The Past Stays Present. Thoughts on Before the Storm's Farewell Episode
*spoilers ahead, ye landlubbers!*
I’ve spent many hours (re)playing the whole Life is Strange series over the last couple of months. Even though I liked the original game very much at the time of its release, it’s one of those rare games that I’ve come to appreciate more over time, and I think Before the Storm helped in that regard, retroactively giving more nuance and weight to the events of the first game. Unlike, say, the Metal Gear Solid series, the Life is Strange ‘universe’ (forgive me) is very lean and focused despite this expansion; one of the reasons for this being that rather than adding ever more ‘lore’ or ‘content’ to the ‘universe’ (god I’m so sorry), it essentially stays focused on one period in one person’s life: the teenage years of Chloe Price. Still, there’s a cumulative effect that is greater than the sum of its parts, layers of stories creating an illusion of the weight of memories and the passage of time that is rare in games (or perhaps any medium).
For a series that has accrued such emotional power among players over time, a Farewell episode may seem like a sensible, but also a potentially dangerous move. Too strong, I suspected, might be the temptation to create something self-indulgent, kitschy and overly sentimental; in other words, trite fan service. Luckily, Farewell is not that. And while it may not be the strongest story or episode of the series, it is a satisfying if painful ‘conclusion’ that also happens to be quite thought-provoking. I always thought that there’s a lot to unpack when it comes to Life is Strange, and especially Before the Storm, and that in some ways, they have received less attention than they deserve. The same will certainly be true for Farewell, seeing as it’s sadly a bonus episode exclusive to buyers of the “deluxe” version.
What struck me the most while playing Farewell was its ambiguity, its refusal to tell you definitely how to feel about the events that unfold. Is this the story of a life destroyed by a callous universe, of a teenage girl stripped of her future? Or is it a story of hope and companionship against all odds, an invitation to focus on the positive amidst the tragic? I’m not here to answer this question, but to show how Farewell keeps this ambiguity from collapsing in on itself throughout the entirety of the episode.
On the surface, Farewell gives us a chance to experience an episode in the lives of Max and Chloe in a state of ‘innocence’, prior to their separation and William’s death. We see the two girls goofing around, blowing up dolls and playing make-believe in their pirate world. After the heaviness of Life is Strange and Before the Storm, this is a refreshing change of pace away from all the high stakes and the drama. There’s a light-hearted silliness that pervades the better part of Farewell; awkward roleplay and cheesy pirate-speak. It unabashedly embraces the charming ‘cringiness’ of the series, even acknowledges it by letting Max point out how dorky and ridiculous their make-believe truly is.
Of course, anyone who’s played the previous games knows that Chloe’s world is about to collapse, and the game drops several hints that let players suspect that this might indeed be the very day that William dies (and indeed, it is, as we see in its concluding cut scene). This would be enough to throw a deep shadow on the light-heartedness of Max and Chloe’s afternoon, but Farewell displays subtlety and doesn’t rely solely on stark contrasts. From the very beginning, Max and Chloe’s play is tinged with a sense of melancholy. There’s Max’s struggle with the knowledge that this might be their last day together, but it goes deeper than that. The underlying theme here is the tension between the desire to indulge in the past on the one hand, and the necessity of letting go on the other.
The episode starts with Chloe trying to clean her room by throwing away old ‘junk’. But of course, that junk has sentimental value to Chloe, and every time we, as Max, try to throw something away, Chloe intervenes, her outrage partly playful performance, partly real (later, we learn that Chloe was already aware of Max’ departure, which retroactively explains her reluctance to throw away items that remind her of Max). When they stumble across a treasure map they’d made in their ‘pirate phase’, Chloe jumps at the opportunity to pick up where they left off five years earlier. It’s silly, of course, but there’s depth here; Farewell does an excellent job conveying that to Max and Chloe, this adventurous childhood is already almost half a lifetime away. These days are already lost and gone regardless of Max’s imminent departure; they’ve long grown out of it, and they both know very well that this indulgence in the past is just temporary. This is not just about Max and Chloe goofing around, or not being able to let go of the past. Rather, it is their way of saying goodbye not just to each other, but to their shared childhood as well.
It also ties into some of the subtler themes of Before the Storm: performance and escapism. In BtS, we see both Chloe (the rebel) and Rachel (the model student) struggling against the restrictive roles imposed on them by the accidents of life, the superficiality of society and, not least, their own ingrained habits. Their planned escape from Arcadia Bay isn’t just a literal escape, but also a figurative one away from the script that turns their lives into inauthentic performances. In hopeful moments, it seems like being in each other’s company allows them to be ‘themselves’. In darker ones, hollow performances appear as a fundamental property of human existence: “It’s all just... theater.”
If a refusal to perform represents escapist fantasies in BtS, it’s the opposite in Farewell; by pretending to be children pretending to be pirates, Chloe and Max try to escape the pressures of the here and now through a swan song, a farewell performance directed only at each other. While Chloe and Rachel in BtS seem invested in the possibility of escape, in Farewell, Chloe and Max understand that it is ‘just’ make-believe; precious and all-important, but make-believe nonetheless. Through Max’s interior monologues, we gain insight into another ‘fantasy world’, one in which their separation won’t change anything, isn’t really a separation at all. Max naively worrying about whether she’ll run out of things to say if she writes Chloe once a week is heart-rending; we already know all to well that they’ll not stay in touch.
“We never actually escaped,” Rachel says in the last episode of BtS. If there’s one sentence that encapsulates the whole of the LiS series, it might be this one. After all, even the original game revolves around the slow realisation that, even with time-travelling super powers, we can never really outrun the past. William’s death has always been emblematic of this bitter lesson; a brief, random stroke of bad luck that irrevocably changes the course of Chloe’s life. It’s only fitting, then, that Farewell concludes with William’s death. The whole series has, in a way, always been about Chloe’s struggle to come to terms with her father’s death, and in Farewell, we finally witness that pivotal moment, when Chloe breaks down in the doorway after hearing about the accident; this story’s heart of darkness.
Despite the appropriateness of Farewell’s title, there’s also a gentle irony there. After all, this is a series about the past not staying past, about not being able to let go, about obsessively revisiting events that cannot be changed. It sounds depressing (because it is), but Life is Strange has always been excellent at keeping sight of the bittersweet amidst the downright painful, and Farewell, too, retains a sense of ambiguity and even hopefulness in the face of the dreadful finality of it all. In the light of our knowledge of ‘future events’, Max’s promises on her tape may seem like adding insult to injury, but in this single moment in time, her sentiments are genuine. Max and Chloe’s assertion that ‘they will always be together, even if they’re not’ may seem like a hollow consolation, but Life is Strange has always been about human connections that transcend the material and the temporal, about the almost tangible reality of memories and the permanence of the past. For better or for worse, the past will always be present, and farewells are never final.