What’s Loved, What’s Lost, and What Works
Sometimes, a person can sprint into your life and change it forever. You won’t even see it coming. One day they’re just some faceless member of the crowd, or a name you’ve only heard in passing. The next, they become someone you don’t think you’ll ever forget. It feels weird, kind of magical. But it’s real. It’s happening. Neither of you could probably explain it to anyone else. If there’s anything developer Deck Nine gets right in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, it’s that sudden spark of friendship – and maybe a little more. Especially in queer romance, where sometimes that extra push or spark is needed for self-realization, it’s a phenomenon that needs to be handled with care to be believable. It’s believable here, much more than some other stories can manage. Exploring the relationship between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber filled me with joy, for a time.
The problem is, I can’t help but feel that it’s all in service of nothing. That it’s empty. Sorry to spoil Life is Strange, but by then Rachel is dead and Chloe downplays the relationship the two girls had. It’s incredibly disappointing getting to experience the wonder of a young adult romance in a game, only to then be reminded it’s all for naught. It’s just a prelude. The calm before a catastrophic tornado. It’s even in the name. Soon, this romance will be interrupted by time travel and serial killers, and everything that happened here will matter less and less as time progresses.
It’s a catch-22 situation. No matter how Deck Nine handled it, they were written into an uneasy corner. On the one hand, exploring the relationship between Rachel and Chloe is the most logical step for a prequel to Life is Strange, and there clearly was lot of drama to spin in three episodes. On the other hand, it’s yet another example where a relationship between two girls ends up with one dead, and the other mourning. It’s not because of sexuality this time, but the effect still stings the same. It’s like a weird Faustian trade off – same-sex relationships are finally finding their footing in video games, but we still have to suffer through lots of death and loss for this victory.
In some ways, I’m reminded of the TV show M*A*S*H. It’s been said that one of the central questions asked by the network early on was why audiences would care week-to-week about a show detailing the work of doctors and nurses during the Korean War, when everyone knows how it ended. The way this show answered the question was by providing intriguing plots and dynamic characters, as well as the use of innovative film techniques to impress audiences. When one episode could be shot from the first person view of a wounded soldier, and another could take place in real-time (minus commercials), it kept audiences distracted from the end they knew was coming.
Before the Storm does not let people forget about what’s coming, other than the occasional moments where you’re lost in just how well the central relationship is written. Many of the events in each episode are just setup for what eventually happens in Life is Strange. Though the game sometimes makes you feel like a rebel for the choices it gives you, there’s still this sense (if you’ve played the original game) that you know how it’ll all end up. So, you might feel compelled to pick the decision Chloe would, instead of the decision you might pick on your own.
It’s a unique problem, and one publisher Square Enix might have considered when this title was in development. After all, what’s the point of making nice with Chloe’s stepdad if we’re aware of how he treats her later on? What’s to stop us from using the Talkback mechanic (where Chloe insults people and uses their words against them to get her way) if we know what happens to her in that moment of the story? Ironically, it’s often these moments that feel the most fleshed out, since they’re also picked up in the original game, while other plotlines specific to Before the Storm (such as Chloe’s other friendships at school) just kind of end.
The end of the central story has similar problems. One plot thread becomes so prevalent that it overtakes everything else – it’s no longer just a story about Chloe and Rachel, but about a search for somebody else, too. When this person is finally confronted, it’s under circumstances that don’t feel real. Like, in another game, this confrontation scene may be dream to distract Chloe from achieving her true goal, but here, it’s played completely straight. This, followed up by the dramatic choice that caps the end of the final episode solves this particular plot, but so much is left out, it feels like more could have been done. Maybe another episode to wrap things up and bridge the gap into Life is Strange just to help ease the some tonal differences. As it stands, we only see the beginning of the relationship between Chloe and Rachel – and for all the great build-up and small moments this game has, to completely change focus in the end is just disappointing.
Some could argue that this reflects how problems in life are handled – messy, sometimes only in parts. Rarely are things ever wrapped up in a neat bow. While true, when accomplished here, it feels a bit like driving, where you’re going along smoothly until someone cuts you off so badly you have to turn off the road to avoid an accident. It solves one conflict, but you’re still not at your intended location. And for seemingly random reasons.
After the three episodes that make up Before the Storm, a bonus episode hit the same day the game went to retail – this time featuring original Life is Strange protagonist Max Caulfield, and her attempts to tell Chloe about moving to Seattle, well before the rest of the series takes place. This episode features the return of Ashley Burch as Chloe, after a SAG-AFTRA strike prevented her from recording dialogue for the rest of the game. Rhianna DeVries does a great job in her absence, it’s nice to hear the subtle differences in Ashely’s voice. As for the rest of the episode, it’s a great little pirate-themed adventure that ties into the main story in surprising ways. However, it feels weird this wasn’t promoted more as a standalone episode, like The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit has been.
To give credit where its due, this game is still revelatory, especially for Deck Nine Games. Previously known as Idol Minds, the studio spent much of their history developing titles like Cool Boarders 3, My Street, Pain, and the Ratchet & Clank Collection on Playstation consoles. Reinventing this studio as a developer of episodic games surely was not easy, and I think it helps explain (but not excuse) some of the stumbles we see here. It’s an impressive turn of events, and gives a new chapter of history to a long-standing studio, instead of letting them fade away into obscurity.
Faults and all, I enjoyed much Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and want to see more titles like it. As a depiction of LGBT romance in video games, it’s pretty groundbreaking, and there’s a lot in the micro moment-to-moment storytelling that the game gets absolutely right. On the macro level though, where we see the overall story structure, there’s plenty to be worked on. I don’t blame Deck Nine for this winding up as a tragic romance, even if many of us are tired of them. I don’t think there’s much they could have done about it.
But, if this game serves as a sign of where Deck Nine and other adventure games might go from here, I think it’s encouraging. We need more games that are realistic takes on realistic people, without fantastical and sci-fi elements. These may be video games, but you don’t need to shoehorn a bunch of mechanics and gameplay ideas just to remind people that they’re playing a game. Some games just need to be able to move through the story and present player choice, nothing more. This game moves us a step in that direction. Whether you’ll enjoy it more depends on whether or not you can handle teenage angst and rebellion. If so, you can relive your glory days here. But if you run far away from that kind of thing, this game will do nothing to change your mind. Whatever you decide, just remember that flawed experiences are often worth the ride, too.
This review was conducted with a Playstation 4 retail copy of the game that I purchased. You can also find this title on Xbox One and PC.