When Telltale revitalised the adventure genre over 5 years ago, I thought more developers might join the profit parade. I guess there are a few reasons that didn’t really happen; beating Telltale at their own game and writing emotionally resonant stories is hard, and they almost single-handedly maintain the adventure genre by themselves. We probably don’t need more developers accelerating the fatigue process.
Save for Square Enix, who thought to get in on those shenanigans and adapt their narrative experience to Life is Strange.
Not many games have so vividly portrayed the high school experience; the adolescent angst, the clash of insecurities in a self-contained part of your life where no one ever says what they mean. All of this returns in its passive-aggressive glory for the new season.
But this isn’t really season 2. That would imply something sequential (and you can’t make a story about teenagers without having something complicated). Before the Storm is a prequel, chronicling the three years of Max’s friend Chloe, and how she occupied herself in the lead up to the original series.
Chloe is several leagues more cynical than max, having lost her father and her best friend. Also her stepfather is a choleric – which the game is all too happy to explore. Grief, loneliness, and trust are the easy-going themes this season starts with. There are times in this story when you yourself will be confused with the emotional milieu, finally to learn what’s going on and why you didn’t pick up on it sooner.
There are no slow starts here either. This will be a very raw 3 hours of your life – witnessing the injury caused when hidden hurts aren’t communicated, and divides are left to widen when people don’t converse. It could almost be a season in of itself, being so emotionally charged and compacted that many might be satiated if the story simply ended here.
So there aren’t many joyous moments in Episode 1, except for a Dungeons and Dragons game. Two classmates will invite you to join their session, in what turns out to be a clever miniature dissection of the adventure genre, playing like a little episode in itself. And, it’s entirely optional.
Episode 1 is an amazingly written story. But that’s also kind of the problem. The story is strong because of its writing – not really because of its choices. This isn’t the common complaint passive adventure games are prone to. Games like this will probably never be able to provide as much agency as we want them to.
The problem is Episode 1 is good regardless of the choices. I wasn’t conflicted, or even attached to the decisions I did make, save for one. The illusion of agency that’s meant to be fooling us didn’t really work since the story was already excellent. I prefer my games for their interactive excellence. A bystander watching your playthrough will siphon the same amount of enjoyment as you did.
Most of the environments are open with plenty of space to explore. It’s just that most of them merely comprise a variety of items Chloe will amusingly observe with witty remarks. Many adventure games use this, though Episode 1 of Before the Storm uses them even more so.
Evidently as Max is no longer present, Life is Strange doesn’t allow players to rewind time. The supplement is a mechanic playing into Chloe’s personality called Backtalk, an official name for what is effectively being rude to your elders. It’s a small mini-game conversation in which you must pay close attention to what the other person is saying, pick out the keyword from their retort, and retort in turn by throwing said keyword back at them for grievous mental harm.
The challenge will be small for anyone with even mild experience in repartee, or really just anyone – but the satisfaction of putting together a devastating campaign of insulting arguments does at least give you the impression of having done so yourself.
Episode 1 succeeds as one of the most poignant stories in episodic gaming. In just a few short hours you’re prone to a cacophony of emotions which all stumble and fumble together into a narrative which feels like it was never written, because it feels plausible. Such is the story’s persuasive power. However this is not a game for those with a grudge against passive experiences. There’s probably even less meaningful interactivity here than usual, and is probably the most film-like episode I’ve played since the genre was resurrected.
Ben received a digital copy of Life is Strange: Before the Storm from Square Enix for review.