Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

“Before the Storm” ensnares the heart

“Before the Storm” ensnares the heart

In a growing genre of video games exploring their characters’ inner lives, this one stands out

In a growing genre of video games exploring their characters’ inner lives, this one stands out

Darryn King | December 14th 2017

As “Life is Strange: Before the Storm” begins, it has been two years since the protagonist, an angst-ridden 16-year-old named Chloe Price, lost her father in a car accident. Exploring the family home, the player discovers poignant signs of absence and heartbreak: a book called “Love and Loss” on a bedside table, the ghost of a picture frame removed from the wall, a quote from a pawn shop for a wedding ring. If sifting through the intimate fallout of a family tragedy doesn’t sound like the usual stuff of video games, then “Before the Storm” is not a typical game. It’s a game, instead, where the player’s purpose is to explore the inner life of its central character.

“Before the Storm” is a prequel to the original “Life is Strange”, released in 2015. There the central character was a friend of Chloe’s, Max Caulfield, who had the ability to rewind time. While the main arc of the story involved Max her using her powers to save Arcadia Bay, the leafy Oregon suburb where both games are set, from destruction, the gameplay also took you through the labyrinth of teenage life, from romantic entanglements to depression and suicide.

Both parts of the series fall into a growing genre where the emphasis lies on emotional depth rather than snazzy gameplay. “Heavy Rain”, a noir thriller from 2010, boasted impressive production values, but its character-driven writing and taut, tangled Hitchcockian plot made it feel like a kind of interactive cinema. “Until Dawn”, which came out in 2015, was a game in the style of a gruesome teen-slasher flick, but was deepened by a novelistic approach to point of view, in which players assumed control of eight different characters, one at a time. Even in “Mass Effect”, a bestselling space saga in which you go to war with tentacular extra-terrestrial machine-beasts, you find ample time to romance the crewmate of your choice. Doing so is not an optional extra to give a conventional plot an emotional gilding. Failing in romantic adventures reduces you chances of success in military ones.

In that company, “Before the Storm” feels exceptional. Released in three episodes (parts one and two are available now; part three and a bonus fourth episode are on the way), the developers have sheered away action to further intensify emotion. There’s no murderous rampage or galactic menace to bravely endure. The game is primarily concerned with the character’s enduring grief over her father, her testy relationship with her mother, and – a life line for Chloe – her infatuation with a new ally named Rachel. There are objects to track down, codes to crack and conundrums to puzzle through, but the essential task in “Before the Storm” is to guide Chloe in her interactions with other characters at home and at school, as her emotional life is revealed in diary entries, emails, text-message conservations and dream sequences.

There is no “wrong” way to guide Chloe, but the dialogue and behaviour you choose for her will affect how each interaction and relationship pans out. Choosing between up to three dialogue options in any given conversation, she can be kind or cruel to her weary mother, answer back to the principal, come to the rescue of one classmate and sabotage another, and decide whether the friendship with Rachel will blossom into something more. In a vividly written and pivotal scene in the second episode, it’s up to you whether, roped into a school production of “The Tempest”, Chloe is a success on stage or bombs disastrously but hilariously.

Giving such small-scale material narrative momentum relies on sharp writing, and anyone familiar with verbose teen dramas like “Veronica Mars” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will feel right at home. The script is full of wicked, sardonic wit, and Chloe, voiced by Rhianna DeVries, injects her lines with considerable sass. “You could have a flamethrower, an army of robot ninjas and a motherfucking dragon on a leash in there,” she tells a burly bouncer, “and I would still kick your ass.”

It doesn’t hurt that the games are so aesthetically pleasing. The colour and detail can make playing “Before the Storm” feel like wandering through a William Eggleston photograph. Each setting is beautifully detailed. One of the earliest is Chloe’s bedroom, which bursts with adolescent chaos: graffiti scrawled on the wall in the spaces between band posters, concert ticket stubs, a tattered journal, old photographs, a humiliating school report card, a marijuana stash under the bed, and, beyond the door, the muffled tones of parental exasperation. A tender scene between Chloe and Rachel, played out under streetlights at night, makes full use of the poetic prettiness of deserted suburban streets.

When the original “Life is Strange” series concluded after five episodes in 2015, players mourned openly online. The subject line of one discussion thread was typical: “How long does post-LIS depression last?” “Before the Storm” seems destined to leave a similar lasting impression. It doesn’t just dazzle the senses but ensnares the heart.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm is available for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One