The prequel to 2015’s “Walking Dead-like” breakout hit “Life is Strange” finished up just in time for the holidays with Episode Three: Hell is Empty. Originally I asked myself if this is a story I even wanted to be told. A story about one of the most important characters in the original game (Chloe Price) and how she fell in love with and became best friends with the mysterious individual who led a life of lies similar to that of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks (Rachel Amber) would be…a difficult one to tell for sure.
Rachel and Chloe had been extremely close friends for some unspecified amount of time in the three years after the first game’s player character Max leaves and the time that they return to Arcadia Bay. This means the entirety of the friendship could span over a slow development or something that happened fast and unexpectedly. And that just addresses timing, but it doesn’t address who exactly Rachel Amber is. If the writers and developers were to paint Rachel as Laura Palmer, which Life is Strange 1 did with literal Twin Peaks references, then Rachel would be some sort of a manipulative individual who everyone loves but has a deep dark secret from those that love her. The secret being that deep inside she feels empty and runs to the far reaches of evil and danger itself to feel anything. But this story could also be something interesting in different ways that addresses Chloe’s character or helps shape her into the person she is to some degree. So long as Chloe logically winds up as the person we meet at the start of Life is Strange, the game could be a nice addition that informs us of what made the bond between Chloe and Rachel so strong (or at least the bond Chloe holds for Rachel as we are led to believe Rachel lied to and maybe disregarded Chloe at some point). The important point is that we have some pre-formed ideas of what “Chloe & Rachel” meant and who Rachel might’ve been, but we never met her. So there’s a story that can be told here. That story would really need to be more about Rachel and less about Chloe because Chloe is already a character we know pretty well.
No one likes to see a beloved story turn into a hot mess, and I was terrified that a prequel for Life is Strange would do just that as the themes chased, the tricks played, and the mechanical designs of Life is Strange were quite singular and focused on Max, the original character. Instead, Before the Storm…sorta works. The long and short of it is that having Chloe be the playable character with multiple choices and outcomes leading into a game where the outcome is one particular Chloe that we all know and hate/love would require that we, as players, have Chloe come to the same conclusions regardless of what happens across the storyline. And that’s the game’s weakest point. Being given choices that defy how we already understand Chloe’s development as a character is jarring to say the least. These design choices make the conversation around this game a bit of a mess because what it can explore is sometimes revealing. But what you’re allowed to explore is also sometimes boring.
After the first episode came out I wanted to talk about the things it did so very well. Chloe’s voice actress was clearly different but hit the note well in my opinion. And Chloe’s self-absorbed perspective that leads to shortsightedness and immature decisions felt natural and well done. Her immediate infatuation with seeing Rachel in a different way is at first met with hesitance, which runs parallel with Chloe’s own frustrations that the world can only see her as someone who has lost her dad in a horrible accident (ignoring the fact that Chloe can’t get past it either). I was immediately suspicious of Rachel being up to no good and it turned out she was, in a way. Rachel is a teenager tired of her perfect life and suspicious that her father is lying to her, confident of her pursuits and finds someone legitimate with Chloe. While the two spend a day bonding, the wrong dialog choices and the fact that all of the bonding in the first episode takes place across just one day leads to difficulty believing the emotional journey these characters have gone on (unless you make perfect choices and can enjoy teenage early infatuation as entertainment). The “girl on fire” suggestions are already in place and hinted at carefully across the episode and the next two episodes well enough. I appreciated that. The game never really explores this but it at least acknowledged the fact that there’s more to Rachel than we’re going to get to understand in this game and then makes the focus more about the person we’re trying to inhabit anyways: Chloe.
What did work on the first episode was Chloe’s emotional breakdown. She trashes and breaks things in the junkyard after being rejected by Rachel and we, the players, choose what to smash. We do this and then, in the process, stumble across her dad’s car. Chloe slowly approaches it, emotionally gut-punched before players are given just one action choice: Smash. Chloe repeatedly pounds on the front hood of the car, falling back in tears moments later. This moment resonated with me better than perhaps anything in the episode or the entire prequel as most players are familiar with Chloe’s character to the bone. The anger leaves Chloe (and by extension, the players) vulnerable for the unexpected realization that all of Chloe’s anger, inability to socialize, and deal with the changes she’s experiencing in her life (best friend has moved out of state with family, her mother is dating and moving on from the loss of her husband, failing in school and about to drop out) are all because she can’t let go of her dad’s tragic and unfortunate passing. And that’s not a flaw, that’s just an inescapable reality. And, in this moment, the game explores an element to Chloe’s personality briefly touched on in Life is Strange 1: Chloe is so unresolved about losing her dad the she even blames him for leaving and dying, and rejects those who aren’t loyal to her. This stems to the “Smash” prompt and explores the fine line between sorrow and anger and Chloe’s own perspective of her father and what she thought of him. It’s so rarely talked about, but it informs so much about her character. Chloe loved her dad but chooses to blame him for dying / leaving, and chooses to do the same to anyone else who rejects her. Those choices are what creates Chloe’s flaws that we saw in Life is Strange.
By the end of the first episode, I was convinced the game could go to some interesting places. I was also convinced it could all flop at any moment. The setup was strong and suggested some unique magical powers inhabited by Rachel but these wound up being just an effect used during a cutscene. By the end of episode one, I had a couple I only sort of cared about, a broken character I now sympathized with, a hint at a mystery, and the impending step-dad character (David aka “Step-Douche”) being painted in a light that just made him look like the monster we first see in at the start of Life is Strange instead of the troubled but well-meaning man attempting to come home from war. So I put off this whole massive discussion in the hopes that the second and third episodes together would warrant a bigger discussion. And they do. So, onwards…
Episode two runs on a theme of the danger of fire after Rachel unintentionally causes a forest fire at the end of episode one due to her own fit of rage over realizing her dad has been lying to her for some long amount of time. It appears Rachel’s dad has been cheating on his wife with a mysterious woman. The growth and wild fire looming over the horizon in each scene (sometimes to the same level of beauty and fear that Firewatch explores) places a thick layer of worry about fire and there’s warnings or concerns from Chloe’s dreams and those around her about getting too close to Rachel too quickly. Some think Rachel’s family is too rich for Chloe’s blood, others think Rachel is manipulative of Chloe’s emotional state, and Chloe gets kicked out of school for taking the brunt of the blame over skipping school in episode one with Rachel. Chloe’s mother (Joyce) and David announce David is moving in and is going to start helping Chloe shape her life up.
And more than anything, episode two’s strong point is what episode one tried to do originally: Solidifying things between Rachel and Chloe. Leaving school, Chloe and Rachel make quick and secret plans to meet up at their new secret lair at the junkyard. Chloe gets there early and starts fixing up a truck to toy with the idea of leaving Arcadia Bay as Rachel had suggested the night before. And then a little while later Rachel shows up with a care package of clothes for Chloe to change into. More importantly this shows that Rachel is also still somewhat serious about skipping town with Chloe. These two small gestures come off as earnest movements towards the idea of being together without needing to discuss it straightforward. It displays how one individual (Chloe) is looking to provide a means for the pair, and how the other (Rachel )is helping provide for the one currently in need. The need isn’t great, it’s just a change of clothes. But this is coming quickly after Chloe had been suspended/expelled and took a great deal of the blame and punishment for Rachel’s antics the day before. It shows Rachel feels sorry for what happened (in a weird way). And the truck tinkering isn’t massive, but the end result is Chloe and Rachel having an honest conversation about each other for a few minutes and their current states and where that means going next. Do you get it? The truck is a vehicle, and it’s metaphorical to their relationship: It doesn’t run yet, but they’re working on it by looking at their own issues first. During this sequence in the game, Chloe can briefly take a seat on a abandoned boat and just watch the looming fire in a wonderful shot. Chloe is considering how enamored she is with Rachel and the dangers that may lie ahead. It’s extremely fitting that shortly after this sequence Chloe gets involved in some shady drug business that eventually all ties back to, you guessed it, Rachel.
There’s a lot of other really good moments in episode two worth discussing: The concept of the “impending storm” from the school play of “The Tempest”, the confrontation with Chloe’s soon to be step-dad as her mother tells her that David is going to be “helping out” around the house, meaning that he’s now going to be allowed to tell her what to do much like Joyce, the actual play and remembering your lines, getting good small moments that help you remember how screwed up a life Nathan has living under the shadow of his truly cruel father. But I have to fast forward past all of them to get to the meat of where the small series gets really good (and also not great). At the end of episode two, Rachel confronts her parents and tells them she knows about her father meeting a strange woman in the park (a woman Chloe and the players know is involved in the drug business at Arcadia Bay somehow). We’re lead to believe she’s a potential shady lead for Rachel’s father in his career as district attorney . But instead, Rachel’s dad reveals to her that this woman is Rachel’s biological mother. Cut to episode three.
The opening sequence of the third episode reveals that Rachel’s mother (Sera) was very much the “girl on fire” from Twin Peaks and a person that felt empty in life regardless of the accomplishments and contentment that most people find in their own lives (love, success, marriage, children, etc.) This lead to a bad drug habit that endangered Rachel’s life as a baby and so Rachel’s father and mother separated and Sera remained a secret over the years. Chloe briefly helps Rachel cope with this shocking reality in a credits sequence and the gist of episode three becomes trying to track down Sera against James’s (Rachel’s father’s) will so the two can meet. The pacing of the episode is weird as there’s not so much “tracking” that’s done so much as “Chloe calls her drug dealer to try and find Sera” and in the process her drug dealer’s boss stabs Rachel and Rachel nearly dies. After a very well done sequence at the hospital that mirrors the “teenagers learn they don’t know crap about how dangerous the world can be” elements of Life is Strange, Chloe leaves to find Sera on her own. Later investigation reveals that James has been paying this drug kingpin (Damon Merrick, a throwaway villain with a crazy temper) to track down and kill Sera because she has actually recently kicked her habit for about a year or two and wishes to be a part of Rachel’s life again and James refuses to let that happen because…well, ultimately bad person/decision here. It’s a poorly shaped “I want to protect my child / give them the best” argument on James’s end but that’s not what we’re here to talk about because that’s not this episode’s strong points. Oh no, we’re here to talk about (1) Eliot, and then (2) Chloe’s big choice. And then we’ll talk about the game’s shortcomings and why it kinda flops as a good prequel in a follow-up article.
Eliot is a background nobody in Before the Storm. He’s a guy who, if you read the extra journal entries and character info, dated Chloe for a brief time years back and still seems interested in trying to be with her. For many players he may seem like some sort of an alternate romance option like Warren in the original game that you immediately forget about because he’s so very bland and uninteresting in every interaction. There seems to be no depth to his character, he doesn’t show interest in much (though he asks if Chloe wants to go to the Tempest play with him) and if you sneak into his room in episode two you can find out he still has a crush on Chloe and writes poetry about her. He also serves as one of the voices to make you question Rachel Amber’s motives across the game. But it’s in episode three where the use of his character took the cake.
First, some context is needed first about Warren if you didn’t play Life is Strange. Warren is a geeky, semi-awkward friend of LiS’s player-character “Max” and is genuinely helpful at times in the game. He shows an interest of going on dates with Max and, because Max is kind of a blank slate, she seems “indifferent” to going out with Warren. You can make choices that mean Max is interested, or not. He’s definitely a bit persistent about it for a while until he asks someone else out. Upon visiting a “nightmare realm” in the season finale, the antagonism that Max deep down inside feels from any individual and the harsh judgments she internally casts upon herself from them is revealed in Warren as a sort of “creepy stalker”. The character (like other characters in this realm) search for Max asking to “go ape” (a reference to seeing Planet of the Apes as the original date invitation) with him. But the suggestion that Max deep down inside is a little creeped out by Warren’s original persistence to go out with her is revealed inside Warren’s locker in the nightmare realm where a shrine is built of Max. So essentially some part of Max feels uncomfortable with Warren liking her. It should be noted that Warren doesn’t make undesired and rejected advances on Max. He eventually gives up on Max, asks somebody else out, and continues to be a helpful friend in times of need across the story if you reject him. There’s good conversation that can be had about Warren’s small interactions that might be unwanted and how Max and the players handle those situations (a hug as a greeting for example), but overall: Warren isn’t a bad guy as far as we can tell. And he doesn’t seem to demand what he is told he cannot have. Understanding how Max feels about Warren and how Warren acts are important elements when players are presented with Eliot the Hidden Danger.
In episode three of Before the Storm, Eliot and Chloe run into each other at the hospital. Eliot asks Chloe if she’s okay and if she really knows if she can trust Rachel considering how they’ve only been friends for a few days at this point. Eliot questions a sudden strong friendship that Chloe has developed with someone else. But Chloe shrugs it off and goes to sneak into James’s office to see if she can find out where Sera is. And then, after getting this information, Eliot shows up. And it’s here where an amazing sequence takes place. Eliot blocks Chloe’s exit from the room, and tells her that she’s going to listen to what he has to say. Eliot starts going on a big rant about how essentially, Rachel is dangerous, and that Eliot has to protect Chloe from her. The manifestation of Eliot’s attraction and desire for Chloe, unrewarded, becomes, more or less, a hulking brute very close to committing assault or worse. I legitimately felt a little terrified of where this scene could be going. Chloe gets away from this situation, and (in the cooler, more rewarding way) sneakily places a 9–1–1 phone call and uses phrases out loud in conversation with Eliot to alert the police of where she is, how she’s in danger, and that she needs them to come here and stop this person from harming her. For me this moment in the game was, given proper context, excellent. And I put it in words in a conversation online elsewhere a while back:
I very strongly feel like Eliot was written to clarify the blurred lines of Warren as a seemingly entitled geeky guy. Eliot instead is more plainly-written, making his sudden shift when alone with Chloe feel all the more terrifying. Warren is about someone’s persistence coming off as creepy and annoying, Eliot is about unexpected male dominance and the sudden threat it poses in someone who seemingly just hasn’t gotten past a girl not liking him.
This, intentional or not, was pure gold for exploring issues of toxic masculinity briefly in a game about a lot of other things. The sequence and all scenes involving Eliot maybe take up 15 minutes of the entire Before the Storm game (that runs easily 5–6 hours if you’re thorough). But those moments are well told and maybe make you think back on “why do people hate Warren so much?” and consider what some of the worst case scenarios of a rejected Warren could be. Warren may seem harmless and his actions in Life is Strange seem to show that he really is, but change a few perspectives and suddenly you have an Eliot that could be doing the unthinkable. Before the Storm doesn’t allow any of those unthinkable things to happen to Chloe in the sequence with Eliot. And I think that’s a good thing, tackling that subject matter requires more than 15 minutes. But if you’re going to do something similar to the “Warren” character in a Life is Strange prequel, I think Eliot was a great road to go down.
Then, there’s “The Big Choice”, which I really think (in one outcome) is something really great and a further exploration of Chloe’s character. In the climax of episode three, Chloe finds out James hired the drug kingpin “Damon Merrick” to kill Sera to try and protect Rachel. Again, argue for/against James’s motivations, I’m not for killing, but the choice Chloe has is a more interesting conversation anyways. Damon Merrick gets killed by Chloe’s own drug dealer (Frank), but in the process Damon injects drugs into Sera, possibly breaking her long-running recovery from addiction. It’s…unfortunate, and sad. And Sera tries to convince Chloe that Rachel and Sera should never meet. Sera becomes convinced herself that she really is someone who will ultimately ruin Rachel’s life by ripping her from all that she has (wealth, popularity, great career opportunities in a strong education, etc.) by selfishly demanding to be a part of her life and run the risk of getting Rachel involved in drugs or the more dangerous life Sera has lead over the many years Sera didn’t want to be in Rachel’s life. And more important to Sera, she thinks it’s a far greater risk to permanently ruin James in Rachel’s eyes as she only has two parent figures that have been there throughout Rachel’s life willing to sacrifice all for her.
And with that, Sera leaves, and Chloe is left to decide what to tell Rachel. Chloe’s not going to be able to drag Sera into meeting Rachel, which means that Chloe has to decide something a bit more complicated: Chloe (really, the players) has to decide whether to tell Rachel the truth about what James did or lie and say she didn’t find Sera. The two options may seem completely unrelated as Chloe could also say that she found Sera but that Sera refused to see Rachel. This is something that Chloe could choose to include as it would hurt Rachel but also give her the opportunity to move on and, more or less, continue an “old truth” that no longer is (as a lie). Instead, the game only provides two options: Truth (a shattering and AWFUL truth), or a lie at the will of Rachel’s mother to maintain Rachel’s chances for a future. The crux of this lies in the fact that Rachel, as a teenager, is someone who could very well abandon her promising future in facing the reality that her dad tried to have her mother killed. In the worst scenarios, Rachel could lose her father. Queue a well-deserved rebellion and royal family breakdown and you’ve got a much harder life if Rachel then chooses to abandon all that James has to offer in life with his wealth and success. But lie and maintain the illusion that Rachel’s mother is a dangerous person that doesn’t want to see Rachel, and Rachel gets to move on and understand why her father hid the truth from her for years.
The difficulty for Chloe, as expressed in the scene where she talks to Sera, is in the fact that Rachel doesn’t deserve to be lied to. Chloe, seemingly in adoration of Rachel, wouldn’t want to. And Sera doesn’t deserve to be (at least completely) removed from Rachel’s life just because of James’s recent actions (especially if she really can kick the habit). But it still didn’t add up for me as the choice of “not lying to Rachel” to be honest with her is also something that really could harm her. And anyone can see that pretty easily who has had to lose the respect they once held for someone important to them. It’s ultimately a harmful choice to Rachel either way, so why would Chloe even think about the riskier one?
To choose to break the illusion for Rachel and make her realize that her dad has done something so awful, to potentially ruin Rachel’s relationship with her family permanently has one other motivation that I think is a hidden character exploration in this game: Chloe is suffering. And Chloe is angry. And Chloe is alone in her anger and suffering. Early on in the game (and across the original Life is Strange) we’re given a good understanding of how Chloe is someone broken by tragedy and seemingly unable to mend herself in the process. This leads to a very self-serving attitude that we see in both games. Chloe does whatever she can to serve herself. Steal money from a fund earmarked for those in need? Don’t care, it’ll square her debt with Frank, whom she cheats all the time out of his money. T-shirts too expensive? Steal ’em. Best friend leaves town not long after dad dies? Screw her. And hate on Max when she takes a call from a friend in need because Max clearly doesn’t care about Chloe. In fact, Chloe has such passive contempt for Max that all of the journal entries in “Before the Storm” are passively written to Max in the realization that her once-best-friend is gone and probably never coming back, and Chloe has chosen to blame her for it. Chloe is lost and alone in her anger and uses it as the crutch and justification for blaming others for ruining her life. This isn’t a secret either, Chloe realizes this all in the end of the original game.
The reason Chloe would choose to maintain the lie is because Chloe might be realizing what it means to allow someone to be happy and move on from the tragedies of their life. It’s a lie and it’s dishonest and anyone with a romanticized view of relationships and love is going to believe that there is never any lying. It’s an option Chloe wouldn’t like. But she might have to choose it to help Rachel. Sera even hints at this in her conversation with Chloe, telling her that parents would do anything to protect their children (those you love). And the reason Chloe would choose the alternative and shatter Rachel’s life would be to drag Rachel down into the pit of suffering Chloe experiences every day when she wakes up and realizes that her dad is dead and that she can’t accept it. In very simplistic words, James would probably be dead to Rachel if she found out her dad tried to have her mom killed off. Rachel deserves the truth (to Chloe), Rachel deserves happiness (to Chloe), Chloe wants Rachel (and for Rachel to be happy), but Chloe is also…angry.
There’s an old saying that people who hate themselves or hate their lives and are angry about it just want to drag you down into a pit with you to be unhappy too. I think the phrase is something more “defensive” in nature, it’s something to meditate on and realize that we, as people, should be aware of the sometimes infectious nature of anger and pessimism and how we should do well to not get “dragged down” in it. But for those like Chloe, lost in anger and sorrow, all they really want is someone to be there with them. Because then they won’t be so…alone. I ultimately chose to tell Rachel the truth and the outcome of the game is mostly the same aside from the scene that we see during the reveal. Rachel and Chloe stay friends either way and become the inseparable friends that we hear about so much in Life is Strange. There’s also a secret third ending where you can set up a meeting between Rachel and Sera and the two are reunited. But I made my decision because it made more sense for Chloe to do something that could be so heavily motivated by a desire to have someone else in her life that understands her own pain to some extent. At the start of this I wrote that Chloe is a character we understood pretty well already. But I realized in playing Before the Storm that I didn’t feel for Chloe until playing this game. In Life is Strange I felt for the tragic and horrific nature of death, fate, and how cruel and disconnected people are (because the ending where you choose Bay over Bae rocks that message into you with…literal rock music that’s chilling and a perfect fit). I was less looking for an outcome and more looking for a good reflection of the Chloe we all knew in that original stunning game from 2015. And upon facing my decision, I had a greater understanding of why Chloe could choose something so initially cruel. It would say to Rachel, “The world has hurt and abandoned you. And I’m the only friend you have.”
I said at the start of this exploration that for the prequel to be something really strong we’d need a better understanding and exploration of “Who was Rachel Amber?” since we knew Chloe so well. Interestingly enough, Deck Nine’s answer was “Eh, she doesn’t need to be that important”. And they were right. Before the Storm does some really great things, and at its strongest DEFINES Chloe as a character better than Life is Strange the original may have done. Chloe develops in the original better, but I think she’s defined extremely well here by her tragedy. What the game didn’t do so well as a prequel we’ll talk about next time.
Thanks for reading this, make sure to follow me if you want more pieces like it. And I highly recommend checking out Matt McMuscles and Rising Super-Star Liam playing Before the Storm, it’s a treat of a Let’s Play for sure.