Within minutes of starting Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, Chloe Price smoked a cigarette, stood in front of a moving train, tagged some graffiti, used a fake ID, insulted a burly man, drank beer, and nearly got into a fight. It seemed like she was trying too hard to be edgy. By the end of the first episode, I realised that was exactly the point.
Before The Storm is a prequel to the teenage sim Life Is Strange, only this time, you’re playing as the tragic potty mouth Chloe Price instead of Max Caulfield. Taking place years before its 2015 predecessor, it shows how Chloe met Rachel Amber, the girl who’s missing at the start of the 2015 game. You get to meet Chloe before the blue hair dye and see what led up to the heartbreaking events of Life Is Strange.
When Before The Storm was officially announced, many longtime fans didn’t think it was necessary — sure, there were some unknowns, but Life Is Strange still felt like a contained and complete story. More worryingly, the prequel wasn’t being handled by the original developers, Dontnod Entertainment. After playing the first episode, which was released last week, I’m still not convinced Before The Storm was necessary, but I’m also not sure it matters. Deck Nine, the new developers, assuaged my fears and left me pining for a life I never got to lead back when I was a teen.
As always, the series presents everyday decisions and conversations to capture what it means to be human. In Before The Storm, Chloe Price, a teen who lives in the US Pacific Northwest, just experienced a death in her family. She feels trapped in a small town, and has become completely uninterested in school or having friends. Where most games give you big decisions such as who lives and who dies, here, you get to choose things such as what to wear for the day, and what those clothes say about you. In one particularly affecting sequence, Chloe finds a picture of her dad that has been tucked away by her mum, who is now dating someone new. The choice is simple: Do you put the picture back out, or do you leave it where it is? While the game tells you that your choices affect the outcome of the story, more often than not, you’re being asked what you value as a person. It’s possible that some of these “smaller” choices may have long-term consequences, but what makes these choices stand out is how they ask you to cut to the core of who you really are.
Despite this similarity to Life Is Strange, Before The Storm took some getting used to. Due to an ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike that’s lobbying for better pay for voice actors, Ashly Burch did not reprise her role as Chloe Price. Instead, Burch was hired as a consultant on the character. Rhianna DeVries, the new voice actor, does a fine job, but after spending so many hours getting to know and love Chloe, the differences still jabbed at me.
Stepping into Chloe’s shoes at all felt kind of jarring. Max from Life Is Strange is more of your typical blank-slate vanilla character. Max is an angsty teenager, sure, but overall, she’s pretty optimistic and easy going. Chloe, on the other hand, is (understandably) angry, and that isn’t something I usually get to experience when playing a woman in a video game. Chloe is also self-destructive in Life Is Strange, but in Before The Storm, her dad has only been dead for a couple of years. She doesn’t know what to do with herself, and nobody knows what to do with her, either. So she acts out. She misses curfew. She sneaks into a show. She drinks beer and buys weed. She steals. She gets into fights. Before The Storm even introduces a new mechanic called “Backtalk”, where you get a chance to push back and be rude.
You get a limited time to choose from a set of answers in the game’s conversation mechanics. It tells you to pay attention to the specific character you’re addressing, so you can speak to their sensibilities. While this is presented as a logic puzzle, you can’t really think about your choices too long because the clock is ticking. The thing is, when Chloe fires from the hip, she can make a huge fool of herself. At first, this dialogue almost came off as bad writing; I didn’t understand why anyone would say some of the stuff that came out of Chloe’s mouth. (She really likes cursing about dicks!) I liked Chloe’s fighting spirit, but many of her insults made me feel embarrassed for her.
At the same time, you do catch glimpses of another Chloe. Not the rebel Chloe, or the wont-take-your-shit Chloe. You see the vulnerable Chloe, who writes to her best friend Max every day even though she never responds to any of her messages and still has stuffed animals in her room. At one point, the game gave me the option to pull down a unicorn poster, and Chloe remarks that she’s grown out of it. In its place, you can tag your room with permanent marker. In my case, Chloe wrote down something really silly. In that moment I understood that the game didn’t actually want me to think Chloe is a badarse. She isn’t — not yet, anyway. In Before The Storm, Chloe is still trying on a new persona. Of course she doesn’t have perfect one-liners yet, or that cool leather jacket she wears in Life Is Strange. You forge that Chloe over time. Until that happens, Chloe’s reinvention will occasionally waver into “trying too hard” territory.
While I enjoyed seeing a rawer version of Chloe, I was particularly struck by Rachel Amber. You hear so much about Rachel in Life Is Strange; she’s the character who sparks everything into motion. You know, going into Before The Storm, that she was a model student, beautiful, and that pretty much everyone loved her, but that she also had some secrets. Rachel was the Laura Palmer of this universe, used to tie every character together in a mystery that highlighted the shortcomings of a larger community. Rachel barely felt real in Life Is Strange: She seemed more like a larger idea that anyone could project onto, depending on what they needed. In Before The Storm, you get to see who she really is.
Throughout your adventure, Chloe seems baffled that someone like Rachel could ever take an interest in her. Why is someone as perfect as Rachel hanging out with a mess like Chloe Price? These competing images of Rachel — the one everyone “knows” and the one that actually exists — is the thrust of what makes her character so compelling. You want to learn the truth about Rachel, so she doesn’t have to ask you twice before you suddenly find yourself cutting school to hang out with her.
If you played the first game, it’s almost hard to tell to whether or not Deck Nine actually crafted a good character in Rachel. You’re invested from the get-go because you know how things end, and you know going in that Rachel and Chloe had an intense, borderline romantic relationship. The game wastes no time in setting that sexual tension up; you’re fumbling on what to say and how to flirt almost immediately. I was shocked at how quickly and openly the game presents Rachel as a romantic interest, because inadvertently it plays into the image of Rachel Amber. You don’t know her yet, not really. You just know what she’s supposed to mean to you and who she’s supposed to be. The intensity and pace of the relationship carries the fury of teenage lust, yet it almost veers into manic pixie dream girl territory. Rachel is whatever you want her to be, as long as she’s whisking you away from your shitty everyday life.
While this won’t be true for some players, Before The Storm presents me with an alternate reality, where I can be young, out, and not give a fuck. I still remember the day in maths class I lied to a girl I liked about having a boyfriend, and the way I said nothing when the only openly gay girl in my high school teased me. I don’t usually dwell on stuff like that, because things have changed for the better now that I’m an adult. But when I play games like Before The Storm, I can’t help but mourn lost time and missed opportunities. A shame, then, that I know how much this particular story will end up playing into that tragic lesbian trope given the events of Life Is Strange.
I know that my time with Rachel Amber will not last. I know exactly how this goes for both of us. Until then, I’m going to savour the fantasy as much as I can.