Spoilers for Life Is Strange are discussed in depth in this post.
There’s this persistent complaint that I see many people make regarding choice-based adventure games, and it goes like this: if the total number of potential endings for the story are limited to a relatively small number (say two or three), then emphasizing that the number of choices the player makes to impact the story are ultimately irrelevant and kind of deceitful. It’s this impulse that led to the great outrage over Mass Effect 3‘s original endings (I believe the joke went something like, “You have three options, and which one you pick determines what color the laser beam is in the ending movie”; having experienced the original, non-expanded ending, I can attest that there actually was more than that in the ending, but I had other complaints about the way that game ended), which didn’t really take into account the multitude of decisions that the player made as Shepard over the course of three games. In that context, I could see some basis for the complaint since Mass Effect is a triple-A game franchise, and the ending cinematic did very little to tie up all the loose ends that players expected (that was what the rest of Mass Effect 3 was for, but I digress). Life Is Strange isn’t in the same category of big budget games (of course, it’s not a small project by a tiny indie developer either; Dontnod got the game published by Square Enix, after all), so it’s not really reasonable to have the same expectations (we must always remember that video games are complex pieces of programming, and things like branching story paths take up lots of resources).
All this is to say that I understand the impulse to be disappointed with the final decision in Life Is Strange. On one level, yes, it was predictable that Max’s final choice would be between saving Chloe and saving Arcadia Bay (I guess; I played through the whole game over the course of a week, so I didn’t have the mounds and mounds of time for speculation that all the players who’ve been following along since January did), and it sucks that the player has to choose between a timeline where nothing Max did throughout the game happened and one where most of the people who benefited from Max’s interventions have presumably died. It is absolutely true to say that those are two terrible decisions, and arriving at such a place undermines the reminder at the start of every episode of the game that the player’s choices impact the past, present, and future of the characters. I get how that feels like a cop out, like an undelivered promise.
Life Is Strange is not a game about huge earth shattering consequences. It’s not Mass Effect where the fate of the galaxy rests on the protagonist’s shoulders and the promise of the story is that the player will get to influence the fates of millions in a way that will fundamentally change the universe. Life Is Strange is about the importance of memories and how we create them. Buried in the gameplay mechanics are one simple rule: Max retains her knowledge of what’s happened every time she rewinds. This is a puzzle mechanic that gets employed frequently as Max has to go through a bunch of conversations and mine for useful information that she can then rewind and present in a way that helps her accomplish whatever goal she’s trying to achieve at the moment. When she alters the timeline to save Chloe’s father, William, from the car accident that kills him, she gets to remember everything in the previous timeline (it’s why her sudden change in circumstances when she first awakens in the new timeline is so jarring; she’s suddenly in a context that led to her personality having some significant differences), and when she leaves that timeline, she gets to go back to the original one with the knowledge of what Chloe’s life would have been like with her father still alive. When she’s kidnapped by Jefferson and goes hopping through photos to try to undo Chloe’s (third) death, all of the trauma she’s experienced stays with her. Everything impacts Max, even if it doesn’t impact anyone else.
The final decision between Chloe and Arcadia Bay negates all of the decisions the player has made up to that point, except in the mind of Max. From the perspective of story (and this is a game that is entirely about the story), there is a lot going on with what kind of experience Max has had during her week with rewind powers. That the text of the two endings is unchanged by all these decisions only matters if you have no investment in the subtext of it all. Did Max do everything she could to try to help people, or did she give some folks the brush off? In a story where the protagonist literally has infinite time to explore all the possible outcomes of any given situation, this difference does a lot to impact how we read Max as a character.
Life Is Strange is a story about Max; whether it’s about her learning to accept loss as a natural part of life or learning to accept that all actions have consequences and they should still be made in spite of that reality doesn’t change the fact that this story’s about her. It misses the point to complain that none of her decisions besides the final one have any lasting effect, and serves to treat her as little more than a cypher for the player’s experience rather than a fully fleshed character inhabiting a world that has consequences for her.