Review: Life is Strange episode five – Polarized

Or, the story of my emotional destruction. Spoilers ahead.

Sitting down to play Life is Strange episode five was a bittersweet experience. I really wanted to know what happened, but at the same time I wasn’t ready to let the game or its characters go. It’s all left me feeling a bit forlorn. Episode five is an episode that, well, polarized me slightly. I enjoyed the episode as much as any of the others, which is a whole lot, but it did let itself down at some points.

This episode has less moments of interactivity than any of the others, with only one major decision. That said, as far as decisions go, it’s a pretty big one. Instead this episode felt slightly more passive; you and Max jump through several photos to different realities trying to make everything right, seeing again and again why it can’t be. It was pretty great storytelling continually bringing forward a reality where you think, finally, everything is going to be okay, before whisking it away from under you. Emotionally exhausting, but in retrospect I’m glad they did it because it left me feeling like no matter what had happened, everything was going to lead up to the final decision I had to make. It makes you resent the difficulty of the decision slightly less.

One thing I’m not glad they did is what I will call the ‘Stealth Sequence from Hell.’ Being in Max’s nightmares could have been a much more interesting experience without this clumsy gamification. I was already interested; this is a game where for the first four episodes we spent all of our time picking through exterior settings trying to find out as much as we could about other people, and finally, in the last episode, we were looking inside to find out something about Max. I wanted to hear what the characters were saying in her nightmare, but trying to avoid their flashlights in an overly dark setting frustrated me to the point where I just ran through, desperate to get to the end of the sequence. And that’s not what Life is Strange has been about for me up to this point, I don’t think I’d rushed through anything in this game until that point; it really ruined the feeling of immersion.

I did like that we got to find out a bit more about Max, though; her perhaps less than altruistic motivations, her insecurities and self-loathing. It made me enjoy the experience of playing as her even more, and considering her voice acting was so well done, I’d say this was Max’s best episode yet. She’s cemented her place as one of my all time favourite gaming protagonists.

When it comes to villains, though, I’m not sure Jefferson will be up there. Jefferson, to be honest, is a bit of a hollow villain. Incredibly hateable but not overly complex; I was never particularly inclined to like him, I always thought he seemed oddly snappish, mean even, and without any especially redeemable qualities other than pretty great hair. As far as videogame hair goes, I was a fan. Because of this I didn’t feel particularly betrayed, I more felt like “huh, the guy I thought was a bit of a dick is much more of a dick than I anticipated.”

I suppose with the plot twist being revealed at the very end of episode four you don’t really get enough time or information to process his movement to the role of villain, and after this you’re hardly able to appreciate any depth of character when faced with a mighty exposition dump at the start of episode five.

Jefferson himself may not have many dimensions, but his actions, and why they’re so horrific, are worthwhile considering. As a villain he won’t stay with me, but his villainy will. As I’ve said in previous reviews, considering discussions on the treatment of women in video games I do think it’s interesting to have a villain that’s obsessed with capturing, controlling, and framing women in the way that he thinks is appropriate. He strips them of their agency, positions him the way he wants, decides whether their character is pure or corrupt (because obviously there can’t be an in between for women), he likes them dead behind the eyes and unable to speak because they’re there for the visuals. I mean come on, it’s apt, and it only serves to highlight how full of life these female characters are compared to many other representations in gaming.

Thankfully, Dontnod handled Nathan’s character kind of the way I hoped they would and I ended up feeling more sympathy for him than I would have ever thought possible in episode one. I’m genuinely glad that Dontnod didn’t go down the path of making the mentally ill character the villain, instead showing his manipulation and our misunderstanding of actions that have been deliberately framed by mental illness.

I’ve seen some criticisms that in the end it felt like your choices didn’t really matter because the game was always leading up to one decision that kind of cancelled out everything else you’d done. But I took that as the point. Feeling powerless and frustrated because no matter what decisions you made, no matter how much you backtracked you still lost someone and were left in a difficult position? That was Max’s experience too and it really brings player and character grief together in the end, highlighting that the overall experience, the journey, of the game was more important than the final destination because even if all of your decisions were inconsequential, it was the making them that mattered.

Life is Strange episode five wasn’t perfect, none of the episodes were, but I really enjoyed it and the fact that I was sad to put the controller down at the end is a testament to the game. I will always recommend it as one of the best narratives I’ve played through in gaming and I can’t wait to see more from Dontnot in the future.

Also, Max saying ‘Life is…’ at one point had me on the edge of my seat. I sat there thinking ‘say it. Say it!’ But then ‘…weird.’ God damn you Dontnot.

Episode One Review, Episode Two Review, Episode Three Review, Episode Four Review

Main Image via Steam