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.

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.

A Second Look at the Game Life is Strange

It’s hard to believe that the first episode of Life is Strange came out over a year ago, but here we are. Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix did a fantastic job of designing a realistic world in the Pacific Northwest with a cast of memorable (if somewhat tragic) characters. After the final episode came out last October, I didn’t have the heart to play the game again. But in March of this year, I did just that and it was an amazing trip seeing the entire story in one go.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned since I played through the entire game again (and be warned that, if you haven’t played any of the 5 episodes yet, there will be spoilers).

1) The Prescott family threats and Native American mythology clues are red herrings.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Back when the game first came out over the course of several months, fan speculation about the many mysteries of the plot ran rampant. I had an idea in my head that Max’s powers were the manifestation of some elemental spirit in Arcadia Bay, designed to combat the corrupting influence of the Prescotts who ruled her town and her school. And the game itself had tons of Native American symbols scattered throughout, from the Tobanga statue to quotes from a Hopi prophecy, that I figured there was some tribal influence on the course of Max’s destiny.

But no, none of that actually matters. I won’t say the game is terrible without that layer of meaning, but at the time, I felt robbed for not seeing it come to fruition. Still, replaying LiS has helped me see how personal the conflict really is, with Chloe and Nathan acting as proxies for Max and her true antagonist.

2) Chloe is, in some ways, the real hero of the story.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Perhaps it’d be better to say that Max and Chloe are co-heroes of this game. Max is our hero protagonist, who jump-starts the adventure across time and space, but Chloe has her own journey. When we first meet her, she’s a self-centered and impulsive punk rock girl who can’t seem to stop getting into trouble. But as the game progresses, her character arc does, too. Chloe learns to follow Max’s lead even while Max becomes more outspoken herself. And by the end, it’s Chloe who gives Max the final chance to fix everything, even if it means letting the storm annihilate the town and riding off into the sunset together. Without Chloe, Max would be caught in some never-ending loop of isolation and nothing would change.

3) Warren is not a total creep.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Warren is not my least favorite character in the game, but he’s close. However, that’s only because it was hard for me to reconcile his two natures. As a science geek and a guy who’s not afraid to take a few punches, Warren Graham’s a solid dude who can be helpful to Max and Chloe at the perfect time. But being male myself, I can recognize a lot of “nice guy” antics in Warren’s behavior (hell, I was even that way toward a few people myself when I was his age), and it’s not what I’d call romantic.

Chloe, at least, manages to grow and becomes a better ally to Max, but Warren loses sympathy points for me when he pursues Max early on and yet so completely ignores Brooke’s interest in him. He’s useful to the plot, but he’s not so harmless as a friend that I’d consider pairing him with Max.

4) The “Sacrifice Chloe” ending isn’t as horrible an option as it seems.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Like many players who learned to love Chloe, I felt Max’s anguish over having to choose between sacrificing her best friend (and possible love interest) and the entire town. It didn’t help that when I played the final episode last October, my mother had passed away a few weeks earlier after a sudden illness. As you can imagine, I was very emotionally raw when I watched through the first ending and so, of course, the “Sacrifice Arcadia Bay” ending was more satisfying to me.

But after seeing how this game plays through, I can say that it’s not so hopeless when you choose to let Chloe go. Because like my mother, Chloe was ready to accept her fate and go peacefully, full of love for the people that were in her life. And like me, Max had the chance to say goodbye after spending time with her. As the butterfly at the coffin proves, Chloe’s death doesn’t mean she’s gone forever. It means she lives on in spirit, no longer bound to a world of suffering and free to stay with Max wherever she goes. By accepting this loss, Max not only wins justice for people like Kate and Rachel, but she also leaves behind her anxious, isolated past self for a more mature path with friends and family. She can become the person that her best friend always knew her to be.

Whether you like or hate the ending to Life is Strange, you have to admit that it can be a powerful act of storytelling. I consider it one of my Top 5 Favorite Video Games and I can’t wait to enjoy other games that offer this same style of play.


Lost in the Widening Gyre: Life is Strange, Episode 5: Polarized

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

One of my new favorite games, Life is Strange, has finally reached its end (unless Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix feel like giving us a sequel, that is). I’ve been a huge fan of characters like Max Caulfield and Chloe Price from the beginning and this game has left a huge impact on me now that we’ve seen the grand finale.

After learning the truth about Rachel Amber’s fate and the men responsible for it, Max finds herself trapped in the Dark Room, unable to free herself and mourning for Chloe’s most recent death (once again). But Max does have several chances to make things right. With her time travel powers active again, she can jump across multiple timelines and make adjustments to reality, even while the storm hits Arcadia Bay and everything goes to hell for the people she cares about. But the biggest challenge Max faces is her own guilt and dread eating her up inside.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

So what did Episode 5: Polarized have to offer?

Multiple scenarios played out, both good and bad.

I was under the impression that this game would have multiple endings, and from a certain point of view, it does. We get to see a lot of different scenarios play out, from the Dark Room conspiracy getting busted to the storm wiping out Arcadia Bay to Max winning her school’s photo contest and going to San Francisco as promised. And we see even more scenarios play out once we take a detour through Max’s head somewhere in Act Two, with distorted memories and dream sequences coming into play.

Honestly, that latter section was my least favorite part, but I’ll give the developers credit for how creative they were in setting it up.

An amazing exploration of the use and abuse of time travel.

Remember how, in the previous episode, there was very little need for Max to rewind time? She got more accomplished through conversations and deductions, especially after the disaster of trying to save William Price’s life.

That’s not so much the case here. The finale of Life is Strange jumps across multiple timelines and branching realities, as Max tries to escape each nightmare scenario, get justice for Rachel Amber and Kate Marsh, and save Chloe’s life one last time. I honestly lost track of how many photo-jumping, time-breaking journeys I made, especially when every single choice always had a bad outcome of some sort.

It is noteworthy, however, that this episode calls out Max—and by extension, the player—for all the times they went back in time to fix something or make themselves look better. Of course, it’s sandwiched in between some very raw and emotional content.

One seriously challenging stealth puzzle.

Just…. to hell with that puzzle. Stealth missions and timed challenges are two things that can quickly kill my enjoyment of a video game. I wanted to play this game for choices and relationship-building exercises, not for skulking around a poorly-lit labyrinth.

A bittersweet ending guaranteed.

There’s no one-hundred-percent happy ending for this game. You will have to make a choice that will leave you hurting in one way or another. I knew that going in, but I felt a little cheated by the end of it. So many choices seemed insignificant by the end. I thought we might get multiple endings of varying good or bad outcomes, but instead it comes down to a grueling puzzle sequence followed by one last major decision between two unpleasant yet promising scenarios.

Even so, the choices do fit the overall theme of Life is Strange, which has to do with both Max and Chloe growing up. Chloe does grow into a more mature person because of her reunion with Max, and Max does have to step up and face a major loss one way or another. Facing death and tragedy is something that all teenagers go through, and seeing Max’s journey through to the end is a healthy sign for her becoming an adult.

On a personal note, I recently had to say goodbye to my mother, who passed away earlier this month. Throughout this whole year—and the whole time I’ve been playing this game—I’ve developed a keener sense of the choices I make in my own life, and I appreciate all my relationships a lot better now. It was difficult letting my mother go (and she was very much like Chloe in her own way), but I’m glad to know she’s at peace and a lot of my faith has been reinforced through the experience of this game, from saving Kate Marsh’s life to helping a shy photography student and a blue-haired punk find a little peace and joy.

All 5 episodes of Life is Strange are now available for purchase and download through Steam.

Bibliography: Life is Strange, Episode 5: Polarized. Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch. Produced by Luc Baghadoust. Designed by Baptiste Moisan, Sebastien Judit, and Sebastien Gaillard. Art by Amaury Balandier. Written by Christian Divine. Unreal Engine 3 (engine). Microsoft Windows; PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4; Xbox One, Xbox 360. Original release date: October 20, 2015.

Do You See the Butterfly Yet? Life is Strange, Episode 4: Dark Room

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

Over this year, the video game Life is Strange has gone from a colorful puzzle-interaction game treat to an immersive experience that always leaves me wanting more. Never before have I played a game where I cared so damn much about every single character, from the gentle and shy Max Caulfield to even twisted bullies like Victoria and Nathan.

In its most recent installment, Episode 4: Dark Room, we get to see the beginning of the end for Max’s adventures. After making a choice that changed the face of Arcadia Bay, Max has to contend with how all of her choices have impacted her friend Chloe’s life, from multiple deaths to crippling paralysis. But when she gets back in action, Max’s investigation proceeds in earnest, gathering the final clues that link Nathan Prescott to na ominous drug deal, more secrets about the Prescott family, and clearer hints about what really happened to the missing Rachel Amber. All of which leads to the long-awaited “End of the World” party…

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

So, after so many weeks of eager anticipation, what did the fourth episode of Life is Strange deliver?

A more judicious use of the rewind power.

I was honestly surprised that I didn’t need to use Max’s rewind power as often in this episode. As a player, I got so much more out of sitting and going through every dialogue option with all the different characters.

Some happier moments with the extended cast.

For all the dark and terrible things we see in this episode, it’s nicely balanced with some healthy interaction between Max and her friends. Every moment with Chloe is sweet and heartbreaking, but ultimately strengthening their lifelong bond. And I was pleased that we get to have good, uplifting talks with students, from Daniel and Dana to Kate and Victoria. It’s not all bloodshed and betrayal as the trailers promised.

Seriously, if I were allowed, I’d spend the entire game either in Chloe’s bedroom or Kate’s hospital room, just hanging out and enjoying the adorableness.

The butterfly effect and chaos theory writ large.

It’s been a subtle point of the whole series how chaos theory works through Max’s powers and decisions. One key feature of chaos theory is sensitivity to initial conditions (otherwise known as “the butterfly effect”), where a small adjustment in a data set can drastically change its future progress. From whether William Price lives or dies to even some of the minor decisions we made back in Episode 1, everything comes into play and changes the landscape for Max and Chloe in their investigation.

Another feature of chaos theory is that we can’t approximate the future from the immediate present. In the game, this manifests with every little decision we make as a player, which is often marked with the butterfly logo and the words, “This action will have consequences…” It’s awesome (and a little scary) how much the developers have factored in for every little adjustment in this episode’s dialogue and plot branches.

A very, very dark turn of events.

This series already dealt with difficult subjects, from missing girls and date rape scenarios to pulling out guns and drug abuse, but Dark Room goes far deeper than expected into these subjects. At last we get a look at how deep and depraved the conspiracy against girls like Rachel Amber and Kate Marsh truly is—and what happens when Max and Chloe get too close to unraveling the truth.

After all the hype that fans like me felt for this episode, it delivered in the most explosive way imaginable. I’m a little relieved (and horrified) that some of my personal suspicions about the plot were confirmed, and filled with joy over the conversations I get to have with Blackwell students and how Max can really start to build a better future around them, even while her world slides closer to Armageddon.

Life is Strange Episode 4: Dark Room is available for purchase and download through Steam. The final episode will be released around September this year.

Bibliography: Life is Strange, Episode 4: Dark Room. Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch. Produced by Luc Baghadoust. Designed by Baptiste Moisan, Sebastien Judit, and Sebastien Gaillard. Art by Amaury Balandier. Written by Christian Divine. Unreal Engine 3 (engine). Microsoft Windows; PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4; Xbox One, Xbox 360. Original release date: July 28, 2015.