Life is Strange: How the soundtrack tells a story
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
There is a good reason why this game is my most visited piece. Life is Strange has had a strange ability to keep its audiences compelled even upon multiple replays. I seek to understand how the songs in the game build the world and analyse the songs tonally and, if need be, lyrically and see how they are effective for creating the tone, characterise and tell the story.
The people who made it past the first bad joke in the game uttered by Victoria got treated to what is perhaps one of the best songs in the game, "To All of You" written and performed by Syd Matters is a song that creates a comfortable high school environment. I do not mean it in a safe way, but more in a nostalgic sense. Nostalgia, even of the days that we do not like, creates a sense of comfort now that we have hindsight and can choose to relive the positive memories. We have to remember that Max is the one who chose to listen to this song. She is an artist and knows that it is up to her own perception to find anything discouraging or empowering. For her, creating a positive environment was all about muting everyone else. She tuned into a song about someone being truly fascinated by the American girl and she was able to feel confident and replicate that sense of fascination.
Let's remove this song from this context. Now, Max walks down a hallway of comments, comments made to discourage, to judge and to mock. For an optimist like Max, this was her hell. Through the power of music, Max converts the directionless and mundane walk down the hallway into one of the most loved scenes in the game and, like an artist, creates her own interpretation.
When Chloe describes Rachel, we need her to feel tragically nostalgic and a bit lost. Well, the game achieves this through a beautiful little piece, "Santa Monica Dream", which is all about separation. While the song does not directly apply to Chloe lyrically, it manages to create a relationship we never see. Despite acting distant, it was clear through her interactions that Chloe has serious abandonment issues. Chloe managed to maintain her sanity through the ethereal Rachel Amber, the Rachel Amber who could get Chloe to feel a sense of safety in opening up. Chloe had to constantly struggle against the idea that Rachel abandoned her too, but she does not give it up.
It is truly paradoxical to see Chloe, someone who is sure that everyone is either ought to get her or abandon her, is sticking so strongly to this one person. Here, the song establishes something more than just a melancholic tone: Chloe's bond with Rachel Amber is so vital to her that she will not believe it at all that Rachel would abandon her. This strongly reinforces the idea within us that Rachel WILL be a part of the story. she has to be so that Chloe can either develop or we can get closure.
My pick for the best song in the game is given to "Obstacles". This song just generates way too many emotions. It starts out with a sense of pure awe as the snow begins to fall over Arcadia Bay. The song further delves into nostalgia in a tone which expresses that the moment in which you are hearing the song is the last time things will ever remain the same, and the song is preparing you for the unknown that is about to hit.
The next episode actually touched on one of the most important characters in the game. Kate Marsh has been harassed continuously not only by Blackwell, but also by her own family after she was involuntarily intoxicated by Nathan. No matter what options you choose, you will walk out of Blackwell with a Kate Marsh who has been pushed to the edge. At this point, what Max needs to hear is that there is someone out there to protect the vulnerable.
"Crosses" by José González plays after this. We don't know this yet, but Max is tasked to be a guardian angel for Kate. I believe this song is more for the benefit of Max than Kate. While Max clearly missed the fact that Kate needs her, she knew that if there was ever any moment she needed to believe that good people like Kate are protected, it was in the bus ride as you gain your distance from Kate.
What inspired me to revisit the game and see the meaning of every song is "Mt. Washington" by Local Natives. While it seems to be originally about a grieving lover, my interpretation of this song was always that of someone feeling guilt. This idea was reinforced by the very scene at the end of episode 2. It is up to us as a society to never let a person get to the point of isolation that they feel that the only way to escape is off a ledge. While it is easy to scapegoat this event onto any one antagonists (and the game even asks us to), even the sun refuses to shine upon this messed up town. As the song plays over the montage of everyone coping with that day, Chloe and Max take it upon themselves to unravel the mystery plaguing Arcadia Bay.
Not wanting to go over every song, I want to skip directly to episode 4. Before we move onto the most devastating scene in the game, let's talk about mountains. Mountains are stationary. If they do not like it where they are, they cannot move away. There is no escape for them. With that cleared up, we are ready to find Rachel.
Rachel Amber, the ethereal being, the perfect model, actor, the one who can make the one who can make Frank give up his lifestyle which creates suffering, the one who could make Chloe Price be so attached to someone, has been overdosed and buried at her favourite spot. All the stories about her that Chloe delivered always ended with their desire to leave and never come back. "Mountains" by Message to Bears does not want you to get resolution, feel angry, nor does it want to assure you that things will get better, it ensures that you feel that moment to be the lowest point in your life. What you find here is the death of ambition, of hope and of dreams for Chloe, but before that, a rotting corpse is the resolution Chloe gets for, connecting to someone on an ascended level for the first time.
When the time comes for you to make the final decision, the game does not want you to feel heroic. Unlike "Mountains", which wants you to feel stinging pain, "Spanish Sahara" feels more like emptiness while simultaneously tasked to carry the weight of the universe on your shoulders. The major difference between Chloe's death and Rachel's death is that you KNEW this was coming before it actually did. This song is less about the shock and horror and more about the bigger enemy, that is, inevitability. Max cannot bury her pain and forget the horrors in the past. They will stick by her for the rest of her life, which she spends knowing that the memories she made with Chloe have been faded away from time.
What Life is Strange achieves through its soundtrack is not something many games go for, since it is a high-risk gambit. Video games try to hide their music in the background and keep the graphics at the forefront. For this game though, it wants every beat and every word of the song to not just to be heard, but be remembered, and a single stretch of any of the songs, years later, can still make you nostalgic for that feeling of comfort, separation, security, horror and grief.
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