Before The Storm
We Are Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Trevor | June 2, 2018
Life is Strange: Before The Storm is a masterclass in prequel storytelling. Like the average teenager, Before the Storm is a festering tempest of contradictions - beautiful and haunting, light and heavy, uplifting and crushing.
This article will assume you have played both Life Is Strange and Life Is Strange: Before The Storm. If this is you, or if like us, you do not care about spoilers, read on.
I finished Life Is Strange: Before The Storm in early February. Four months later, I haven't stopped thinking about it.
In my hunger for analysis about Before The Storm, however, I’ve been disappointed to find much surface level discussion and little talk of subtext, themes, and motifs. I don’t presume to have any insider information at Deck Nine, but I do know when examining any story, there's a deeper reason behind most choices.
The play Blackwell Academy's theater department puts on is a good example. When you know one potential fate for Arcadia Bay is being wiped off the map by a freak superstorm, is it any wonder Blackwell chooses Shakespeare’s “The Tempest?”
Taking everything at face value, I think, limits our ability to discuss games like Before The Storm where narrative is core to the experience.
With Life is Strange already complete by the time Before the Storm started development, I feel confident Deck Nine set out to craft a story that would stand alone, but still compliment the original. These two texts combined now create something more profound together, yet could be experienced separately without diminishing the individual impact of each work. The history of prequels and sequels in media often fails spectacularly to achieve this and Before the Storm deserves far more celebration for such an accomplishment.
After months of reflection, I’d like to break down my observations to get them out of my head and into the world.
If you haven’t given Before the Storm a chance, I hope I can demonstrate there’s more happening than teenage angst.
The Raven is so pervasive in Before The Storm you can’t advance to a new scene without seeing him. He flies overhead, he’s present in Chloe’s dream sequences with her father, and depending on your attire choices, he even adorns Chloe’s shirt. Deck Nine cared so much about making sure you noticed this Raven he appears on your loading screen.
Many indigenous Americans in the Pacific Northwest considered The Raven to be a Trickster God. It’s a motif befitting Chloe Price, I think. Trickster Gods like The Raven, Anansi, and Loki all represent a rejection of the established order, and the established order has repeatedly failed Chloe.
Someone ran a red light, and Chloe's father never came home. Despite working hard to get into Blackwell Academy, she’s treated as inferior by staff and classmates alike because her family isn’t rich. She’s talented with chemistry and car mechanics, but her soon-to-be Step Father assumes she knows nothing and treats her like a child. It’s no wonder Chloe grows up to see every authority figure as past due their healthy dose of mockery.
Just like any good Trickster, Chloe's actions speak truth to the power structures around her and the consequences be damned. This game’s version of a collectable is Chloe Price tagging walls or documents with her own sardonic wit. It's a small repudiation, but during teenage years when you have little control over your own life, small acts of vandalism are sometimes all the authority you get to wield. For Chloe, it's wielding cynicism at the tip of a pen. When Blackwell finally expels Chloe (or suspends, depending on your actions in the meeting), we see Chloe’s Magnum Opus-- a final goodbye message to Blackwell Academy that sums up all her feelings on the walls of the women's restroom.
Everything Chloe writes on these walls seeks to put the viewer in her emotional state. They are surrounded by the things she see's and hears (or in the case of Max's quote, doesn't hear). Everything she can't escape, the next person to use the restroom will be unable to escape as well. It's not a cry to be heard, it's a demand.
The Trickster motif extends beyond a symbolic kinship between Chloe and The Raven too, however. Even if you have only a passing familiarity with Trickster Gods, you’ve probably seen how they view the world on a cosmic scale, and as such their tricks are often horrifyingly cruel. They end in death and grief while The God in question laughs. The Raven earned a reputation as a harbinger of bad tidings for a reason. As the plaque earlier states, you should respect The Raven, but never trust him.
Giving a troubled young girl a friend she finally feels a semblance of stability with only to take it away soon after is just the scale of awful tragedy I expect a Tricker God to deal in.
Things Betwixt Amber and Chloe
I want to lead into this one by discussing the idea of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”
If you’re the type of person who’s willing to read an article like this one, you probably don’t need me to explain it, right? Humor me for a bit anyway.
The "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" is a concept coined by Film Critic Nathan Rabin. It describes a love interest who bounces into the protagonist’s dull life and teaches them how to live once more, free from their own inhibitions. It’s an oft-criticized trope because the Dream Girl character often lacks any goals or objectives of her own and exists as a mere a prop for the protagonist.
(If you'd like to read the full interview, you can find it here.)
I mention the Pixie Dream Girl trope because at first appearance, Rachel fits the bill. She swoops into Chloe’s life and becomes the soul source of all things good during tumultuous times. She’s mysterious. Charming. Gorgeous. Has a secret wild side. Sneaks into insanely illegal rock shows in non-OSHA approved buildings.
However, much of Episode 1 is dedicated to seeing behind the masks we wear, beyond the assumptions we make about others. Life is Strange is a series talented at imagining people complexly. The more you learn about Rachel and her life, the less she fits the archetype.
Chloe and Rachel click so well, I think, because they find the qualities they lack in each other at a time their weaknesses are being tested.
Chloe sees all she could have been in Rachel Amber. A good student, popular, supported by a happy, functioning, and fully intact nuclear family. When Chloe runs into Rachel at a rock concert, it shatters Chloe’s perception of her as little-miss-perfect. She becomes mysterious, fascinating. A more complicated person than Chloe ever expected.
In Chloe, Rachel sees the awesome power of not giving a fuck.
We don't see as much of Rachel's pre-Chloe life, but based on information the other characters allude to, I think it's safe to infer she survived as a social chameleon at school. The supporting cast isn't shy about voicing their concerns she's manipulative or two-faced. The only thing consistent about Rachel’s social circle seems to be it is not consistent. She has many acquaintances, but few friends.
Everyone has certain defense mechanisims they use to safeguard their emotions. For Rachel, this is her ability to blend. Everyone get to be a friend, but she allows no one close enough to make an honest connection. She alludes to this behavior of hers more directly in The Tempest scene, which we'll discuss next.
Chloe’s wall, meanwhile, is to push others away. Once she sees the potential for rejection approaching, she gets out in front and explodes first, ensuring the rejection happens on her terms. As the invisible force controlling Chloe’s actions, you’ll get a lot of choice in how often Chloe blows up when prodded, but sometimes events get so heated the only choice you're given is what to say as Chloe angrily mocks those around her.
Rachel, who sees to remain amicable with everyone she meets, would never dare act out the way Chloe does - at least, not publicly. Likewise, Chloe can hardly stomach feigning amicability with anyone, not even her own mother. While it's possible as the player to keep Chloe contained, her internal monologue often reveals how agonizing pretending is. Often you're given multiple opportunities to break the illusion and have Chloe say what's really on her mind.
It's Rachel's fondness for Chloe's qualities I found most touching as Episode 1 closed. We're shown many times in "Awake" how every authority figure in Chloe's life tells her to reign in aspects of herself. To behave, to curb her temper, to be nice to the people she can't stand. While everyone else tells Chloe to eliminate these traits, Rachel instead validates them.
Rachel sees Chloe as an incredible badass, but until now Chloe has seen herself as anything but. When Rachel lays on the compliments, You can see Chloe short-circuit as her brain processes what's happening.
We are all broken, I think, in our own unique ways. Parts of us fracture as we grow, cease to function the way they should. Chloe and Rachel are fractured in such a way that their fractures complete each other, filling in one another’s weaknesses.
The scene that proceedes this moment of profound honesty and connection, however, is a perfect example of the damage this duo's defense mechanisms can do.
Before the heartfelt reunion, we get a tumultuous capstone to Rachel and Chloe’s first adventure. It's a rage-driven smashfest, motivated by Chloe’s frustrations with her own shortcomings and her deepest fear being realized.
Earlier, we discussed how Chloe pushes people away before she can be rejected herself. Here in The Junkyard, Chloe’s defense mechanism goes up once Rachel becomes distraught. Chloe interprets Rachel's silence as a coming storm, another agony on the horizon. She lashes out and shoves Rachel away on reflex, her go-to method of conflict resolution (or escalation, really). Her insults fall back on her initial perception of Rachel.
The difference here, however, is Chloe soon realizes she’s pushing someone away she doesn't want to lose. Her reflexes and habits betray her. It’s the first time we see Chloe regret her aggressive outbursts and try to make up for them. It’s here you also have the first opportunity to inform exactly how deep this budding relationship goes -- is Rachel a close friend who gets Chloe, or is this something more?
Regardless of your choice, Chloe ultimately faces what she dreads, what her defense mechanism is supposed to defend her from.
She bears her heart, lowers her wall, and gets refused.
Chloe has done a decent job of keeping her tumultous emotions internalized during the day, but to have something positive in her life again and lose it in mere hours is too much. In a rage, Chloe proceeds to smash everything in the Junkyard.
There's a few things happening in this sequence I'm impressed with.
First, each object you crush is a representation of someone or something that hurt Chloe. I've included the mannequin Chloe projects her frustrations at Rachel on, but every object in the Junkyard takes on a similar meaning. One for each percieved injustice we experienced alongside Chloe during the day. Her soon-to-be stepfather, David Madesen, explains how a spark plug works to Chloe first thing in the morning while working on the car. Chloe knows damn well what a spark plug does -- her father taught her already -- but David dismisses her protests and treats her like an unknowledageble novice. Thus, a rusty tool box becomes David Madesen.
Max, the photography shutterbug friend who's since moved away and gone silent, becomes an abandoned camera.
Another detail I love -- every button on your controller during this sequence appears as "Smash".
There's no mechanical reason for every button to perform the same action. Until now, "A" has been your primary means of interacting with objects, while "Y" is used to observe them. Presenting choices like this on your UI feeds into the feeling Chloe's emotions are overflowing. Anger has completely overriden all your actions.
Rachel and Chloe reconicle after this sequence, but I simply couldn't move on without highlighting how creatively crafted Chloe's outburst is.
The Tempest, Tossed
In Episode 2, Blackwell Academy puts on a production of The Tempest. Through a series of events, Chloe unexpectedly ends up on stage with Rachel. This scene is cheesy, dumb, silly, and yet simultaneously one of the sweetest damn scenes I’ve seen in a game yet.
Listen. let’s be real for a minute. In the context of "The Tempest," Ariel probably would not jump at the chance to leave with Prospero anywhere. She’s a slave, that’s her captor. An eternity traveling with your captor is kind of a raw deal.
But, in the context of Rachel and Chloe’s relationship, it’s perhaps the most meaningful conversation in Before The Storm. While Rachel is on stage (in one of the most well designed costumes I’ve ever seen for a production of Tempest, mind you), she reveals her true feelings.
During Ariel's first scene in The Tempest, things seem to be going fine (Either that or Chloe is absolutely butchering the Bard's words, depending on how well you remember the script). As Ariel's final line approaches, however, Rachel suddenly veers off-book. Prospero normally agrees to Ariel's request for freedom, but Rachel's read on the scene is... unique.
Regardless of your answer to Rachel's improvising, Chloe will voice the same concern. That what is happening between them will not last, that Chloe is merely another plaything to amuse Rachel for a time, until the mystery and suspense in their lives is gone. My favorite version, where Chloe somehow manages to improvise in light iambic pentameter, is this:
Chloe and Rachel’s relationship has been defined so far out of a seeming convenience. Everything has been adventure, excitement, high stakes and dramatic turns. Chloe has had her fair share of excitement in life already, however, and she can’t help but wonder -- if the adventures came to an end, would Rachel still be there? If there was no grand mystery to solve, no rock concert to sneak away to, would Rachel be content to stay? Or would she move on?
Rachel’s response is unexpected.
I believe Rachel Amber is at her most honest here, while pretending to be someone else.
Rachel is an emotional, impulsive person. Once Ariel requests her liberty, I believe Rachel feels the bitter sting of loss, as if Chloe herself had asked to leave. Rather than deliver her lines as planned, she instead uses her feelings to inform her performance. As she's playing a character who has godlike power over Ariel, she outright refuses to grant the request.
Rachel's outburst in this moment is not defined by anger at rejection, however, but a powerful feeling of connection (romantic or otherwise, depending on your choices until now). This now further informs the direction she takes the scene, with a promise to flee the island with Ariel at the conclusion of Prospero's machinations.
No matter how manipulative Rachel Amber may be, I don't believe she would improvise brand new lines in The Tempest, in front of the whole school, just to convince Chloe to stick around for a few days of fun. When you have time to examine her room later, there's plenty of evidence she's passionate about theater. All these alterations are motivated by pure emotion, and Rachel's impulse is to never let Chloe leave her side.
There's another angle to the casting decisions here, too. One potential ending to the original Life Is Strange is the catastrophic end to Arcadia Bay via a freak storm. Rachel's character, Prospero, is a scorcer who wields the weather to concot revenge on his usurping brother.
Perhaps Arcadia Bay's untimely fate is an act of vengance. A supercell sent by Rachel Amber herself as punishment for all the wrongs visited upon her.
A Starlit Room
This scene is one of the last intimate moments our duo spends together before stakes climb to dizzying heights. In it, Chloe is there for a distraught Rachel, who is reeling from the news she is not her mother’s biological child. By Macguyvering a star globe night-light with a high powered flashlight, Chloe brings the night sky to Rachel’s bedroom.
Taking a scalpel to scenes like this always runs the risk, I think, of losing what made it work in the first place. Like taking apart a mechanical watch, you may have a new appreciation for the cogs, but the watch itself ceases to work. If there’s any scene worth seeing for yourself before reading all my nonsense pontificating, it’s this one.
Every prequel story faces the same challenge, I think. The creators have to answer the incredibly annoying question almost every critic will ask. The question is this:
“is this a story that needed to be told?”
Take one glance at the internet’s collective hate of the Star Wars Prequels, and the consequences of failing to answer this question adequately -- or worse, answering it poorly -- become clear. (Though with the rise of Prequel Memes, perhaps Episodes I-III have been redeemed.)
This sequence in Rachel’s bedroom answers the question with no ambiguity.
When the scene starts, Rachel shares her optomistic view on stars. However, the recent bombshell her family dropped negatively colors her perception.
The conversation turns to how Rachel feels about her real mother trying to get in contact. Namely, if they do meet, what would she say to a woman who is essentially a stranger? In an effort to sooth her fears, Chloe tells Rachel about the dreams she has of her father, and how she always seems to be able to find the words to say.
Rachel pauses for a while, and finally says:
Chloe’s story about her father reframes the stars for Rachel. She realizes that although Chloe’s father is gone, he still has a profound impact on her daily life. Like a burned out star, his light remains in her life.
Players who've finished the original Life Is Strange know the future, and this analogy takes on greater meaning. We know what lies ahead for Rachel. Her untimely end is around the corner. We never knew Rachel Amber in Life Is Strange -- we saw the profound impact her life had on Chloe, the remnants of her existence around Arcadia Bay and in the Junkyard, but we didn’t know a thing about her. She was a face on a poster.
Now we do. She’s a star long burned out, but here in Before The Storm, we finally get to see her light, years later. Even though she’s gone, we’re still better having seen it.
While writing this article, I went back and played the original Life Is Strange. The scene where Max and Chloe find Rachel’s body has a tremendous power over me now, one it did not in my first experience. Prior to Before The Storm, Rachel was a plot device, a catalyst to propel Chloe and Max into action. To use an analogy from the series that inspired Life Is Strange, she was the Laura Palmer of the story. Sure, I felt bad for Chloe’s loss, but Rachel was no one.
Now, after Before The Storm, this scene is devastating. Rachel Amber has been given a form, given life, and I know what was taken away. Rachel and Chloe found each other when they were most in need of someone who could be what they weren’t. Chloe found the validation and support she got nowhere else, and Rachel found someone who loved her for who she was, and not who she could pretend to be. Someone who could see through her veil.
And it was all taken away in one horrific instant.
When Chloe says through sobs “What kind of world does this,” I am now right there with her. Rachel’s departure hurts us both.
A Streetlit Stroll
I left us on a dour note there.
I'd like to try and bring us back to something happier, because I believe positivity better represents the feelings I had as Before The Storm ended.
Sadness and pain were factors, sure, but I remember the beauty more than the pain.
In every good Shakespearean tragedy, there's a moment where things could've gone differently. Where the characters have some realization or opportunity they fail to follow through with, putting them on a collision course for misery. For Rachel and Chloe, this moment directly antecedes The Tempest.
(Also like any good Shakespeare play, intimacy happens fast. This is only the third day Chloe and Rachel have known each other. Two and a half, really.)
After the play, Chloe and Rachel stroll down the street. Rachel is feeling a tremendous high after a successful performance. She spins from the streetlights like a regular Gene Kelly.
The two speak of the future, of what's to come. Both are unhappy with the current state of their lives. As they walk, Chloe and Rachel fantasize about the future. They imagine a world where they are their own masters, free to travel the world. Two runaways out on their own.
While at first Chloe is enjoying the fantasy, reality sets in. Chloe is far too used to a world where she doesn't get what she wants to join Rachel in her joy.
Rachel asks what it would take to convince Chloe she's telling the truth. There's a lot of options here, but given everything I'd seen, only one felt right.