After literally almost a year since I posted Day 8, I think it’s pretty safe to say I failed the 30 Day Challenge.
Still, no time like the present! Today’s title is Saddest Game Scene – and while my penchant for heart-wrenching video game narratives is as strong as ever, there’s one scene that sticks out like a nail in an eyeball. My eyeball, that is. Streaming tears down my miserable face. If you’ve not yet played Life Is Strange (and for heaven’s sake, what are you doing with your life), spoilers incoming.
Life is Strange is chock-full of tearjerkers. I know several people who had to restart after failing to save Kate from jumping off the dormitory roof, too guilty to go on, not to mention the end of the fourth episode where a mystery running through the game is suddenly and miserably cleared up. Add the horrifying vision of a dead plant you over or under-watered, and you’ve got yourself one big ol’ sadness cake.
Twice the player is presented with a big choice regarding the co-protagonist: blue-haired, punk kid rebel Chloe Price. Both times the player is called upon to question their morality – and while the second choice, the final one in the game, is easy for me to make, the first one forces the player to evaluate their thoughts about terminal illness and euthanasia. I’m talking, of course, of the beginning scenes of Episode Four: Dark Room.
Chloe, once a feisty, angry person, is now paralysed from the neck down. Her own father had originally died in a car accident, but when Max travelled back in time to stop him going out that day it seemed time had her own thoughts on the matter. Chloe was forced into a car accident instead, leaving her confined to a wheelchair and plummeting her family into medical debt.
Chloe and Max share a day together; the episode opens with them walking along the beach and stopping to admire the sunset (‘The Golden Hour,’ Max says when Chloe asks her what photographers call it). Max apologises for not being there enough, and Chloe forgives her, albeit bitterly. Her own friends abandoned her long ago.
Back in Chloe’s house, where the garage has been modified into a care room complete with a specialised bed, a huge TV and a mouth-controlled joystick for her computer, Max contemplates her actions. She knows that she is responsible for Chloe’s illness. But the Prices are a family again now she saved Chloe’s father, William – is that enough? Is it worth it? Is it better this way? Or should she go back and put the world to rights again? Eventually the girls watch Blade Runner together; Max falls asleep on Chloe’s bed.
Morning comes, and Max wakes from a deep sleep to find Chloe wide awake, obviously consumed with thoughts. She asks Max to get a morphine injector from upstairs to soothe her head pains, and Max agrees. The living room, just off Chloe’s care room, has changed – not a lot, but enough to make a difference. There’s no money in the cookie jar anymore, just cookies. Coupons lie on the kitchen surface. The TV is tiny, and letters with medical bills lie in various places. The Price family is in bad shape, and in the middle sits William, scratching his head over a threatening letter and mumbling. It’s like seeing a ghost. By all rights, this man should be dead.
There are good things in this house as well. A figure of the Eiffel Tower sits on the desk, a souvenir from a family trip to Paris. The house is well kept, well painted, and the garden is tidied up. From the outside it looks like a normal, happy, family home. But inside, the stress is mounting.
Max exchanges conversation with both William and Joyce, Chloe’s mother, and on her way she learns that Chloe had been let go from her school, who claimed they could not adequately support her disability needs. She also learns that Chloe’s condition is rapidly deteriorating. A letter from a specialist reveals that her respiratory system will eventually shut down as her spinal condition worsens. Chloe is dying. How long does she have left?
Returning to the care room, Max attaches the morphine injector to the drip and sits with Chloe. The two go through a photo album, laughing at childhood photos and remembering days gone by. The morning sun shines through the window as Chloe takes a deep breath. Faced with the knowledge that her illness is terminal, she asks Max, and you, to do the impossible.
‘I want this time with you to be my last memory…do you understand?’
Staring through Max and into you, the player, Chloe asks you to choose.
All you have to do is crank the IV up. That’s all you have to do. That’s all.
You can’t. What gives you the right to end someone’s life? Why should I be the one to do it? What if she isn’t capable of making her own decision? What consequences will I face for doing this? What if something happens and she gets better? You refuse to do it, and Chloe argues with you in vain. Eventually she turns her face away in disgust, accusing you of ‘bailing on [her], just like everybody else’, and sends you away.
But you can’t leave. Your friend, your best friend, asks you the biggest of all favours, the kindest of kindnesses, and you can’t do it because…why? Her condition will kill her, and soon. Should nature take its course, or is it better to let her end her life the way she wants? Is the negligible chance of her recovering worth putting her through more pain? Pain that you caused in the first place?
You love your friend. You rewind, and accept. You turn the IV up. Chloe thanks you. She tells you she loves you, praises you for following your dreams. Her eyes close. Her face relaxes. Her head drops onto her shoulder, and her breath oozes out of her.
No matter what happens now, you have to change this. You made this mess, now you have to clear it up. Focusing on a picture of Chloe and herself as children, Max travels back to that fateful day, the one where Chloe’s father died. Instead, this time, Max doesn’t hide William’s keys. She lets him find them, lets him walk out of the door to his death. Then she tells Chloe to be strong, and promises never to leave her again. The scene ends. Photographs of Chloe and William burn up, replaced by a drizzly funeral. Photos of Joyce and William, happy and smiling, burn up also and photos of Joyce’s new husband appear in their place. William is dead. Chloe is once again bitter and angry, but alive. The world is at rights.
I think this scene is so strong because we’ve developed a personal relationship with Chloe throughout the series. Having meaningful choices in-game immerses the player in the in-game world, and even though the player themselves didn’t directly make the choice to go back, save William, and put Chloe in the wheelchair, by this time I was so engrossed with the game that any choices I made were my choices, not Max’s. Max’s mistakes were MY mistakes. Not only did Max put Chloe in the wheelchair, I did too. And so did everyone else who played this game. And now YOU have to choose what to do. And it’s not Max’s choice. It’s yours.