The newly released first episode of “Life is Strange: Before the Storm” promises a fun, definitely cheesy, but still sincere and unavoidably tragic prequel to a standout game. It’s different enough to feel exciting, but true to the spirit of the original, with some marked improvements.
“In a medium that is dominated by straight male characters fighting and killing things, a romance between two teenage girls in a video game is refreshing.”
“Life is Strange,” a narrative-driven, choice-based video game created by relatively unknown French developer Dontnod Entertainment, was released in five different episodes throughout 2015. The game was met with critical praise and passionate audience response, and appeared on many “best games” lists of 2015. “Life is Strange” follows Max Caulfield, an undeniably awkward aspiring photographer and high school senior, after moving back to her hometown of Arcadia Bay as she navigates through high school, reconnects with her childhood best friend, and discovers a horrible secret about the town — all with the help of her newfound time travel powers.
“Before the Storm,” created by an entirely new developer (Deck Nine), is actually a three-episode prequel that takes place three years before the events of “Life is Strange.” This game, instead of following Max, follows her aforementioned childhood best friend, Chloe Price. Chloe is all rebellion, attitude and anger, creating a stark juxtaposition to Max’s shy nerd persona. When she was thirteen, Chloe’s dad died and almost immediately afterward her best friend Max moved. Despite Chloe’s best efforts, the two lost contact. These are the main causes of sixteen-year-old Chloe’s angst in “Before the Storm,” along with having to deal with her mom’s ex-military boyfriend (introduced in “Life is Strange”) gruffly trying to instill some fatherly authority in Chloe’s life.
The story seems like it will be driven by Chloe and Rachel Amber’s blossoming relationship. The first episode of the game is mostly about the two teens ditching school and spending the day together. Rachel, who is missing in the original “Life is Strange,” is the most popular girl in school, but not in the bitchy “Mean Girls” way. She just has a magnetic personality that attracts admiration from everyone. She meets Chloe at a punk concert at the beginning of the episode and immediately becomes interested in her. The punk concert also kicks off a conflict with a dangerous drug dealer, which will, it seems, be much less important than the development of Chloe and Rachel’s relationship.
The original “Life is Strange” had many strengths. It was visually stunning, the story was compelling, the soundtrack was implemented in ways that added to the narrative, and the gameplay was simple enough for anyone to master. What really made the game stand out, however, was its character and relationship development. Almost every character was allowed to be complex, multi-dimensional, and both good and bad. Max and Chloe’s relationship was heavy with the pain of the past, but undeniably strong and filled with love.
“Before the Storm,” despite the new developer, seems to echo all these strengths as it begins to flesh out old and new characters and relationships. For example, Chloe’s difficult relationship with her mom is touched on in “Life is Strange,” but in “Before the Storm” we get a clearer picture of where her mom is coming from and why their relationship is so hostile at times.
Another aspect worth mentioning, that goes hand in hand with well-written characters and relationships, is the way the series handles emotion. “Life is Strange” makes us care about the characters, and displays their sadness and grief in heart wrenchingly realistic ways. Emotion never feels over-dramatized or underwhelming, so the audience is able to empathize. Considering I’ve already cried while playing it, I think it’s safe to say “Before the Storm” does just as well in this regard. This is exemplified in Chloe’s dreams. Multiple times throughout the episode, she dreams of being in the car with her dad when he died. This is done in a way that weaves into the game well and is sad and weird and seemingly prophetic — as any good dream sequence should be. Because of the way these sequences are executed, the audience understands Chloe’s longing for her father and her grief without her spelling it out. It feels authentic and relatable.
As far as game mechanics go, Chloe’s substitution for Max’s time travel powers is … interesting. In “Life is Strange,” Max used her ability to rewind in order to solve problems and move the story along. In “Before the Storm,” when Chloe is presented with obstacles, her “power” of sorts is backtalk. In order to get another character to do what they want, players can engage in a “backtalk challenge” to try to convince the other character with clever retorts. It’s corny, and can be fun or kind of annoying depending on the player.
“Life is Strange” is a choice-based game. This means the actions and dialogue choices a player makes alter the course of the game. Although endings often don’t vary much in choice-based games, a character’s fate or relationships can be significantly affected. One completely justified complaint about “Life is Strange” that popped up a lot was that the choices didn’t affect the game enough. “Before the Storm” seems to do better at this. There are a lot of variations in dialogue and in the way Rachel treats Chloe. Additionally, Chloe’s dreamscape is affected by her choices. This is especially good for anyone who wants to play through the episode multiple times, and gives me hope that the choices the player makes will produce substantial story differences. Since the game is a prequel the possibilities are limited, but the story seems independent enough that player choice should have a significant effect on the story.
Another popular criticism for “Life is Strange” was some of the outdated slang and just plain cheesy dialogue which didn’t seem completely natural coming from teenagers. “Before the Storm” has better writing on this front, while still maintaining some cheese factor, which I think is enjoyable.
One of the narrative aspects that drew in fans of “Life is Strange” was the nature of Max and Chloe’s relationship. They’re undeniably important to each other, and despite the distance and hardships, they’re best friends. In addition to their friendship, there is some pretty indisputable romantic subtext, especially if the player chooses to play the game in a way that encourages a romantic element in their relationship.
In a medium that is dominated by straight male characters fighting and killing things, a romance between two teenage girls in a video game is refreshing. It’s an important instance of inclusion. Although it’s perfectly valid not to interpret Max and Chloe’s relationship as romantic (I personally am thoroughly convinced they’re in love), the game puts in just enough “gay vibes” to attract the LGBT+ community. Commonly referred to as “queer baiting,” the practice has a long history of capitalizing on LGBT+ fans without upsetting more socially conservative fans by including too much concrete romance.
“Before the Storm” has already shown improvement on this point. In the first episode alone there’s a dialogue option actually labeled “flirt” when talking to Rachel, a lesbian character, an entry in Chloe’s journal about her discovering her sexuality, and more. While it’s impossible to know if the game will follow through on Chloe and Rachel’s romance, this is certainly a strong start.
Judging by the first episode, “Before the Storm” is not only a strong follow-up to a successful game, but also a good game in its own right. It replicates the strengths from “Life is Strange” and addresses its most predominant weaknesses. It brings back characters from “Life is Strange,” as well as adds new characters who mostly seem to fit well and add something to the existing universe. “Before the Storm” is clearly driven by strong dynamic characters, relationships, and emotions that are executed well. Anyone who enjoys character-driven media is sure to enjoy the interactive, fun, sometimes heartbreaking first episode of “Before the Storm.” The first episode, titled “Awake,” was released as a digital download on Playstation, PC XBox and Steam on Aug. 31. The first episode is available for individual purchase at $6.99, or players can purchase the first and pre-order the second and third episodes (release dates to be announced) for $16.99.