Life Is Strange: Before the Storm Makes a Play at the Traditional Coming-Of-Age Teen Drama
Only in Life Is Strange will you find the word "PUNK" graffiti'd on the wall.
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I'll get this out of the way now: I had some pretty big problems with Life Is Strange. Almost all of those problems lie in the fact that for a narrative-driven game, its dialogue was pretty terrible.
The conversations shared between characters felt neither realistic (like, I dunno, in Degrassi for example), nor did it own its weirdness (like the also-flawed Juno). Instead, it fell on the wrong side of coming-of-age dramas; falling squarely in-between everything, resting outside of the land of decent dialogue. For a lot of players, they were able to overlook this glaring flaw for its story. I never could.
I was hoping as I dove into a partially playable demo of the new Life Is Strange prequel that maybe this would be Life Is Strange's second chance at landing for me. Here was the Life Is Strange formula unburdened by supernatural rewind woes (the crux of the first game was that the protagonist Max had the ability to rewind time and change her decisions). Here it was with a new developer (Deck Nine, formerly known as Idol Minds of Pain, The Ratchet & Clank Collection fame), a new voice actress starring, and a new story overall to tell. This was a chance for the teen fiction of Life Is Strange to finally be successful with no buts at the end of it. A chance for it not to feel like it was painfully written by adults who skimmed Tumblr for ideas, to an eyerolling degree.
Unfortunately, I didn't really find that in this demo. Not yet anyways.
Over email, I asked Deck Nine vice president Jeff Litchford what the writing process was like, and if they actively worked towards more natural-sounding dialogue in light of its prevalent criticism. "[Our writing team's] different experiences and perspectives allow them to work through moments in the story, trying hard to find the right voice for the characters," wrote Litchford. "Along with the women and men on the team, [voice actress] Ashly Burch has played an important role in making sure Chloe’s voice remains true to her character. Beyond just voicing Chloe in the original game, Ashly is a very talented writer in her own right."
Burch not returning for the prequel was a shock for fans of the series. Luckily the new voice behind Chloe, Rhianna DeVries, is a good fit for the younger, still-angsty teen. Their voices aren't identical of course, but DeVries' perpetual snark captures the same tone. DeVries was technically involved with Before the Storm before she stepped in as the voice of Chloe, as she performed motion capture for the game. Because of the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike, Burch did not return to the game, and was replaced by DeVries.
In my demo of Before the Storm, I'm inhabiting Chloe as she weasels her way into a concert. The venue is a "seedy" place, where people make fun of her spiked bracelets (this, apparently, is what makes her not worthy of being here—which is somehow too corny for a place that has the graffiti "Popularity is for mediocre people" scribbled on a wall). I saw an immediate familiar face in the demo: good ol' Frank, mad at Chloe for not paying him for weed. As Chloe, I try to talk him into spotting me some. He did not oblige.
Before the Storm feels like more Life Is Strange, just minus the rewind. Chloe's attitude is still there, but dialed up even more as she wrestles with finding herself. Her home life is changing, the now-familiar David is around, dating her mom and fixing cars. She's bitter towards him, presumably because the wound of her dad's death is still fresh. The Life Is Strange-ness of the prequel will undoubtedly please fans of the original game.
"Chloe is a very different person than Max," said Litchford on the efforts to put players into the shoes of a character who was very much the opposite to the first game's star. "Max was cautious and shy, while Chloe is a wrecking ball. Max would second guess every action. Chloe is impulsive; she doesn’t think about the consequences. Playing as someone this brash is a real blast. We all have had a rebel inside of us at some time in our lives." Not thinking about the consequences is an adequate description, as when given the pivotal choice in my demo to simmer down an argument or land a punch, I did the latter.
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm has a steep road to climb. It has to do well by its fans by not alienating them, and doing justice to Chloe's relationship with Rachel Amber and her changing family. It's the type of story that's still semi-novel for a video game, honestly. Queer female-centered, with a tone lying closer to a good coming-of-age novel than anything else.
Inspirations for the game, Litchford told me, will find themselves manifested in easter eggs all across its adventure: from music to novels, to photography, other games, and movies. Before the Storm seeks to be a worthwhile endeavor for its fans. Yet for people like me who wished the dialogue and scenarios were a little less cringe-worthy, I'm left unfulfilled. As Chloe might say, I'm feeling hella disappointed. So not amazeballs.
I'll probably be in the minority though. The differences between what this would look like in the hands of the original's developers DONTNOD, parallel to how it is with Deck Nine at the head are negligible. I still have hope that the writing will improve now that it's in new hands, even if the demo didn't do much to assuage these worries. In the end, DONTNOD's hard at work on Life Is Strange 2 after all. (Whatever that ends up being.) The first episode of the three episode series Life Is Strange: Before the Storm will launch on August 31 for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.