It’s time (geddit?) to go back to Arcadia Bay, and finally meet Rachel Amber, in Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
Given that her temporal superpowers revealed to Max Caulfield the true cost of her choices, and the isolated, rebellious angst that Chloe Price is mired in, the pair should really have swapped surnames.
The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm – a prequel mini-series to Life is Strange – wastes no time immersing you in the latter. It opens on a close-up of a lighter licking the end of a cigarette to life, before drawing back to show you a hooded Chloe clad in black, playing a poised game of chicken with a freight train.
In stepping into a franchise lovingly wrought by Dontnod Entertainment, the largest challenge facing developer Deck Nine is on the page. Their mission statement is written into the opening minutes as Chloe hikes to an old mill – towering chimney stacks, oily brickwork, and broken buzz saws – to see a band called Firewalk.
Invoking the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the misunderstood black sheep of Lynch and Frost’s oeuvre, is a wise foreshadowing for where we’re going. Set three years before the events of the first series, Before the Storm delves into Chloe’s back-story, leaning on things we know to build something new, and different, and dark.
The Laura Palmer-esque Rachel Amber features heavily and her relationship with Chloe is the centrifugal force binding the pieces of Before the Storm together. If you played the first series of Life is Strange, you’ll be acutely aware of Rachel Amber, the absent spider at the heart of the web. She was everywhere: missing person posters wallpapered the halls of Blackwell, while characters spoke of her almost mythically.
The prospect of seeing Rachel in the flesh was always going to be a litmus test for Deck Nine. She doesn’t disappoint. A mysterious creature, perfectly voiced by Kylie Brown and an enigmatic match for Chloe, Rachel is a far cry from the ingénue of Max and the dynamic they share is unique.
The SAG-AFTRA strike has meant Ashley Burch hasn’t reprised her role as Chloe, and while Rhianna DeVries delivers capably in her stead – with input and consulting from Burch – it lacks the vibrancy and distinctiveness it once had, taking on a soft-edged feel that might be in keeping with her less embittered character.
Play is frayed with the same friction it’s had before, in that exploration is at odds with pace. Kneading the environments for tiny details – circled and scribbled as they are in the same notepad scrawl – reaps rewards like extra ammunition for conversations and intimate insights into characters. Yet you are verbally prodded along, so as not to break the narrative flow.
One early scene at breakfast (it’s nice to see Joyce again) took on the dusky purgatory of a Pinter play, as our charged conversation was broken and bridged with trips into the living room to stare out the window, examine photographs (or the dustless spaces where they were), or shake a snow globe. This is fine – oddly beautiful, even – but what is a shame is the way your alone time is trammelled with prompts.
What would be a very nice touch, Chloe scrawling her objective on her hand in marker-pen, is rendered superfluous by her compulsion to remind you of where she should be going if you ever stop and stare for too long.
It’s a shame because you’ll want to stop and stare. Disparate scenes and sets tile together like a mosaic in your mind, as the Arcadia Bay you remember takes shape. The air is charged with foreboding and Blackwell beckons you to its halls hung heavy with dramatic irony.
Though you’ve been to these places before, it’s to Deck Nine’s credit that this feels new, and the reason it feels that way is Chloe. This is a more subdued game in tone – it’s about smaller, more grounded problems than Max’s cosmic dilemma – and Chloe plays gatekeeper for the way you see the world.
It’s fun to be bad. In place of Max’s keen eye and shutterbug compulsion, Chloe makes her mark on the world with a black marker pen. She’s creative, and you can choose what tags you want to lay down. They’re funny, too: satirical jibes at fellow students, the principal, and her soon-to-be stepdouche David Madsen.
What may at first seem gimmicky betrays a smart bit of design. In the same way Max coaxed you into looking for the elusive beauty of the perfect still, graffiti spots churn the way you see Arcadia Bay through Chloe’s eyes, every bare wall a chance to blow off steam, each secluded spot a chance to reflect and imprint.
The same can be said of her very own power: backtalk. In a tip of the hat to adventure game royalty, backtalk is a spin on ‘insult sword fighting’ from the Monkey Island games. You choose snappy comebacks and hone in on your opponent’s words to turn things around on them; chain together a sequence and you best them in a verbal sparring match. It’s risk versus reward, and the temptation to mouth off and, at times, bully people can be overwhelming. Chloe aims to get her way, and in doing so she can be a hurtful force for those around her.
The writing for dialogue has that adolescent saccharine crossed with Oregonian cool: talk of the world having it in for our heroine, of painfully cool prog rock gigs, and flash fried breakfasts at Americana diners. But then there are moments of mournful sincerity like the one where Chloe sees her dead father’s swear jar: “Dad’s old swear jar; we spent the last curses on bus fare and milk.”
The lead writer Zak Garriss has made the right choices around the ones you’ll be asked to make. The wondrous fog that once hung low around branching storylines has blown out on the wind; it’s easy to see the seams these days. The few decisions that really have any import are made known to you with flashing lights – what then of all the others?
But Garriss leverages texture and detail against the choices given over to you. Carving a second path through does yield meaningful diversions – adding colour to thoughts and feelings, or giving you small details of character.
Before the Storm, like its heroine, looks to make a mark on a world that threatens to sideline it – especially given the shadow cast by the confirmed second series from Dontnod. Deck Nine has had an unenviable task: to craft something with an identity its own, that doesn’t lean too heavily on the work of others, but leaps off their shoulders to give us something new.
Mechanically, things haven’t come on leaps and bounds, but then, time travel was always the sizzle not the steak. It was character that took hold of us then, and, thankfully, it’s character that brings us back. There have been risks taken, and while the mysterious plot has yet to bear its teeth, there are reasons a plenty to go back to Arcadia Bay.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Deck Nine
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: August 31st 2017
Deck Nine has shown an extraordinary understanding of a delicate formula. For fans, it’s a return journey to one of the most vivid, joyous settings in gaming. For them, and for everyone else, it’s a brave effort which, at times, surpasses the original.