Storytelling through Nightmares (Life is Strange)

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

If you are writing a story, and you are at a point where you wish to make the protagonist as vulnerable as possible, how would you go about it? No physical danger will truly maximise this effect. No, what you really want to do here is have your hero's every fear laid out in front of her.



Elaborating this with an example, I choose to take one of my all-time favourite stories, Life is Strange. You see, the nightmare sequence acts as a bridge between the conclusion of both the plots, Arcadia Bay mysteries and The Struggles of Chloe Price, and the climactic decision where you decide which one is more important for you, or rather, which decision can you live with. Since the ending of the plots with Chloe doesn't naturally lead into the final decision, we are given an amazing nightmare sequence which utilises every advantage the medium has.


One of the best things about Life is Strange, something that was not a presence in the sequel, is the repetition of certain moments or locations. A writer could write scenes in the same location over and over because of laziness, or because they have such a strong grasp on worldbuilding that these locations always have more to offer. Well, a third element added here is that the game is about time travel, so reliving certain moments over and over is a natural presence. The first repeated scene is Jefferson's class. Every time we rewind there, it has completely different context, whether it be a portrayal of classroom elitism, an understanding of how to use your powers, or the moment you decide to go back to ensure the story ends before it starts. This time, in Max's nightmare, it serves to highlight Max's regrets for observing Jefferson through a mentor-tinted lens and not capturing the red flags. She saw their conversation in a completely different context. Now, Max could only see every word out of Jefferson as a dark and twisted euphemism, and she blames herself for responding positively. Now, the illusion has been dropped and she feels the shame of showing support to him. Even the lighting, which originally kept Max hidden from the spotlight was now romantically brightened as she professed her love to Jefferson.



As Max continues to move through, instead of going to the Blackwell hallway, she is at her dorm. Her dream is, after all, a manifestation of her mind, and for her, the most stable thing is no longer the linearity of time. She jumps across different moments in time and any form of linearity between them has been lost to her.


Throughout the game, Max makes and witnesses a lot of moral ambiguity, which is something Chloe, or even Max's internal monologue may pass up as a positive exchange. However, much the same way, the narrative is twisted to portray everything in a much darker, pessimistic light.



The scene afterwards is Max finally reaching the hallway of Blackwell, which, to Syd Matter lovers, may be the most memorable scene in the game. But this time, everything beside Max's movement is in complete reverse. At this point, her memories were defaulting to a state of rewind. The sequence, of course, continues till you go to the bathroom, which leads to a sequence of hide and seek as Max physically has to hide from her own dark images and manifestations of the people of Arcadia Bay. Max, throughout the game, while an optimist, has a hobby of putting herself down. While she suppresses this as much as possible, she does not have that luxury within her own mind trying to destroy her. She has to face every negative self-image she has had and just hide from them without letting them consume her.


The theme has been to show the events of the story in a light that puts our protagonist as not just incompetent or inconsiderate, but as a villain, and the task here is as easy as removing the context. When we jump back to the day of William's death, one of the two major events which we revisit multiple times, we can see Max coming back to time, destroying the photo which would have saved him, and then just leave that existence, not being the one to have lost anything.


Through this, we see how and why Max sees herself the way she does. Her powers don't really cause any damage to her. She is out of the storm's range at the lighthouse, she doesn't have to live either without a dad or paralysed from neck down. She isn't buried in a junkyard, and she doesn't blow up in a diner in a tornado. All her decisions are merely about whom she can hurt, which will show up again at the end. While she does face consequences for her actions, like getting suspended from Blackwell or getting targeted by Nathan Prescott, she is always, as she sees it, the one who starts these chain of events which lead to so much pain for everyone.



All of this was decent. Good, actually, but I would not have made this article if the nightmares ended here. The most haunting part of the game comes afterwards, camouflaged as a moment of peace. The scene switches to Joyce's diner, where everyone in Arcadia who is important to us is waiting for Max to save them. At first, the interactions may seem extreme and guilt-tripping Max, but we do not need to forget that fear of death is omnipresent, and the fear of leading to the death of people you care about is

haunting. For Max, most of the people were merely in the crossfire of Nathan, Jefferson and Rachel and had nothing to do with the events. They were just people who had their own lives going, all of whom are scared to die in a tornado.


Max encounters the purest form of her shame and regrets: her own self not afraid to let it all out. She calls Max out for using a universe-bending skill to make friends or save someone like Chloe and letting everyone die. Before Max overpowers Max, a manifestation of Chloe walks in, one who has always told Max that she is putting way too much pressure and guilt on herself. She leads Max down one final memory lane to show what Chloe meant to her: The memories they have together. This is what any person means to any other, and for Max and Chloe, they were the most important person for each other, and being separate from each other would crush them both.



With this, you are prepared to enter the realm of the final decision in the game. Keep in mind that both decisions have been made far more complicated now. Sacrificing Chloe to save Arcadia Bay now means losing that one thing, those memories that you have with her and letting her die without learning about Rachel or Max or Jefferson. The final nail is struck as Max tears up the butterfly photo and we see all her memories fading out of existence.


The other side of the coin is not just that you are about to lose a town, but that you chose to let whatever tragedies come next to be second to Chloe. Chaos Theory will not apply to one town, and it will follow Chloe forever, and Max will weather and fight it forever.


Other Life is Strange Posts:

Understanding Chloe

Inaction: The Backbone of Cinema

The Butterfly Effect and its creative uses

Emotionally Packed Narrative Climaxes

De-Escalating a Climax (Before the Storm)








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