The smoke rolled in just after I finished Life is Strange: Before the Storm episode one, a reminder that huge swathes of the Pacific Northwest are burning. Washington and Oregon are swallowed up by thick clouds of smoke that look like the rain we’re famous for, except it’s hot and dry and terrible, and in some places, there’s literal ash falling from the sky.
Life is Strange
Deck Nine Games
August 31, 2017
The smell of smoke seeping through my windows is just one of the many details that make this first episode of the Life is Strange prequel feel almost too real. Gone are the time traveling powers of the first game, the looming apocalyptic storm, the ghostly doe. Instead of the whimsical, artsy Max, we play as Chloe—the former best friend, angsty teen, and potential love interest of the first game—in the worst period of her life. Her father is dead, her best friend gone, her life in upheaval.
Playing the first Life is Strange, I felt an intense kinship with Max. I, too, was a weird arty kid who hadn’t quite figured out her sexuality, who said silly things before her brain had finished a thought, who couldn’t stop thinking about rebellious girls who did all the things she dreamed of. Like Max, it was Chloe I focused on in the first game—while I identified with the former, it was the latter who captured my attention. Part of that was the residual infatuation of being a teenaged wet blanket too shy to act out, but part of that was Ashly Burch’s performance. For all that the dialog often ventured into goofiness, Burch imbued it with a sense of vulnerability that hinted at more than the outward prickliness of Chloe’s character.
Before the Storm episode one makes that subtext into text. In the prequel, you play as Chloe and see the moments of decision that aren’t apparent in the first game. You weigh choices like sticking to your sarcastic guns against your stepfather-to-be or admitting to your mother that you’re hurting. This Chloe’s vulnerability is a part of every action you take, giving her more texture, more character than the previous game, as you navigate her relationship with the mysterious Rachel Amber.
Rachel is the nucleus around which the first game revolves. Her disappearance is only one part of the mystery, but she raises questions—who was she, and more specifically, who was she to Chloe?—that last beyond the game’s ending. In Before the Storm, you get to shape that relationship. While the game’s handling of Chloe’s now-canonical bisexuality is sometimes clumsy, the way she stumbles through confessing her attraction to Rachel (because honestly, is there any reason to not play her as romantically interested in Rachel?) feels real.
And without the magical elements of the first game, it is decidedly real. You can’t rewind your way out of problems anymore, but you can backtalk. While it made sense for a wallflower like Max to erase her mistakes, Chloe is combative—when she needs to talk her way out of something, it’s through clever twisting of the other person’s words. In gameplay terms, that means paying attention to what people say to you and using similar language to fire back with “clever” one-liners though a sort of battle system. Mess too many up and the other person will win the battle of wits, but enough successes means you get what you want.
Others have criticized this system for making Chloe seem cleverer than she is—more often than not, she sounds like a kid impersonating an adult. It’s a fair criticism, but I’d also argue that it’s the point. Chloe is all projection. She’s like a crusty loaf of French bread; hard on the outside, soft on the inside. When she thinks she’s won, adults are likely thinking that it’s not worth the effort to continue. Adults are smarter than Chloe—that’s why they need fewer wins to succeed against her, and it’s why her responses to dialog sound like a Pomeranian yapping at an intruder. Sure, she’s noisy, but what’s she really capable of?
Uncertainty is at the heart of Before the Storm episode one. Both Chloe and Rachel are unpredictable in different ways: Chloe with her unexpected warmth, her moments of vulnerability, her inability to keep her feelings in check, and Rachel with her chaos and wildness. While much of the previous game was about rewinding to solve puzzles, this one is more purely about decisions. What kind of person do you shape Chloe to be: a rebellious, uncaring teen, or a girl who responds to drama by lashing out? How far are you willing to go to impress Rachel, the popular girl with a rebellious streak?
There were a lot of reasons to be skeptical about Before the Storm. A new studio, a new toolset, no DONTNOD. But the writing team, with the help of Ashly Burch, has done an incredible job of answering questions and fleshing out characters we didn’t get to know in the first game. With the way Burch played Chloe as a vulnerable, emotional character, it’s easy to see her fingerprints all through the game. This Chloe feels authentic, human.
The same can’t be said for her voice acting, nor most of the voicework in the game as a whole. Though you might not notice if you haven’t played the original—though I highly recommend that you do, because so much of the prequel is predicated on emotional attachment you might not otherwise have–it’s hard to not compare the voice acting to the previous cast. Before the Storm became the public face of the SAG-AFTRA strike when it was announced that Burch wouldn’t be returning to voice Chloe in the prequel due to her membership in the union. Sadly, her absence as Chloe’s voice is felt. Rhianna DeVries, her replacement, often sounds as though she’s trying to channel Burch but never quite gets there. Her delivery varies from flat to passable, but her Burch impression is distracting more often than not, drawing attention to the fact that she’s a different actor.
In many places, the writing in Before the Storm is actually better than the previous game, but the voice acting is decidedly worse. It’s a shame, because if the original cast had been able to reprise their roles, the experience would have been incredible. Instead, it’s another example of how little the industry seems to value its voice actors—the writing holds up, but without the talent the unionized actors bring to the table, the dialog sometimes feels wooden and hollow rather than lively and earnest. The cast has two more episodes to go, and I sincerely hope that changes; in scenes where we should feel intense emotional connection, it’s distracting to hear lines that should feel passionate delivered as if they’re discussing the weather.
But despite the voice acting, it is earnest. Those little moments of truth that made the first game so visceral are there—the time spent doing nothing but listening to music, the moment of pause when you think about rebelling, the freedom of getting lost in a big crowd. Hopping a train and swiping a bottle of wine aren’t things I ever did, but I feel them as wish fulfillment, as a Max Caulfield trying desperately to understand what happened when she was absent. It rings true, even as it’s messy and hyperbolic and strange, as so much of adolescence is. The scene in which you play Dungeons and Dragons with some classmates is one of the sweetest and most wonderful conversations I’ve had in a video game, as it lets Chloe play in a way that all her adult posturing does not. We get to see who she is when putting on a show is something she’s doing not to save herself, but to have fun. It’s revealing and intimate and funny, a moment in which you hope against hope that you can change the path she’s on.
One of the wildfires turning the air of my state yellow started when some teenagers threw firecrackers into the Columbia River Gorge. They probably didn’t mean anything by it, and rumor has it they shrugged it off as an accident, not a tragedy. But the fire’s spread over 30,000 acres, hungry for destruction. I thought about that after I finished episode one of Life is Strange: Before the Storm as the smell of wildfire smoke crept in, about how one small action of rebellion turns into a firestorm.
I know where this story is going, and it’s nowhere good. But I’m rooting for these kids and their doomed romance anyway, knowing my choices won’t matter in the end because their fates are already decided. I can’t help but hope for the best for them, that they’ll treat one another kindly, that they’ll find solace in each other, that they’ll stop the fire before it destroys everything.