More to the Story: Life Is Strange and the Effective Prequel
Modern adventure games have merged the best of TV and movies with the choice and control of video games to create a hybrid that excels in storytelling. They aren’t for everyone, but for many people, particularly those that don’t consider themselves “hardcore gamers,” they’re a great entrypoint to the medium. If you’re into modern adventure games, then you’ve probably already played Life Is Strange. And you’ll know it was an incredibly moving experience. You really develop a connection with main character Max, and the burgeoning friendship you feel with Max’s best pal Chloe is palpable. It was rightly praised for its compelling plot and intriguing gameplay mechanics, the likes of which hadn’t really been done in adventure games before.
The story, briefly, revolves around Max’s newfound ability to rewind time. This mechanic allows players to go back and explore different paths through the game (to a point) and not be forced to feel railroaded into a decision. And as adventure game fans know, decisions are what the game is all about. Released over five episodes, each new chapter ended on a cliffhanger that begged to be resolved, keeping players on the edges of their seats until the credits rolled in the final episode.
This week, Life Is Strange 2 is launching on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. In celebration and anticipation of this new story, I wanted to take a moment to reflect, not on the original game, but on its prequel/spin-off, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
Beware significant spoilers ahead for both Life Is Strange and Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
In Life Is Strange Episode 1, Max alters the past to save her friend Chloe’s life. What she comes to understand in subsequent episodes, however, is that significant changes to history carry with them cosmic consequences. Her visions of a cataclysmic tornado destroying the town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon come true, and in the end she has a heartbreaking choice to make:
Either watch the people of Arcadia Bay be killed and save Chloe, or travel back, undo her original change to the past, and let Chloe die.
Playing through the first game, my curiosity got the better of me, and I loaded my save file twice to watch both possible endings. Both were tragic and emotional and very effective, but I believed the ending wherein Max allows Chloe to die, thereby saving everyone else, was the “proper” ending. It made the most sense, thematically, that she would use her powers to do the most good for the most people. Chloe had a rough life, and she didn’t deserve her fate, but sometimes bad things happen.
When it was announced a new company, not Life Is Strange developer Dontnod, was planning to release a new Life Is Strange game, I was cautiously optimistic. When I learned it would be a prequel, I was confused. When I learned it would star Chloe, I was disappointed.
While I liked Chloe in the original game, I wasn’t super curious about her past. Also, and this seemed like a big issue, she didn’t have any super powers. What precisely would make this a Life Is Strange game if there isn’t anything particularly strange about her life? The developers set out to make the case that, powers or not, Chloe was a compelling character worthy of the spotlight. And in doing so, they reformed my opinion on the original game’s climactic choice.
Chloe’s story opens up some time after her father is killed in a terrible car accident, the event that sends her life down a pretty bad path. A serial class skipper, Chloe finds herself in deep trouble when she cuts class with Rachel Amber, the most popular girl in school and, as players are likely to remember, the missing girl that was the catalyst for most of Life Is Strange’s story. As tragedy swirls around Rachel, Chloe does her best to put aside her own problems and help her new best friend.
What we see here is a Chloe before the full weight of the world has crushed her. She’s had it rough, and she knows it. But she still has some light in her, enough to support someone else in need. With her family life in shambles, her education prematurely ended, and her friendships few and far between, Chloe comes to rely on Rachel Amber, and Rachel, in turn, relies on Chloe. Their friendship, their romance, gives Chloe something to fight for. For players of the original game, the whole thing has a somber tone, as we know what the future holds for Chloe and Rachel. Playing only the original game, Chloe’s story is sad. Playing the prequel, Chloe’s story is a full-blown tragedy.
Rewinding a few years in Chloe’s story reveals the circumstances that led her to be so withdrawn and sarcastic when Max meets up with her in the original game. To paraphrase Toni Morrison’s classic book, The Bluest Eye, sometimes the reason “why” bad things happen isn’t as important as “how.” Tracing the line from Before the Storm Chloe to Life Is Strange Chloe draws a deeply human character who players are better able to empathize with.
This is what happens when a prequel is done right. Unlike the Star Wars prequels that told us a lot we already knew (and a lot more we mostly didn’t care about), Before the Storm provides a new perspective on a character we thought we knew pretty well. By showing us her struggles, her troubles and traumas, first-hand, we’re made more sensitive to her plight. It recasts her behavior and choices in the original game in a brand new light. Given the choice of saving Chloe or a bunch of people I don’t know as profoundly, I don’t see how I could make the same gut-wrenching choice in the original game again. It may not be the “greatest good,” but Chloe’s my friend, and I’ll be damned if I let a little thing like the will of the universe tell me she deserves to die.