrible, but in Max’s eyes, giving up Chloe is out of the question.
Once you decide to let the tornado hit, the ending shows the aftermath and damage dealt to the town. Max and Chloe are seen driving through the littered streets in silence. In an attempt to console Max, Chloe places one hand on her shoulder, giving players a quick view of her ring finger. Originally, Chloe wears a black ring—a keepsake of her late father. In the Sacrifice Arcadia Bay ending, it’s replaced with a golden band to imply that Chloe not only discovered her mother’s body but also chose to wear Joyce’s ring as a symbol of respect and affection for Max.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of this ending gave most players the impression that it is the bad one. Due to a limited budget, the developers were forced to trim one of their endings, and Sacrificing Arcadia Bay is the one that took the hit (no joke intended). I actually didn’t find their choice all that surprising. Since Life Is Strange focuses so heavily on the butterfly effect and its dangers, it’s understandable that they decided to give more attention to the ending that resolves it.
While this might validate the argument that this is the bad ending, I feel this storyline helped Max and Chloe grow and change. Sacrificing Arcadia Bay was awful and inexcusable, but throughout the multiple timelines in the game, Max chose to stick with Chloe. I see no reason for her to change her mind in the final moments leading up to the ending. This decision doesn’t constitute what I’d call a good ending, but it certainly doesn’t make it a bad one either.
Is it: Sacrifice Chloe?
Due to the consistent blue butterfly imagery throughout the game, it’s insanely difficult to peg this ending as the bad one. A lot of us cried and curled up in a bathroom corner, sure, but we can’t deny the official feel it gave to us as its conclusion. Max was even offered closure and seemed at peace with her decision.
While it’s undeniable that she matures from her experience, Max loses Chloe. Throughout the game she struggles to make life easier for her friend and chooses to accept most of the consequences that come with it. However, this notion goes out the window if Max sacrifices Chloe to save the town. By rewinding time and erasing the events that lead up to the storm, she cancels out all the positive memories she gives to Chloe during the one week they’re back together. Chloe treasures these memories but loses them, and she dies without knowing how much she’s cared for by the people around her. The week she lives through becomes nonexistent, making the following journal entry somewhat biting:
October 8, 2013
Our morning adventure over, Chloe dropped me off back at my campus. She was so sweet and said that this had been the best week of her life… despite everything.
Admittedly, this journal entry is seen early on in the game but still manages to show us the positive impact Max has on Chloe’s life and attitude.
Furthermore, we know from multiple journal entries and dialogue that Max feels guilty for distancing herself from Chloe in the past. This guilt worsens when she’s forced to sacrifice Chloe’s father in order to save her from a life of paralysis. Take a look at some of Max’s lines spoken from Episode 4:
“Chloe, I’m so sorry…I tried to make things different for you…”
“Listen, whatever happens, I want you to be strong. Even if you feel like I wasn’t there for you… because I will never abandon you, Chloe. I’ll always have your back. Always.”
By sacrificing Chloe at the end, Max has to forego this promise for the sake of the town. It becomes a happy ending for Arcadia Bay, most definitely, but I can’t say that I find it to be a good ending for Max in terms of her motivation and goals. It seems almost out of character, considering what we know. But saving an entire town can’t be bad either.
So which ending was the bad one? Sacrificing Chloe or sacrificing Arcadia Bay?
Ethically speaking, both endings are bad. There’s no real way to measure one human life against another, hence the title of Episode 5: Polarized. However, if we were to apply a couple of ethical tests to the game’s final decision, we may find ourselves favoring the humanitarian concept. Both decisions are inherently wrong, but sacrificing Chloe is simply seen as the lesser of evils. By sacrificing Arcadia Bay, Max opts out of this humanitarian choice and makes one based on her own happiness. Selfish? Most assuredly. But in a no-win situation like this, what would you choose? Would you label one as good or bad?