Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 3: Hell is Empty: When the Fire Runs Out

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

As I mentioned before in my post about the emotional content in media, Life is Strange is one of those franchises that gets me on a deep and tragic level, because it’s “not mindless tragedy, but a cathartic experience.” For all its nostalgia filter on the Nineties and early 2000s, and for its themes on childhood friendship and romance, there’s a dark side to life in the small town of Arcadia Bay that leaves so many players torn up by the end, no matter what our choices were.

By that same token, the prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm is just as heartwrenching, but with no option to rewind time and try again. Every choice, every scar, every loss or victory—it’s all final.

In the final act, Episode 3: Hell is Empty, we see Chloe and Rachel still reeling from the revelation about Sera Gearhardt and her true relationship with Rachel’s father. Meanwhile, Chloe is trying to patch things up at home with David and clean out her debts with Frank Bowers, who’s in his own kind of trouble with Damon Merrick, the top drug dealer in Arcadia Bay. Everything hinges on Rachel’s safety, a possible showdown with Sera and Damon, and getting the whole truth out of James Amber.

Compared to the ups-and-downs from Life is Strange‘s Season 1 finale, Hell is Empty has a far less drastic and more soft-spoken delivery. Its plot doesn’t hinge on murderers abducting girls and town-ending storms, but there are plenty of psychopaths to go around, from Damon the drug dealer to Eliot the obsessive classmate. Instead of a traditional adventure of kicking down doors and taking names, Chloe and Rachel’s journey here comes in the form of confronting father figures and making a new path for themselves. They’re tired of the lies, tired of the conspiracies, and tired of settling down and pretending nothing’s wrong.

Chloe’s personal journey here is one of the better parts of the episode. She’s caring toward Rachel in the wake of her trauma, she has a chance to reconcile (for the moment) with Joyce and David, and she begins to define her “brand.” Namely, putting together her iconic truck, outfits, and blue hair dye. Chloe becomes a more serious punk in this episode, as opposed to the wannabe trailing after Rachel from Episode 1. Even her ghostly interactions with William Price are more confrontational than before, as she comes to terms more and more with his loss.

As for the climax, the story and gameplay is a touch… well, anticlimactic. Even when compared to Max’s dream sequence and final choice in Polarized. Here, Chloe is involved in the big shutdown of the conspiracy behind Rachel’s parentage, but she’s nowhere as active as other side characters turn out to be. Her role is more akin to that of a herald, bringing news between characters and either revealing a painful truth to Rachel or learning to lie to her. But then again, “Everybody Lies,” as Chloe has tagged on various walls in Life is Strange.

And then there’s the post-credits scene. Ooh, boy. That is a dark place for the game to end on. Even though it’s a tie-in for what happens in the first Life is Strange series, it’s still a punch to the player’s gut, and a bit cheap at that. We could’ve had a more tender moment of Chloe mourning Rachel after she goes missing, or perhaps a sense of what happens with Rachel’s parents. But instead, we get this. This sharp reminder of how nothing or no one ever stays safe for long.

In some ways, Before the Storm has been a good prequel to the shifting tides in Arcadia Bay, as best expressed in Rachel’s backstory and Chloe’s transformation into a dropout and rebel. It’s the same drop in innocence and safety that Max Caulfield goes through, but it’s more focused and fleshed-out on two characters rather than on one character trying to balance friendships with solving mysteries and handling time travel. While there are one or two potholes in the road, overall the spirit of the game is a worthy add-on to the series, and it leaves me somewhat optimistic for where things will go in the continuing saga set in Arcadia Bay.

The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Hell is Empty,” is available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Store, and the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 3: Hell is Empty. Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: December 20, 2017.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Need to Confront Change

Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

Never before has a line of dialogue so perfectly captured the spirit of a movie. And it came from the mouth of Luke Skywalker no less. A worn-down, bitter, cynical Luke Skywalker. Not the fresh-faced hero from yet another desert planet, but not exactly the edgy antihero of so much post-Nineties TV and cinema. This is a broken man tired of living up to his own legend.

This, then, is the new face of Star Wars. It’s what happens when we ask which legends are worth saving and which are worth losing.

In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find both our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the whole of the Resistance in a state of freefall. Rey has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but he’s neither the hero nor the mentor she wanted. He’s made too many mistakes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he won’t be responsible for her downfall, too. Meanwhile, the Resistance reaches its breaking point in a series of counterattacks by the First Order fleet, jumping from one system to another as new leaders like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) take command, leading to clashes with ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and subversive acts by Resistance loyalists like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). All this, of course, only serves to empower the First Order’s leader, Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), as he and his apprentice Kylo Ren work to corner and eliminate the last Jedi Knight and the fire of resistance once and for all.

When it comes to the storytelling behind this new installment of Star Wars, I give a lot of credit to Rian Johnson’s writing and breathtaking use of colors in his cinematography, the script doctoring by the late Carrie Fisher, and to the performances of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. This movie has plenty of callbacks and echoes of the original three movies, but it’s also its own creature, complete with Kurosawa-style splashes of red, homages to Monte Carlo casinos and Rashomon, and plenty of comedic moments that keep the film alive.

Everyone who came to the movie brought something unique, and I think that it’s connected to the film’s overall theme: that no one can change things by themselves, but by working in concert with others, however small their actions might be. Poe Dameron can’t fly in an X-wing and blow things up to save the day. Rey can’t find the reclusive Jedi Master and learn everything like in the old days. Finn and his new friend Rose can’t break the First Order’s weapons from within, or throw their lives away to stop the war machine’s relentless advance.

This movie, for the most part, is an action-driven and emotional ride that makes it the longest-running Star Wars film to date. I think it delivers the same dramatic punches as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with maybe one or two missteps. Some of the second act runs a bit overlong, especially with so much time given to the CGI love-fest that is Canto Bight, and some of the sequences on board Snoke’s flagship are one or two minutes drawn out for my liking. But apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi and I’m left breathless and excited for the next and final installment of this sequel trilogy.

I’m aware that there are plenty of criticisms about the movie, and that a number of fans have taken exception to the changes made by Rian Johnson and others in this new film. But as a longtime Star Wars fan myself, well-versed in the old Expanded Universe of decades past, I couldn’t help but love this. This movie is funny, exciting, dramatic, heartwrenching, affectionate, and downtrodden in so many ways. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s surprising. Yes, it’s tearing down the status quo.

But that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell Rey, and it’s a lesson he needs to learn himself. Don’t make people into legends. Make your own journey instead.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. Written by Rian Johnson. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 15, 2017.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and Finding New Words for Family

Copyright 2014 by Becky Chambers

I grew up with space opera and visions of adventures in space. Thanks to my dad’s influence, I grew up devouring the original Star Wars movies, as well as the then-current TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation.  You couldn’t get spaceships and alien civilizations out of my head no matter how hard you tried. But having said that, I haven’t loved every bit of space opera I’ve come across. To some fans’ horror, I wasn’t even all that thrilled with Firefly when it first came out.

Thankfully, it’s the 2010s, and we have a new generation of writers coming to the fore. This is how I came to discover Becky Chambers’s Wayfarer series. So, today, I’m looking at her first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

In the far future, humanity has joined the other races in the Galactic Commons and become a key player in interstellar politics. One such human, Rosemary Harper, is a recent add-on to the crew of the worn-down space-tunneling ship Wayfarer. Alongside such quirky crew members as Captain Ashby Santoro, the pilot Sissix, and the eccentric engineer Krizzy, Rosemary is introduced to a variety of new cultures and attitudes beyond the life she knew on Mars. But as their newest clerk, she’ll prove instrumental in helping navigate the tricky legal and logistical hardships that comes with life in outer space.

In every sense of the phrase, this is an ensemble story. Every single crew member has their own story arc, sometimes explored within the confines of a single chapter. That’s part of what makes this story a little unusual at first glance. It’s less about following a Rosemary across her journey to start a new life, and more about the ongoing adventures and challenges that the crew faces on various trips. It all leads toward a singular end, but along the way, you get an engineer dealing with PTSD, another engineer in love with an AI, a captain’s affair with a non-human woman, a reptilian pilot trying to reconnect with other members of her species, and a mad alien navigator wrestling with his race’s terminal condition.

(And all that’s just before the halfway point of the book, too.)

One of the things that Chambers does so brilliantly in this story is create a sense of culture and a sense of family. She looks for ways for alien minds to be truly alien, like how the Aandrisks don’t recognize their children as individuals until they become adults, or how the Toremi Ka’s perspective is more warped than anything else the races of the Galactic Commons has ever encountered.

But even with biological and psychological barriers, there’s a way to overcome them, and that’s something I love about this book. Reptilian Aandrisks and human beings can and do coexist. Interspecies love is shown here to be just as honest and pure as any LGBT or hetero romance. And for all their different needs and issues, the crew of the Wayfarer really do pull together whenever a crisis hits, even when it hits less-appreciated people like Corbin or Jenks. You get the sense that Ashby is as much a starship captain as he is an exasperated but caring parent to everyone else in their dialogue.

If you love colorful ensemble casts, a sense of family and kinship, and imaginative new forms of life among the stars, then by all means check out this book, and the ones that follow it. This is the kind of science fiction that I’d love to see more of in years to come.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.

Bibliography: Chambers, Becky. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Ep. 2: Brave New World: Burning Every Bridge

Copyright © 2017 by Deck Nine and Square Enix

It’s October, which means it’s the right season for falling leaves, pumpkin spice-flavored everything, and more teenage angst courtesy of Arcadia Bay. Yes, it’s time for another look at the prequel series Life is Strange: Before the Storm, as provided by Deck Nine and Square Enix.

With the release of Episode Two, Brave New World, we pick up on the second day of the series. With Chloe facing expulsion from Blackwell Academy and David moving into the Price household, she turns to Rachel Amber for salvation. Rachel offers Chloe hope, while their mutual friend Frank offers Chloe a glimpse into the side of the Bay’s skeevy underbelly. The story culminates in three key confrontations: a run-in with a drug dealer, a performance of The Tempest, and a chance to uncover the truth behind Rachel’s father’s actions in the park.

One of the better parts about Brave New World is how much opportunity Chloe has to cut loose. She’s done wasting time on anyone else, and so she’s free to rebel against anyone and everyone, all thanks to Rachel’s inspiration (as beautifully illustrated by the opening title sequence). At the same time, Rachel shows that she’s developing more of a trickster side, using her acting skills both onstage and off to her advantange, and to constantly keep Chloe on her toes.

As much as I love this series, I found that this episode in particular seemed a bit unorganized. It had a great beginning during the scenes at Blackwell, as Chloe’s “safe” future at school unravels. But from there, the story meanders between time with Rachel, time in the junkyard, a job with Frank, a play, and (spoilers) one very awkward dinner party near the end. By comparison, the time we spent playing in Episode One had a lot more focus thanks to the common thread of Chloe trying to bond with Rachel Amber and sort out her feelings about said girl. I feel like there was a pacing issue in the new episode. While I love that so much was packed in, I also kept wondering after a certain point when the game was actually going to just end and roll credits.

I’ll also admit that, compared to when the game was in the hands of Dontnod Entertainment, the new graphics are amazing under Deck Nine’s prowess. Of course, I’m not the only one who’s also had a little difficulty trying to run the game in a single smooth sequence. It’s been all too likely for someone like me, even with up-to-date graphical drivers, to face frequent crashes and reboots within an hour or two of solid gameplay. I know there were plenty of glitches and bugs in the original Life is Strange series, but it seems unusual for the new game to come with such a common design issue while running, even on newer systems and hardware.

Overall, I’m glad that I got to experience another visit to Arcadia Bay and to the twisted lives of Chloe and Rachel. While this was a crazy collection of stories compared to the first episode, Brave New World still delivered plenty of meaningful interactions and a few solid surprises for our teenage adventurers. And it’s a very clever bit of foreshadowing that there’s still a wildfire burning in the background of every scene, still scattering ashes and misery even in the happiest moments of the game.

The second episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, “Brave New World,” is currently available for purchase and download through Steam, the Xbox Storeand the official website.

Bibliography: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Episode 2: Brave New World.Developed by Deck Nine. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Webb Pickersgill and Chris Floyd. Produced by David Lawrence Hein and Zoe Brown. Designed by William Beacham. Programmed by Danielle Cheah. Art by Andrew Weatherl. Written by Zak Garriss and Ashly Burch (consultant). Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; Xbox One; PlayStation 4. Original release date: October 19, 2017.

Elements of Fiction – Part 4: Introspection

Welcome back for the final installment of my series of “Elements of Fiction.” For today’s write-up, I’m going to discuss an angle that I don’t think gets enough love or perspective from most writing mentors. Today, I’ll be talking about introspection, and what’s really going on inside a character’s head.

What is Introspection?

Introspection is when we look at our own thoughts and feelings. It’s something that we can do in real life easy enough. But how easy is it for us to get a glimpse into a character’s inner thoughts? How do we show a character’s emotions, instead of just having them say they’re sad or angry or whatever?

When it comes to writing literature, introspection is easy. In between your character’s action and dialogue, you’ll have whole paragraphs devoted to their internal reactions. Here’s a good example from that literary classic, The Great Gatsby:

“Meyer Wolfshiem? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”

“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated.

The idea staggered me. I remembered of course that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919 but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

Physically, what does Nick Carraway do in this scene? He’s talking to his new friend Gatsby, after just meeting Gatsby’s friend and mentor Wolfshiem. This is Nick’s first foray into Jay Gatsby’s world. After living a mostly sheltered life as an upstanding citizen, now Nick is rubbing shoulders with gamblers and gangsters, and seeing how someone like Gatsby makes his outrageous fortune overnight. It’s all what’s happening inside his head. It’s his introspection at work. He’s reexamining his beliefs about the event in 1919. From there, he’ll seek to change what he knows about his cousin Daisy, her past relationship with Gatsby, and what he can do to help that along.

A change in one’s beliefs is a big deal for any story. It’s what pushes the character into a new line of action, and as we discussed in the second part of this series, what a character does is always in line with their ultimate goal. Even when that goal is just “Get the hell out of Dodge because something is trying to kill me!”

Now, showing introspection in something outside of literature is a little trickier. It’s easy for literature writers, but what about screenwriters or playwrights?

Copyright © 2002 by Universal Pictures

Consider a scene like the end of The Bourne Identity. The big climax features Jason Bourne gunning his way out of a Paris apartment building—and doing the coolest shot ever while falling down a flight of stairs. But right before that, we see Jason confront his former boss Conklin. In that confrontation, when Conklin’s demanding answers, Jason finally gets his memory back of what happened on the night he was supposed to kill Wombosi for the CIA.

Visually, this means we cut in between present-day shots of Matt Damon looking upset and flashback shots of him holding a gun to Wombosi’s head… only to pull away when he sees the kids in the room. Conklin doesn’t see any of this, but the audience knows exactly what Jason’s going through. He’s remembering the moral dilemma he faced, and in the past, he made a decision. Now, that decision is haunting him, and we see it in Matt Damon’s pained expression and the movie’s frenzied editing between the apartment and the yacht. It also sets up the line where Jason looks his former boss in the eye and says, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Introspection is everything that a character doesn’t say or do onscreen or on the page of your story. It is, however, everything your character thinks and feels, and when we can appreciate that, we’re more likely to want to follow them and see how their story ends.

Thanks for reading. If you would like to see more content like this, you can read my posts on the elements of Setting, Action, and Dialogue.