Wot I Think: Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm [official site] is the episodic narrative adventure Life is Strange prequel which shines a light on grieving rebel Chloe’s sudden and intense friendship with school queen bee, Rachel Amber. Rather than this being a Dontnod game the story has been entrusted to third party devs at Deck Nine, although Deck Nine have kept the look and feel of the original episodic teen tale intact, rooting a lot of the action in familiar locations and involving familiar faces. It struggles with characterisation and motivation at times, BUT it also made me laugh out loud and furnished me with an unexpected weepy moment. Here’s Wot I Think:

In case you don’t have Life is Strange as a reference point, you spent five episodes as Max Caulfield, a photography-loving student who can rewind time, as she tried to deal with mysterious goings-on in town, an impending meteorological disaster, and resurrecting her friendship with childhood bestie, Chloe Price. One of the mysteries is what happened to Chloe’s friend, Rachel Amber. I’ll say no more so as to leave those who want to play the original unspoilt but this should give you enough info to get a sense for the timelines and main characters.

In Life is Strange it’s Rachel Amber’s absence which looms large in the lives of Arcadia Bay residents but as Before The Storm begins it’s Max’s absence occupying Chloe’s attention as she falls out of touch, leaving Chloe to deal with her father’s death and mother’s new relationship alone.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Chloe as we meet her here is angry, upset, sweet, naive, kind of an asshole… She’s pre-blue hair dye, post-discovering recreational marijuana and she *desperately* wants to get into a dive venue to see a Very Loud Band. As she tries to work her way past a bouncer you start to get a feel for the differences in the prequel as compared with its predecessor.

Obviously, without Max, there’s no time chicanery so you need another way to negotiate situations: the power of insults and arguments. How that works is you engage in dialogue with someone and pick options to kind of manipulate the conversation in your favour. It’s stuff like making fun of the recipient, trying to reason with them, squaring up to them, doing your best to be intimidating – that kind of thing.

I really like that that’s Chloe’s solution – shout at a problem and be cross with it until it’s no longer a problem, although after one playthrough I’m not actually sure how skilfully I ever actually manipulated anyone. There were also a couple of moments I had that dialogue game sensation of picking an option thinking it would be one tone of voice and it ending up being a different one. As a result I’m not actually sure of my own level of control over the outcome of those conversations.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

The other issue I had with the dialogue was that it could easily tip over into being clunky – I had a conversation with Chloe’s mum early on and we seemed to be zigzagging all over the place tonally. Confrontational one moment and making a supreme effort to be understanding the next in a way that didn’t flow properly at all. My feeling is that it’s because some choices have ended up being “correct” in terms of how they fit Deck Nine’s idea of who these characters are. If you pick the other option the flow gets lost and you judder off into a different emotion.

It was definitely the conversations with Chloe’s mum (Joyce) and Joyce’s boyfriend, David, where that was most pronounced. Little moments of kindness or attempts to defuse a situation on Chloe’s part didn’t feel like they landed quite right – either they seemed to come out of left-field or they didn’t seem to make an impact in the conversation in the way it felt like they would in a real exchange. Also David’s characterisation feels all over the place anyway. He alternates between demonstrating why Chloe hates him and then being a bit more human but those two sides don’t cohere into a single person.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Far more successful were some of the interactions at school that morning. It’s an optional action but I would advise anyone who plays to try out the little tabletop roleplaying session a classmate of Chloe’s called Steph is running on one of the picnic tables. That’s the part where I ended up cackling away to myself over some of Chloe’s actions and responses. I wonder whether pushing people towards playing it will spoil the surprise, but it felt like such a lively and lovely way of building up her personality through interactions, plus a couple of moments reminded me of my own recent campaign.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

As well as the conversational decisions you’ve also got a few bits of moral choice-making to factor in. For example, I currently have a certain amount of stolen paraphernalia in my possession, plus a black eye, and have seen the little “THIS WILL HAVE CONSEQUENCES” icon flash up ominously as I accrue misdeeds and heroics. Mostly misdeeds.

In terms of the relationship with Rachel Amber, that’s an odd one. I keep warming to it but it does feel like there’s something missing. I think that something is more to do with – you know when you watch a TV show or a film and the lead characters are saying all the right things and the plot makes sense and you get what’s supposed to be happening but the two of them just don’t seem to have onscreen chemistry?

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

When I walk myself through the beats of their story so far the intensity of Rachel and Chloe’s friendship and the teenageness of it all makes perfect sense. They’re intense, they’re angry, they’re attracted, they both want to give Arcadia Bay a right wallop, and yet I kept feeling like I’d missed something. Maybe an extra scene at the mill, where the gig happens, to illustrate more of that electricity or that moment of connection? Maybe a change to some of the animations, although there was some delightful body language here.

The slight disconnect has a peculiar physical analogue later when we visit the junkyard you might remember from the first game. Smashing objects felt weirdly toothless. I was trying to work out why and Inside came into my mind. In Inside the boy character has these amazing animations for lifting heavy things and interacting with objects where you get a real sense of muscles straining to perform an action – here that tension is absent, like, that’s not the torso of a person swinging a baseball bat with full force. That said, there’s also a more successful execution of the same idea which left me weepy, so.

Oh! Lastly, I wanted to make sure that I pointed out that you check Chloe’s objectives; they’re written on her hand in pen! That was a thing teen Pip used to do and it would drive my parents and my teachers up the wall. They hated how messy it looked, but what was I going to use instead? My homework diary? Homework diaries are for LOSERS. That said, teen Pip spent a lot of time removing backwards ink imprints of to-do lists from her chin after leaning on her hands.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Making a prequel always seems like a strange endeavour. You’re working towards an end point which the audience already knows to some degree so it becomes an exercise in how to tell a meaningful story where the future is already familiar. With two episodes left to go it’s impossible to say whether Before The Storm can rise to the challenge but despite some clunkiness it has real promise. The presence of familiar faces hasn’t felt too forced or heavy handed which I’d been worried about, and Chloe without Max is a sympathetic messy ball of anger and sadness. The original game and how Rachel Amber’s story played out will affect how those familiar with it read some of what she says and does, but not in a bad way. So far at least. It’s hard to judge the story after just one episode.

I also know that the reservations I have in this first episode are similar to those I had with Life is Strange’s first episode and that settled down to become my game of the year. Here’s an observation from that about Chloe and Max’s friendship: “The characterisation is still wonky – her reaction to reconnecting with someone she thought had abandoned her for years felt particularly off”. And one about some odd dialogue between Max and someone else: “the awkwardness felt authentically teenage – but it could equally have been clunky writing”.

Ultimately it’s actually so similar that I’ll quote the conclusion from that piece here as it applies equally – the fiction I’m referring to is fledgling teen writing you’d find in the original section of fanfiction hubs.

“I know it sounds like there’s a lot of criticism there but episode one is also earnest and gawky and sweet. [Before The Storm] itself feels teenaged. It’s not realistic and it’s not subtle but it taps into a vein of fiction I’d forgotten existed – one which is imperfect, exploratory and full of liminal charm.”

37 Comments

  1. jellydonut says:

    Buying.

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    Kortney says:

    It’s really too bad that this sounds good, because as RPS has covered previously, the studio opted to replace Chloe’s voice actress since the original wasn’t available due to the SAG-AFTRA strike. It’s not even really about that specific voice actress – I thought she was good but not game-defining – but when employers bring on scabs to break strikes that makes a hard pass for me.

    I know not everyone will feel this way, and I hope the people who play this enjoy it. It just feels weird that no one seems to be talking about the weird labor issues involved here in any previews. Sorry to be a downer.

    • Jac says:

      Personally couldn’t give a fuck.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Well, as I understand it, the new voice actors are not union members, so technically not scabs. Also, Square apparently already have pay structures in line with what the union is asking for.

      • zabieru says:

        That is, um, EXACTLY what a scab is. Like, “it’s a top-down game where you control military units in real-time to fight other military units, and sometimes you build a base. So not technically real-time strategy.”

      • Durgendorf says:

        Yup. ‘Scab’ is typically applied to those brought in from the outside to break a strike, not those that walk off the picket line.

        Good point about the pay rate if that’s accurate, though.

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          You’re right, but that only applies to companies that are being picketed. Square Enix isn’t. If the auto workers union strikes against Ford, it’s perfectly acceptable to go work for Chrysler.

          • Lukasz says:

            So why then she is not working as the actress the if they see not striking against se

          • GenialityOfEvil says:

            She wanted to remain active on the picket lines.
            “No voice actors have broken the strike. So when Burch was approached by Square Enix about voicing Chloe in the just-announced Life Is Strange prequel, she had to make a difficult decision.

            “When the strike happened, you know there will be sacrifices you have to make,” Burch said. “This particular one is genuinely pretty difficult for me. It wasn’t one that I was anticipating. This is my sacrifice, and it’s a big one.” ”
            link to kotaku.com

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            Kortney says:

            Right, but Blindlight, who did casting and voice production for the original series, is being struck. No one’s saying too much (presumably so they can get work again once this is resolved!) but the consensus is that they’re probably the issue.

          • GenialityOfEvil says:

            Square Enix approached her themselves, not Blindlight, who Squeenix haven’t worked with since the first game. So that’s pretty much irrelevant.

    • causticnl says:

      hey that smartphone you watching this website on? it has components wich are made by child labour

      • cniinc says:

        “There is some immoral act in something I bought, so I shouldn’t try to vote with my wallet on anything else”?

      • kaliper says:

        “you think society should be improved, yet you still participate in society. how silly of you. i am very smart”

    • cniinc says:

      Respect. Totally get it. Good for you to sticking to morals – I really want to play this game, but I’ll wait until it goes to sale price before I buy, maybe that’ll be a decent protest. (Then again I’m too poor to buy it now in terms of both money and time, so maybe it’s just a convenient excuse)

    • Someoldguy says:

      I dunno why you say nobody’s bringing it up? RPS wrote an article on it and it’s featured as a topic in the comments section of pretty much every article about the game ever since.

      SQueenix may be a big fish but Deck Nine are an independent development studio. I wouldn’t want them to crash and burn over a hiring issue they couldn’t alter, and we see far too many small but talented studios go to the wall when sales are unexpectedly poor. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that chapters 2&3 turn this into a game worthy of its progenitor.

    • noodlecake says:

      The idea that people striking are automatically justified in said strike by default seems a little absurd to me.

      • gwathdring says:

        Do you have any reason to find their requests unreasonable? Strikes are difficult to organize, stressful, often do not result in the desired outcome and often bad for union morale.

        They are not a first resort. They come after many failed negotiations on issues important enough to the workforce to risk livelihood (in addition to any loss of pay from not working, strike retaliation may be illegal, but companies get away with it all the time) and undergo all of the effort and stress of a strike on a large scale.

        I’m sure there are examples of unreasonable strikes, but assuming that workers are in the right in this sort of scenario is very different from assuming that, say, every grumpy facebook post complaining about a company is justified. Strikes are not casual whining about minor issues.

        Just because there are two possible responses does not mean they have equal merit. In this case, the assumption that a strike is reasonable is a far safer assumption and I’d suggest the burden of proof is in showing it isn’t reasonable.

    • Blad the impaler says:

      I respect it and the workers who are negotiating. It’s unfortunate that it happened this way. And nothing….

      • batraz says:

        How a conversation about a game can become so boring, I wonder. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if so many helpless people didn’t bug everyone with out of place political concerns, I wonder too. We weren’t like that when we were young… right ? Life is so damned strange indeed.

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      phuzz says:

      I’ve still got not got an answer as to why she wouldn’t work for Squenix, even though they were not on the SAG-AFTRA list.
      As far as I can tell SAG-AFTRA had no problem with Square Enix’s treatment of their staff:

      You cannot work under any titles that went into production after February 17, 2015 for the following employers: Activision Publishing Inc.; Blindlight, LLC; Corps of Discovery Films; Disney Character Voices, Inc.; Electronic Arts Productions, Inc.; Formosa Interactive, Inc.; Insomniac Games, Inc.; Interactive Associates, Inc.; Take 2 Interactive Software; VoiceWorks Productions, Inc.; and WB Games, Inc

      No Squenix or Deck Nine on that list.

      • Ghostwise says:

        Then Squenix should *very clearly* explain how this game doesn’t rest on scab labour. Sounds simple enough.

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          They’re not picketed. Scab labour only applies to workers who work for companies that are being picketed. By definition Squeenix aren’t using scab labour. Blindlight are being picketed but there’s no record of Squeenix working with them on any project since the first LiS, and Burch herself said that Squeenix approached her about BtS, not Blindlight.

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        Kortney says:

        True! But Squeenix used Blindlight for casting and voice production for the original Life is Strange, so my money’s on their involvement being the sticking point.

  3. Halk says:

    Hey Telltale. Episode 1 alone is almost half as long as your Walking Dead Season 3.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    The thing is that Life is Strange was a game mainly about empathy. It wasn’t about “this reminds you of something, right? this could have been you”, but “look at this teenage girl and try to understand why she has these decisions, why she things this way”.

    I just hope they followed this path.

  5. TomxJ says:

    What I love most about this game so far is how awkward they’ve made Chloes animation. They absolutely got gangly teenager spot on.

  6. Anti-Skub says:

    Can anyone tell me if this has any spoilers for the first game. I haven’t finished Life Is Strange but I just found out that Daughter did the soundtrack for this and I fucking love Daughter. Can I play this without ruining the original?

    • GenialityOfEvil says:

      The only thing that’s related to the original game is something that you’re told within the first 10 minutes of episode one of that game (in fact, they tell you in the Steam store page description). Having said that, there might be stuff in the last episode that at least alters the context of things in the first game. We won’t know till it’s out.

  7. myhandleonrps says:

    Does the game still have absolutely no facial animation? Just faces going :| :O :| :O :| :O ?

    • ChrisT1981 says:

      I found the facial animation to be pretty nice. Considering that they deliberately chose a non-realistic art-style for this series they actually are pretty awesome. But that’s just my view. They obviously are not Witcher 3 quality. Still better than ME:A though ;-).

      • ChrisT1981 says:

        Just to clarify: I am talking about showing emotions mainly. That’s done pretty nice. That weeping part Phillippa wrote about? For me the tears started rolling when I saw Chloes Expression changing even before I knew what really is going on.

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