How the 'Life is Strange' Soundtrack Shapes the Player Experience Through Music, by Abby Adamson
WARNING: Spoilers for the Life is Strange games ahead. Proceed with caution; this action will have consequences …
If you’re a nerd like me, you enjoy video game soundtracks. There are classics, like the Minecraft soundtrack; more recent fan favorites, like The Last Of Us soundtrack; and simply iconic soundtracks like The Legend of Zelda or any of the Mario games. My favorite game soundtrack of all time, though, is the Life is Strange soundtrack.
The game was released in 2015 and set in October 2013, exactly ten years ago. Life is Strange revolves around the world of Max Caufield, a photography student at Blackwell Academy who finds she has the power to reverse time. Max uses this power throughout the game to repeatedly save her best friend, Chloe Price, from death. Ultimately, she must make a fateful decision to either save her hometown, Arcadia Bay, from a storm or run away with Chloe. The best part? The player makes the decisions in each episode that change Max’s environment and relationships.
Life is Strange covers an array of themes ranging from queer awakenings, coming of age and lifelong friendships, to bullying, death and violence. The idea of fate and the illusion of choice are highlighted by the decisions you as the player make, as well as the ending you pick. The brilliance of the game, however, lies in the music.
Unlike many video games, licensed tracks (copyrighted music, as opposed to originally written scores) make up Life is Strange’s soundtrack. Some songs are raucous and loud while others fit the singer-songwriter, acoustic guitar vibe. Even though they weren’t written for the game, the songs blend together to create a cohesive storyline in themselves, offering a new understanding of the story and its characters.
A great example of this is Max’s music taste versus Chloe’s. Max, in the scene that made me fall in love with Life is Strange, takes her first steps down Blackwell’s hallways to the tune of “To All of You” by Syd Matters. The mellow, acoustic guitar-led track provides a clear picture of Max’s personality: She’s a shy, introverted hipster.
Chloe, in complete contrast, is best explained through a segment in which she jumps on her bed, smoking and dancing to “Piano Fire” by Sparklehorse. The guitar sounds like it’s being played through a blown-out speaker — fitting for Chloe’s punk, rule-breaker personality.
The tone of the music sets the scene and whispers to the player how they should feel at any given moment. Given the heavy nature and mystery of much of the game’s plot, a substantial amount of the music of Life is Strange reads as melancholy and wistful. This quality adds emotion and tension to each scene in a way that the characters alone don’t.
Listening closely to the lyrics, too, provides answers to some aspects of the story. In Life is Strange, nothing is coincidental. Every “Easter egg” is meaningful or intentional in some way, including the connections between the story and the music that accompanies it.
A clear moment of this is in Chloe’s room, where she begins thinking of her missing best friend, Rachel, and gets upset. She turns on her speaker and plays “Santa Monica Dream” by Angus & Julia Stone. Both the beginning and ending verses of the song start with the same line: “Goodbye to my Santa Monica dream / 15 kids in the backyard drinking wine.”
At first listen, this may not seem an important detail for Chloe; however, in the prequel game, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Rachel is seen asking Chloe to run away with her to, of course, Santa Monica. Now that Rachel is missing, Chloe mourns her by listening to a song about the loss of the very dream they planned for.
Another point where plot and music coincide is in the song “Lua” by Bright Eyes. In an alternate timeline where Chloe uses a wheelchair due to a spinal injury from a car wreck, she asks Max to euthanize her with her medication. This directly correlates with lyrics in the song: “Well, we might die from medication, but we sure killed all the pain.”
Some examples are clearer than others. The instrumental song by Mogwai, “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” foreshadows the death and the destruction of the imminent storm, but is not a straightforward connection between plot and song (although it’s a piece that stylistically fits perfectly into the game.)
One of the most iconic songs from Life is Strange is “Obstacles” by Syd Matters. The track plays as Max and Chloe leave Arcadia Bay together (if you save Chloe rather than Arcadia). The song repeats over and over, “We played hide and seek in waterfalls / We were younger, we were younger.”
This song represents one of the main messages of the game — childhood innocence is fleeting. By the end of the game, Chloe and Max have killed people, almost been killed multiple times themselves, uncovered dead loved ones, and now must watch the destruction of their families and homes via the tornado descending on Arcadia Bay. It’s safe to say that any innocence Max and Chloe had is gone by the time they leave together, and “Obstacles” accompanies them as they leave the resting place of that innocence.
Meaning aside, the music of Life is Strange must be appreciated for what it is — music. If nothing else, several of the songs featured on the game’s soundtrack are downright nostalgic. The game design bolsters this nostalgia: The warm lighting, autumn setting, Miami University–esque campus of Blackwell and theme of friendship give the player the sense that they have been in the characters’ shoes before. Somehow, it is all familiar.
Life is Strange even allows the player to sit directly with this nostalgia in several moments of the game. At various points, Max has the opportunity to sit and listen along to one of the tracks playing and take a pause from the action of the story to process. This allows for not only an appreciation of the music, but of the setting and environment that surround her as well.
What is most meaningful about the soundtrack to me is the love that it brought me for the indie folk genre. When I first played the game in high school, I was in awe that I didn’t find a single song I didn’t enjoy from the soundtrack. The music was unlike anything I had previously listened to as a 16-year-old, since I often frequented the Spotify pages of artists like Panic! At the Disco and Fall Out Boy.
I quickly downloaded the soundtrack to my phone and listened to it almost constantly. My favorite song from the soundtrack, “To All of You,” is one I must have played hundreds of times since my first listen. For players like me, Life is Strange delivers the opportunity to explore a genre they may not have previously been familiar with, and I entirely credit my appreciation for it to the game.
The easygoing, yet emotional tunes sprinkled throughout the game provide an air of calmness only a beautiful game such as Life is Strange can bring. Even without noticing it, the music that dances around the complex storyline intertwines with it, too. It shapes the experience of the player without bringing attention to itself; it offers an understanding that words cannot reach.
So, happy fall. Cozy up with a blanket, fuzzy socks, hot chocolate and Life is Strange tonight. And, of course, enjoy your dose of seasonal nostalgia in game form.