Wild Youth: An Analysis of Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Life is Strange, and Life is Strange: Before the Storm, as well as brief discussion of sexual assault.

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I don't know about you, but for me, the confused and hurried ending of the original Life is Strange made me forget the pioneering accomplishments in its first four chapters. A frequently tender and tranquil game, Life is Strange was an escape into adolescent freedom as well as a sympathy letter to everyone who has found the transition from adolescence to adulthood arduous. It follows Max Caulfield, a seventeen-year-old student with a keen eye for photography who reunites with her estranged childhood friend Chloe Price. As a unit, Max and Chloe must emotionally navigate Chloe's grief over her dead father, the assault of students at Blackwell Academy, and the loss of their youth. Max, fortunately, has a supernatural gift to help her do this and can turn back time with a flick of her wrist; it's this power which lets her bring Chloe back to life after Chloe is shot to death in the school bathroom. But through the butterfly effect, all that resetting of Max's reality creates a hurricane which threatens to rip her hometown of Arcadia Bay apart. And she has another problem closer to home: Her photography teacher Mark Jefferson has been drugging students and taking voyeuristic photographs of them, something he also does to Max before she escapes and contacts the police. Afterwards, she must decide whether she wants to lose her town to the twister and keep her best friend or turn the clock all the way back to the start of the first episode and let Chloe die to save Arcadia Bay.

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Life is Strange is a game about being daunted by growing up. Max Caulfield's name is a reference to Catcher in the Rye protagonist, Holden Caulfield, a teenager who refuses to make his way across the stepping stones to adulthood, and there's the suggestion that Max is failing to mature in the same way. Not only is she spending all her time with her childhood friend, but her travelling back in time is also a metaphor for her mentally regressing into the past whenever uncomfortable aspects of adulthood appear on the horizon. Her photography is a less fantastical method for doing the same thing: we often recognise photographs as a medium that lets us immortalise moments, allowing us to return to times gone whenever we view them, and Max is an avid photographer. This is also why Mr. Jefferson is the perfect foil for her. Not just because he takes sick pictures where Max takes soulful ones, but because, as Jefferson puts it, he's capturing his students' childhood innocence. Jefferson's non-consensual photoshoots are a metaphor for sexual violation and are part of a broader point the game makes that even when you try to delay maturation, adulthood has an often intrusive way of finding you, through disquieting ordeals. The death of Chloe's father is another such ordeal.

These traumas coax Max and Chloe into never coming out of their cocoons, with the anxiety and chaos over the loss of their youth represented by the hurricane about to rip their childhood town apart. But it is impossible for them to run from it forever and eventually Max must pry herself away from her adolescence, either by saying goodbye to the town she grew up in or by losing her teenage best friend. Life is Strange constructs a symbolic shorthand with a depth you'll be hard-pressed to find in any other video game, but it comes somewhat undone at the end for a couple of reasons. Before the closing, there's a temporary collapse of the timelines which dooms Max to a waking nightmare reality, and that's cool, but it throws out the story's earlier characterisation and most of its themes while wasting time that should be used to tie up character relationships. And despite both endings being somewhere from bittersweet to emotionally demolishing on paper, one is played as the happy ending, and the other, the sad one. But even if you find Life is Strange's final resting place pitch dark, the writers' use of the butterfly shows an optimistic view of maturation. It doesn't just represent the butterfly effect; it also argues that growing up can turn you into something beautiful.

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This isn't just me gushing about the original Life is Strange, although it is that; this is all relevant because we need to understand Chloe, Before the Storm's protagonist, and because, as ever, prequels and sequels to media make statements through what themes and iconography they replicate from previous entries and what they reject. As a prequel to Life is Strange Before the Storm changes up the collectable mechanic from the original and this reflects a change in the protagonist through which we experience Arcadia Bay. Collectables in Life is Strange are not found objects, they are actions that we take as the protagonist in pre-defined spots. In the first game, the collectables were photographs that we snapped as Max which informed us of her passive and patient nature while including the theme of photography which is important to her for reasons already discussed. But as Chloe, the collectables are objects that we graffiti. Here, Before the Storm uses its play to depict Chloe as a more proactive and delinquent character, and shows her more interested in trashing the town where Max was caught up in observing it. Although the mechanical identicalness between taking photographs and drawing graffiti does slightly shatter the illusion.

The "Backtalk" minigame is a stronger example of how the series sets its characters apart, even within structures as seemingly rigid as conversation trees. Chloe has a mouth on her, and you can use that to stimy the authority figures in her life. The backtalk minigame consists of listening to an adult scold you and then picking one of three retorts. One of those choices will twist their words back on them and be the correct answer, while the others won't get you anywhere. Hit enough right answers and dodge enough decoys and the other character will back off. This is not the only game with conversation battles, but I don't think I've ever seen the concept better matched to a character, here acting as a release valve for an impatient, impassioned teenager.

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But more than a change in the interactivity, what Before the Storm needs is a change of pace. Like Life is Strange 1, its first act is sedate and reflective. This is partly because it's an adventure game and so you can spend a good few minutes on one screen before moving onto another, but the real factors are the contemplative nature of the act, its plot that dawdles along, slow sweeping camera shots, and all the times it lets you sit or lay down somewhere while Chloe daydreams. Also as in the original game, Before the Storm's fledging chapter is more about setting an atmosphere than establishing drama, but it's an inappropriate strategy for this prequel. We don't need a lot of setup for Arcadia Bay and its residents this time because that job was already carried out by the first game and our character in this return to the town is meant to be more punk rock and less spacey than Max was. But that's not to say that you can't imagine Chloe taking some time to relax.

The adults around Chloe often misunderstand her as someone who wants to spend every waking moment running wild and raising hell, but they see that side of her because Chloe and they are always creating friction with each other. When left to her own devices, she often wants nothing more than to chill out. The character of Rachel Amber plays off this tendency in a way that makes her the ideal love interest for our protagonist. Like Chloe, Rachel is not who people think she is. The teachers and caretakers doting on Rachel suppose she's a straight-A student with a heart of gold, but beneath her agreeable exterior, she has a taste for trouble and an emotional volatility to her.

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Rachel is an actor in the school play, and just as the game communicates Max's will to make time stand still through her photography and Chloe's anti-social edge through her graffiti, it uses the hobby of theatre to speak to Rachel's penchant for grand emotional displays and her need to keep an act up around her family and teachers. Like its predecessor, Before the Storm also uses a natural disaster as a projector for its characters' emotions. The story opens with Chloe strong-arming her way into a concert for her favourite band, Firewalk. There she comes close to being physically assaulted by a friend of the club owner but makes it out in one piece with the help of Rachel. While we know from the first game that Rachel was Chloe's girlfriend, there are a lot of gaps in our picture of their relationship.

The day following the concert, the two skip school to visit the nearby forest. There, they witness a pair of strangers kissing, at which point Rachel's sunny disposition fades. She pushes Chloe away before the two regroup and Rachel tells her that one of the people they saw kissing was her father, James, who is married, and the other was a woman she's never met before. Wounded by this, Rachel burns a years-old photograph of her and her father together, and the flame catches to a nearby tree. This ignites the surrounding woods, starting a forest fire that will burn through Arcadia Bay for a whole episode. James and the stranger's kiss will have a domino effect that brings down the lives of Chloe, Rachel, and a handful of other characters, and the fire represents both Rachel's anger and that destruction of lives. This was foreshadowed in an earlier scene in which Chloe is helping her stepdad David fix the family car. Its engine has been stopped by a faulty spark plug, the component which ignites the fuel vapour and makes it burn.

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The forest blaze interferes with Blackwell Academy's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest as road closures prevent one of the actors from making it to the performance in time. In the backstory of The Tempest, a witch named Sycorax traps the spirit of the character of Ariel in a tree, but the sorcerer Prospero frees him. There are parallels here to Rachel's burning of the tree and ignition of the forest fire. Prospero takes Ariel as a servant but promises to release him once his work is done. As the actor for Ariel is missing from the play, Chloe is forced to fill in for her, playing her part across from Rachel who takes on the role of Prospera, a gender-swapped version of Prospero. The two play out an edited-down version of Act 1, Scene 2 to which Rachel improvises a new ending. The new lines play on the bargain between Prospero and Ariel while also commenting on Rachel and Chloe's real-life relationship. In the character of Prospera, Rachel explains that she has feelings for Chloe/Ariel that she has kept hidden and Chloe/Ariel confesses that she has delighted in spending time with Prospera/Rachel. This prompts Prospera/Rachel to promise that when the time comes, she will free her and they will travel the world together. Rachel and Chloe soon reinforce this sentiment, pledging to each other that they will run away from their parents and guardians in Arcadia Bay that night. First, though, they must get through dinner with the Amber family where the elephant in the room is James's apparent adultery.

Angered by a hypocritical lecture from James on the importance of family, Rachel accuses him of cheating, forcing him to reveal that the woman she and Chloe saw him locking lips with was Rachel's biological mother, Sera Amber. Sera was a drug addict and neglectful parent towards an infant Rachel, and so James broke up with her and did his best to stop Sera seeing her again. In exchange for Sera keeping her distance from her daughter, James sent her regular cheques. What Chloe and Rachel saw in the woods was a parting kiss from a Sera trying to get back in contact with her child and being blocked off by James. Against James's wishes, Rachel tenaciously pursues her birth mother. Knowing that Sera is a customer of drug dealer Frank Bowers, Chloe asks Frank to put the two of them in touch with Sera. Instead, Frank meets them with his bloodthirsty boss Damon Merrick in tow. Having decided they're asking too many questions, Damon threatens the pair with a knife. Rachel hits him with a wooden board in retaliation, and he then stabs Rachel, sending her to A&E.

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With James distracted at Rachel's bedside, Rachel sends Chloe to his home office. There, Chloe finds that James had been withholding letters from Sera to Rachel in which Sera writes that she has become self-sufficient and sober, stopped cashing James's cheques, and wishes to reunite with her daughter. Chloe also sniffs out evidence that Damon has kidnapped Sera and has struck a deal with James which involves James paying off Damon, outing an inside informant to him, and destroying evidence of a murder Damon committed. Posing as James via text messages, Chloe complies with Damon's requests, and he gives up his current location. When Chloe comes to rescue Rachel's mother, Damon reveals that James paid him to kill her and ruthlessly beats Sera and Chloe. Frank runs in and takes Damon out of the picture; it's implied that he killed him. Once the dust has settled, Sera explains to Chloe that she no longer believes that she's a fit mother and so opts not to see Rachel again. She also asks that Chloe doesn't reveal any of what's happened to Rachel. The story's final decision places you back in the hospital with Chloe's girlfriend, picking between telling her the truth or bluffing that you couldn't scope out Sera.

I mentioned at the start of this synopsis that prequels and sequels to works are defined by what they adopt from their parents and what they throw away. But it's also sometimes the case that it's ambiguous whether or not a piece of media is perpetuating the legacy of its series so far or trying to act as an offshoot from it. This is the case with Before the Storm as there are two ways to interpret how this game views adolescence in comparison to the original Life is Strange. The first outlook is that Rachel and Chloe's problem is a lot like Max's: the two wish to melt away into this adolescent fervour where they're not lugging around adult responsibilities, but their wishes are not granted, and adulthood invades their lives. Literally hours from freedom, Rachel and Chloe have their dream quashed by the emergence of adult issues like child neglect, parenthood, and hospitalisation. The other way to view this narrative is that, unlike Max, this couple can't wait to ride off into the sunset of post-adolescence, but they have a romanticised view of maturity. The adulthood they want has them taking to the open road together, carefree, but the adulthood they get has Rachel processing complex facts about how her father kept her mother from her and Chloe trying to talk a drug addict into meeting her daughter.

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Outside of its pontifications on coming-of-age, Before the Storm is asking a question, and if you're making a dialogue tree game, it helps to have a recurring question because that lets the player use the unique interactivity of the game to explore its central issue. The issue, in this case, is whether or not the truth is a good thing when it has the potential to damage lives. Rachel despises playing the perfect daughter to please her parents, wants to expose what she thought was her father's affair, and tirelessly works to find out who her mother is. Yet, in trying to throw off this artifice and realise the truth, she strains her family relationships, finds out her father has been lying to her, learns about a mother figure she now feels divorced from, and is physically injured. At the end of the game, if you reveal the truth about Sera to Rachel, it serves to upset her further and turn her family upside down, while lying to her might preserve her emotional state but is still dishonest and goes against what Rachel has told you she wants you to do. The game bats about this truth vs. lie dialectic and allows you to do the same long before the final choice.

Between all the drama there's a moment when Chloe and Rachel lounge in a truck at the junkyard and Rachel tells Chloe "From what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire". She's referencing Robert Frost's poem Fire and Ice in which Frost wonders whether the apocalypse will come from the planet burning or freezing but remains somewhat ambivalent as to its method of destruction. Rachel crops the poem, effectively expressing that if her world has to end, she'd rather it be by passion and anger than anything else. She gets her wish, but not in the way she imagined. In the scene after she and Chloe learn that Sera is her birth mother, Chloe uses a torch and nightlight to shine stars onto the ceiling of her bedroom. Rachel opines that she's disappointed that stars are only an illusion and that most of them are long dead (this is actually a myth, but Rachel doesn't need to know that for the story to make sense). Her disillusion with the stars is an expression of her disillusion with her life and parents, and as Chloe, you can echo that life is a hollow lie or urge her to better preserve the illusions in her life in the future. You can respond either that the stars are still beautiful or that "Stars suck". The implication is carried forward to the ending as the same stars are projected into Rachel's hospital room.

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Chloe is also slowly realising that reality might not be everything it's cracked up to be. She experiences disorienting and mysterious dreams about her late father, William. The William in her dreams is soothing, perpetually upbeat, and never phased, whereas her current stepdad, David, is condescending and has retained an uncompromising strictness from his army days. When Chloe helps David fix the family car, David decides that his supposedly superior toolbox should replace William's toolbox in their garage. In the first dream that Chloe has of her father, she and William are travelling together in a car, and her second dream of him starts as she falls asleep in a truck at the junkyard. The third of these dreams has her on stage with William, improvising a scene in which they repair a vehicle. We can see out of the corner of our eye that, for a second, William transforms into David. William tries to remind Chloe of when they'd work on cars together, but Chloe only remembers doing that with her stepdad. As with the family's real car, the fault with this pretend car is the spark plug. All of these events speak to fear in Chloe that David is replacing William. The car was once the great uniter of Chloe and her father, but it is now a battleground which she struggles to reclaim. After all, it was a car crash which killed William, and the new patriarch David hopes to take the car over, but Chloe is fixing up her own truck at the junkyard so that she and Rachel can be free of Arcadia Bay.

Interconnected with these concerns over family is a worry from Rachel and Chloe that they're not living an authentic existence. In that third dream, Chloe is sad that her father is "not real" because while she may remember him, that doesn't make him a tangible, present person in her life. This is why it's so easy for David to usurp him. The scene plays out in front of a crowd of the adults in Chloe's life, and she complains that "It's all just theatre". It's too on-the-nose, but the point is Chloe is unhappy that Rachel's family life was constructed around a lie, that her family life is about her acting the way that David demands rather than being herself, and even that these dreams where she can reconnect with her father aren't real. But the William in the dream pushes back softly against this view, saying that "Maybe the lies we tell each other are less horrible than the truth we keep hidden". This also contradicts what Chloe's mother and William's ex-wife, Joy, believes, as Joy tries to foster honesty between Chloe and the rest of the family, thinking that it's the healthiest way forward. Whether Joy's efforts work is up to you.

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The dream William implies that he's about to die in the car crash that the real William did and when he sees this is emotionally weighing on Chloe, he reassures her that "It's all just pretend". Yet, when a truck rolls into him, he disappears, leaving a red smear on the stage and a genuine sorrow in Chloe. Coming out of the scene, we can see that the trouble for Chloe is as much what is real as what isn't. James makes a similar argument to William, expressing that lies can be an essential line of defence against painful truths. This relates to Chloe's memories of William because, at a couple of points in the story, her dad implies that the pristine image of him that Chloe sees in her dreams could be less than realistic. In her second dream, one side of his face is that of the supportive father Chloe recalls but the other is burnt and contorted. As we pull back the curtain and find that Rachel's father is driving a wedge between her and her birth mother, this naturally makes Chloe question whether her father could have concealed his own dark secrets.

As Chloe drives through the charred forest to rescue Sera, she daydreams of her father. She asks William whether he ever lied about something that would upset her and he asks Chloe whether she would love him any less if he had. We, as the player, get to answer that question, although neither Chloe nor we can ever find out if William lied about something big as he's no longer with us. But this imaginary William does tell Chloe that he'd do anything to keep her safe. It's a moment of considering why people lie, empathising with liars, and figuring out if lies inflict emotional damage or immunise a person against it. We have to confront these questions before we go to the final confrontation and decide whether we're dishonest with Rachel about the entailing events. The game wisely gives us justifications for picking either ending choice. If we lie to Rachel and tell her we couldn't find Sera, we can justify this by remembering that William may have kept distressing truths from Chloe to preserve her perception of a perfect father and that when Rachel previously discovered truths about Sera, it deeply upset her. If we tell Rachel the truth, we can defend this action through the characters' needs for authenticity, the damage that James's lying did, and Joy's belief in honesty. Although, I think the game makes a better case for telling the truth than lies. James is a district attorney, and even he couldn't keep secrets from his daughter indefinitely. All concealing Sera did was make sure that when the truth got out, it stung more than it otherwise would have. But whether you obstruct Rachel from finding her mother or tell her the truth, we can only expect things to get worse from there.

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We know from the original Life is Strange that Rachel was killed by fellow student Nathan Prescott and there are a lot of omens of coming doom throughout the narrative. The first episode begins with Chloe standing on tracks as a train barrels towards her, we keep spotting crows, the traditional portent of death, and the script uses The Tempest's "What's past is prologue" lyric more than once. I.e. What happened in the first game will happen in this one. Not to mention, the general downward trend in the game's mood. Before the Storm has to contend with the Prequel Problem: If we know the rough state of a world at the start of a story, we can guess how its prequel will end, which potentially robs that prequel of any stakes. In this instance, we know Rachel dies at the hands of Nathan, so how can this story end any other way but with that murder? Before the Storm cleverly uses this expectation against us.

Yes, we know that in the Life is Strange timeline Rachel has to die, but the developers have a choice of where they roll the credits. Aware of Rachel's impending death and seeing its foreshadowing, we steel ourselves for a sad ending, so it's all the more uplifting when the game instead ends after Rachel has gotten out of the hospital, and she and Chloe happily while away their time at the scrapyard. This happens no matter the option we choose during the last hospital scene which might seem like the designers failing to acknowledge our final choice, but in practice, it serves more as the game showing that whatever difficulties Chloe and Rachel face, they're happy as long as they're together.

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All in all, Before the Storm is a more consistently troubled game than the original Life is Strange, but the tone of its ending is far less variable. This game has a vision about where it wants to go and features an intelligible and purposeful third act where the original's went off the rails and sometimes didn't hit the bitter note that you'd think you'd get from a town being wiped off the map by a hurricane. Like the original, it weaves an intricate cat's cradle of symbolic connections, even if various elements of the game feel like they exist as vestiges of the original more than anything else. Before the Storm is a less experimental title but one that tells a more focused story, a story about the bravery of honesty and the path of destruction the truth leaves in its wake. Thanks for reading.

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