Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is a story I didn’t know I needed until I learned of its existence. It’s a dream come true for those of us who are in love with the original. It must, of necessity, come in the form of a prequel: the bifurcated ending of Life is Strange, Season 1, is predicated on player choice, and as much as any of us would like to see a canonized continuation of the adventures of Max and Chloe, it has been made clear that the existing body of thousands of works of fan fiction constitute the officially sanctioned epilogue to an emotional journey. This burgeoning fandom reflects the extent to which the people at DONTNOD have captured the hearts of many, many people with the compelling tale they’ve woven – one with room for embellishment in the right places.

The unveiling of the mystery behind the question mark that was Rachel Amber in Life is Strange serves as a vehicle for a look into Chloe’s life in Arcadia Bay during the five years that Max is away in Seattle. In her absence, sixteen-year old Chloe is beginning to blossom into a woman, and the references to sexuality that were somewhat more diffuse in the original are made increasingly direct and explicit in Chloe’s journal: entry one features a drawing of dreamy-eyed Max with hands in her pockets, the dialogue bubble above her head inviting Chloe to “Put your thoughts in me.” Chloe talks of her desire for Max’s return, saying that she’d take her back in a heartbeat and talking about what they’d do “after we kiss and make up.” And then, in her third entry, she tells Max that she first thought about Deckard, then Pris from Blade Runner while “rubbing one.”

So it’s quite convenient that attractive, young, blonde-haired, jasmine-scented Rachel shows up and takes an interest in Chloe at a time when Max was not there for her. More than anything, Rachel offers an escape from the drudgery of Blackwell Academy, a personal life that has begun to dissolve into nothingness, and a home life with a mother who has moved on too soon by shacking up with a man whose personality embodies the antithesis of her life-loving, warm-hearted father, William. William’s cold, lifeless body now rests in the earth, and somewhere down there, Chloe’s soul has begun to settle in as well. Her daily habit of smoking weed offers only a temporary reprieve from the bullshit of being trapped in a seemingly loveless existence.

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The static-infused, ethereal anthems of indie folk band Daughter give voice to the themes of abandonment that Chloe has been forced to shoulder; in All I Wanted, a heavy double-bass line drives the chorus: “All that I wanted / Was that I’m wanted.” Her mother Joyce’s decision to date a hard-nosed military veteran who is more inclined to treat Chloe like a soldier than a step-daughter echoes throughout the sad, mournful organ chords and gentle piano strokes of I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Prior to being driven to school by her future führer-in-law, she has the option of checking the mailbox for a postcard from Max that never comes. “No love for Chloe.” Her sigh bears the weight of the emotional wasteland that is Arcadia Bay. (“Whoever said ‘You can’t go home’ was probably from Arcadia Bay. And he didn’t want to go home.”) There is a hole in Chloe’s heart that mirrors the Hole in the Earth in which her father rests; the refrain could just as well be a pained love song that Chloe sings to Max – or now, Rachel: “You have very childish qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2) / I have very destructive qualities / Friend make sense of me (x2).”

Chloe has been left vulnerable and we sense that Rachel sees an opening for fleshing out her own desires. She makes a habit of “running into” Chloe at the most opportune times: once at the Firewalk concert during the game’s opening sequence, and once again at Blackwell Academy right as Chloe is about to enter the main building to attend her chemistry class. In both cases, Rachel is able to utilize these encounters to lay the groundwork for a bond between the two of them, a bond whose ambiguous purpose and nature serve as a source of speculation for the story’s readership. We know from Season 1 that Rachel used money and sex to score party favors, but what exactly does she want from a lone wolf pothead who sometimes forgets to shower?

We could be forgiven for sighing in exasperation at the cliché pairing of Chloe the Social Outcast and Rachel the Golden Girl. They are teenagers who are suffering through their own personal forms of grief, and yet, they are also human beings with hearts – hearts that seem to be seeking each other out. Indeed, Life is Strange encapsulates a story that is best experienced while wearing your heart on your sleeve – logic and continuity are rendered secondary considerations. This may be problematic for those unable to ignore the existence of the fourth wall in the face of glaringly obvious solutions to otherwise agonizing dilemmas, for example: why didn’t Max just warn every adult she could about the coming tornado and have the town evacuated beforehand, rewinding her way through Arcadia Bay until she found someone who would listen? Answer: Max has social anxiety, Max doesn’t think like that, Max is too focused on helping Chloe. If you’re unable to come up with a plausible explanation for questions of this nature, you may find it difficult or even impossible to suspend disbelief.

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When I wrote my first response to a game I had purchased for $1 as part of a Humble Bundle on Steam, I had been bitten by the love bug ever so gently but wasn’t really aware of it due to mostly having brushed off the milieu and its seemingly inane fluff as yet another variant of Saved by the Bell. A full blown romance did not bloom until ten months later, when winter had vanished and was riding back in on the coat-tails of chill autumn winds. The Life is Strange series, as it has now become, slowly kindled and ignited my interest in choice-based interactive stories, regardless of whether those choices fundamentally alter the narrative arc or simply add flavor to a predetermined outcome. It’s that first experience of having played through the story using one’s own instinctive decisions that sets the soul humming and crystallizes the totality of the play-through into a fond memory infused with the myriad possibilities electrified by mutually exclusive yet peacefully coexisting decision branches.

As Chloe, I played through a session of Dungeons and Dragons with tabletop nerds Steph Gingrich and Mikey North, also fellow Blackwell students. The hip-shot decisions I made during those ten minutes resulted in an epic, climactic battle complete with body animations (Chloe sat on top of the table), masterfully rendered facial expressions, and fully voice acted dialogue that drove home the power of telling a story through a video game. “RIGHT. IN. THE. DICK.” is a line that is best delivered diegetically, in person. Static text on a page has its place; to fully appreciate Chloe and the world which has been thrust upon her, we need to hear her speak.

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On the whole, the voice acting in Before the Storm remains faithful to the spirit of its predecessor. The ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike precludes the use of the original cast on Deck Nine’s project; there was, understandably, considerable trepidation about the actress who would be selected to fill the shoes of Ashly Burch as Chloe, a multi-talented veteran whose work on Adventure Time with Finn & Jake recently won her an Emmy award. And while Rhianna DeVries does not possess the nasal, sarcastic delivery that Ashly brings to our blue-haired girlfriend, she does perform her role admirably alongside co-star Kylie Brown as Rachel Amber. They are not perfect – nobody is – but I have come to embrace them as the canonical voices of their characters and have even joined their cheerleading squad, wishing them the best as they breathe life into the lines crafted by Zak Gariss’s writing team, a team which includes Ashly Burch in her capacity as a writer.

With that said, there are some misses here and there: David’s gruff, gravelly bellowing has been replaced by a much smoother voice that doesn’t quite convey the authoritarian discipline which serves as his modus operandi in his interactions with the Price family. Chloe’s father, William, comes off as robotic in his dream sequence delivery – even if this is intentional, it is somewhat off-putting. Rachel’s reaction to Chloe’s baritone confession in the junkyard is met with the sort of “Ah…” one might expect to hear after having spilled a glass of milk on the floor. This comes on the heels of her seemingly simple response to Chloe’s unspecified invitation to check something out (the junkyard): “What?” The micro-spittle release at the end of the word masterfully conveys Rachel’s well-lubricated articulation after having chugged her way through the better part of a bottle of red. Victoria Chase is particularly on point; Nathan Prescott is not far behind. Bootsie Park as Chloe’s mother, Joyce, conveys a much more subtle Southern accent than Cissy Jones’s commanding presence does without fundamentally altering Joyce’s personality. It’s the sum of this vocal give and take throughout Episode 1 that renders, in my mind, a balanced performance.

As such, it’s essentially a story told in a different voice by a familiar narrator. And it’s fitting that this story is told differently because brash, pot-smoking, concert-going Chloe Price is quite different from shy, socially awkward wallflower Max Caulfield. The male crooners of Max’s indie rock/folk library (Foals, Local Natives, Syd Matters) are complemented by a harder driving brand of ethereally voiced female indie folk (Daughter) that reflects Chloe’s straightforward, I-open-doors-with-my-head personality. The Right Way Around, Before the Storm’s title screen music, sets the tone for the journey with its heavy bass line, deep electric guitar chords, and uncomplicated drum-and-bass beats. The gently muted piano tones that accompanied our read-through of Max’s journal are replaced with distorted, white noise-filtered guitar renditions that serve as the background hum of Chloe’s fatherless, friendless existence in Arcadia Bay.

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Friendless until Rachel shows up – Rachel, who quite conveniently bumps into Chloe more than once, almost as if she’s placed a GPS on her. There is room for Rachel in my heart despite her flaws and manipulations, just as there is room for potty-mouthed, back-talking Chloe. As in Life is Strange, there are plenty of opportunities to take a break from exploring the painterly minutiae of scenes and spaces to plop oneself down wherever one pleases (whether Principal Wells approves or not) and take time to reflect. One of the most memorable scenes for me is when Chloe shares her earphones with Rachel (you did share, didn’t you?) and together, they listen to Through the Cellar Door by Lanterns on the Lake while taking in the passing evergreenery of the Oregonian countryside from their perch on the edge of an open-doored boxcar in transit.

It’s a relationship whose still-sparse canvas lends itself well to brushstrokes from other sources; in my mind, I painted around the edges with references from Gone Home, a mansion exploration game in which Katie Greenbriar comes home from abroad one evening to her family’s empty, sprawling estate, wherein she spends several hours learning about her sister Sam’s blossoming relationship with fellow high school senior Yolanda “Lonnie” DeSoto through journal entries, pictures, letters, and answering machine messages. The most immediate similarity for me was the cassette tape in the bottom left corner of the screen that indicates one’s progress in Before the Storm is being saved – the style mirrors that of the cassette tape displayed on the loading screen of Gone Home. The open-ended buzzing of the background chords that introduce Daughter’s Glass remind me of the distant, midnight humming that accompanies Gone Home’s title screen. These are, perhaps, subtle coincidences or even inventions on my part, but it gives me warm fuzzies to pretend that they aren’t.

That we know Rachel’s eventual fate does little to detract from the magic that is present in Episode 1: Awake. I like to think that Max is still here in spirit – as Chloe certainly does, addressing her journal entries to Max and frequently musing on what Max would do if she were there. She seems to accompany us in the music that plays such a vital role in telling this tale: her freckles are the notes of the piano scale melodies on upbeat tracks like Hope, and again, in Voices, where they twinkle like stars in the night sky as Chloe looks around Blackwell’s drama lab dressing room. Glowing guitar chords, the steam locomotive swishing of a snare, and cooing that sounds like a railyard whistle serve as a musical prelude to the train ride Rachel and Chloe will soon be taking.

It’s a ride I would recommend to anyone who will listen.

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