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.