Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a doomed romance

There’s an obvious metaphor in the subtitle of the Life is Strange [official site] prequel. Before the Storm refers to a meteorological incident in the original game, but this is a coming of age story. Growing up can be as violent, euphoric, frightening and cleansing as a storm.

What I’ve seen of the prequel makes youth seem like the precursor to tragedy. We’re going to play through the origin story of teen rebel Chloe and we’re going to see the buds of a romance that moves through awkwardness to realisation and eventually gets lost in the horrors of a missing person case. In one of the scenes shown to the press at E3, Chloe can choose to describe her relationship with Rachel as a friendship or “something more”, but however she chooses to see it, and however she can’t help but feel it, we know the end is loss.

I prefer prequels that rely on knowledge of what comes next. Broadly speaking, there’s more value in using the latent dramatic ironies and retrospective surprises than in simply saying “let’s spend more time with these fictional friends, but IN THE PAST”. When I first heard that Before the Storm was a prequel, and that it was being developed by an external studio, I worried it’d be little more than fanservice, and while part of the appeal is certainly in revisiting places and people, I’m optimistic that there’s something more than the comfort of the familiar here.

The opening scene of the demonstration has Chloe sneaking into a secret gig. She’s determined as hell and doesn’t take crap from anyone – though a few people are ready to dish it out – but she seems so much younger and more awkward than in her blue-haired incarnation just a short while later. This is a Chloe who has already suffered a great loss – her father, in a car accident – but has not yet loved and lost. That’ll come later. That’ll come Before the Storm, when she meets Rachel.

And Rachel, to Chloe’s surprise, is also at the gig. She’s the beautiful popular girl who’d be more likely to light up prom than to light a joint, or so Chloe thought, but there she is, brighter than life and with a tougher exterior than Chloe. There’s a little of Twin Peaks here, in the secret life of this young girl rather than any surreal flourishes. In fact, this should be a much more grounded tale than the main storyline, with Max’s time manipulation completely absent and with nothing supernatural to replace it. Instead, it’s emotions all the way down.

During the concert, Chloe has a few choices to make. Steal a t-shirt and/or some cash, buy or blag some weed, back down from confrontation with scuzzballs or stand up to them. As expected in these choice-riddled adventure games, most decisions seem to resolve within the scene, but no doubt some will carry through into the wider plot. In fact, one of the strengths of this prequel might be that decisions don’t necessarily need to echo through the plot, causing rippling changes.

Anyone who has played the original game knows how all of this ends. Chloe, who has already lost her father and her best friend (one forever, the other briefly) is going to suffer another loss. Rachel is the mysterious blank in the original game, a young woman whose disappearance makes Max go all Veronica Mars. Before the Storm will show the beginning of Chloe’s relationship with Rachel and because it doesn’t need to leave any loose thread when it finishes, the prequel can effectively tell the whole story of that relationship.

That’ll allow new developers Deck Nine to concentrate on character study rather than mysteries and revelations. And in Chloe and Rachel, they have two characters worth studying. Rachel is something of an unknown quantity, given that everything we hear about her in the original game is post-humous; it’s here that the Laura Palmer connection seems appropriate. She’s far from the image she projects, or the stereotype that Chloe has assumed she fits, and whether there’s more than the usual teenage angst and longing behind her apparent double (or triple) life remains to be seen.

Chloe may be a simpler study and the strongest moments in the demo see her reacting to Rachel and others rather than projecting herself. It’s not quite the opening scene of The Last Crusade, in which young Indy receives scar, quirks and costume in one quickfire sequence, but we can see the Chloe we know taking shape. She’s dipping her toes in the water of adulthood and rebellion, and even though she doesn’t seem scared of getting burned or bitten, there’s a clear separation between the front she presents and the softer, malleable personality behind it.

The confusion of first flirtations and the anxieties around sexuality aren’t common themes for games. When I heard Life is Strange would be getting a prequel rather than (or, indeed, as well as) a follow-up with fresh characters in a fresh setting, I was a little disappointed. What more is there to say? Well, more fool me, because if Before the Storm does explore these characters and this time in their lives rather than simply ticking a checklist (Remember this place? Remember this person? Look how they changed!), it could have an awful lot to say.

And, look, I’m a Max fan. I see something of myself in her occasionally aloof and smug concern. But even I would rather spend my time sneaking into gigs with Chloe, cadging cigarettes and booze. It’s a teenage dream.

The first episode of three for Life is Strange: Before the Storm will be released on August 31st.

14 Comments

  1. Hyena Grin says:

    This is encouraging. After hearing about Ashley Burch not reprising her role as Chloe, the game went into limbo a bit for me, I was worried it might just turn into a pointless revisit. I probably would’ve bought it immediately just to be with some of those characters again, and not having Burch kinda took the wind out of that.

    This does look promising, though. And I’m a sucker for teenage queer romance, so I’m probably back on board. If nothing else it’ll be a little heartwarming, a lot sad, and at least somewhat enlightening. I may even play through LiS again after, get the full front-to-back story.

  2. jellydonut says:

    I’m still unhappy it’s going through without the original voice actor, but this sounds lovely otherwise.

  3. canmom says:

    A lesbian romance where they die at the end!? Incredible! What a novel concept! Not in the least bit insulting!

    I hope my good friend Annoying Straight Boy Who Won’t Take No For An Answer comes back too.

    • deathofkai says:

      Actually, no one dies at the end (or at least, should die…).
      They’ve mentioned this before and quite a few reviewers have also misunderstood. This takes place 3 years before the original and is is not a 3 year long story line.
      Thus, the ending is not as obvious. Rachel only goes missing 6 months before the original.
      This story will also have multiple endings, unlike the original.
      According to the creators, there are/is (an) ending/s you would not expect. Will really have to wait and see, of course.

      Either way, looking forward to this game as well as more information regarding Season 2 by DONTNOD.

      To those that are so emotional about a game and it’s premise, although unreleased, will find that their comments are without warrant and based purely on primitive cognitive brain function. Your “thoughts” on the game will change once it’s released, as it does with everyone once the simmer to a mild panic.
      Stop being so typical of the internet, always moaning…it’s unbecoming.

      Be better!

      • shadowslayer says:

        Because bloating the sentence ‘We won’t know for sure until the game comes out.’ into a paragraph with pretentious armchair psychology isn’t unbecoming either.

    • batraz says:

      @canmom : straight boys don’t have feelings anyway, they just wanna “go ape” right ? Charming game despite these hateful undertones, another proof that ideas don’t matter one bit when It comes to art. I hope the next game will be just as good ; to focus on Chloe might not be as interesting than to see her from a dull character’s point of view, but we will see.

    • Arkayjiya says:

      Well one die. And the other has the possibility to live happily with someone she loves. Still there are plenty of horrible things happening to them because video-game!

      I’d be interested to imagine what a game with a focus on a (gay) romantic story in which nothing really bad ever happens to them could look like. Maybe a police game in which the two cops partnering are in a relationship? I wonder if we’ll see something like that eventually.

      • Ejia says:

        I love Lesbian Subtext Buddy Cops!

        Of course that’s only really just Rizzoli & Isles and You’re Under Arrest, but still.

  4. ZedClampet says:

    Not at all interested in playing an edgy, teenage criminal/rebel-without-a-clue, so I’ll be passing on this one. Enjoyed the original series, but Chloe is painful, a dysfunctional child-woman with nothing interesting to say.

  5. Phantom_Renegade says:

    I loved LiS up until the really weird stealth section at the end. When will devs stop putting stealth in games without proper stealth controls? I failed several times in a row and stopped out of frustration. Never finished it. I want to, but I don’t want to play the ‘hide from the flashlights’ game.

    • rabidwombat says:

      Yep, the stealth was pretty dumb. It was really just filler, for what was already a pretty thin fifth episode. It wasn’t terrible enough to not see the end, but it was rather pointless and arbitrary.

      If you saw the endings outside of the game, you’re not missing too much. The emotional impact moments were in the previous episodes – episode 5 was more of a recap than anything.

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      subdog says:

      The ending is not worth revisiting. And I’m saying that as someone who loved LIS.

  6. Someoldguy says:

    I only tried LiS because RPS extolled its virtues, and I’m really glad I did. I’m a little unsure about this prequel because the loss of the camera and time-rewind powers seem to be cutting out a lot of the game elements from the first. The structure that allowed you to consider the situation, play it through with one answer, change your mind and try another then settle for the one that you felt satisfied the most. The hunt for little bonus snapshot points not tied into the plot that filled out your journal. You can probably still do the former with quicksave/quickload if it’s provided, but that interrupts the flow in a way that Max’s integral rewind power didn’t.

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