The machines of industry churn out so much product, often very worthy pieces of art can appear and disappear before the average consumer has a chance to fully absorb their existence. Here today, dissolved tomorrow. In our modern super-informed culture, it’s also possible that regular consumers of a given medium might be aware of massive earthshaking moments that the larger field of potential customers may never even hear of. People label themselves cineastes, music enthusiasts, or gamers and obsessively devour all information they can on their chosen pastime and know little to nothing of the other tectonic works happening in directly adjacent art forms. This is why practically everyone you know has at least heard of Avengers: Endgame, but you can count one hand the people who can tell you what Christopher Nolan’s Memento is about. Such is the way of video game content as much as any art form. Millions upon millions of dollars can be spent creating vast works of art in the video game world. While a richly produced music album may involve a few dozen workers in the process of recording, engineering, production, packaging, marketing and distribution, a modest size video game made on a real budget may take several years and several hundred workers. Code to write, art to draft, dialog to record, levels to render, a world to breathe life into…..
And through that determination and discipline, impressive franchises rise and fall risking large fortunes in the process and when successful, reap even larger war chests. In the journey seeking to capture the best in art through all that is modern entertainment, video games can shock, awe, and sometimes befuddle through banality. The beauty of the medium is the limitless possibilities for what games can be made into. Not every developer is so keen to reinvent the wheel. For every inspired, world-shattering Shadow of the Colossus, there are literally hundreds of been-there-done-that first-person shooters. It’s often less a question of what does a title brings to the table and more a notion of how can the creator fill out a genre to satisfy the endless thirst of diehard fans. But there are those moments when something sneaks up on you and smacks you in the face. It slyly nabs your attention and then pulls you in like a fish hooked through the cheek. You’re trapped. Stuck. Unable to break free, and what’s more, you would not dream of trying. You did not know you needed this thing in your world and now that you are aware of it, you have a hard time imagining it not existing in the first place. Sometimes these things happen, and while everyone is focused on the next big thing, these pockets of genius are never appreciated to the full extent they truly deserve. Created and devised by French developer DONTNOD, the stellar Life is Strange series of games is worthy of close inspection. The latest edition of the franchise, Life is Strange: True Colors arrives on September 10th.
Introducing: Life is Strange
A form of choose-your-own-adventure real-time narration, Life is Strange puts the player in a world not too unlike our own, set in a small town in the U.S.A. With some exceptions, the stories thus far all have teenagers as the main characters. The player has to navigate the characters through a bevy of challenges most media pretend does not happen to the youth in our world. Sex, drug use, violence, sadness, suicide, running away from society completely, are all topics that are treated like normal parts of being a 16-year old. You navigate these topics and are thrust firmly into having to make a snap decision on massively important life decisions, all armed with little guidance and support.
“You can say and you can show to the world the nice face of you, but putting you into more difficult choices, reveals who you are,” says series Lead Writer Jean-Luc Cano. “That’s why what we want to do with the Life is Strange series is [put] the player into a real dilemma by answering and by making choices, he will learn about himself.”
The first Life is Strange game centers on two high school-age girls living in a fictional coastal town Arcadia Bay, lead character Max Caulfield and her long-lost best friend Chloe Price. All titles in the LiS series feature a mild element of the supernatural, and in Life is Strange 1, a random event triggers a moment where Max can literally rock-and-roll time, stepping back a moment and fixing things that may have gone poorly. After reuniting, Max and Chloe are thrown into an awful world of abduction, murder and sadness. Patiently released through five episodes, Life is Strange becomes a form of time-traveling murder mystery, a freight train ride to a cataclysmic finale. The game’s sensitive depiction of the two main characters, and its rich story made it a massive hit, amassing over 3 million copies sold.
In the wake of a legion of diehard fans blooming up, a prequel was created by separate developer Deck Nine Games focusing on the back story of lead character Chloe Price and her mythic friendship with Rachel Amber hinted at in Life is Strange 1. DONTNOD—the developer for the first game–indicated in spite of fans’ affinity for the Chloe Price and Max Caulfield characters, that subsequent editions of the game would be anthologies, featuring different characters, stories and locations. “For us, it was the beginning and the end,” says Life is Strange Director Raoul Barbet. A bridge title The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit released for free in 2018 hinted at these changes and teased a world separate from the beloved shores of Arcadia Bay. Later that year the first episode of Life is Strange 2 came out. This time, the story centered on two Latino brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz, forced unexpectedly into a perilous cross-country trip. Instead of time travel, this time the younger brother Daniel has an X-Men-like awakening to discover he has been blessed with Dark Phoenix-level telekinetic powers.
The upcoming, latest edition in the franchise, Life is Strange: True Colors, is a new branch in the game’s universe, loosely connecting to the events of Life is Strange: Before the Storm by way of inclusion of that title’s character, Steph Gingrich. “Life is Strange: True Colors exists in the same universe as the previous three LiS games, so players may catch references—especially in the DLC episode ‘Wavelengths,’ which is told from Steph’s point of view and will allow players to explore her arrival in Haven Springs,” says Senior Staff Writer from Deck Nine Games Felice Kuan. True Colors will primarily follow new character Alex Chen, as she travels to Colorado town Haven Springs reuniting with her brother Gabe. Little is known of the story yet, but by the information released thus far Gabe dies early in the story in a tragic accident and Alex must try to learn what truly happened to her brother. Alex, like the protagonists of the other Life is Strange titles, has a superpower all her own. Alex is an empath, with the latent ability to detect the emotions of people she is near. When close to any person feeling intense emotions, Alex sees what they’re feeling by way of brightly colored auras.
Beyond the inclusion of Before the Storm character Steph, Life is Strange: True Colors appears to indicate the franchise is going to continue to branch off further in different directions beyond the events of Arcadia Bay, but thus far Kuan indicates the future and entries beyond this latest one is uncertain. “We don’t yet know what the future holds,” says Kuan. “However, it is such a privilege to create within the LiS franchise, and it we would love to explore it further.” When further asked if this game is the beginning of a larger series of stories for Alex Chen or whether this is also a one-off story, she states simply, “We’re just putting the finishing touches on Life is Strange: True Colors, so it’s too soon to say!” Regardless, anticipation is high to see how this latest edition in the franchise expands on the mechanics that have made the series so beloved thus far. Chiefly among them, is how each title immerses the player in how their choices shape the game.
Freedom of Choice
The world of Life is Strange may exist—at least at first glance–in the bubble of teenage problems, but quickly it’s apparent in each title the player has to ponder on the deep ramifications of choice. How do the choices you make define you, and how permanent and consequential each one is. For the creators, it maps to deep inner truths for each person. “You are not what you’re saying,” offers Cano. “I can say, ‘I’m a really good guy. And I’m really nice.’ But you will see what I am really about when you see my action and my choices. In the video games you are shaped by your choices. You know there is a difference between real characterization of a character and who he really is. And for the player, it’s the same.”
Video games in general may be geared for instant satisfaction, but Life is Strange fans enjoy the ethical challenges presented by the game. “We hear a lot of feedback from players saying that they are happy to have been put in a difficult situation,” says Barbet. The fans of the series have gone out of their way to explain their appreciation for this challenge. “A lot of players write to us in this way saying, ‘It was difficult.’ But they have been happy to be able to think about it and to realize some stuff. It was of course clear for Life is Strange 1 because all those problems of teenager and high school and college harassment. For example, we got a letters of people saying, ‘Okay, I realize now that maybe I’ve been a bit harsh with some friends. Or people have difficulty because of me’ It’s the same with Daniel some people will say, ‘Bullshit, people don’t act like that,” like this, but some people will say, ‘Yeah maybe I could be a bit more open-minded?’” This spark of appreciation and growth is particularly rewarding for Barbet. “I don’t say we’re going to change the world, but it’s also because of those moments and those feedbacks that we are creating those stories,” he says.
But this isn’t merely an accidental philosophical epiphany. This discourse and challenge for the players was intentional. “Of course we will never judge the player’s choices,” Cano indicates. “It’s not a question about ‘It is good?’ or ‘It is bad?’ It’s only about: it’s your choice. Be at peace with that; be at peace with what you are. Even by playing Life is Strange, I think the player will learn about themselves.” Putting the player in a place to have that forced introspection is rewarding for Cano as well. “That’s why I love making this game with this guy,” Cano says with a smile nodding over at Barbet.
The Aim of the Game
While Life is Strange 1 benefited from most people being able to relate to the horrors of the high school experience, its sequels (and prequels) mined darker territory. The prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm has an entire arc revolving around money owed to a drug dealer for example. As Chloe Price meets straight-A student Rachel Amber they find a deep connection as they get to know each other. Rachel percolates with pent-up rage over her parents’ dishonesty while Chloe moles off more and more from society each day as she feels abandoned by those closest to her in the wake of her father’s death. DONTNOD allowed Deck Nine the freedom to pursue these darker themes unimpeded.
“DONTNOD at the time were deep in the development of Life is Strange 2, so day-to-day we worked closely with the producers and designers at Square Enix London Studio who were closely involved in developing the original game and knew it intimately,” says Chris Floyd, Life is Strange: Before the Storm Co-Game Director. “To their credit, Square Enix allowed us a lot of creative freedom to make the story we wanted to make, but it was always our priority and theirs to remain as true to what was in the first Life is Strange as we could. The team talked about that all the time: Does our timeline agree with LiS1? Are we presenting this or that character from the first game consistently? Is our visual or cinematic style matching what DONTNOD did?” For Floyd, their new story had to meld perfectly into the existing world DONTNOD had created. “Those things were equally as important to us as telling our new original story,” he says. “We had to do both.”
The choices in both the first game and the prequel are indeed vast, but no matter where the player winds up, the final piece of each story ends on a heartbreaking note. In Life is Strange 1, a giant hurricane has appeared just off the shores of Arcadia Bay. Max and Chloe come to the conclusion that this horrid storm is some form of cosmic equilibrium, reality extracting a toll for Max rewinding time and saving her long-lost friend from being shot to death in a bathroom. The player ultimately has to decide whether to save her best friend’s life and possibly risk the entire town being destroyed or go back in time and let the murder play out as it was meant to. There’s no real right answer or happy ending, only how that particular circumstance makes you feel. Voice actress Ashly Burch (the voice of Chloe Price) saw this moment as the finale of a life filled with grief. “I have an emotional connection to all the characters that I’ve played,” says Burch. “Chloe, for whatever reason, just sort of feels like my virtual daughter. I became so invested in her. At the end, that choice, I intended it to play it as a sort of fear but also resolve in Chloe that she knows that she has to die. For me, it’s just a grief for her that this is what this person’s life amounted to.” Years removed, Burch might approach the portrayal differently if she were to voice the character again. “I still see myself as a relatively young actor when I played Chloe,” she explains. “That was probably the role that really helped me learn how to come into my own as an actor. Potentially if I were to play that character now I might have been able to keep more of a psychological distance between us.”
In Life is Strange: Before the Storm, the game ends with a bonus chapter entitled “Farewell.” The two girls Max and Chloe are shown younger here, approximately twelve or thirteen years old, and it’s just before the tragic death of Chloe’s father, William. The girls play all afternoon the way you would expect young teens to, while Max pensively dances around the fact that she knows she is about to move away theoretically forever and has failed to tell her best friend that exodus is imminent. Eventually, Chloe puzzles out the secret and sets Max’s mind at ease, only to discover a moment later that her father has just died in a car accident. We see the funeral and Ben Howard’s song “Black Flies” underpins the action. After Chloe and her mother return home, she sullenly returns to her room, broken and defeated. She stumbles on a tape recorder Max has left for her. A sole post-it sits atop the player with the message, “I’m sorry.” As Chloe plays the tape, in the recorded message Max swears her undying loyalty, stating they’ll find a way to stay in touch in spite of the distance and that they will be friends forever. Chloe collapses in tears on the ground clutching the tape recorder to her chest. It’s heartbreaking beyond words. Even more so if you consider that depending on how you played the outcome of the first game, it means that after the funeral the two girls potentially never see each other again.
For Deck Nine, it was the only way that part of Max and Chloe’s story could wrap to be authentic to the larger narrative. “The facts are, Max left Chloe after her dad’s death and we know Chloe was hurt by that—it was a double loss, a one-two punch, that defined who she was until Rachel walked into her life years later,” says Floyd. “Even if we hadn’t shown that—and showed a happy day with young Max and Chloe simply having fun instead—it wouldn’t change that that’s where their story goes.” Further to that, Floyd feels it would have been omitting one of the most important parts of the story to do otherwise. “And it would have been avoiding the most interesting narrative moment between them,” he says. “When Max knows she’s leaving and–being our hesitant-to-a-fault Max–doesn’t know how to tell her best friend, and then circumstances conspire to make that hesitancy more devastating than Max could have imagined. Put another way–and this applies to the ending of Before the Storm as well–we couldn’t pretend Chloe’s story isn’t a tragedy.”
The pensiveness of Max plays into her absence in keeping up with the friendship in the first game. But if their connection was so vital, their friendship so essential to their happiness in this world, why would Max allow their friendship to slip away after such tragic events? Cano chalks this up to the natural challenges of living in a different place from someone you care about, the grind of time eating away at the ability to stay close. “For me, naturally when you are leaving a friend you are moving to another town,” says Cano. “Max has probably called Chloe in the beginning. That’s, ‘Yeah I will call you on Saturday.’ On Saturday you have something to do. ‘Okay, I will call back tomorrow.’ And tomorrow you have some stuff to do. Time passes. And you feel guilty to call.” For him and Barbet, it’s the natural progression of how life takes you. “I think that’s what happened,” he explains. “Even if you are really close to someone, when you are far away, you call less and less often. And sometimes you feel guilty. What if I call her right now she will be pissed off because it’s been a month and I said to her, ‘I will call you tomorrow.’ So you leave time and that’s how a friendship goes by. And that’s how when Max and Chloe meet again Chloe says, ‘You didn’t call me.’ That’s life you know?” Cano says bluntly, “She’s only human.”
In the long-awaited sequel, Life is Strange 2, Cano and Barbet chose to tell a new story, centering on the tragic journey of two brothers, Sean and Daniel Diaz. In this title, the boys live a seemingly normal life navigating a small-town world without real challenge, terror or fear. An encounter with a neighborhood bully leads to a senseless moment of police brutality as cop guns down their father in front of the two boys. The younger brother Daniel has an X-Men-like moment of superhero awakening, letting loose a sonic pulse of telekinetic energy and apparently inadvertently killing the police officer in the process. The older brother Sean scoops up his younger brother and they go on the run, desperately trying to escape the cops that are now searching for them. The game, even though it saw its first episode release in late 2018, presciently hinted at the sudden rise in police brutality over the last two years that exploded in the U.S.A. in the aftermath of the unnecessary killing of George Floyd, not to mention the rising tide of racist rhetoric in President Donald Trump’s America. Cano and Barbet explain this political edge as not just them trying to purely make a political point, but also a reflection of things they were seeing happen both in France and the U.S.A. at the time of development.
“I think we wanted to tackle some problems we see in Europe in France, also problems here in the U.S., as well as cop violence,” says Cano. “We have a lot of that in France. The Life is Strange games are taking place in the U.S. We are French but we also had discussions that we wanted to again tell a story here on the West Coast. But I think the very first reason is more about character and story… we really liked those themes.” Cano explains their deeper drive to explore the nature of what educating someone truly is, perhaps digging towards how education is most effectively done. “The first reason was to talk about education, for example, [that] was the main subject of the game for us,” he says. “Education: what is it to educate someone? To teach him what is right or wrong. But in this difficult world or with all those difficult themes, do you have to be violent? Do you have to accept different people? … Having a kid with you helped us to show that to the player and to put the player in the situation where they have to decide and think about those things. The rules for example: do we have to respect the rules of society? Do we have to make our own rules?”
Barbet explains how the intent of treating the first game as a contained story left them a little trepidatious that the fans would be reticent to accept the new characters and settings. “I think at the beginning it was maybe a bit more difficult to relate to those two characters also because it’s maybe easier to relate to them in the high school [setting],” says Barbet. “We’ve all been in high school like Max; we’ve all had this kind of problem, this pressure [from] other teenagers. Like I was saying, we were a bit scared about the player rejecting those characters.”
For them, it was necessary to tell a different story so they could explore different themes. “Life is Strange season 1, it’s Max’s cocoon, with say a very moody atmosphere and [similarly moody] music… and we wanted really to break that,” he continues. “We put them on the road. So at the beginning, still some players are disappointed by the fact they don’t have Max and Chloe, and they are disappointed by the fact that it’s not only enjoyment with the same characters you can see over and over. This is what we wanted to do. Break those rules. Talk about other things to be in the wild, to be on the road on your own. Face very different people also that we didn’t have in the first season.”
One theme does unify each and every installment of the game. Young people, ostensibly abandoned, left to fend for themselves in a harsh, unforgiving world. In the small, free title The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit that was released as an introduction to what would become Life is Strange 2, an even younger character Chris Eriksen tries to have fun on a cold winter’s day. While initially a playful romp in a 10-year-old’s lazy afternoon, the player quickly learns that Chris and his father Charles are both still grieving from the possible (and if true unsolved) murder of his mother Emily. Chris’ father is taking it extra badly and before long it is apparent his rising alcoholism has led to moments of child abuse where he has struck his young son. Much like Max and Chloe in the first game and the Diaz brothers in the second, most of the usual pieces of society, their community or family, have abandoned them, whether intentionally or not. “As you say, Sean and Daniel have been abandoned by society,” Cano reflects. “So they have to shape their own behavior and their own rules system. Make their own education [system]. So Sean is not ready for that, and I think putting the player in the shoes of someone who is not ready to accomplish something is really important and really cool for us.”
“I think it also comes from the theme we wanted to explore with Michel and Jean Luc, talking also about the family,” offers Barbet. “What is it to have a family? … Sean and Daniel will learn a lot from their family. They have no more family now. They can learn from their coworker, from their friends. Who is really educating you as a human being? It’s really interesting. It could be their grandfather. It could be their grandparents. It could be also a new family, but maybe the drifters are also another family?”
Burch sees this abandonment as a defining trait of her character Chloe Price from the first game. “Yeah, that’s sort of Chloe’s core wound,” says Burch. “If you’re talking about abandonment she is abandoned more frequently and more viscerally than any character in the entire franchise. Just because of how many people… the volume of loss that she has to experience.” Burch remembers her performance of Chloe as being heavily focused on depicting how that abandonment had affected her. “There can be a petulance to people at that age, “ she continues. “There is a sort of rebellious quality that comes out. If you just even looking at Chloe visually that’s sort of what you think of. That she’s sort of a rebellious–I don’t know if punk is really the relevant word–but punk teen. But what I was really cognizant of, what I really wanted to try to infuse into my performance that there was a weariness. That the rebellion was not just a youthful stretching of boundaries and an attempt to see what youth can get away with, which is I think sometimes what teens will do. It was born of a deep sense of distrust and pain.”
This thick skin that Burch displayed in the rendering of Chloe’s character was entirely informed by those things hiding underneath, because of all those consecutive abandonments. “Yes this is someone that is angry and defiant,” she declares. “It’s like self-preservation. And when she gets quiet with Max and there are intimate moments there’s a reflection of the fact that she’s not doing well. It’s not just teenage en oui. It was her dad and then it was Max and then it was Rachel. Who does she have left now?” Burch sums up the series in regards to this metaphoric motif as it having a unified arc behind this society-wide problem. “I think these games are filled with abandoned children basically that are having to try to find some sense of safety and companionship amongst their peers because their adults have left them to fend for themselves either intentionally or not,” she states.
The series prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm has what could be called a happy ending where if just the right decisions are made, the player gets to see a secret ending where Rachel Amber finally gets to meet her birth mother. Even that perfect set of circumstances isn’t enough to help stop her from the path of inevitable destruction. “We didn’t chart out Rachel’s future in detail from that moment, but our goal was to make sure that all the versions of the ending felt like they could lead to the Rachel Amber that we hear about in Life Is Strange: just as inspiring and energetic, but also more rebellious, more troubled, more secretive,” says Floyd. “In a sense, brokenness was always Rachel’s destiny. Whatever that relationship with her mother might have been, it’s not salvific, and it didn’t keep Rachel away from those who would ultimately take her life.” In the end, Amber’s mother Sera Gearhardt can’t fully rest herself from the addictions and failures that led to her exiting her young daughter’s life. The story presents it as that Gearhardt was ejected from Amber’s life by her father, but whatever the case, and even in the ultra-secret ending, Gearhardt never truly returns to be Amber’s mother fully. Amber’s pain is shaped by that absence of her biological mother, and her birth parents’ collective dishonesty about what transpired.
Finding the Right Music
Even less heralded is the outstanding curation of the music in each title of the series. More so than any typical licensed music usage, the music featured in the series truly helps the game become even more evocative. In the first Life is Strange, the story is punctuated by artful and nuanced choices of alternative music. Killer songs from Sparklehorse, alt-j, Mogwai, and Jose Gonzalez are sequenced in as the episodes progress. Most are presented as the selections of the Max and Chloe characters themselves in everyday life. The game’s pivotal final choice—in either heartbreaking option the player lands on—is scored either by the heart-wrenching “Spanish Sahara” by Foals or the reflective and somber “Obstacles” by Syd Matters. Amanda Palmer’s excellent “In My Mind” appears at a pivotal moment when Max is finally able to return to the present timeline after traveling deep back into the past and failing to fix problems in Chloe’s traumatic past. Palmer explained to us how the agreement to license the song was informed entirely about what made the game special compared to an average game.
“I review and approve all of my licenses personally, and always have,” Palmer explains. “If it’s a license for a Dresden Dolls song, Brian [Viglione] and I get together and discuss it, and each of us has veto power. With Life is Strange, I read the basic gist of the video game and thought it sounded more interesting and emotional than a shoot-em-up video game, so I was happy to approve the usage, and then I was delighted when people came to my world through the song.” Palmer acknowledges that having a song included in somewhere outside the traditional music industry process of albums and tours can lead to new avenues of reaching people effectively. “There are so many portals of discovery lately…don’t get me started about TikTok,” she quips. “I just joined yesterday and my mind is blown…my first post already has one million views, and I’m like, is THIS why Twitter is so deserted? Has everybody literally moved to TikTok? Life is strange.”
Palmer has great insights too, on why all art mediums are hesitant to make daring choices to represent characters like the Life is Strange series has. “I think that people in these industries (music, gaming) are generally afraid of emotional risk,” says Palmer. “Everyone wants to follow the playbook of what has worked, what has sold, what has moved units. Like all art forms, it takes an immense amount of momentum to change the usual patriarchal narrative around what will sell and move units.” She expresses optimism that changes furthered by works of art like the Life is Strange series are slowly starting to become more common. “I hope that is changing,” she states. “I’ve watched it change in the course of my own career. I used to think so much about what people wanted, and then one day it started to dawn on me that what people want is truth, and feeling, and a sense of being understood. It always takes a sort of bravery for a profit-driven company to stray from the general narrative, but at a certain point, the will of people’s emotional needs coupled with a few imaginations and risk-takers will overcome the status quo.”
In Life is Strange 2, the music selections are more varied, representing the vastly different situations Sean and Daniel Diaz find themselves in. Songs from First Aid Kit, Justice, Bloc Party, and a gorgeous usage of Gorillaz’s “On Melancholy Hill” during a distant memory all make appearances while you struggle to bring the brothers to safety. The song “I Found A Way” by First Aid Kit is even performed in-game by character and potential love interest Cassidy in episode two. And while brief in terms of playing time compared to the series’ other entries, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit features two whimsical, beautiful and slightly haunting tracks, one from Sufjan Stevens (“Death With Dignity”) and the other from Bat For Lashes (“Moon and Moon”). The upcoming title Life is Strange: True Colors is going to feature a soundtrack composed by Angus and Julia Stone and also will include vocal performances by singer-songwriter mxmtoon (portraying the singing voice of main character Alex Chen). While all of mxmtoon’s song contributions are not yet known, one track, a sweet sounding cover of Radiohead’s self deprecating classic “Creep” has been announced.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm has even caused one breakout moment in song discovery in one song included in the soundtrack. Early on in the events of the prequel, the slightly younger version of Chloe wakes up late after a magical night out at a rock concert. As she awakens in an all-too-familiar-to-a-teenager exhausted daze, the action is punctuated by Massachusetts’ indie band Speedy Ortiz’s “No Below.” The song starts out plaintively ruminating on a new friend and how that friend wasn’t present for the difficult times in school years earlier. “You didn’t know me when you were a kid / In trouble at school, alone at lunch again,” lead singer Sadie Dupuis sings before the rest of the instrumentation kicks in. As the momentum slowly builds, the chorus belies a powerful rumination in the narrator’s mind, “And though I once said, I was better off just being dead / Better of just being dead, without my old friend / True, I once said, I was better off just being dead / But I didn’t know you yet.” It’s spooky how well that sentiment fits the story of the game. Before the Storm shows the events of Chloe Price first meeting Rachel Amber. When we first see Chloe here, she’s just entering what could be construed as her dark teen years, still broken from the tragic death of her father and developing a sincere dislike of her mother’s new boyfriend David. She’s starting to push everything and everyone away with forceful verve. As Rachel and Chloe start to become friends, beyond the typical teenage youthful indiscretions, they quickly develop a bond and an intimacy. They find in each other a comfort, protection and integrity that nobody else in their world seems capable of providing. As a player you get a sense even at this earlier stage of her life before Max returns in the events of Life is Strange 1 that she is on a collision course with death and destruction. The friendship they develop is a part of what helps keep both of them from being left behind entirely by the society and world they were born into.
Speedy Ortiz lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Sadie Dupuis reveals that even though she was not provided a ton of information when the licensing of the song was requested, she approved it because the game’s themes were well suited to the song. “When Square Enix [Life is Strange’s global publisher] sent over the request, they gave us a pretty thorough plot synopsis of the game (which had a different title at the time!) but no details on the scene in which it was used,” says Dupuis. “Normally for syncs I want way more info–we really don’t want our music applied to the promotion of products or ideas we can’t stand behind, like any rational people. But I knew about the first game, and that the fan community for it was awesome, and I felt the themes they ascribed to the game (loss, grief, anger, friendship, “coming of age in a morally ambiguous world”) fit nicely with what the song was about.”
For Dupuis, the song’s creation and performance always was a difficult issue, as initially they almost didn’t release it and totally stopped performing it for a few years. “I got out of my first romantic relationship after five years, and was in a vulnerable, fatalistic place…until I started seeing a new partner,” she explain. “I wrote the song from a place of optimism about that relationship, that we were destined to meet each other and cure each other’s depression.” She describes the initial sentiment as one she had trouble endorsing when she wrote the song and especially afterwards. “Ugh,” she continues. “Even at the time I knew it was an unrealistic sentiment I didn’t endorse. Then, that person became abusive. Surviving it clarified my perspective on what is healthy to expect from romantic love. A new relationship can’t ‘cure’ mental illness, and somebody else’s love can never be your only reason to live. So it was painful to play ‘No Below’ for a few years because I just couldn’t advocate for its message. And we just wouldn’t play it.”
After the licensing of the song and the first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm was released, lots of new fans discovered the band and developed a profound connection with the song. “When it was used in the game, a bunch of new fans connected with the song in the context of Chloe’s and Rachel’s and Max’s stories,” says Dupuis. “I was getting fan art from the game with lyrics from the song, and messages from folks who felt ‘No Below’ had helped them make it through bouts of bad depression. So many songs have done that for me–songs I’m sure the songwriter can’t stand to hear or play anymore, but probably does anyway. I felt like there wasn’t a reason for me to be precious about it anymore, so now we play it most shows.” Dupuis even goes as far as enjoying her creation more in context with what it has come to mean to the story of the game. “I like it better when I think about its meaning as an extension of the plot of the game: grieving old friendships, feeling excited about and fulfilled by new ones,” she says. “Those are emotions I can get behind.“
The final chapter of Before the Storm—the aforementioned episode “Farewell”–ends with an emotional death blow. After Chloe and Max attend the funeral of Chloe’s beloved father and Chloe returns home defeated and destroyed, she plays a cassette Max left for her pledging her undying love and friendship. All the while the somber tones of Ben Howard’s “Black Flies” accompany the moment. The song hints at deep overflows of emotion, perhaps caused by the loss of a true love? “No man is an island / of this I know / But can you see / Or maybe you were the ocean and I was just a stone,” sings Howard reflectively. It’s done with heavy symbolism so it’s folly to try to perfectly decipher the singer’s original meaning, but it almost feels like the narrator having a reckoning with the incontrovertible truth that nobody can survive in this world completely alone without people that understand them. And somehow, that sometimes the most profound relationships are ones that change you forever that you can’t hold on to, much like the relationships between Max/Chloe and Chloe/Rachel.
Floyd from Deck Nine describes the choice to use the song as one that informed the sequencing of those pivotal, final moments. “We had a list of songs while developing Before the Storm that we had considered for licensing,” says Floyd. “Compiling the list was a cooperative effort between us, the Square Enix London Studio team, and our partners at the music consultancy Feel For Music. They were songs we felt might have the right tone for the game overall, so we kept an eye out for the right scene to employ them. ‘Black Flies’ didn’t quite fit in Before the Storm, but when we had the story for “Farewell” worked out, our Audio Director Chuck Carr went back to that list, found ‘Black Flies,’ and proposed it for the final moments of the episode. We all loved it, and went on to compose those sequences around the music.”
The franchise has also been successful because young characters are portrayed as authentic and relatable. For many, prior to this series, a story entirely based on what it really feels like to be a high school student pretty much never happened in the world of video games. For many, that alone is enough. “There’s something ballsy about making a game about two teenage girls in that time in particular that has a sci-fi element to it and for the most part is a drama and it’s an emotional experience,” says Chloe Price voice actress Burch. “And it’s about relationships and it’s about families and it’s about struggle and trauma… when I realized what the scope of the game was and what the goal of the game was, I immediately thought, ‘This was special.’ I think everyone that worked on the game had that experience.”
The relationships in the first game and the prequel Before the Storm all center on the regular challenges of those worlds, but more importantly what the teens in the story are really going through. It’s their struggles, how they are finding themselves and their personalities.
These first two titles also have the even more unique distinction—silly as it feels to say in 2021—of being extra special since the main characters are teenage girls. Sure, numerous AAA video game franchises have featured come-from-behind hero stories centered on a woman as a main character, but rarely, if ever, has the story been entirely about a high-school aged woman, not about being a hero, but just what it’s like to be one. Floyd from Deck Nine says the successful rendering of this dynamic is owed to their writing team. “The essential resource here was the experience of our writers, particularly Felice Kuan and Mallory Littleton, the women who are one half of our writing staff, and who were teenage girls themselves not so long ago!” says Floyd. “There’s no substitution for personal experience when it comes to representation. Young adult fiction was referred to for examples of what young audiences find relatable. The writers also did a lot of research into grief, and how those who are grieving like Chloe think and feel. ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion, although a story of an older woman suffering the loss of her husband, was a key resource for understanding how the death of a loved one affects us for years after they are gone.”
The game series shines a light on our Western society’s priorities, and perhaps what they actually should be. How many young people are essentially abandoned by the world they’re born into? Whether it’s by their immediate family, the education system, or the greater social sphere they have access to, how many are left to be churned up by the system, rendered broken forever when maybe they could have been so much more? “I think societally if we were able to see people as doing the best they can, then we would be putting so much more effort and resources and infrastructure into supporting people that aren’t as we see it, excelling,” says Burch. “If you were able to create someone that was exactly the same and then put them in two different environments one that was safe and loving and they were never abandoned and one that was toxic and unstable and fearful, you would have two completely different people. The western culture that I live in is very much if you don’t excel or if you don’t succeed, it’s [that] you’re failing.” Burch explains the responsibility lies on all of us as a culture and a part of what makes these games so powerful is how people can relate to the characters so directly. “I don’t think that way,” she says. “I think it’s our failing. And kids like the kids in Life is Strange, I think it’s such a resonant thing because people play these games and they see themselves in Chloe, in Max, in Rachel. They see themselves in these people. I think this game is so resonant because people so frequently feel abandoned.”
Cano from DONTNOD is aware of how this facet of Life is Strange is something the fans love about it, but for him and Barbet, it’s a by-product of their efforts to intelligently examine complex themes. “When episode two came out and then after that episode two and three we had massive, really good feedback from the community,” he says about Life is Strange 2. “They really enjoyed being with Sean and Daniel on the road, all the political stuff about America. We have really good feedback from the community as well. I think the fans of Life is Strange understand what we want to do with the game and are happy with this, to be in the shoes of a half-American, half-Mexican kid. Confronted with racism, of everyday racism, confronted with cop violence, stuff like this. I think the community and the fans really liked it. What we wanted to do when we created the Life is Strange games, is not about characters or story, it was about something more than this. It’s about social themes [that] we want to explore.”
The Pieces Left Unexplained
While the series challenges you in each installment, wrestling with these difficult situations and what it means to the characters and you as the player, there’s much that’s left unexplained, hiding in pockets of deep mystery. For example, each main entry in the franchise shows a major character who has an adolescent awakening of a superpower, born out of immense trauma. Max Caulfield discovers she can rewind time and change things in the past to affect the future. Daniel Diaz has immense telekinetic powers, able to move massive objects in any way he chooses just by thinking about it. There’s even a small hint that Rachel Amber’s rage in her own life can amplify things happening in front of her. We see her scream as she sets a fire in a park and it is presented as if her scream may be the direct cause of the fire becoming a raging blaze. Why do these young people find themselves with these abilities? What’s causing their evolution? Thus far, no explanation has been offered. Each game also hints at how the main characters have a subtle connection to one of several peculiar ghostly animals present sporadically throughout the story. The ghostly doe in the first game hinting at Rachel Amber’s burial spot, the ravens in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and the Diaz boys’ characterization of themselves as wolf brothers when they recount their experiences.
In the first Life is Strange, the more Max tries to use her superpower to rock-and-roll time in an attempt to fix things, the more unglued reality seems to become. Pockets of nature behave abnormally; animals (birds, whales) are suddenly discovered dead. And all the while, a once-in-a-millennium hurricane bears down on their sleepy coastal Arcadia Bay town. By the grand finale, Max and Chloe are convinced that it’s the replaying of time that’s making reality break apart. Chloe even resolves in her heart that maybe she’s not meant to exist anymore. Perhaps saving the town’s denizens is more important than her getting to live on even just one day more. The player is ultimately presented with the horrible choice of saving her and potentially leaving the town to its fate, or rewinding all the way back to the moment Chloe is gut shot in the bathroom and allowing her to die right there. When Burch was first cast as Chloe Price she was unaware of how central to the story her character would be, both to the developing story and its final moment. “I had absolutely no idea how important Chloe was to the story,” says Burch. “I had no idea she was the linchpin, the emotional core that motivates, that really heart-wrenching choice at the end of the game. I had no idea.”
Burch looks at her character’s finale in that game as a final moment of empowerment for someone long mistreated. “Regardless of how the player decides to choose at the end of the game–because either choice can be kind of a bummer either way–I think what’s sort of beautiful about her arc despite the tragedies she experiences, she gets to make a choice at the end,” Burch explains. “So much of her life has been things happening that are outside of her control, and things being taken from her. At the end, ultimately it’s the player’s choice. Max’s choice. I think Chloe’s decision to give that choice to Max is sort of taking ownership back and not thinking of her life as something painful and outside of her control.” Burch finishes her point solemnly. “Chloe wants you to make the choice to let her go because she kind of knows it’s the right one.”
You go to the finale either way, not entirely knowing the truth of it. You either attend a mournful funeral for your beloved friend where you are visited by the same ethereal blue butterfly that was present in the early bathroom death scene, or your journey with Chloe looking devastated and see an entire community torn into pieces, destroyed. As Sean and Daniel spend time in a Luddite community far away in the Arizonan desert, entirely by chance they encounter David Madsen, Chloe Price’s stepfather. If you are industrious enough (and in Life is Strange 1 you chose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay) you learn that Madsen has become close to Chloe, even keeping in touch via regular phone calls. A thorough examination of his trailer hints that Chloe and Max are still friends and have found a way to enjoy their lives.
At the time of our interview, Burch was entirely unaware of the hint of an epilogue for her character. “Wow,” she says reflectively upon hearing the plot details. “Huh. Okay. That’s great. Okay, good. I’m glad she’s doing all right.” In that spirit, she describes the potential for voicing the character in future installments of the game as something she would prefer to be about depicting how Chloe could be healed. “I think I would only want to see more of Chloe if it was to show how people can heal,” she says. She describes it confidently as a story well worth telling. “It is a narrative that people need to see,” she explains. “Having investment in yourself is not some sort of misfire of blind stupid hope. It’s the reality. People are capable of healing. People are capable of changing. That is what I would want to see for Chloe. I wouldn’t want another installment of a trauma parade for her.”
In Life is Strange 2, the finale is far more nuanced. While the first game left you with a binomial choice, there are seven possibilities for what ending you arrive at in the second game. Each depends entirely on what example you set for your younger brother Daniel as you take part in this unwanted adventure. As a player, it is hard to be entirely sure you are making the right choice, as a pure, benevolent option is rarely available. Each little piece has a massive impact on Daniel and you progress never really certain if you’re making the best choice. Cano describes this as intentional to the themes they aimed to explore in the game. “Sometimes when you set some rules, you have to break your own rules,” he says. “Because in an everyday situation, it’s bad to lie, it’s bad to steal. But when you’re on the road, when you’re hungry, when [you’re] being chased, you have to lie. You have to steal food to survive. The grey area between all white or all black stuff is about life.” He considers it the definition of DONTNOD’s purpose for the franchise as a whole. “I think that is the Life is Strange series,” he states. “It’s not good people and bad people. We are all grey. I think all the characters are in this grey area like in real life.”
It’s all the space within these choices that allows the player to find themselves in the abstraction of the Life is Strange series. What is more important to you as a player? Self-satisfaction? Protection? Is it being kind to people you meet? Maybe just trying to live with a minimum of pain? It’s seldom that any game asks so much of a player in terms of self-discovery and self-awareness.
Caring a Lot
If you are bold enough to play through each of these titles, you experience heart-wrenching stories of youth lost in an unforgiving and heartless world surrounded by difficult challenges of choice. This happens with the same level of power TV viewers experienced in the fourth season of HBO’s The Wire, where the viewer is introduced to four teenage boys and get a vivid depiction of how sensitive and important those years of their lives are, especially considering the entire superstructure of society and family they are supposed to be able to count on has failed them.
In Life is Strange you walk with Maxine Caulfield, Chloe Price, Sean Diaz, Daniel Diaz, Rachel Amber and Chris Erickson, sharing their pain and their triumphs. Except for your guidance, the characters march alone, as you try to help them do the right thing or allow them to succumb to the worst of their instincts. No matter which path you choose, by the time you get to the ending, it’s likely you’ll weep uncontrollably. You will sit abashed at the daunting levels of negligence that run throughout our so-called sophisticated society. More importantly, Life is Strange begs you to see just how important each and every choice is in life. Not only in how you navigate life’s many challenges but also in how important each and every young life is.
How valuable and immense these young people are. How limitless their potential is. How much good could be done to improve the overall quality and decency of our world by just paying a little more attention to them? Something transcendent happened when DONTNOD opened up this fiction and took the decades-old “choose your own adventure” young adult novel trick and opened it up into the fully realized video game world of Life is Strange. Those dynamics of choice bloomed into an apocalyptic rumination on how pivotal our decisions are, and how perhaps the things we drill into our youth as prime motivating factors in reaching adulthood are possibly the entirely wrong things to teach them. In a strange world, it’s simple: everything matters. Every little piece. Every person. Every choice. Every single step forward. And how much we care about those choices says everything about who we are as people.
Life is Strange and Life is Strange: Before the Storm are available on PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android and PC while The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit and Life is Strange 2 are available on PlayStation, Xbox, and PC.
Live photos of Sadie Dupuis and Amanda Palmer by Raymond Flotat