Life is Strange: Before the Storm – A Lack of Narrative Subtlety

I absolutely loved Life is Strange. From those initial moments where I was sat in photography class perusing through Max’s ravishingly decorated journal, assimilating her thoughts, memories, and experiences, I was hooked like a bee on honey. Yes, I’ll admit, there were a number of glaring issues from perplexed me – we shall never speak of that concluding episode ever again – but for the most part, Life is Strange was one of the most magical and enthralling narrative experiences I have ever had the pleasure to be a part of.

As such, I was – as you could most probably guess at this point – absolutely ecstatic when the rumours reached me that a prequel was in the works, an excitement that only grew in stature upon hearing the news that the game, appropriately titled Life is Strange: Before the Storm, was a reality, one that was mere weeks away from release. Of course, I immediately snapped up the special edition upon the game’s release with all the vigour and tenacity of an ambitious and egotistical teenager on their A-level results day, playing through the entirety of the opening episode that very night, a bowl of popcorn one my lap, a controller in one hand and a can of Red Bull in the other.

While I won’t go in depth here with regards to my overall judgements about the game, I will decree without hesitation that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Before the Storm’s opening episode. Playing through Chloe’s formative teenage years was simply a delight, with the storytelling, for the most part, beguiling my entire consciousness. That said however, that was one overriding issue with the narrative that soiled the experience for me, one that occurred during the concluding moments of the game’s story.

Yes Chloe, I share your frustrations…

Towards the end of Before the Storm’s first episode, Chloe and Rachel fall out spectacularly. The two part ways, both seething with uncontrollable teenage angst, with Chloe choosing to remain secluded and alone amongst the decaying detritus of the scrap yard that so effectively plays as a metaphor for her dysfunctional life. It’s subtle yet effective, eloquently conveying the mental state of Chloe without overtly hammering the head of the player with obvious verbal exposition. Too many games lack such eloquence to their narrative design – how many times have we had our narrative intelligence ridiculed by games overtly stating the obvious. It’s frustrating, and often demonstrates a lack of narrative capability on the part of the development team.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm mostly avoids committing such heinous narrative blunders. However, as the scrapyard scene progresses, Before the Storm starts to succumb to the aforementioned tendencies of poor storytelling. As Chloe’s sense of self begins to disintegrate, she picks up a baseball bat in an attempt to relieve the tidal wave of anger, despair, and frustration that has consumed her entire being after bubbling away in the shadows for so long. Enraged, she begins to smash a variety of objects, each of which represents a particular person in her life. The first object in question is a car’s wing mirror, in which Chloe catches a glimpse of herself before shattering it with a well-placed swing. It is a beautifully crafted piece of visual storytelling – subtle yet powerful – and it seamlessly conveys to the player Chloe’s self-hatred without the need to verbally state the obvious.

“Chloe, I told you that toolkit would be important!”

Unfortunately, as the scene progresses this subtlety and reverence for the player’s narrative intellect begins to dissipate. Upon destroying the wing mirror, Chloe’s destructive desires are then turned upon both a camera and a toolbox. These items evidently represent Max and David respectively, a fact that would be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention to the story. In fact, the game spends a whole scene trying to intricately link the toolkit to David’s character so that the player will recognise the association between the two when confronted with the scene in question. Chloe hates David, and her enraged attack upon the toolkit conveys this hatred. Yet, when push comes to shove, Before the Storm is unable to respect to intelligence of its players. Rather than allow the player to themselves recognise the connection between David and the toolkit, the developers instead opt to verbally express the relationship to the player through Chloe’s dialogue. It’s clumsy storytelling to a key, and is frankly insulting.

The scene started off so well, like a promising prodigy who shows the potential to develop into a bonified genius. Before the Storm was doing such a great job, but then it got distracted by booze and partying, ultimately squandering the eloquently and intelligent storytelling it has so wonderous demonstrated before this point. It does not ruin the experience, yet it casts a dark cloud upon what would have otherwise of been a radiant example of great visual storytelling. Alas, what could have been. Here’s hoping that episode two manages to live up to the potential touched upon in episode one.

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