Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode Two
Deck Nine Games
October 19, 2017
“Dread” isn’t the first word to come to mind when I think of Life is Strange: Before the Storm episode two, but it’s the one that fits best.
It’s easy to get swept up in the high-stakes emotions of the second episode; that’s what being a teenager is all about, isn’t it? There isn’t a single moment of episode two that isn’t heavy with emotion, from the first scene, where (in my playthrough) Chloe refuses to let Rachel Amber be punished, getting herself expelled instead by playing up her bad reputation, to the final scene, where emotions and lies and secrets and revelations create an atmosphere so explosive I honestly expected things to go Firestarter.
Being a teenager, at least, in my experience, was riding one emotional wave to the next. Everything felt amplified, blasting straight into my brain like the pop-punk I constantly listened to at max volume. Nothing was simple or fleeting or anything less than the single most important moment I had ever experienced, and that’s precisely how Before the Storm feels. From the highs to the lows, it’s impossible to stop feeling, not matter how unintentionally goofy the series might sometimes get.
These emotions are deftly handled by Deck Nine and lead writer Zak Garriss, who balances the delicate line between reminding us of the titular forthcoming storm and letting us exercise control over the story. After Chloe’s expulsion, she goes to decompress in the junkyard, where she begins repairing the truck that players of the first game will recognize as hers. Finding a new battery and selecting objects with which to patch the truck’s many flaws are puzzles only in the barest sense; it’s obvious what you have to do, and it’s only a matter of choosing what suits your image of Chloe best.
From there, you meet up with Frank, drug dealer and bean-lover extraordinaire. He assigns you an unsavory task—Drew owes him a thousand dollars, and since The Mill burned down in the wildfire Rachel started (oops), he needs it now. Getting it is a matter of sneaking into the dorms of the school you were just expelled from, but none of that tension compares to what happens in Drew’s bedroom. Without spoiling too much, you’re forced to make two important decisions, neither of which feels particularly good, and both of which land everybody in worse positions than they were initially. It’s these kinds of emotional stakes that games need more of; you’re not choosing between right and wrong, and the game doesn’t attempt to moralize at you. Actions have consequences, and that goes for all your actions, not just the ones that may have a morally correct answer.
But the scene that sticks out most from episode two isn’t any of the high-stakes, major-consequence ones. It’s not Chloe being expelled; it’s not the revelation of the final scene—it’s the interaction that takes place between Chloe, as The Tempest’s Ariel, and Rachel, as Prospero, on stage. Chloe is wildly out of her element, forced onstage by Rachel’s insistence after an attempted sabotage takes one of the actors out of commission, and the two go entirely off script. The original scene, where Prospero reminds Ariel of how much he owes him, instead becomes one in which Rachel, as Prospero, tells Chloe, as Ariel, how dear she is to her. Instead of ending the scene with Ariel pledging allegiance to his master, the two main characters instead decide to run away together in search of happiness and excitement free from their bonds.
It’s this moment that makes the word ‘dread’ the one I most associate with episode two. After watching The Tempest scene, I paused. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was—the kind of mushy, emotional, hopeful scene I dreamed of as a romantic kid who just wanted to get away from all the things that troubled me.
Instead, I thought back to the first game. I thought back to the scene in the junkyard, where Chloe and Max find Rachel’s body. I thought about the heartbreak in Chloe’s voice and how, even in a game packed full of melodrama and awkward language and downright goofiness, the emotion in that scene was so raw and powerful. The Tempest scene is what I wanted. The junkyard scene is what I got.
When we talk about harmful tropes, we’re not just talking about cliches or not liking the direction of the story. We’re talking about this particular sense of dread, the feeling of knowing that these fleeting moments of happiness will only end in tragedy, because tragedy is what we get in queer narratives. This isn’t Before the Storm’s fault; it’s the result of making a prequel to a game where two canonically queer women can die and filling that game with all the emotional moments that make up a relationship, good and bad. Because I know how the story ends, I can’t help but feel that heavy sense of dread, even as I enjoy the scenes where Rachel and Chloe get to know one another, test one another, and ultimately kiss as ash rains down from the sky.
Before the Storm is good—better in some ways than the game that came before it and worse in others, such as the use of non-union actors and the disappointing results. We get to see and create all the parts of Chloe that were only hinted at in Max’s recollection before, or locked behind implications in Ashly Burch’s performance of the character. We see Joyce, a single mother, doing her best to improve Chloe’s life and sometimes screwing it up, as all parents sometimes do. We get to know the mysterious Rachel Amber, all her flaws, all her passion, all her energy.
And yet, that feeling of dread. Maybe it’s a sign of how much I’m enjoying the game that the plight of fictional characters makes it so hard to continue playing. I want to know what’s going to happen, but I already know. I want things to work out, but I know they won’t. I’m rooting for these two kids to get into that dilapidated truck and ride off into the sunset, just as Max and Chloe did at the end of my Life is Strange playthrough, but it’s not going to happen.
Instead, I have to enjoy the emotional ride, crossing my fingers and hoping, somehow, that everything is going to be okay.
**Sidequest was provided with a review copy of this game in exchange for a fair and honest review.**