Life is Strange: Before the Storm Didn’t Need to Be Told (part 2 of 2)
I think if you were to define a concept or term like “prequelitis” it’d be something along the lines of “a story gets told involving the events that take place before the original and little of consequence or depth is explored”. Prequels can function just like sequels in all honesty, a concept can be taken to a different place and explored while filling in the spaces outside of the original story. The difference is mostly placement on a technical level and the big questions that hang in the air: “Do we need this? Do we want it?” And as everyone’s favorite “prequelitis” example, the Star Wars prequels suffer terribly from trying to tell a story that didn’t need to be told, and little of consequence or depth is explored in the process. In fact I’m fairly certain nothing of consequence or depth is ever explored in those movies. I think it all stems (for some prequels) from having to attach pieces of the original to the prequel if your story is more directly related. With Life is Strange: Before the Storm we see a lot of these problems take shape. Unexpectedly, I found them taking shape from places in the game where I really didn’t think it’d be a problem at all.
For starters, in my previous piece I mentioned how the relationship between Chloe and Rachel does feel forced or too easy to believe in ways. There could be separation from teen romance or infatuation on my part, but I still hold the thought that these two barely hit the marks on what makes people feel like when they’ve first fallen for someone. I think this and many other things in the game don’t get explored quite as well as they could be because, just reaching here, the game was ultimately put in the hands of a different studio (Deck Nine) and maybe that studio didn’t have a lot of information to run on other than the material in the first game and its assets. It’s possible (but not suggested at all) that Deck Nine didn’t receive documents or information from DontNod who made the original game. Thus Deck Nine had to build a smaller game probably with less money about a handful of characters and explore them. I want to make it clear I think Deck Nine did a really good job at making a prequel off of one of the more engaging narrative “Telltale likes” in recent years. They improved on the engine drastically, they fleshed out one of the game’s biggest characters practically better than the original, and maintained a good chunk of the formula while exploring some new ideas. We talked about that in part 1. The game just suffers from prequelitis (and maybe railroading from wild success). The heightened actions and plot that happens in episode three of Before the Storm has to unfortunately rob a great deal of the romance writing that could be added for Chloe and Rachel, let alone the prequel’s various other characters to introduce and involve. And if Deck Nine used just the original game as reference material to write and create this game…Look, I’m getting off track.
Essentially I had trouble trying to figure out how I’d discuss this game’s various shortcomings that bothered me as a story that didn’t need to be told and then I got my answer when I played the bonus “Farewell” episode in which we take the role of Max again and go about a contrived story in which Max and Chloe revisit old memories from a time capsule, celebrate their friendship every five seconds, and Max has to figure out how to tell Chloe she’s leaving for Seattle. The writing in this felt bad and I wound up talking to my friend Michael about it because I couldn’t tell if it was actually bad, or if it was simply for a demographic that wasn’t me and thus I just didn’t need to be interested in it. Instead, Michael’s suggestion that it might be “fan service” assisted me. I realized that a studio expected to do a little too much with not enough money or time was exactly the lens I wanted to use for this discussion. It’s why Deck Nine may have had to lean on fan service to get this game done. Other critics have done decent jobs at briefly discussing how this game fails to utilize game mechanics to reinforce character actions or leaned on cultural storytelling gimmicks that are overused and tow the line between appropriating a cruel message or maybe opening up about the poor treatment of a people. But I’m not the person who is able to speak into those things, at least, not with this game in mind. So I’ll talk about what I can explain with a decent level of confidence: My opinion.
With Before the Storm it’s almost always the additional sections or characters not core to the plot where problems arise. The relationship between Chloe and her mother Joyce actually feels very relate-able and believable as the two argue, bicker, but also feel bad about having to argue and apologize via text at times. It’s a strained relationship, but one that hasn’t passed a point of no return. All of that falls into open resentment and anger in the original game. But when Chloe has to be driven to school in episode one by her mother’s boyfriend David, the problems begin to surface. This character in the first game is Chloe’s step-dad, an ex-military Veteran who suffers from issues adjusting to society after his tour(s) of duty. To make it clear, the ultimate “nail in the coffin” on David is that we learn David is truly well meaning but lost and doesn’t know how to be a father and husband in Life is Strange. In certain outcomes he smacks Chloe on one occasion for talking back against him, he sets up surveillance cameras around the house without telling his wife or Chloe, and when provoked he does show a bit of a sexist and defensively cruel attitude towards the two. However, all of that gets unraveled in the last two episodes of Life is Strange when David (first) speaks his desire to give Chloe a future and look out for Joyce, and then later his collection of evidence is used to save Max from the secret villain of the game and ultimately turned out to be…just a good guy on a misguided method. He even rescues Max. His actions aren’t excused, but it’s clear he is willing to change and do what’s necessary to become a better step-parent. He also turns out to be right in ways that players and characters are lead to believe he’s not. I’m told this is also a bit of a smart “coming of age” trope in which the dumb kids turn out to be wrong in their high and mighty pursuit of proving that the adults in their life don’t know anything.
So Deck Nine, if they were interested in exploring that character more, would perhaps continue to use this established information to show how helpful, though sometimes verbally cruel, David appears to be. Instead, in the first moments Chloe and David share in episode one, David treats Chloe like she’s already his step-daughter, or like a soldier beneath him. He snaps his fingers, points her to step next to him, throws unwarranted comments out to her, tells her what to do. It feels like Deck Nine just wanted to re-hash the same first impressions we had of David in the original game by making him feel like an even bigger “step-douche” than we already experienced. The execution of this is where it all falls apart, not the idea. Doing this accomplishes nothing and in ways ruins the three brief experiences we have with David across this game. I was practically responding out loud to David as he tried to tell Chloe how to live her life, “You’re not even her step-dad yet! You’re not even engaged to Joyce yet! You haven’t moved in yet! She’s not your child, you have no place to say this!” And it just made me hate David more. This accomplishes nothing and even causes dissonance with the David I knew as the more complex character that he wound up being in Life is Strange. Imagine if we saw David get Chloe out of some trouble with the principal at school by being respectful or simply “going along with it” at first in regards to Chloe’s disregard for her future or her mother’s feelings.
In execution, Deck Nine just repeat the same cycle of “David appears to be a jerk. Then David appears to be morally uncertain. Then David turns out to be a mean guy with good intentions.” In episode two, Joyce makes it clear after Chloe is suspended or expelled (pending on your actions) that David is going to be moving in and helping in trying to get Chloe’s life in order. So David asks for Chloe to empty her pockets and makes it clear she’s not to be smoking weed anymore. David tries to explain that this stuff has repercussions and is ultimately tearing apart Joyce. Chloe leaves the two in rebellion and we don’t see them again that episode. We do see them one last time in episode three, where David apologizes for past behaviors and gives Chloe a picture of David and one of his friends in the service that died in his place. David shares his difficulty returning home and the constant anger he once held and its dangers before suggesting that Chloe hang onto the picture for a while and ultimately shows he’s offering an olive branch. This result by the end of Before the Storm is that 1. David is pretty much the same dude we knew plus one neat story about his past. 2. Chloe (and by extension, the player) is given more ammunition than before to hate David and 3. We are given more ammunition than before to spite Chloe’s inability to get along with David after his olive branch action. The general summation of both Before the Storm and the original Life is Strange is that Chloe is a wounded, self-centered person who we feel for. David doesn’t need to be portrayed as an asshole for us all over again. In fact it’d be even more interesting if we saw David as someone uncomfortable around Chloe or something that maybe progresses as his relationship with Joyce progresses. Maybe at first David is afraid of being all militaristic to a rebellious teenager that isn’t his own daughter but then he’s shown a fair amount of constant disrespect or Chloe genuinely hurts his feelings. We’re shown in episode three of Before the Storm that he really has tried to get along with Chloe and help her shape up her life. But somewhere from the end of Before the Storm across the two years into Life is Strange, Chloe just decides to rebel again and again because “prequelitis”. Nothing of depth or interest is explored in David as a character, nor his relationship to Chloe as a future step-parent. I would almost consider it more interesting if we got stuck in several longer scenarios with David either in the week or so after he and Joyce get married, or Chloe’s first time meeting him and maybe the fallout from it. I realize this game isn’t about the relationship between Chloe and David and that the generalized feeling between a teenager and a “parental figure” is often very distant during adolescence. But it’s also a very emotional thing, core to growing up, even if teenagers are generally trying to get through it without ever speaking to their parents ever again till they’re dead.
But wait, there’s more! And this one is a favorite of mine: Chloe and Arcadia Bay. When Life is Strange first came out, I had a fan theory that the storm was Chloe’s wish fulfillment. Right before Max has her vision the second time near the end of episode one, Chloe actually wishes that a bomb would drop on Arcadia Bay. The hint that the town would be destroyed in a storm afterwards felt like maybe Max was given powers to fulfill Chloe’s desires. Throughout the original game, Arcadia Bay as a deteriorating, corrupted place forgotten to time and losing its place in the big world is a recurring theme. How places like this affect youth with bigger and bigger wage gaps (the Chloe Price characters who go to the fancy school on a scholarship vs. all the families that paid their way in like the Prescotts) and staggering job markets (fisherman literally seeing their economy die and disappear) are all direct lines into another reason for Chloe to hate her home town. Her dad died there. She will never achieve her future there. Her best friend left her there. And the honest, hard working individuals or “real people” referenced across Life is Strange like Max will always be marginalized by the wealthy and “in” people like the Prescotts or Victoria Chase or members of the Vortex Club (sure it’s a social club, but who’s in it?). Eventually Arcadia Bay will have consumed and vanished the one person left Chloe is able to consider a friend: Rachel, who also dreamed of leaving the town like Chloe. The standard coming of age “blow this dead end town” concept is far from new, but rooted into Chloe as a character and a part of the entire Life is Strange experience everywhere you walk. It’s also a flawed perspective as Life is Strange explores how many of the characters you perceive to be terrible individuals (including the literal red herring character that has a deeper part than you don’t expect and an ending just as tragic [if not moreso] than Rachel’s) are actually just…humans. Hurt, confused, and scared.
In Before the Storm, all of this is missing save for three honest conversations with Rachel about potentially leaving the city and the not-so-hefty side story with Drew, his Dad, and the drug trade in Arcadia Bay. Again, spared for time, under-funded, Deck Nine had to cut corners and let the original game do the talking on this matter with already established issues like Chloe’s faltering grades. So instead, Chloe and Rachel focus their adoration on the idea of running away to escape dead parents (literally or figuratively). This comes up maybe three times in the game: Once where we find Rachel at the tree and Rachel reveals her father’s secret, a second time after Chloe gets suspended (or expelled) and the two meet up in the junkyard, and a third time right after the play. All of this discussion disappears in the wake of Rachel’s secret-parent storyline and again episode three devours the opportunity to explore unique things. Given more time and development, Rachel’s mother as someone exposed to drugs at a younger age and the negative turns and pulls it had on her life could have led to some really good material for Rachel to feel similar bitterness towards Arcadia Bay like Chloe.
This once again would give Chloe another reason to frame Rachel’s worldview more like Chloe’s: To not be alone and want to leave this terrible town. Better still would be the idea that Rachel’s father lied to her for years, saying that her mother died in a car crash or something (what a way to meet a future best friend!), only to find Rachel’s mother someone maybe running the drug business and her father has to try to keep her from Rachel to avoid crime, drugs, and the world that comes with it (this sentence literally invoked a huge tagent that comes up later). There’s so many more interesting things that could’ve happened to support Chloe’s hatred of this town by having things and people higher up within it harm Rachel, and as a result bring Rachel to hating the city back, and trusting only Chloe. Deck Nine did the best they could with the time and money given to them, but I’d love to see what they could’ve done with five episodes instead of just three.
Lastly, there’s Chloe and Rachel. I’ve mentioned it a few times before but the relationship between these two is the focal point of the entire prequel story (or it seemed like it was supposed to be). And, once again (time, money, etc.) the best ideas weren’t given room to ferment and we got a relationship that’s hard to really believe. So, starting over from the beginning, I think Chloe and Rachel are built as characters relatively fine.
Yes, the video I referenced above hates the fact that Chloe gives the finger to a sign post but in all honesty I feel this is run of the mill. Chloe in this game feels like a less-mature Chloe that’s rebellious in the cheesiest of ways because she wants to live on the edge but actually hasn’t done so yet because she at least has a home with a loving mother there. She hasn’t dropped out of school yet, though her grades are faltering. She skips classes some days, but goes other days. She has a drug dealer and wants to get drunk and party to death, but rarely has that opportunity and mainly smokes weed and takes no other drugs as far as we can tell. Chloe, in Before the Storm, is on the edge of being an “on the edge” young adult. And I think the story could’ve interestingly explored Rachel dragging her to these more dangerous and dark places, which might’ve been more fitting considering Rachel was portrayed as Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks (everyone’s favorite high schooler who had many deep dark secrets). But the long and short of it is that Chloe being a wannabe is fine. She’s 16, everyone wants to be cool and tries to act like it in the situations that don’t make you cool at all. But in reality, you’re just trying to hide through all of teenhood. And I’d argue that the entire opening sequence of the game at the Firewalk concert is pretty good actually. Chloe explores that edge she’s interested in by tough talking her way past a bouncer, getting into mischief by stealing a t-shirt (optional), and cash (optional), buying weed (optional), drinking some (optional), getting on the wrong side of someone dangerous people and getting into a fight as a result before rocking out in rebellion with a new friend. Boom, Chloe’s a nerd like everyone, we identify easily.
Where it went wrong is…in the plot (which I’ve discussed already) and more importantly: How the game chooses to develop things. I’ve mentioned several times over that the third episode takes away from a lot of the opportunities for things to develop more and reach a conclusion. And I do think the places Deck Nine took Chloe (as mentioned in the previous piece) are fascinating. But when we hit that post-ending sequence watching Chloe and Rachel becoming inseparable friends, dying Chloe’s hair, getting pictures together, and building a plan to run away from Arcadia Bay, that’s what we should experience in this prequel. And, smoosh it all into three episodes as hard as you want, you can’t get that amount of depth in a certain number of hours, especially if those hours are spent not doing those things. Every episode of Life is Strange was packed to the brim with observations and almost always included Max interacting with somebody, constantly texting people, and (here’s where this idea I have gets better) there’s already established friendship between Max & Chloe in Life is Strange. The episodes were, at most, four hours a piece if you milked them for all they have. And even then, Max & Chloe are together in most of the game. Chloe and Rachel need time to develop as friends in front of the players because their friendship is developing. A friendship that develops as rapidly as Chloe and Rachel’s did in just three days and nights with the limited number of interactions they experience is just harder to sell. Chloe’s alone for a lot more of this game than you’d think, or moving between scenes with different characters. In fact, Rachel spends most of episode three in the hospital.
So I want to go one step further, and paint the type of set up that would maybe make this a story worth telling, something that would have maybe happened if the developers of this game had the time and the space to fill Before the Storm with plenty of things of consequence and depth to explore. We can call the rest of this “fan fiction”, but I’d like to think Deck Nine would do something this cool or even cooler if they had five episodes or a ton more time and money to develop the story.
For starters, Before the Storm would still be three episodes, but the entire series would focus on the development of our heroes. Episode one would establish Max’s absence, Joyce’s new boyfriend, Chloe’s start at declining grades, school absence, and recreational drug use, all matching with meeting Rachel and realizing they have a connection: Dead parents from car accidents. Bit of a weird stretch but once Chloe learns Rachel’s actually not a big fan of the Arcadia Bay elite (even though her dad is the district attorney and she’s actually an “in” girl herself), Chloe warms up to her and starts hanging out. And Rachel’s fascinated with someone different and not so “fake”. One or two big bonding scenes can happen between the two across the episode, leading to them claiming the junkyard as their own at the end of the day.
Fast forward to episode two, and we’re dead in the middle of winter. Aside from the scenery change with the snow, Chloe and Rachel are now mostly inseparable. Rachel doesn’t ditch school nearly as Chloe, but the two get into plenty of trouble together and thus both of their parents think they’re bad for each other. Also in episode two we take that recreation drug use and spin it into the story that already kind of exists in Before the Storm: Frank is on edge because his boss is on edge. Chloe gets wrapped up in a job related to this and overhears how Frank’s boss (a lady in white) is demanding to speak to Rachel Amber or find ample opportunity to speak to her. Chloe keeps it secret and quiet (but tells Rachel), and we see that Frank is also doing the same because as much as he hates rich kids begging for weed, he genuinely cares about Chloe’s well being and plays dumb. We get to keep that storyline involving Drew, the Blackwell University drug ring, and Frank’s boss showing up on campus to beat up Drew and demand the money he’s owed. But instead, the person that does this is the “lady in white” (Rachel’s surprise mother). Word gets out about Drew’s severe injuries because it happens on campus, Rachel is concerned for Chloe’s safety maybe doing these jobs, creating tension and showing how feelings are developing between Rachel and Chloe in these uncertain times where the two are planning to run away but have no idea how they’re going to do it. Then, when an investigation is triggered over Drew’s very major injuries, Rachel’s Dad gets involved and someone has pictures of Rachel’s mother and Chloe’s involvement in the drug business also comes to some light (but Rachel’s dad maybe promises to keep her safe). Something happens, maybe people are just open and honest or maybe Rachel confronts her dad asking why a drug kingpin wants to talk to her after Chloe spills the beans to Rachel, but the end result is that episode two ends on the same sort of cliffhanger in realizing that the lady in white is Rachel’s mother.
Spring forward a few months of investigating and Rachel’s dad playing “cat and mouse” with Rachel’s mother trying to hide her business, and both Chloe and Rachel have had time to digest all of this. Rachel’s mother genuinely is the dangerous person her dad believes her to be in the storyline and (eventually) tries to corrupt Rachel to her way of life. This creates a scenario for Rachel that ultimately means she’s facing “dead parents” either way. Her dad lied to her about her mother and ran away from a criminal life and has to try to arrest her. But Rachel’s mother is literally someone willing to blow out some kneecaps to settle a debt. This does take away the weight of the decision at the end of the actual Before the Storm game, but sets up some more interesting discussion I think. Rachel will ultimately confide in Chloe, and, by extension, the player. And Chloe’s voice across episode three will ultimately serve as an influence on Rachel and her decision. This allows players to still explore Chloe’s psyche and that concept of “everyone needs to suffer with me” but won’t be bearing it down to one decision or the other at the end of the game. The investigation leads Rachel’s dad and the police of Arcadia Bay into apprehending Rachel’s mother and eventually trying and judging her, which gives Rachel opportunities to see, meet, and converse with her own mother across longer stretches of time (against her father’s wishes obviously) without actually needing to put Rachel in several dangerous situations. But, Rachel will be prone to the various influences of these sequences through inputs from her father, her mother, and the player/Chloe’s reactions.
No matter what happens though, Rachel’s mother is found guilty. In the spirit of people saying “these games that tout choices are full of actions that don’t matter”, Rachel reaches one unique conclusion, and one non-unique conclusion: She hates one (or both) of her parents for their actions and decisions that have ultimately influenced her life in ways she deems wrong, but, no matter what finds a greater appreciation for Chloe standing by her side through it all. That’s the type of emotionally rocking, difficult, and harrowing experiences in which you find a “best friend” (or a lover). I’ve always found comfort in the idea that your best friends in life are the people who showed up one day and simply made decisions every time there were problems to not leave and instead help you through the rough times. That’s the type of stuff that makes teenagers think “Huh, maybe I should leave town. Maybe my parents aren’t who I want to be around anymore.” Chloe’s own experience would be fulfilled in episode three as well. Joyce and David would get engaged in the midst of terrible arguments with Chloe that she shouldn’t be remotely near this case or situation with Rachel for fear of Chloe getting pulled into the investigation. They would also maybe attempt to give Chloe the perspective that she can’t possibly understand what it’s like to find out your parent hasn’t been dead this whole time or that sometimes your parents aren’t all you remember them to be. There’s a scene that explores this discussion in episode three of Before the Storm, it’s central to Chloe’s big decision at the end of the game and I think it’s still something interesting to explore and ponder on. It was done well for the story at hand, but would need some translating into this version of the story. Deck Nine made sure to hit some really good points, I just think all of these words above are a much more interesting way of exploring the dynamics and foundational pieces to the friendship that was “Chloe and Rachel”. And isn’t that what Before the Storm was supposed to be about?
Before the Storm didn’t need to exist. It’s a prequel, it’s based on a story that wasn’t intended for a sequel of any kind. The creators of the original game explained that a sequel to Life is Strange would definitely need to explore similar themes and concepts with completely different characters and settings. Essentially, with the bonus “Farewell” episode, Max & Chloe’s adventures are done for us. But I bet any developers and writers that were excited to work at Deck Nine on Before the Storm probably called it a “really great opportunity”. And that opportunity is great for a few reasons. They’re working on a prequel to a game that got a lot of press and attention and fans very quickly, which means this prequel would already have an audience ready to accept and love this game, and try to help make it a success too. But, just a guess, I bet some of the developers there at Deck Nine are also like me, and would consider it an opportunity to explore something as a fan of the original game. Not a lot of people get to do something like that. That’s exciting. And I’m ultimately glad I got to play Before the Storm, it’s a really solid prequel that suffers “prequelitis”. Lots of stories will always suffer from it. Don’t let that factor stop you from buying it though. Take a look, watch a Let’s Play episode or two, consider it. It just might be worth your time. I definitely think it was worth mine to have bought, played, and ranted about for a few months in my head.
I’m a bit of a lazy critic, and never really know if I’m going to be writing about something or not until it’s far too late for me to rewind time like Max. So instead of replaying the game or loading up unique scenes again and again for screenshots, I did screen caps of a Let’s Play Matt McMuscles and Rising Superstar Liam did of this game. It’s a genuinely good Let’s Play and I think you should check out their channels or watch some of the Let’s Play if you’re interested in buying the prequel.
Thanks for reading.