Small moments matter. Amid the bluster of the modern gaming market—with its focus on scale, setpieces, and service models—this simple truth is too often overlooked. Most development teams aim to fuel player interest through adrenaline-fuelled excitement to the grave detriment of more tender emotions. Life is Strange has always been different, and its latest release, the ‘Farewell’ bonus episode to Before the Storm, epitomises the series’s love of the prosaic. In story, structure, and tone, the episode resembles little else so much as The Last of Us: ‘Left Behind’, and these two titles, together, reveal how powerful mundanity can be.
Adventure is often part and parcel of the gaming experience as a signpost for progression, but it is underused as a means of probing the deep well of human emotion. In this respect, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ stand out. Both eschew the typical high-profile romp associated with the idea of adventure (whether it be a rage-infused rampage through mythology or simply trying to survive across the myriad battlefields of World War ll) in favour of more grounded narratives. Rather than fury and death, the stories within these two titles revolve around friendship and loss. The events that give rise to thematic insight seem trivial—children at play—but the sense of innocence inherent in such moments hardens their impact. For the first time in their lives, Ellie and Riley in ‘Left Behind’ enjoy the simple pleasures of being young as they explore a run-down shopping centre. Meanwhile, Max and Chloe in ‘Farewell’ try to recapture the feelings of being eight years old by spending the day pretending to be pirates. The adventure of each pair may appear to lack the gravity of, for example, Kiryu Kazuma’s latest quest, but levity and depth are not irreconcilable.
Beneath the childish games, each of the four girls is struggling with internal conflict, which enhances the purpose of their play. Max and Chloe are both determined to make the most of their time together before Max leaves Arcadia Bay for what could be the last time. Meanwhile, Ellie and Riley, developing into adolescents and their sexuality, are uncertain of whether their feelings for each remain platonic or are transforming into something deeper. In both instances, the adventure is a veneer. Through play, the girls aim to set aside the confusion and heartbreak that plagues them, though these turmoils continue to emerge in the looks they share and the words they speak.
Their reluctance to confront their emotions stems from the fear of tainting the purity of their youth with what can only be considered as more adult worries. Faced with these tumultuous concerns, the friendships seem fragile. As questions of love and loneliness loom large, a single mistimed word or action could plunge each pairing into awkwardness from which it may not recover. Neither game makes these fears explicit; instead, they emerge organically through words, actions, and the wilful abandon with which the girls dive into their play. Beyond simple desperation, the duos’ enthusiasm for escapism betrays their youthful naivete, as they have not yet realised that the travails of life are inescapable. However, as both titles tell coming-of-age tales, the move from innocence to experience is integral. Knowingly or not, Max, Chloe, Ellie, and Riley are all on a fast track towards tragedy that will forever reshape their lives. The events portrayed in ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ show different sides to characters previously known, but also how they came to adopt their more familiar personas—how Ellie transformed from carefree to cynical, and how Chloe consolidated her streak of rebelliousness and came to define herself through it. That so much is conveyed without reams of dialogue is a testament to the skills of developers Naughty Dog (‘Left Behind’) and Deck Nine (‘Farewell’) and their ability to create layered characters that more resemble real people than the cookie-cutter heroes of many AAA games. However, the emotional intensity of these stories would not be so great if not for wider context.
Prequels are often maligned as being unnecessary extensions to stories that would otherwise have run their course, but foreknowledge can change the way a player, reader, or viewer engages with a narrative. With their broader insight into the stories of Life is Strange and The Last of Us, players of both ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ begin the titles aware that tragedy, of a sort, is coming. Understanding that each pair of girls will be torn apart almost forces the user to slow down and prolong the experience by appreciating the small moments, whether they be engaging in friendly banter or taking a polaroid as a keepsake. The games become more about a journey tinged with sadness than the destination tainted with tragedy, creating a profound sense of melancholy. The stripped-back acoustic accompaniment of each title also emphasises the pensive mood by conjuring the spectre of loneliness and the feeling of a solo musician playing to themselves in a darkened room. As such, both titles transform from the typical, pedestrian process of trudging through a prequel into engrossing adventures for the player, revealing unplumbed depths and exploring thematic avenues that their precursors did not. Though the adventures they relay are almost microscopic compared to the high-stakes stories of Life is Strange and The Last of Us, ‘Farewell’ and ‘Left Behind’ are immensely valuable additions to each franchise because of the unique insights they provide into the mindsets of their young heroines.
Many story-based games attempt to use a heart-rending event to create an emotional investment from the player. However, many titles rely on the shorthand of familial bonds to make users care, rather than taking the time to build the relationship through small moments. To be fair, being expansions ‘Farewell’, ‘Left Behind’, and other similar content have the advantage of being able to home in on narratives that full releases cannot justifiably ruminate upon, but they also show the importance of age-old storytelling advice: “show, don’t tell.”