Life Is Strange was nice surprise in 2016. In an arena dominated by Telltale Studios seemingly endless output, Dontnod came along and quietly stole their lunch, dinner and the next day’s breakfast. When its recently released prequel, Before the Storm, popped up as next on the backlog list, I faced it with a mix of genuine interest and a strong degree of apprehension. I will not describe what that face looks like. But I will describe how I found the game. I’m kind like that.
Since this is a relatively new game, please note that spoilers follow below. Go play it, then come back.
The signs were not so great. The original developers, Dontnod, were not making the game. Instead another, relatively unknown team called Deck Nine would be developing. Then Chloe’s voice actor had to be changed because of complications with the voice actors strike (i.e they were on strike). There would be no Max or time travel in the game. Rachel Amber, more of a totem in the first game, would be a main character.
Fans of the series collectively raised their one massive eyebrow, unconvinced when these bits of information were revealed. Everyone was braced for disappointment. The stage was set.
For me the biggest issue was that I just didn’t think Life is Strange needed a prequel. The first game had tied everything up neatly in a self-contained experience. This felt like a opportunistic cash grab, the result of Life is Strange being unexpectedly popular and a desire to milk that popularity as much as possible. I was expecting an entirely unnecessary and rushed result, that I feared would dull the magic and work of the first game.
I’d like to sheepishly retract those mean-spirited thoughts. Life if Strange: Before the Storm is a well crafted and thoughtful game, not just telling it’s own interesting story but also managing to add layers to the original game in ways I hadn’t expected. It works as an excellent companion piece to the first game, and is an adventure game worth playing.
In Before the Storm, we’re Max-free in Acadia Bay. Max has moved to Seattle and it’s a while before she makes her return to Blackwell Academy for the first game. Instead, the focus is on Chloe, her best friend/love interest in the first game, depending on how you played through. The story Before the Storm is telling is smaller scale than the original game, which explores the Chloe and Rachel’s developing friendship, and Chloe’s full transformation into the person we meet in the first game. Yes, we get to see her dye her hair blue.
Now, here’s the thing; I never really liked Chloe in the first game. In Life is Strange, her aggressive and self absorbed attitude grated on me. In the first game Max tries to get another friend, Kate, to open up about being bullied, and Chloe becomes angry if you take a phone call from her. Chloe’s annoyance at not being the centre of attention felt ridiculous in that context. The shift of focus to a character I didn’t like much was another reason I wasn’t so sure about this second game. I didn’t think I wanted to spend more hours with Chloe.
But I was wrong about that too. Chloe still focuses those trouble-making ways of hers, but the game provides more detail and context for her rebellious attitude. She is a young girl who is still struggling to come to terms with her dad’s death, and the changes that this has forced upon her and her family. Without any anchors in her life, she cannot adapt. Everyone else is moving forward, but she can’t. Instead she finds herself outside the system. To protect herself, she embraces this.
The first game provides a lot of this info, but in Before the Storm we get to see how these abandonment issues form the core of her behaviour up close. Max’s estrangement feels so much colder when you’re seeing it happen through her text message silence. Having access to Chloe’s internal monologue helps to contrasting with her harder external actions. We get depth and detail to balance out and explain the bad attitude.
Other characters get similar treatment. Deck Nine have clearly spent a lot of time considering the original story, and characters, in most cases, feel well-rounded and nuanced. Almost everyone is shown at an angle that shines a light on their behaviour. With the exception of a shallow main protagonist that the game feels barely interested in, no-one is outright bad. David, the ex military boyfriend of Grace is a strict disciplinarian who makes a lot of mistakes with Chloe. But David provides some insight into his background, specifically his friendship with a soldier who was killed in action. David says he often thinks ‘why him?’ Why did he live, and his friend die?
David is trying to fix Chloe. He is going this for Grace; he can see she is hurting as she watching her daughter change. His military background suggests a focus on discipline and a reliance on instruction, hence the various self-help books you can find in Grace’s bedroom. Rather than just being a foil to the hero, this is a man struggling with something new and attempting to deal with it in the way that he’s been taught. David’s actions can’t always be excused, but they can be understood when you’re given more context.
Sacrifice for the greater good is a key theme here. The characters are often seen grappling with the status quo. They accept things for how they are and are forced to compromise in various ways throughout. Grace is accepting her husband is gone and moving on. James Amber compromises his job and ethics in order to do something he feels will protect his daughter. Rachel’s biological mother makes sacrifices to protect Rachel.
Chloe, on the other hand, does not compromise. We see her reject wholesale the notion of settling for something less than absolute truth and honesty, no matter the cost. She has seen the people in her life give in to an unfair system that has caused her nothing but pain. In typical teenage fashion, she is raging against the machine, in the only way she knows how. This house is rotten, burn it to the ground.
Depending on the choices you make during the game, you can embrace that defiance or attempt to reign it in. Strangely, considering my previous opinion of Chloe’s attitude problems, I found myself rallying to the black and white of right and wrong in a way I thought tallied with what I though Chloe was like. I was less led by my own feelings and more by how I thought she would react. Yes, she would take expulsion to avoid punishing a friend. No, she wouldn’t let that same friend live a happier lie, regardless of the collateral damage.
This is something Life is Strange is very good at. Modern adventure games like this do not normally allow a massive degree of narrative freedom. The route may be somewhat elastic, but eventually elastic needs to snap back. Telltale adventures have been pretty bad with masking this, often leaving you feeling a bit like you had no real impact on the story. They might let you choose to save one of two characters and then have both killed shortly afterwards, rendering the previous decision essentially meaningless. Before the Storm can be just as restrictive, but it’s smarter with it. Instead of offering narrative choices it offers emotional ones which provide empowerment. You still follow the path but you get a surprising amount of freedom with how you do it.
It is, by no means, a perfect game. The end of the game lurches from its slow natural pace to a stumbling run, as all the knots are tied together. This leads to a few jumps of logic. Damon is the main antagonist: a knife wielding genero-crime kingpin who is there to add some menace and provide a through-line for the story. However, he just feels under-developed and introduced too late. I imagine the developers felt a need to up the stakes towards the climax, but Before the Storm would not have missed this attempt at mild peril if they’d decided to leave it out.
There is also a rather strange scene in the final episode involving a friend who appears to fulfil the same role as Warren in the first game, who gets bizarrely aggressive for seemingly no reason. Actually, the developers do provide reasons, but they’re contrived and rubbish reasons. The real reason is, again, to provide another higher stakes barrier. In a game where you’re usually given wide berth for both positive and negative thoughts about most characters this forces you feel one way; annoyed. But that annoyance felt manufactured and false, as did the entire scene. It appeared to be trying to make some statement about the terrible, flawed concepts of ‘white-knights’ and ‘nice guys’. It’s not that situations or people like that don’t exist, but contrivance undermines the point somewhat.
Despite the occasional blip in pacing, Before the Storm manages to tell an effective, emotionally powerful story. Deck Nine have done an excellent job in adding the texture to a solid foundation of the first game. It’s a confident entry into an excellent series. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what happens next with it.