Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is a coming-of-age tragedy

Zack Garriss wants you to feel guilty when bad things happen to good people. The lead writer of Life is Strange prequel Before the Storm is as passionate as any writer I’ve ever met on the subject of interactive storytelling and he has some strong opinions about the future of the medium. Guilt and grief might be the main course, but there’s a side order of emotional highs and the occasional bout of expletive-laden insult swordfighting, minus the swords.

It all starts with guilt though, because for Garriss that’s key to the entire choice and consequence design of this new era of adventure games. More pondering and contemplating than pointing and clicking.

To Garriss, those choices shouldn’t just be neat narrative devices or divergent branches to explore. They’re the emotional centre of this kind of storytelling: “The next level of narrative in games is to inculcate responsibility. By the nature of the medium and the story we’re telling, there’s guilt involved when you cause harm to the characters. In an interactive medium, there’s a level of complicity in all of these choices and you’re having an impact on the story that can cause minor irritations and much more severe consequences.”

One aspect of the original game that impressed me was the sympathy it showed for its characters. They suffer and grieve, but as a player or observer, you’re not encouraged to sneer at their struggles. Teen and young adult angst is easy to mock, and even if Max and her friends escaped derision the game could have treated its older characters as one-note villains to be humiliated and disrespected. It’s a staple of storytelling focused on youth, whether Ferris Bueller or any of countless other eighties comedies that make a stern principal or overbearing parent a focus for disrespect of authority.

In Life is Strange, the adults of Arcadia Bay have their own complications, and their own vulnerabilities. This is important to Garriss and ties back into his belief that interactive storytelling can create sympathy and guilt in ways that are much more difficult in other media.

“In film and television, characters are often treated as objects. They’re there to be used by the plot, as devices. I loved that Life is Strange shows care for its characters, and we want to tread that same line carefully. We do put them through horrible situations and they do suffer, but we want to treat them with respect.”

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm

This level of sympathy becomes even more important when dealing with one of the game’s central themes: grief.

“Chloe is grieving the death of her father and the loss of her friend Max, who has moved away from Arcadia Bay. When you’re going through that process of grieving, reality is heightened and your connection to everything around you is altered. You might spot the person you lost in a diner or in a passing car, things might not taste the same, you might lose control.”

Behaviour that might be dismissed as petulance and teen angst has a deeper root and darker shades to it. There are moments in what I’ve seen of the first episode where a player can make Chloe behave obnoxiously, spitefully and carelessly. That’s where the guilt comes back – not just in the effects that Chloe’s actions have on other characters, but in the way that our own choices as a player reflect on her. Life is full of chances to embarrass and endanger yourself, and there are decisions, large and small, that Chloe will regret for a long time. And attempts to do good deeds will often come back to haunt her as well.

When I last wrote about Before the Storm, I suggested that one of its strengths might well be its take on a coming of age narrative as a form of tragedy. The actual act of growing older, of taking on responsibilities and of leaving familiar places and people behind (or being left behind by them in Chloe’s case), is full of anxieties. But there is also excitement and optimism. Before the Storm is a love story too, in part.

“The game is based around the relationships that change you and the sense of being in a place of loss and discovery. It’s about having that one person who makes everything seem worthwhile and the fear of losing them.”

All of this talk of heightened emotions and grief might disguise how funny Before The Storm is. Chloe is bold to the point of recklessness, squaring up to men twice her size and threatening to beat the crap out of them. It’s hilarious, endearing and empowering, often simultaneously, though I’m not entirely sold on the new ‘backchat’ conversation system that plays out during some confrontations.

Certain dialogue choices, marked with sweary speech bubbles, trigger a backtalk sequence. It’s a minigame of sorts in which Chloe, without the time-twisting powers of her friend Max, exercises her most potent ability: aggressive sarcasm. Chloe and her target trade insults, and there are ‘correct’ choices to make, picked out by figuring out the response that most directly plays with the previous line of dialogue. A bouncer tells Chloe she’s acting cute and she hits back with a jab about how cute the flowery design on his motorbike is.

It’s insult swordfighting for millennials, basically.

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm

Certain dialogue options are only available if you’ve picked up on environmental cues by having Chloe investigate them, which might add some complexity, and there’s no actual fail-state, just a different outcome. There’s every chance that some of the later interactions will be more involved than the early examples we were shown, but having a conversational minigame looked more like an interruption to the game than an enjoyable diversion.

Backtalk aside, Before the Storm looks like a moving, funny and accomplished prequel. When I first sat down with Garriss I asked him if he was intimidated by the prospect of tackling a much-loved setting and group of characters that his studio didn’t create.

“Of course. I think it’s testament to the power of Life is Strange how strongly the fanbase feels. About the world and those characters. Dontnod achieved something extraordinary and it’s a huge amount of pressure to create something in that world. We’re fans before anything else.”

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm

Life Is Strange has inspired lots of fan-art and I asked Garriss how a team of fans working on a prequel can avoid writing what might be seen as fan-fiction rather than a genuine extension of the story?

“That’s a good question and it has a simple answer. It’s craft. We have a very diverse team of people who come from films, television and theatre, we have a toolset for interactive narratives that is better than anything else in the industry right now. But it comes down to the way we work as well. We have a policy of open criticism and discourse. I’m the lead writer but everybody contributes: it’s a shared vision.

“The experience of writing feature films or TV episodes requires thinking about the most interesting obstacle or the best line of dialogue or the best piece of choreography for any given situation. We have to ask ourselves not what the best option is but what the two most interesting versions of any given scene might be, and how they’ll impact on our larger themes and plot. It’s incredibly satisfying but it requires a lot of patience.”

And in the end, cut through the wit and the friendships and the love, am I right to see Before The Storm as a tragedy?

“Yes. You’re absolutely right.”

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm is due for release on August 31st 2017.

42 Comments

  1. jellydonut says:

    “The next level of narrative in games is to inculcate responsibility.”

    This is exactly what made the mass effect trilogy great. Your choices had consequences.

    The format could really do with a proper game that does it justice again. ME made the mistake of having explicitly good and bad choices most of the time.

    • kse1977 says:

      For my money, choice in games, comes down to the Witcher. Specifically the first Witcher game. Making hard choices and then seeing the results down the road was at times brutal. Especially when the choices were never very black and white.

    • Risingson says:

      To me the Mass Effect games were not about having consequences of your actions, but seeing those consequences (killing zillions of people or aliens) as mere plot devices, mere numbers. I cannot see anything responsible in those games.

  2. GunnerMcCaffrey says:

    Just a wee reminder that Before the Storm is being developed using scab labour (and the devs are apparently papering that over with interviews suggesting it’s cool because actors are interchangeable).

    • GenialityOfEvil says:

      Square Enix isn’t affected by the strike. Scabbing refers to workers working for one of the struck companies, not working for any company in the industry.
      link to sagaftra.org

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        As I understand it, Burch didn’t take the role because of the strike, but if the devs had renegotiated a deal with her that was in line with the union’s minimum working standards (residuals for every x-million copies sold; more frequent breaks during sessions; reasonable stuff), though, she would have been free to take it. I would bet it was Squeenix staff who balked at that idea. But regardless, the game is being made with talent willing to accept conditions that directly undermine an ongoing job action. AKA scab labour.

        It’s weird to me that even at RPS people will go through rhetorical contortions to try and defend giant corporations on technicalities. That love is not reciprocal, in the least. And if people are so fond of these worlds and characters, why doesn’t that extend even a bit to the real, living people involved in making them?

        • Kolbex says:

          “It’s weird to me that even at RPS people will go through rhetorical contortions to try and defend giant corporations on technicalities.”

          If there’s one thing the history of labor struggles has made abundantly clear, it’s that there is never any shortage of boot-licking toadies willing to go to any lengths to put themselves in the bosses’ shoes.

          This is especially true on the internet and doubly especially true on the gaming internet, which tends to be disproportionately full of “born on third base and thought they hit a triple” guys who write software and thus think of themselves as “the intellectual elite”.

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          She chose not to.link to kotaku.co.uk
          Square Enix’s contracts already meet SAG-AFTRA’s demands. But I suppose some people will just go through rhetorical contortions because a company is “AAA”. Square Enix has plenty of legitimately nefarious practices to criticize. No need to invent new ones.

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            Aerothorn says:

            Your link does not include any evidence that Square Enix’s contracts meet SAG-AFTRA’s demands, and your link strongly implies the exact opposite.

          • GenialityOfEvil says:

            The link was in a different paragraph, that’s why it doesn’t include that. See the SAG-AFTRA link in the first comment I posted.

    • Frosty Grin says:

      I don’t think it’s cool to refer to people as “scabs” just because they’re not acting in solidarity with a group they don’t belong to. Especially when the group is fighting strictly for its members.

      • Drib says:

        Are you scabbing for the commenter industry, you mega-hitler?

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        Scab is a long-standing term for someone who crosses a picket line (literally or figuratively) to take a job. I didn’t make it up or use it casually.

      • Amake says:

        The price of choosing not to be a part of the group is the scorn of the group and their sympathizers. That’s not so much. You’ll still get the benefits the union negotiates for you once they become industry standard and all.

    • Drib says:

      Part of participating in a strike (or even a union/guild in general) is accepting the risk that if you don’t have as much power as you think, you can get replaced.

      This is why it’s hard to unionize unskilled labor.

      Acting isn’t unskilled at all, but it’s the same problem. People are refusing to work, and now they’re getting replaced by people who aren’t refusing to work.

      Them’s the breaks.

      • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

        And part of crossing a picket line is the risk of getting called a scab. Them is also the breaks.

        • Frosty Grin says:

          “if people are so fond of these worlds and characters, why doesn’t that extend even a bit to the real, living people involved in making them?”

          • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

            And doctors don’t care about life because they kill germs, right?

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          You don’t seem to know how a strike works. You can only cross a picket line if a company is being picketed, Square Enix isn’t.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Ok, I’ve read a small amount about the topic and am still confused, can someone explain to me why Ashly Burch declined to work for Squenix, even though they’re not on the list of companies that SAG-AFTRA is on strike against?
      I understand not being a scab, but surely it’s ok to take work from a competitor who treats their workers more fairly?

      • spacejunkk says:

        Pet theory: Life is Strange is to Before the Storm as Tremors is to, uh, Tremors 2, and Ashly Burch is declining to appear as tactfully as possible.

        I have no evidence for this whatsoever.

  3. Amake says:

    I was almost considering it in spite of the strike breaker affair, but after the “It’s not fanfiction because we’re good at it and have a big budget” I kind of want to boycott it twice.

  4. Harlaw says:

    Ah, yes, another story in which queer girls are gonna end up heartbroken and/or dead. (No matter our choices in the prequel, we know Chloe and Rachel’s eventual fates.) How very groundbreaking.

    I am actually looking forward to this, strange enough; the first game is in my top 5 most emotional experiences while gaming, and convoluted time travel mess with the total unraveling at the end aside, it was for the most part well-written with extremely endearing characters. But I’ll definitely be bracing myself for the last episode. :p

    • Frosty Grin says:

      No matter our choices in the prequel, we know Chloe and Rachel’s eventual fates.

      I think that’s exactly why we shouldn’t be quick to categorize it as the trope. The whole point is that the eventual fates aren’t what Before The Storm is about. We probably won’t see the death(s). So, in a way it’s like a reversal of the trope.

      • Unclepauly says:

        Eventually, everything will be a trope. The use of the word trope has become a trope. Yo dawg, I know you like tropes so we put some tropes in your tropes (lol you just got triple troped) and you got boneless pizza’d

        • batraz says:

          Moreover, there is a misunderstanding of greek in this use of “trope”,( tropos means “turn”). The rhetorical meaning of trope is “figure of style” ; what people call “trope” is a “topos”, meaning “place”, in english “common place”.
          But you don’t expect people obsessed with ideological fancies to fully understand the langage they are using ;)

          • Harlaw says:

            “A common or overused theme or device”, per Merriam-Webster. Language can evolve over two millennia of use. Imagine that?

            Anyway, let’s address the ideological tidbit, since I’m guessing that’s your actual problem with my comment. Art is not created in a vacuum. Generally, it will 1. reflect the society we live in and 2. some of the author’s/authors’ ideological opinions are bound to creep in, whether through accident or – even often – on purpose. And another way for ideology to creep in, of course, is through the many diverse interpretations of the people who consume art. (The author is dead, art belongs to the public, blahblah etc.)

            There is no such thing as an ideologically neutral story; if it seems that way, it’s usually because the story’s ideals align with your own and so seem “normal” to you. Of course, some stories will contain more ideological focus than others – the Harry Potter series is explicitly political in its critique of metaphorical nazi ideology, but not all kinds of media are. And in games, there can be exceptions. Example: I don’t think Rocket League furthers some hidden ideology or whatever, aside from maybe that rocket car football is fun, haha. But it should also be noted that Rocket League doesn’t have a story as such.

            With a story-focused game like Life Is Strange though, there are bound to be some ideological aspects to it. And in this case, namely the unavoidable misery and/or death of queer people, it continues an ideological practice of decades. (There were depictions of queer people before that, but they were much rarer, negative, and/or relegated to subtext – though of course, they are still rare, negative, and often relegated to subtext, sigh.) And, frankly, it feels pretty shitty to have to read/watch/play the suffering of queer people over and over and over again as a gay person. Queer people can have happy endings! But that’s not what is currently reflected by the vast majority of the media we consume, and that’s a shame.

            Welp, this got long, sorry. But lastly: taking an ideological angle when responding to a game doesn’t mean it’s the only angle worth taking or the only angle worth judging a game on. In my first comment I also mentioned some stuff I liked about the original Life Is Strange. Being critical about an aspect of something doesn’t mean I can’t like the rest of the thing! But analysing a game from an ideological perspective can certainly lead to new, interesting readings of its meaning (this recent RPS post about Pyre, for example), and so shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.

      • Harlaw says:

        You might be right. I certainly hope so – though I have the sneaking suspicion that the game will end with Rachel going “missing”. But it will be hard to divorce the story of this game from what we know is going to happen in the original game (which definitely does fit in the trope, sadly).

    • Amake says:

      It’s probably not as big a deal to have a story “about” queer characters that ends sadly as a story in which queer characters suffer. Personally, I find the original’s ending worse, where killing Chloe is treated as the more emotionally and narratively fulfilling, more correct, “will of the universe” choice.

      • Harlaw says:

        I’d be okay with a story about queer characters ending sadly, depending on how it’s handled. But considering the overwhelming amount of already-existing unhappy endings for queer characters out there, I’d be very wary before playing it (hence my comment about bracing myself for the last episode, haha). A regular sad ending is still better than characters dying.

        But yeah, I definitely agree that the original game’s ending was worse. It was also really Unfortunate that the only ending in which the Max/Chloe romance is made textual is the one in which Chloe dies. When you save Chloe, they don’t kiss. Supposedly this was over budget constraints, but still. They couldn’t have picked another part where to cut costs?

        I actually found saving Chloe the more emotionally and narratively fulfilling choice (admittedly, both endings had major issues – the whole supernatural hurricane thing was just poorly contrived nonsense, in my opinion). But with the way both endings played out I can definitely see which one the devs thought was “best”.

      • Arkayjiya says:

        I don’t quite agree with that. I think the problem is that the devs got familiar with both ending for a long time and the “sacrifice Chloe” ending gets a lot better with repeat.

        The thing is, everybody’s dead (maybe not quite everybody but not meeting a single person while getting out does not paint a pretty picture, just about everybody is dead), the only person we need to get update on is Max and Chloe. A scene’s purpose is the evolution of someone’s mental state, in the Sacrifice Chloe ending, they need to establish a new starting state on top of a new final one. It also has to show the bathroom (because time travel) to make sense narratively and show the characters that would be affected either by Chloe’s death or Max’s grief.

        But the Sacrifice Arcadia scene is built in exactly the same way, it has a starting state for both character, gives a end point to Chloe’s arc (by showing her finally getting out of Arcadia Bay, in a more than bittersweet manner) and show us an update on everybody else (mostly by implying that they’re all dead) and end up on a note of hope just like the Sacrifice Chloe one.

        I don’t think the Sacrifice Arcadia ending is worse at all, it does everything it’s supposed to exactly like the Sacrifice Chloe one I just think it had less to establish and no need for complications.

      • RimeOfTheMentalTraveller says:

        Same. I haven’t seen the Arcadia Bay ending, just know its longer. And it DOES sting for me that the actual non-jocular kiss the two share is only in the ending where one dies. It was obvious which ending the devs preferred and I really disliked that

  5. Eleven says:

    Everybody was insult fighting
    Dem quips were fast as lightning

  6. Monggerel says:

    Finnaly, the return of my favourite character from 2012, Finnegan Cola.

    And so riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Arcadia Bay and Environs.

    Simply can *not*, am impossible, to wait, four more hella adventures.

  7. Just Endless says:

    I wonder how this game’s gonna fly, sales and fanbase wise. I loved the first game, but (a) Chloe is not the character I want to see more of, and (b) younger is not the interesting direction, seeing the future of those characters would almost certainly be more interesting, in that they were largely in the “personality formation” stage of life in LiS, and going back more just makes for, like, sad generic teenagers. In a forward-sequel, I imagine Max would be an actually interesting adult person.

    • Kolbex says:

      I am struggling to think of a time in any medium where “prequel” was the good, interesting, artistic choice. Seems like the lion’s share of what we get, though.

      • Dewal says:

        It’s a good choice when the settings of the first story are interesting. Like in Star Wars, where the first episode starts in a world where a dictatorship rules, an ancient order of knights is on the brink of extinction and a rebellion is fighting. The story behind the rising of the first, the downfall of the second and the origins of the third is an interesting one (albeit the realisation of the prequels wasn’t that great).

        In the case of LoS… you have a teenage girl that comes back to her old town. People live normal lives, and teenagers are angry. The interesting bits happens after you arrive (time traveling, magic storm and resolving a murder case). So yeah, in this case I fail to see the point of a sequel. That would be like making a movie about Spiderman before he got bitten by a spider.

        I hope we’ll get soon more infos on the new game Dontnod are making, because I fail to see why I’d be interested in the romance of uninteresting teenagers, living uninteresting lives, with uninteresting mechanics (I don’t understand how they thought that remplacing time traveling with “talking back” was a good move…) made by people that weren’t involved in the first game.

        • Kolbex says:

          When I said I was struggling to think of a time when it was the good or interesting choice, Star Wars was the first thing that came to my mind. I stand by my statement.

  8. Phantom_Renegade says:

    I played and loved LiS all the way up until somewhere near the ending where it suddenly turned into a stealth game where I kept getting caught until I force quit the game. Don’t have a stealth section in a non-stealth game! I really want to finish it, but I really, really don’t want to play that stupid fucking stealth section.

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    phuzz says:

    No mention yet that the fabulous Daughter are providing the soundtrack for this.
    I was kind of intending to pick up Life is Strange at some point, but this has tipped me towards; will buy (and then buy the prequel)

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