Life Is Strange has never been subtle about its symbolism. We’re regularly reminded of the tornado that threatens the tiny town of Arcadia Bay in the very first scene of the 2015 game, and how it’s meant to mirror Chloe Price’s chaotic presence threatening everything safe and stable about protagonist Max Caulfield. In the new prequel series, Before the Storm, there’s no image that represents Chloe Price’s journey better than a black hole.
Set three years before the events of the original game, Before the Storm is a story of absences, painful wounds in Chloe Price’s life that she has neither the ability or interest in healing. Most are recognizable if you played the first game: Max fading into the background of Chloe’s life after she moves to Seattle, Chloe’s father dying in a car crash, and her mom’s new redneck boyfriend (who will, eventually, become Chloe’s stepfather.) What we’ve yet to see is the cumulative effect these events on Chloe when no one’s around. It was always up in the air just how much of Chloe’s angst was performative, a shield to keep anyone from hurting her.
Before the Storm lets you step into Chloe’s shoes for the much more complicated and painful truth. There is a lot of legitimate 16-year-old angst, and the game’s more cringeworthy, trying-too-hard moments stem from the attempt to portray that. It quickly becomes obvious, however, just how casually cruel Arcadia Bay can be towards a relative outsider like Chloe. She needs more than her mother, her town, her life, can offer, and so far, Before the Storm makes an earnest go at navigating the oppressive weight of that harsh reality.
Unlike the original game, however, Before the Storm doesn’t rely on a supernatural phenomenon to get its points across. This means no time travel, no rewinding and replaying moments, and no bunny-hopping between alternate timelines. Chloe’s big gimmick is a Backtalk system, allowing you to start a timed dialogue tree based around finding the sharpest retort in any given situation. It’s a creative twist, but this is also where Chloe’s portrayal wavers between between believable and miscalculated.
Aesthetically, Before the Storm doesn’t stray far from the original game, aside from trading a lot of its depth-of-field trickery for more evocative lighting. The aural landscape is right in line with the previous game’s peaceful, lighter-than-air post-rock soundtrack, though a smattering of edgier songs grounds you in Chloe’s–rather than Max’s–reality. Gameplay is also familiar: walk around, interact or speak with everything you can, and make choices that dictate how Chloe speaks to others and interprets their interactions in the long run. Once again, it’s striking just how many of those tiny interactions there are, and how many you can miss entirely, even if you’re thorough.
The lack of a supernatural gimmick or a central mystery forces Before the Storm to find a new focus for the narrative, and it does, in the form of Chloe’s burgeoning relationship with Rachel Amber. We finally meet this girl who so drastically changed who Chloe Price is, to the point where Max almost doesn’t recognize Chloe the first time they meet in the original game, and whose disappearance sends Chloe’s life into a tailspin.
Here, we see Rachel Amber as she was: A model student, beloved by everyone, undoubtedly ready to achieve her dreams, but whose sunny facade obscures serious damage, the extent of which Episode 1 of Before the Storm barely touches on. The second half of Before the Storm has Rachel and Chloe ditching school on a pure whim, and their day together is a whirlwind of new emotions, surprising vulnerability, and deep-seated resentments bubbling to the surface.
What ends up being the narrative thrust of Before the Storm is the attempt by the physically and emotionally scarred Chloe to let someone into her life after literally everyone who needed and deserved to be has vanished. Where Life Is Strange is a game of uncertainty and naivete blossoming into maturity, Before the Storm is a game of emotional Breakout, figuring out which walls to lower, when, and how to do so. There’s nothing here to solve, no lives to save, just the challenging work of choosing to trust, even love, another human being.
Despite using the same graphical engine, the same gameplay elements, and some shared, familiar locations, the experience of inhabiting Chloe in Before the Storm is a completely new experience. Episode 1 promises a series that uses love and empathy as a sword and shield, the only way to either stay safe or strike back at a harsh life, harsher still by nature of being a teenager. That’s a special ability we are so seldom asked to employ in games and it’s so heartening to know there’s at least two more episodes of Before the Storm where we get to do it again.