The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Awake, feels like a retroactive justification for the choice I made at the end of the original game. Chloe Price, the friend and potential lover of Max, the protagonist, found herself the subject of Life is Strange’s final decision: Travel back in time and let Chloe be killed, saving the town of Arcadia Bay from a storm caused by Max’s repeated use of her supernatural abilities, or let the twister claim the lives of everyone in their hometown all so Chloe could live.
Chloe is a polarizing character. She’s the angsty foil to the mild mannered Max, often unkind to those around her, and is so short-tempered and reckless she makes several situations worse. But this is all due to the tragic loss of her father, resentment for those she feels have abandoned her, and an overall distaste for her situation. In the original Life is Strange, playing as Max meant the game had to tell instead of show how Chloe became the girl she was by the time she and Max reunite. By putting me in the shoes of Chloe as she’s in the thick of all these changes in her life, I felt more validated in my seemingly selfish choice to save Chloe in the original game. Chloe’s story is all the more affecting when I didn’t have to infer it, and while so far Before the Storm seems to frame her as more of an angry, disrespectful teen—which can conflict with the tone of the episode overall—I hope it feels as redemptive for her to others as it felt to me.
Awake begins with Chloe at a rock concert meeting the two characters we know play a large role in what’s to come based on the the original Life is Strange: Rachel Amber and Frank Bowers. Rachel is a popular student at Chloe’s school and Frank is her weed dealer. Chloe, clearly out of her element at the concert despite what she attempts to convey, is saved from a pair of skeevy men by the two, and proceeds to dance the night away without a care. News of Chloe and Rachel’s newfound friendship begins to spread around Blackwell, and eventually the two meet up and decide to ditch class together in favour of something a little more interesting: A train ride where they can really get to know one another.
At the outset, Before the Storm manages to improve upon some of Life is Strange‘s known snafus. Character models, even those of characters who aren’t major players in the story, appear more lively and animated than the original, including the much maligned lipsyncing issues that became especially apparent as the episodes went on. There’s more attention paid to the cinematography of each scene and the more dynamic shots and animation make Before the Storm’s portrayal of Arcadia Bay and its citizens stand out against its predecessor.
This awareness of Life is Strange’s known faults also extends to the sound. While the soundtrack, both the licensed one and the indie folk band Daughter’s lovely score, is still wonderful and perfectly captures the ambient, emotional tone of the story, the script and voice acting feels more authentic. While original actress Ashly Burch’s absence as Chloe is jarring, across the board there’s a more lively sense to everyone’s performances, and the restraint used with potentially dated slang makes the dialogue listenable, and in a lot of cases fairly clever, which is great because so much of Before the Storm is driven by that dialogue.
Without the use of the original game’s time travel mechanics, Before the Storm’s decisions and dialogue come with a greater sense of weight than Life is Strange proper. I couldn’t just use Max’s abilities to see both outcomes of any one decision, so if I made a decision I had to mean it and live with it. While this does make the moment-to-moment of Before the Storm feel a little less remarkable, it does add a dramatic tension that was often lost in the original game. There may not be a lot at stake in these conversations—whereas things became life or death when I played as Max—but now it matters that I make Chloe say what I want rather than testing the waters of each outcome.
The relationship between Chloe and Rachel, one that I was free to nudge in either a platonic or romantic direction, is a good example of this. At first, I was hesitant to flirt with her, as our friendship was new and despite her seemingly flirtatious intentions, I still didn’t know her and didn’t want to jump ahead into anything too quickly. This all came to a head later in the episode when Awake laid out the question of what kind of relationship I thought Chloe and Rachel had. I finally took the leap and told Rachel outright I thought our relationship was something beyond platonic. While the ramifications of this aren’t yet known, and Before the Storm makes a pretty reasonable case to hold off on talking specifics of their relationship beyond the initial choice, Awake sold me on the idea that these two could be more than I felt Max and Chloe were in the original game, whose relationship I never personally bought into as romantic.
Beyond Rachel, Awake delves more into the Chloe’s relationship with her mother Joyce and her step dad-to-be David. Joyce is worried Chloe’s rebellious streak is going to lead her nowhere in life while David is more than happy to assert himself as a new father figure. Both Joyce and David feel in-line with how they were portrayed in the original game, but Before the Storm’s new “backtalk” mechanic recontextualizes Chloe’s portrayal in bite-sized ways I wasn’t exactly comfortable with.
Backtalk segments put me in argumentative conversations with various people throughout the episode, and the labeling of these sections as such doesn’t sit well with me. Two notable examples jump to mind: One with David and another with a bully at Chloe’s school.
With David, I seriously felt he was overstepping his boundaries by making claims about Chloe he had no right to—referencing her deceased father and claiming she needed him to come into her life to fill that role. The bully, who was humiliating another student and threatening to destroy his portfolio of art, was another example where “backtalk” felt like a strange way to refer to fighting against him. Sure, much of Chloe’s responses were insults, but there’s a strange implication to calling these interactions something that is typically used to delegitimize a child or teenager’s words. By letting me play as Chloe, Before the Storm does a good job at making me sympathetic to her cause, but calling her standing up for herself or others “backtalk” makes me wonder just how sympathetic Before the Storm is itself. Labeling these interactions as backtalk likely was just perceived internally as a cute way of differentiating these interactions from others, but I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at its implications, intentional or not.
Awake makes a solid case for revisiting Chloe’s past to contextualize her future. I spent a lot of time talking about the blue-haired punk when Life is Strange was rolling out in 2015, and so often found others weren’t taking to her the way I did, in spite of the points where she felt too standoffish and angry for me to be as close to her as I would’ve liked. However, Before the Storm feels like a second chance at winning people over. Chloe is angry, but she’s not a brat just looking to push away people who are trying to get close. While I always knew why this was the case before, I’m ready to see it now, and Before the Storm is doing a great job of giving me that extra peek behind the curtain.