Publisher: Square Enix
Year Made: 2015
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Price: First Episode: $4.99; All 5 Episodes: $19.99
Content Areas: English Language Arts, Social Studies, Health
Suggested Age Level: Upper High School
Play Length: 3 hours
Number of Players: Single Player
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Warning: Mature rating. Drugs, alcohol, profanity, violence, and sexual themes. Some sensitive material (described below).
First, if you have not yet read our reviews of Episode 1, “Chrysalis,” Episode 2, “Out of Time,” and Episode 3 “Chaos Theory,” and Episode 4 "Dark Room" please do so before reading the review for Episode 5, “Polarized.” This review will contain major spoilers and focus heavily on “Polarized” and the season finale, so you should try the other episodes first. For those of you unfamiliar with episodic games, think of them like chapters in a book. Each episode builds the story off of the episode before it to create one overall story. You wouldn’t read chapter five before you read chapter one! So follow the links above to catch up on Max’s story as she rewinds time to save her friends and her town.
Anyone who has followed this series of reviews has probably noticed by now that I am a massive fan of Dontnod’s episodic saga Life is Strange. Despite the sleepless nights that ensued, I developed a pattern of playing the next episode the instant it downloaded to my PC and staying up until dawn to write my review while the tumbling emotions caused by the episode were still fresh in my head. After playing the final episode, “Polarized,” however, I had a different problem inspiring my game-related insomnia.
I couldn’t write the review.
In episode five, the whole world unravels around Max. In the previous episode, Max and Chloe uncovered the truth about Rachel Amber, the kidnapper, and Chloe and Max even fell victim to him. When Max wakes up, she is bound and drugged in the Dark Room, and her future seems grim. Unlikely heroes surface as Max struggles to escape and save Arcadia Bay from the cataclysm surrounding it. Two moments in particular stand out as Max navigates real life dangers and the universe crumbling around her as timelines merge: the nightmare sequence and the final decision of the game.
In the bizarre nightmare world, Max experiences overlapping and distorted realities. All of her choices and insecurities about them come back to haunt her as she navigates never-ending hallways, narrowly escapes Jefferson, and even comes face-to-face with ghosts of her past and a furious version of herself. Throughout the sequence, small details such as texts from the dead, hidden yet sinister messages, and the guilt associated with every decision Max has made plague the player as they do everything they can to set the universe right. Voices of fellow students and the other Arcadia Bay residents take on a sinister snarl that chills the player with taunts of how badly everything has been ruined. The illusions of the scenes build up to the point that you almost can't help but feel that every choice made was wrong. Instead of saving everyone, it seems like Max has ruined them all. The nightmare sequence elevates “Polarized” to a surreal level and drags the player into the darker side of trying to rescue everyone.
By far, the final choice Max faces is the gem of the episode. While some predicted it and others were blindsided by it, Max’s final choice comes down to weighing the needs of the many against the needs of the few. As the long-awaited storm rages on and Max comes to after the nightmare, Chloe has completed her metamorphosis from angsty, self-centered punk to selfless and vulnerable human being who now realizes what needs to be done. Max’s final choice centers on the choice that started it all: she can stay where she is and let Arcadia Bay get swept away or go back in time and never interfere with Chloe’s death. Logically, it makes sense to save the most number of people possible. Logically, one person’s life is not worth sacrificing an entire town. The problem is that Max and Chloe’s relationship is not even close to logical, and Chloe Price’s significance to the game and to the player is monumental after ten months of rescuing her. Players have to decide how much logic will dictate their choice, how much emotion will dictate it, and what they could stand to live with, because there is no going back and replaying that final choice once it is made. There’s a reason that the first question any player asks when they meet another player is “Who did you save?” That final decision is the heart of everything Life is Strange worked toward.
Some people have taken issue with the fact that in the end, the choices in the other episodes didn’t have a lasting impact in the final episode, but the choices did impact the game in smaller but still significant ways. Ultimately, the choices the player makes may not have such an impact on the ending, but they serve their purpose to let the player explore Max’s universe and build them up for the final decision that can reveal just as much about what a player holds dear. A larger issue storywise is the number of smaller threads left without any true conclusion. The player barely explores what happens to Victoria, despite how critical she was in “The Dark Room.” In addition, even in the gravity of the nightmare sequence (including confronting the manifestation of Max’s own guilt), Rachel Amber, the specter who provided the catalyst into the Dark Room investigation, is never mentioned or given the same closure that other characters, such as David Madsen, are allowed. Rachel Amber is left aside as the victim who fought back, but she and Max never have the interactions hoped for. Finally, in a Kafkaesque twist, Max’s abilities are never really explained beyond a random event. Instead, Chloe and Max briefly chalk it up to “something we’ll never be able to explain” and move on from there. While it’s understandable that time travel is a whole new set of problems to explain given the magnitude of the story, it still left an unsatisfying handling of how Max got her abilities. It might have been better to not address the issue at all instead of give it such bare bones treatment.
Beyond the nitpicking of unresolved storylines and choices, the main critique of “Polarized” from the gameplay side is the same critique each episode has had. It is a nightmare to play with a mouse. Having to click and drag with the same mechanic used to look around makes it difficult to complete basic tasks with a mouse. This problem can be alleviated by using a console controller instead of a mouse, but if players only have access to a mouse, the controls can pull away from the story that is at the heart of the game. It also still deals with a few more mature themes, but - as stated in other reviews - these themes such as sex, alcohol, drugs, and violence are not pieces that teens are unfamiliar with or ones they would not encounter in many great works of literature.
As we see the story arc in Life is Strange come to an end, there are a number of ways this kind of game could be incorporated into a classroom. Within an English class, there are a number of literary parallels to books like The Catcher in the Rye or Metamorphosis. Life is Strange has a rich enough and deep enough story that players could spend hours discussing characters, conflict, foreshadowing, suspense, the hero’s journey, and more literary devices and how they morph in video games. Chloe and Max’s own transformations could even allow students to reflect on their own lives, choices, and consequences, something that educators push them to do every day. Within psychology and philosophy, students could not only analyze how characters develop over all five episodes, but they could also analyze some of the data collected at the end of the game and explore the choices players made and why they chose them, especially given the final choice to save the one person you love or the town of mostly innocent bystanders.
After playing the finale of Life is Strange, I still don't know how to put all of my feelings on it into words. Months later, I’m still debating my decisions made as Max and if they were the right choices. As corny as it may sound though, the one decision I haven’t questioned was the decision to try this strange sounding game featuring a spunky blue-haired girl and a timid photographer. When I think back on how this game has impacted me as a teacher, my relationships with my students, and my connections with other players, there is no other game that has made such an impact on my life. Life is Strange is its own piece of literature with the characters it creates and the town they inhabit. The game alone provides so much room for analysis and deep discussion that it could be the center of its own literary unit or social investigation.
It is a hella good game, and it will change how you see yourself as a teacher, how you interact with your students, and how you connect to the people around you. A game that can achieve that is nothing short of beautiful.
Educational Rating: 6/8
(Classroom Tech Friendly, Motivation, Concrete Learning, Additional Skills, Feedback, Difficulty, Accessibility, Extension)
Overall Rating: 7/8
(Immersion, Environment, Storyline, Replayability, Entertainment, Gameplay, Originality, User Control)