Saturday, September 02, 2017

After the Quake

I pre-ordered Life Is Strange: Before the Storm approximately thirty seconds after it was announced. That isn’t normal for me - I think the only other games I’ve pre-ordered in the past decade, not counting Kickstarter pledges, are Dragon Age: Origins and Inquisition. But I’ve been really hungry for more LiS goodness since finishing it last year, and I was eager to show my support for this type of game.

I had only fleeting second thoughts afterwards. Before the Storm has a different developer (Deck Nine replacing DONTNOD), and due to the ongoing voice actors’ strike, all of the voice actors have been recast. That second aspect made me briefly consider canceling my pre-order, more out of solidarity with the strikers than any concern with the new actors’ talents. That said, as far as I can tell there hasn’t been a general call to boycott struck games, and I still really wanted to play this one, so I decided to go ahead with it. It definitely helps that the new developers brought on Ashly Burch to help write… it’s good to see at least some form of continuity with the earlier entry.

The first episode just came out. I’ve been looking forward to playing it, and also looking forward to playing it now. One of my few regrets about LiS is only playing it after the whole game was released, so I missed out on a lot of the community development and involvement as the story was evolving. I’m now somewhat plugged into those communities and looking forward to shared reminiscing and speculation.

There can be a temptation when you buy a game at launch to try and rush through it, so you can finish it before any elements are spoiled. But one of the many things I love about Life Is Strange is its deliberate sense of calmness, of slowness: despite its reputation as an emotional game, the majority of it urges you to take it easy, to enjoy your surroundings, to dawdle. So I’ve been savoring every moment with this game: carefully reading through Chloe’s journal, catching up on text messages, exploring every nook and cranny of the environment.

My overall impression of BTS so far is “Same, but different,” which is exactly what I want. Those elements that I loved in the original are here: the stillness, the empathy, the beauty. At the same time, this is emphatically Chloe’s game and not Max’s. Her voice is different, her actions are different, her approach to the world is different. It’s been a perfect mix of “more of what I wanted” and “new delights”.

Before dipping into mini spoilers, a few random notes, mostly as points of comparison:

The game looks GORGEOUS. In particular, the character animations are a lot better and more detailed. Not that the ones in the original were bad, but they seem much more expressive this time. That’s true in the big moments, when tempers are running high, but also striking in the quiet moments, like when you’re pausing on a dialogue response and Chloe is just looking at the other person. This is another area that illuminates the difference between Max and Chloe: Chloe has much more attitude in everything she does, getting into peoples’ faces and being noticed, where Max was more of a wallflower.

Colors and lights look amazing too, very vibrant and pretty. The opening couple of scenes have some great interplay between darkness and light which produce some really striking results.

As a side note, the overall art direction maintains the painterly aesthetic of the original game. This is especially pronounced for printed materials (photographs, magazines, posters), which are very impressionistic. There are a few specific areas, though, where objects look much more realistic and detailed. It isn’t bad, and isn’t especially noticeable, but did seem slightly jarring. And... it's been a while since I played the original, do the mirrors in there work? Because the mirrors in this game look awesome, and I feel like that's a new thing.

They’ve done a phenomenal job at recreating the locations of the original game. I’m actually really curious about the technology behind this: from what I understand, the original was build in Unreal, while the new one is in Unity. I’m not familiar enough with the modeling systems in them to know whether they could just pull the original assets over and modify them, or if they needed to rebuild them from scratch. If the latter, I am very impressed by the result!

Along the same lines, the change in voice actors is somewhat noticeable, but doesn’t really take me out of it. The new actors do a good job at capturing the overall tone and rhythms, and are pretty easy to buy as being the same characters. Some, like Joyce in particular, are dead-on replications. Only a few, like Dana, feel a bit off. Most are in the Chloe range, where you can sort of tell that it’s different, but it’s so close that it doesn’t really matter.


I do like all the subtle ways that they’ve updated the game mechanics and systems to match the new protagonist. The collection system is a great example. In OG LiS, Max took photographs at certain interesting sites. The overall idea in BtT is the same, but since Chloe is a juvenile delinquent instead of a budding photographer, she tags spots instead of capturing them. One thing that I really like about this is that there’s a choice involved, where you get to decide WHICH of two potential pieces of graffiti to write. I really dig how this can be an opportunity for expression.

Speaking of expression, I like that you can change your outfit. I’ve mentioned this before, but I am WAY more invested in my characters’ appearance in video games than I am in my own appearance in real life, and I spent a lot of time trying on different shirts and mulling various looks. It might seem like a little thing, but I like it a lot: another chance for you as a player to impact the game, and in subtle ways it can change the overall feel of the story. (I thought that I read somewhere that other characters would react to your sartorial choices. If that’s the case, I haven’t noticed it yet. I hope that that isn’t something which is only available for the default outfits - it would be a bummer if everything BUT the deluxe threads had something special associated with them.)

The journal has changed a bit too. The overall idea is the same: when you complete a major area, another page or two are added that describe your actions and your thoughts about them. But in this game, they are letters that Chloe is writing to Max. She never plans to send them, but they’re the things she would want to tell her if they were still speaking. These are great, especially Chloe’s voice in them, but they’re also wonderfully heartbreaking, since each time you are reminded of the multiple gaping holes in Chloe’s life.

One change that I was initially a bit apprehensive about was the addition of “backtalk”. This is sort of a conversation mini-game where you try to persuade someone by arguing with and/or insulting them. It’s totally in character for Chloe, and has a lot of great lines associated with it. I was a bit bummed by the addition of a timer, which feels a bit Telltale Games-y and contradicts the overall mellow play-at-your-own-pace vibe of the rest of the series. That said, in practice I’ve been enjoying it a ton. It’s always very clear when you’re entering Backtalk, so you can mentally prepare yourself for that, as opposed to the QTE-style surprises that bug me in other games. It probably helps that I’ve been doing pretty well at them; I’ve beaten every one in the first episode, and in fact, only had one point of one node where my opponent managed to “land” a single argument.


One point of minor controversy in the community leading up to the release of BtS was concern that the new developers were un-gay-ing Chloe. I avoided all pre-release gameplay footage and stuff to avoid spoilers, but apparently there were some comments along the lines of “Oh, you can decide whether Chloe likes Rachel or not” that rubbed people the wrong way. I am please to report that Chloe is, canonically, hella gay: even outside the choices your character makes, you can infer her preferences from her words in the journal, the art on her wall, etc. (One wrinkle is her relationship with Eliot - she makes it clear that she hooked up with him, but equally clear that she doesn’t have any emotional feelings for him. The only people she sounds interested in are women. I think that’s very much in keeping with her portrayal in the original game, where she had condoms in her jacket but 100% of her focus is on other ladies.) Especially considering how low-key the first couple of episodes in LiS were, with lots of subtext and the big movements only happening starting in Episode 3, I feel like they’re running ahead of the curve on this iteration.

To expand on that a bit more... yes, it's true that you can help guide how Chloe responds to Rachel, and can make a big choice near the end where you can confess romantic feelings or simple friendship. But it seems to me like this has more to do with this specific relationship than with Chloe's identity. Deciding that she wants to be friends with Rachel doesn't suddenly turn her het. It might be that her feelings for Max are too strong (and, wow, that journal is intense - "Put your thoughts in me"), or her grief is raw, or you just don't think they're clicking. Anyways! This probably isn't a big deal to most people, but I'm happy with how they seem to be handling and portraying her identity.

The episode feels decently long and covers a lot of ground. It felt a little like going through a compressed version of the entire five-episode arc of the first season. We have the sense of peace and calm that permeated episodes one through three; the intense emotional outburst in the junkyard here rivals the similar scene in episode four, and may even exceed it (I think enlisting the player in this sequence as an actor and not a spectator is brilliant game design and really effective); and the dream in the car is a lot like a short version of the episode five nightmare, especially in the journal and cell phone. So, that was all good on its own - it feels like we got a lot of meaty stuff right off the bat - and also is super-encouraging since it's a good demonstration of their ability to hit all the right notes.


So, yeah! It feels like things are off to a really solid start so far. Especially considering my uncertainty around the change in developers and actors, it’s been a pleasure and a relief to have such a satisfying outing. I’m already feeling regretful that we’ll only get three episodes of this story and not the five of the original. But, that’s what all great art does: leave you wanting more. For the most part I'm content to wait and see what they have in store for us next; my one specific hope is that they can bring back Ash and Hannah for the bonus "Farewell" episode. Fingers crossed that the strike is resolved by then; if not, I really hope that they can find a way to involve Hannah similar to how they've enlisted Ashly. Maybe she can perform a song or something?

I took an insane number of screenshots while playing this. Like, seriously, an average of five per minute over the 4+ hours I played, it's probably the most photo-dense game I've played. I'm too wrapped up in my Shadowrun stuff to properly annotate them at the moment, so I'll either edit this post in the future or maybe make a small one-off post with them once they're finally sorted and ready.

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