The magic behind Life is Strange is something I have been contemplating a lot as of late, especially since completing the final episode of the three-part mini series prequal, Life is Strange: Before the Storm. At a glance, it’s hard to definitively lay a finger upon what exactly makes Life is Strange so emotionally spellbinding, so enthralling to play. One answer is, of course, the writing, which, aside from the odd cringe-inducing conversational exchange, is just as captivating as the very best videogame narrative experiences. However, I don’t believe that this is the true answer behind the game’s enchanting allure – at least, not entirely.
Instead, I propose the source behind the game’s mesmerizingly beautiful and evocative narrative to be something more specific, something inherent to the overall tone of game as a whole and the source material that inspired its inception. As you delve into the script of the game, upon casting aside the flurry of teenage angst and raging hormones, you’ll soon start to see the magical threads that make Life is Strange what it is. What are these you ask? Why, it familiarity of course.
Life is Strange is so compelling because it is so recognisable to its core audience, the young millennial generation. The emotional cocktail that is the modern Western teenage lifestyle, so familiar to us all who have experienced it, is captured in a way that no other videogame has ever done. The struggles Max and Chloe go through are ones that we all too have experienced, at one point or another during our formative adolescent years. We can relate to their dilemmas, empathise with them in ways that are all but impossible to replicate in traditional videogame genres. While we can certainly empathise and understand the emotional quandaries facing the likes of Half-Life’s Gordan Freeman or Spec Ops: The Line’s Captain Martin Walker, we cannot truly empathise with them in the say way, as we have no personal experience of either fighting back hordes of invading extra-dimensional aliens or saving US military personnel in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic Dubai.
That’s not so say that we cannot empathise with those whom we share no common ground with. Such a declaration would be preposterous. If we couldn’t empathise with those different from us, each and every work of fiction ever created would be as utterly pointless and incapable of providing us with an enthralling narrative experience. This, of course, is not true, and it certainly is not something I’m proposing. Rather, I’m merely suggesting that Life is Strange offers us a different type of empathy, something that very few other videogames are capable of offering due to fact that their characters experience things that we mere mortals simply couldn’t imagine.
We all know, for example, that a narrative protagonist, irrespective on the medium, must possess traits that elevate them above the rank and file, that make them special. In Life is Strange for example, we play as Max, who possesses unexplainable time powers, something which undoubtedly makes her special and thus a viable candidate for leading lady duties. In the prequal, Chloe is special because of her strong personality, ability to strongarm the authoritative figures, and desire to embrace her true self. Both games would be worse for ware if they featured your average high schooler as the protagonist, devoid of any characteristics that make them special or memorable.
That said however, it’s the familiarity of Life is Strange’s setting that makes it special – the empathetic characters, in this argument at least, are but an embellishment (for, of course, characters are one of, if not the most important factor in the creation of fictional narratives). We can engage with the game on a more personal level, for we too have lived this life, albeit without the ability to control time. It’s the same reason why YA fiction is so popular. It taps into a reservoir of emotions and experiences that are familiar to us. We can relate to the trials and tribulations of the characters, for they, for all intents and purposes, are us.
This familiarity, however, is one of the reasons why the ending of the original Life is Strange is so poor in comparison to the rest of the game. The whole ending sequence is tonally detached from the rest of the game, from that familiar teen life feel that makes the game so evocative and special. Rather than the supernatural element being an embellishment of the familiar, like it is throughout the rest of the game, it instead takes centre stage, a shift that happens too quickly to allow for a seamless transition. The choices are no longer familiar to us, as they are too outlandish in their design to be relatable to the target audience. In a normal game, such unfamiliar circumstances wouldn’t be a problem for the player as they would be accustomed to it due to their time spend with the game and the characters. In Life is Strange, however, the sudden, unexplained tonal shift leaves the player feeling detached from the experience as it is unrelated to the emotions the game stirred up within them up to this point.
Thankfully, the prequal fixes these issues, instead making sure that the familiar tone and feel one encounters during the rest of the game is sustained throughout. The final decision Chloe and the player make in relation to the (SPOLIERS) fate of Rachel and her family is far more impactful that the high-stakes do or die ultimatum in the original, as the setting and tone are the same at this point as in the beginning. As such, the familiarity is allowed to shine through, something that was impossible in the original. This results in a far more emotionally poignant moment, as the decision the player must make is rooted in the teen life drama they are all too familiar with in their own day-to-day lives. Whatever avenue they decide to go down at this moment, the resulting emotional effect is stronger, as it more relatable in comparison to the tonally mismatched nature of the original game’s ending. The special magic is allowed to remain, which is why Before the Storm, for me at least, is the more memorable and emotional experience.