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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Favorite Game of 2016: Life Is Strange

Life Is Strange has become my favorite movie. I’ve watched it twice, both times with somewhat different decision-making but with the same basic themes, one of which was impressed upon me at the game’s midpoint: Maxine and Chloe, the title’s protagonists, are partners in time. The dynamics of the cast of associated characters revolve around this locus and play out based on your decisions large and small. Tonight I’ll be playing it for a third time, bearing in mind the knowledge and theories I’ve gleaned from reading hundreds of pages of commentary, fan fiction, and analysis, as well as from watching dozens of videos devoted to its intricacies. It’s a game that invigorates the imagination and invites endless discussion on the heavy themes it addresses unflinchingly: bullying, suicide, euthanasia, PTSD, and mental illness, among others.

I briefly thought about writing a hyper-ballad dedicated to this wonderful game with which I’ve become obsessed as of late, but that multi-part treatise has already been written. I’d like to invite you to read Polar Opposites and Binary Choices: A Critical Reading of Life Is Strange – Part 1 at Dubious Ideas which discusses many of Life Is Strange’s most fascinating elements in no fewer than 47,000 words divided into six sections.

At its core, Life Is Strange is an episodic narrative which Dontnod, the game’s developers, intentionally leave open-ended so that you, the player, are the one who decides the precise nature of the things that go on around you. It’s also stress-free and slow-paced: there is no sense of impending danger and no rush to do anything. It is predicated on rewarding you for the simple act of stopping to smell the roses. Click on everything you can find. Sit down on a bench, a couch, a bed, and watch the world around you from Coppola-esque camera angles as Max pontificates. Announcing what your characters are thinking is presumably one of the cardinal sins of authorship – Life Is Strange utilizes this to great effect in a flawed masterpiece whose conclusion and lingering resonance have left me in a state of emotional vulnerability that I have not felt in a long, long time.

Life Is Strange is a story about 12th grade senior and aspiring photographer Maxine Caulfield who has been accepted into Blackwell Academy in Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Here, she reconnects with her childhood best friend Chloe Price, whom she had not seen since she moved with her parents to Seattle shortly after Chloe’s father, William, died in a car accident five years prior. Through a series of strange events, Max discovers that she has the power to rewind time, first using it unintentionally to save Chloe from being shot dead by drug-dealing rich kid Nathan Prescott in the girls’ restroom. Chloe is trying to extort money from him for the purpose of repaying the debt she owes to Frank Bowers, a local drug dealer.

Max’s powers become central to Chloe and Max’s efforts in trying to locate Chloe’s missing “angel” Rachel Amber, a magnetic personality and social butterfly who served as Chloe’s anchor – and crush – during Max’s absence. In the process, Max and Chloe’s rekindled relationship redevelops over the course of five days and, based on player choice, may blossom into romantic love. Max continues to have visions of a tornado that will destroy Arcadia Bay at the end of the week; it is discovered throughout the course of the game that Max’s use of her powers are thought to be the cause of this. Plot twists abound and culminate a final, heart-wrenching decision for anyone who has become attached to the protagonists: sacrifice Chloe by letting her die and thereby saving Arcadia Bay from the time-tornado (which now never happens because Max did not use her powers to save Chloe) or sacrifice Arcadia Bay and spare her girlfriend.

When I first started playing back in January of this year I was far less patient when it came to “fluff” in games and so thought nothing of the characters beyond Maxine or the introductory episode’s pacing and environs. The dormitory setting houses a mountain of interactive exposition which is mostly Chloe-free. Instead, we learn about Max’s life, her interests, and the people she has come to know at Blackwell Academy. Later on, when we first meet Chloe (after five years apart), our first impression of her may be somewhat negative: she is loud, profane, obnoxious, self-centered, petulant, and arrogant, so of course she’s going to nearly hit us in the parking lot driving the rusted out beater truck we saw earlier double-parked across two handicapped spaces.

Ten months later, I shook off my Secret World habit long enough to start playing through Episode 2 in which we get to know Chloe a little bit better. And by getting to know, I mean going along with her as she tests the validity of our powers and then convinces us to use them for her personal amusement by shooting bottles at an improvised target range in the junkyard she and Rachel Amber used to hang out in. The shooting attracts the attention of Frank Bowers, the drug dealer to whom Chloe owes money. Turns out she borrowed from Frank so she and Amber could leave Arcadia Bay for Los Angeles; that dream died when Rachel Amber went missing. The player is left to determine how the encounter plays out. The episode ends with Max using her powers to save Chloe from an oncoming train – the second instance in which she rewinds time to save Chloe’s life.

Max also deals with the attempted suicide of her friend Kate Marsh, a devout and kind-hearted student who was drugged at a party and videotaped kissing several boys; the video goes viral and sends her into a deep and dark depression. You have the option of talking her down from the roof of the dormitories but without the aid of your rewind powers as you’ve used them to stop time so that you can get up to the roof before she jumps.

To this point I had been able to play for an hour or so before becoming restless and stopping. Episode 3, the game’s midpoint, was where I began to fall for the relationship between Max and Chloe and by extension, everything surrounding them. Chloe texts Max close to midnight and the two meet for a moonlit rendezvous in the main building of Blackwell Academy. Chloe managed to snag the entrance keys from her step-father (also known as “step-douche”), an overbearing war veteran suffering from paranoia who serves as the head of Blackwell security. I’m a sucker for night-time settings; skulking about the halls of Blackwell when all the lights are off to the background hum of deliciously intoxicating dark music rubs me in all the right places. I absolutely love the fact that Max’s “flashlight” is an app on her smartphone. Circle the camera in front of her, and she moves her arm to accommodate it. (I cannot adequately describe how cute this is.)

After obtaining information about Rachel Amber from the principal’s files, the two head off to the swimming pool for a midnight dip. They have a playful, intimate heart-to-heart conversation – and it should be mentioned that Life Is Strange treats its protagonists as human beings first and foremost. They then return to Chloe’s house where they crash for the night.

The following morning, the two muse on how they used to hang around all day. Max’s clothes are covered in chemicals from the previous night’s swim, so Chloe invites her to try on some of Rachel’s clothes that have been left in her closet. When Max expresses hesitation (“they’re not my style” – “Max, you don’t have a style”), Chloe dares Max to kiss her in the name of being more adventurous. Prior to this, I had read somewhere that Chloe dies in one of the game’s endings and thought nothing of it. At this point, the relationship between Max and Chloe became central to my play through and I started engaging in marathon play sessions. I wanted to see exactly where the story would lead them and how things would play out. Yes, romance was the hook that lured me in.

At the end of the third episode, Max discovers that she can travel back in time by focusing on photographs. She does so with a photo of herself and Chloe in their teens when Chloe’s father William was still alive. Seeking to make a better life for Chloe, she travels through the photograph back to Chloe’s house and prevents her father from taking his car to pick up Chloe’s mother from the supermarket and thus never dies in a car accident. In exchange, Chloe receives a car for her seventeenth birthday and is permanently paralyzed from the neck down when she is thrown from her vehicle after being cut off on the highway. When Max returns to the “present day” of the reality she has created, she is horrified to see Chloe strapped into a wheelchair with a respirator attached, completely dependent on her parents.

Episode 4 is where my love for the character of Chloe and her relationship with Max were cemented. The “better” world inhabited by a bed-ridden Chloe in which her father is alive is offset by a strange, howling wind that blows outside the house and flocks of birds that flutter about in bizarre formations. It’s intended to give one the sense that the world is a bit “off.” It’s here, when Chloe is most vulnerable, that Max and Chloe’s love for each other is allowed to exist in its purest form, free from the pretensions of everyday, artificially complicated life. Chloe is helpless, Max has come back into her life to help her. This episode highlights the role that Max plays in Chloe’s life as an anchor, someone who gives her space in which she can be interpersonally secure and thrive. Max is Chloe’s rock. Alternate reality Chloe floored me, so when she asked me to obviate her eventual respiratory failure by giving her a fatal overdose of morphine, I did so and sat for a while in the room as she drifted away. Her final memory was of us together, looking at photos taken when we were both children and the world was not cold and cruel.

Max then returns to teenage Chloe’s house and refrains from hiding William’s keys so that he takes the car to pick up his wife and is killed in a car accident. Max is overjoyed to see Chloe again in the primary timeline and they go off to investigate Rachel Amber’s disappearance. They discover that she is dead and buried in a shallow grave in the junkyard which leads to the game’s most emotionally heart-wrenching scene. It turns out that Mark Jefferson, Max’s stylishly hip photography professor, is behind it. He lures them to the grave again at night, allowing him to dose Max and kill Chloe.

The final episode is where things gets real. Max wakes up in an underground bunker which Jefferson uses to photograph his victims at the point where their “innocence turns into corruption.” (He’s a psychopath, it turns out.) Via a series of time-bending photograph leaps, Max is eventually able to right all the wrongs, save Chloe, stop Jefferson, and make the game’s final, most difficult choice: sacrifice Chloe or sacrifice Arcadia Bay.

From reading /r/Games, which appears to be dominated by people more likely to play logically and provide excellent mechanical analyses of the game’s strengths and weaknesses, sacrificing Chloe has been christened the “good” ending due to the fact that the ending cutscene is longer, more powerful, and wraps up this coming of age friendship story by acceding to Chloe’s final, selfless request: let her die so that others may live. Doing so, they say, means that you have grown up and moved on from your childhood. You got to say goodbye to an old friend, something that some people never get the chance to do.

The subreddit I have been visiting lately, /r/LifeIsStrange, is dominated by people more likely to play with their hearts on their sleeves. I fit right in. We decided that we had fallen in love with Chloe despite her massive shortcomings and if the world has to burn for our honeybun, then so be it. Shipping (supporting) a relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price, dubbed team “Pricefield,” forms the basis of thousands of fan fiction pieces, some of which I rather enjoyed in a sentimental sort of way. (I’m obnoxiously picky when it comes to fiction.)

And you’re allowed to be sentimental in video games because it’s the realm of the imagination. You’re also allowed to be sentimental in art because it makes really good fucking art. Life Is Strange, from its music to its images to the fluidity of its animations, the scene-setting, heck, even the awkward dialogue (Max is awkward, by the way) have shown me in a way that has touched me unlike anything else that there is beauty to be found in creating and sharing. I’ve even joined DeviantArt and Tumblr to explore my creative side with more enthusiasm. This entails spending less time playing games, which is just fine with me.

It makes me want to create and share so that perhaps some day, something that I have contributed to will make someone feel the same way I do about Life Is Strange.