Thursday, December 21, 2017

Category Five

I really, really enjoyed Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. On its own terms it is a thoughtful, endearing, transcendent story. In the context of the original Life Is Strange, its emotional highs make the latter game's depressing lows all the more devastating. Returning to this universe is asking to be hurt again, but there's a lot more pleasure to be found alongside the pain.

Quick context on my own situation: I played a bit of the final episode when it came out on Tuesday, finished it last night, had trouble sleeping because I was thinking about it and me so much, and am putting down my reactions now while they're still fresh. I'm still in media-blackout mode; after I hit "post" on this, I'll be rejoining the various social circles related to the game and start researching the things I'm curious about. I'll let this original post stand, with the expectation that it is full of mistaken assumptions, baseless speculation, and outright mistakes.

Before diving into spoilerville, a quick somewhat-time-sensitive note: Before The Storm has been nominated for the Steam Community Awards, so give it a vote! You can only vote today, DO IT NOW. It was placed into the Choices Matter category and not the Haunts My Dreams that the publisher had been angling for; I suspect that competition would be easier in Haunts My Dreams, but Choices Matter is a more logical category and was my first instinct during the nominating round. I anticipate a lot of online discussion about how much choices can matter in a prequel, which leads right into one of things that's foremost on my mind right now.

MINI SPOILERS (for Before the Storm, mega for Life is Strange)

I'm VERY curious whether and how much the dialogue in this game was written or updated in reaction to the community's engagement. One of the benefits of an episodic game is that developers can track what people are responding to and shift later development; for example, it sounds like they added some more scenes for Steph after she became a breakout character in Episode One, and during the original season DONTNOD specifically wrote a coda to Kate's arc in Episode Four after the reaction Episode Two got.

There were a couple of parts in episode three ("Hell Is Empty") that seemed like a direct response to or commentary on fan reaction to the prequel. The conversation in Rachel's bedroom near the start of the episode vocalizes the problem that many players have with the very existence of the game. "What does any of this matter, when we know what happens to Rachel anyways?" becomes "Why look at these stars, when they've already been dead for millions of years?" Answering the second question helps us answer the first. Knowing that something will fade, change, or vanish doesn't negate the goodness or beauty it has in this present moment. EVERYTHING eventually ends, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't love or enjoy anything. In some ways, knowing that we have a limited time makes it even more important for us to embrace those experiences while we can.

But, this conversation also works extremely well within the context of the episode itself. It's sort of planting a seed for the "truth or happiness" question that looms over the episode. More than that, it's directly foreshadowing the eventual transition into the first season of Life Is Strange. Which, of course, is something that these characters will experience as well, not just the players.

The other segment that had a sort of meta- feel to it was Eliot's tirade against Rachel. His words could have been lifted verbatim from some of the more heated shipping wars between Pricefielders and Amberprices: Rachel is "Fake", "Manipulative", "Using". (Disclaimer: I'm a Pricefielder, but, in the words of Samuel, "No one is just one thing.") It's hard to disprove accusations like those, but, as portrayed here, it's driven more by the feelings of the accuser than actual evidence. In Eliot's case, it's on his own behalf; for many fans, it's on Max's behalf. I was reminded of a fantastic quote from one of the developers, along the lines of "Performance can be a heightened expression of genuine feeling." Rachel IS a good actor, and is very aware of the effect she's having on Chloe: but that doesn't necessarily mean that she doesn't mean or feel the things she says.

The very ending of the game was BRUTAL, and swiftly brought me from a happy and contented high back down to a crushing sadness. But, I do respect the developers being very clear about the canon and the prequel's place in it. It must have been very tempting for Deck Nine to write their own path and make this game their own, but they're honoring the original vision and tone of Life Is Strange and making it clear that their vision is subordinate to DONTNOD's. In a weird way, I can't help but feel partially responsible for this stinger: if people like me hadn't been so vocal in wishing for an alternate timeline or other escape for Rachel, maybe they wouldn't have felt compelled to drive the point home so forcefully.

It's almost impossible for me to make decisions in this game without thinking about what happens in the future. The single hardest choice for me this entire episode was whether to accept David's overture. I probably sat on that screen for two minutes, scowling, racking my brain as I thought through all the implications. I still don't like David, and I hate the overall situation he's putting Chloe in, but, after thoroughly examining that specific encounter they're in, I couldn't think of a single good reason not to accept. It's obviously hard for him, and is a complete reversal from his previous attitude and actions: he's asking, not demanding, is sharing, not prying; most importantly, he's showing his own vulnerability, rather than projecting his toxically-masculine macho self. Despite all the shitty things he has done and the shittier things he will do, I do want to encourage that mode of behavior from him, partly for my own sake but even more for his. (And, in a more cold-blooded vein, I also reasoned that, if I declined, it would reflect much worse on me than on him. I didn't have any good reason for turning him down, so it would have come across as pure spite, and further damaged Chloe's relationship with Joyce.)

Speaking of toxic masculinity, and in contrast with David, I did maintain my hardline anti-Eliot stance. For starters, it is WEIRD that he showed up in the hospital to visit Drew - they aren't on the same team, and I don't think we've seen any evidence that the two know each other. Based on what we learn later, I now wonder if this was another instance of stalking (which would be weird on its own, but, who knows, maybe Steph posted about seeing Chloe or something and he rushed down). I resisted every opportunity to fill in Eliot, politely but firmly telling him that it was none of his business. This gets more intense in the office, where I continued to rebuff him, and was mildly thrilled once I realized there was a chance to call the cops on him.

This section was hard. It's the only Backtalk I failed in the entire game, and I was determined to succeed, so much so that I restarted the checkpoint each time. I think it took me something like six tries to get through it. I absolutely love the concept behind it - you need to carefully choose your words so that the dispatcher can understand what's happening, while not tipping off Eliot to what you're doing. In practice, it's super-hard because it's impossible to know the tone in which the lines will be delivered. I was convinced that "I fear for my life!" was way too blunt/obvious, and didn't realize until selecting it (on the third try) that she would deliver this line about Rachel instead of Eliot. Because the cut-scenes aren't skippable, I ended up spending... gosh, probably almost half an hour getting this to turn out the way I wanted. I was satisfied in the end, though.

I am curious about what other directions this can go in. If you accepted Eliot's invitation in episode 1, take the tickets, and share stuff with him about Rachel, is he more understanding? Or would he feel even more entitled to Chloe's affection, and even more jealous of Rachel? I'm not going to find out myself, but several of the Let's Plays I'm tracking have been kinder to Eliot, and I'm curious to see how those turn out. Who knows, maybe you can even enlist him as an ally or something.

The Eliot segment (as least as I played it) is particularly interesting to think about in terms of empathy and what the game is having you do.  Probably a fair amount of Life Is Strange players are men, and experiencing that creepy encounter from the other side might (might!) help them understand how the other party feels. Eliot is such a perfect manifestation of "nice guy" syndrome, the idea that he's owed affection because he did things for her, and similar thought patterns that I think a lot of us unthinkingly fall into. Again, though, I don't know how this goes down if you take a more diplomatic approach with him, and if so, whether it would seem like a justification for his behavior or would end up exploring another aspect to it.

Is Eliot right? As noted above, I don't think so - I think Rachel really feels what she says she does. But, people do change over time. If, one day in the future, Rachel is no longer kind to Chloe, someone like Eliot would take that as evidence that she was never honest or loving with her. The game very subtly seeds this idea in the junkyard - when Rachel first sees Frank, there's a bit of a reaction between the two, so quick and quiet that you could easily overlook it, but, knowing what comes in the future, it's very easy to read as a spark of chemistry. Between that spark, and Frank's sacrifices on her behalf, I can finally kind-of sort-of maybe see how those two could possibly have ever connected. Again, though, what happens tomorrow doesn't negate what's happening today. Rachel can feel something for Frank while also feeling far more for Chloe.

There were a few odd things about the hospital, on top of the question of what Eliot was doing there in the first place. Why is Sean Prescott paying for Drew's hospital bills? Anonymously? It doesn't seem like Sean is a big sports guy, especially since the foundation is pouring more resources into arts funding. My only thought at the time was that Sean was somehow paying Drew... to bully Nathan? That doesn't really make any sense. Or is Sean somehow involved in the dug trade, and wants to keep Drew active? Again, that doesn't make sense: the amount Drew is bringing in costs way less than a freakin' knee surgery. Sean definitely doesn't seem like someone motivated by compassion. Who knows... maybe he has his own sick mental fantasies, like he wants to keep Drew in action as a foil to Nathan, so Nathan can "face his fears" and "show strength" and all the other scary stuff Sean wants for his boy.

I was a little bummed that there was so little Steph in the hospital; I think there were only about four lines for her. Per the post-game choice breakdown, there was an option for "Played Tabletop" that 0% of players did, which makes me think there might be a bug in the game. Or maybe I missed it by talking with Drew first: I did the backtalk and stole his pudding, after which Steph and Mikey only said something like "You're scary!", which is the sort of thing that usually gets said after you've exhausted dialogue. Or, maybe tabletop is only an option if Mikey's injured, like maybe you need to fill in for him; that still wouldn't explain the 0%, though.

I've always kind of liked Rose, and I really liked her after our interaction in the hospital. She's so kind and welcoming, not as uptight as she initially seems. There's a really interesting exchange between her and Chloe in the kitchen, after Chloe asks her about James kissing Sera. Rose says something like "You might not understand, but after we've been married for thirteen years, I'm not worried about him." Chloe responds along the lines of "You're right. I don't understand." Chloe is still in passion, in the bright and early flames of a first love. Rose and James are deep in commitment, when the embers are less visible but are also much harder to extinguish.

As a lot of people have noted, Chloe and Rachel's relationship is moving extremely quickly. They've only been hanging out for a couple of days. Given that, though, I think it's really impressive that their relationship is advancing not only so fast, but so far. Rachel's weakness and vulnerability in the hospital allows Chloe to provide true comfort, which is an incredible dose of intimacy. Situations like that are an accelerant on their relationship, advancing them to the kind of bonding that would ordinarily take far more time.

Some random notes before dipping into mega-spoilerdom:

As always, I spent a fair amount of time agonizing over the choice of outfits. I was very tempted to wear the red plaid shirt, which does look good and I thought would be a nice nod to the influence Rachel is having on Chloe. I eventually decided to stick with the jacket, though, since I thought it looked cooler. And then Rachel shows up in the junkyard wearing a jacket, too! I may or may not have said "Yessssss" when that happened. I mean, I know this is all scripted; but in my game, Chloe's been wearing jackets, and now Rachel has started wearing them, which means that *I* am having an influence on *her*!

There were so many great parts in this episode, but one unexpected highlight was fixing up the truck. Chloe's character has always had a generally butch aesthetic to her, but I think this is the first time in any video game that I've seen a woman portrayed like this. I love seeing Chloe in this element: figuring stuff out, unafraid of getting dirty, taking full pride in what she's doing and who she is. And, really, that's one of my favorite threads through this episode, right up there with the Rachel relationship: Chloe turning into the woman we know in Life Is Strange. She's always been fierce and brave, but we're seeing her gain the confidence that defines her. And we see that it's Rachel who brings out that part of her: Chloe is inspired, pushes herself to be better and, at the same time, can relax and be herself, knowing that she is loved.

I had no money at all at the start of this episode. I'm decently happy with how all that turned out. It looks like anything you have left over can be turned in to the firemen fund, which is a nice action, but less personally impactful than the previous decisions. I'd previously complained about how dumb the situation with Drew was, how his knee was worth vastly more than the grand. I'd given him the money to assuage my own guilt, not with the expectation that it would make any kind of difference in his family's life. So I was surprised and encouraged to learn that it actually did make a significant and positive impact. In small-town Oregon, a grand is enough to rent an apartment, which means that their dad is now off the street. And Mikey now has a stable home. The money itself probably won't last super-long, but it might be enough: it gives the Norths some security, which will make it a lot easier for their dad to find work, which could break him out of this spiral. That would be huge!

Similarly, I was touched to see that, thanks to the money I slipped into Joyce's purse, she ended up holding onto Williams' wedding ring. As with the Norths, I'd been skeptical that this would actually make any difference: I was thinking in terms of Chloe's tuition, and this isn't nearly enough to cover that. But between this money and getting expelled, it has relieved the immediate financial burden on Joyce, allowing her to hold on to this object that does, after all, still have meaning to her. Granted, this doesn't have an enormous impact on the rest of the story. It isn't like Joyce says "Well, I was planning on marrying David, but since I can hold on to this old wedding ring, I'll tell him to beat it instead." But it still feels meaningful, to both Chloe and to Joyce.

Random note: I think I laughed longer and harder at Chloe watering her plant than I have at anything else in all eight extant episodes.


I'm still not 100% clear on the timeline with Damon and James. Here's my current understanding:
  • James has been investigating Damon for a while. He knows how connected Damon is and how powerful, but hasn't been able to put him away yet.
  • Sera comes back into town. She wants to reconnect with Rachel.
  • Sera and James exchange texts. Rachel sees these texts and gets suspicious.
  • James rejects Sera's request, but agrees to meet with her in person.
  • Episode One starts.
  • James kisses Sera, then forcefully tells her that he won't let her see Rachel.
  • Sera has her lawyer serve legal notice to James that she wants (and is legally entitled to) reasonable contact with her daughter.
  • James reaches out to Damon. In order to prevent contact between his first wife and his daughter, he wants to get Rachel hooked on heroin again. Damon agrees, with conditions.
  • Episode Two starts.
  • Sera goes to see Frank. Why? I'm not sure!
  • It doesn't sound like she's using any more. She might still have contacts from her earlier time in Arcadia Bay, so maybe she's dealing, but that doesn't seem likely.
  • She is in James' org chart of Damon's gang. She might be a dealer, but I now suspect that James was setting her up, building a fake case against her so he could put her away. So, for example, James might have asked Sera to meet Frank, just so James could get a photo of her associating with known drug dealers.
  • Sera goes to see The Tempest. How does she know about it? Maybe just flyers around town, I doubt that James would have told her. (I wouldn't be surprised if Sera has a Google Alert or similar set up for Rachel Amber - she won't initiate contact, but does seem to know a bit about her daughter. That same website we saw in the Drama Lab may have alerted Sera about the play.)
  • I guess Damon maybe kidnaps Sera that same night?
  • Episode Three starts.
  • Chloe calls Frank asking about Sera.
  • Frank tells Damon that one of his clients is asking about Sera.
  • Damon gets spooked. He thought this was just a one-off favor for James, but now it seems like more people know about this. He wants to learn more about what's going on.
  • At the junkyard, Damon realizes that Rachel is James' daughter, but doesn't know that she's Sera's daughter.
  • I don't know if Damon thinks that James sent Rachel after him as part of some elaborate sting, or what.
  • Regardless: Damon is motivated by earning money and staying out of jail. James is motivated by keeping his daughter and making sure his daughter thinks the best of him.
  • Damon is probably trying to scare Chloe and Rachel into telling him what's going on, whether he's being set up or not.
  • Things get heated and they start fighting.
  • Damon is furious, but probably also realizes that Rachel isn't directly involved. But he's even more motivated to take care of Sera, since she's a complication that exposes him to more people than he'd like.

I really liked meeting Sera. I also really liked the varying versions of her story that we heard. It's definitely in line with the Life Is Strange tendency towards unreliable narration and subverting and reversing our understanding of characters, though the whiplash on James might be the fastest we've encountered in the series. I was sympathetic towards her from the start, at first in a heavily-qualified way and later in an exuberant way. I'm looking forward to replaying the game and interpreting all of the previous information in this new context.

One of the big iconic moments in the game has been the sight of Sera smoking as the fire burns at the end of Episode One. In the moment, it seemed incredibly sinister, and I was full of speculation: was she somehow encouraging the fire? Rejoicing in the destruction it wrought? I still don't know the answer, but I now have a far more mundane yet powerful explanation: Sera was feeling incredibly stressed out, was tempted to ride the horse again: she'd gotten clean specifically so she could reunite with her daughter, and if that wasn't possible, then why was she torturing herself like this? But she didn't: she smoked her cigarette instead, and smiled, because even when faced with the horrors of the world she was staying true.

At the mill, I tried hard to convince Sera to reconnect with her daughter. I'd previously discovered the letters Sera had written, almost by accident; they're very easy to miss in James' office. The letters came up a couple of times as options, and seem like they might have helped. I thought that this conversation was doomed to failure, but, per the post-episode choice breakdown, it is possible to let Sera and Rachel meet. Only 9% of players got this, though, so I don't feel as bad for missing out on it. Flipping through the "major choices" of the other episodes, I've started to suspect that asking Rachel for her bracelet instead of a kiss would have helped here. It's Sera's bracelet, and the fact that Rachel held on to it for so long would mean something to her, as well as further establish my own bond with her daughter, which might lend more strength to my words.

If that is the case, I do really like the thematic idea here. Denying yourself some happiness in the moment in order to accomplish something bigger for the person you love. Maybe let the passion burn a little less brightly at the start, but in the process forge a stronger bond. As soon as I post this, I'm going to look up what all goes into that outcome; I wonder if this is another point-based outcome, where you need, say, 3 out of 4 opportunities to go your way.

At the end, I really didn't hesitate much at all before telling Rachel the truth. First of all, that's definitely the Chloe thing to do: throughout both the prequel and the original series, she's always been fearlessly truthful, and had no tolerance for lies from others. In my own life, I'd be much more likely to take the kinder approach to spare those I care about from pain. But, as I reflected, looking out into the future makes it even more compelling to be truthful. If Chloe and Rachel are going to get married, then they really shouldn't be keeping secrets from each other. Just imagine what would happen if, five years from now, Rachel were to find out about Sera and James? AND discovers that Chloe has been lying to her this whole time? That would be devastating! As hard as Rachel took it when she first learned that James had been lying, finding that from her own wife would be a hundred times worse.

Rachel wanted to leave Arcadia Bay two days ago, and telling her the truth reinforces that desire. It sucks for Rachel, but also lets her deal with it, and deal with it alongside someone who loves her unconditionally. Not everyone feels that way; I was a little surprised to see that only 51% of players took a similarly truthful route. I'm sure a lot comes down to individual playthroughs, though. In a platonic friendship route, I can definitely see the appeal of allowing Rachel to be happy at the end of three agonizing days.

Quick reactions to some of the finale scenes:

Good riddance to Eliot. I am a bit curious what other outcomes are possible here.

I felt a little bad for Nathan. But after watching the post-credits stinger, I'm now feeling good again about my decisions. At least one survived.

The scene with Victoria was a little weird. She sees Evan and, um, decides to become a photographer? Okay.

I had mixed feelings about David's proposal. In the moment, and in the context of this episode, I'm happy for them. For the other seven episodes in this series, I'm upset.

I LOVED all of the end scenes with Rachel and Chloe. They're vibrant, loving, carefree. It's interesting to see Rachel still (sometimes) at home; after the eruption in the hospital, I would have thought she'd be out for good. I guess she's just fifteen, though, and can't exactly emancipate herself. This does set up everything very well for the continuity of Life Is Strange, with how well Joyce knew Rachel.


The balance of game-y elements in this episode was interesting. It was front-loaded with a lot of graffiti, and back-loaded with most of the backtalk. The graffiti itself starts to feel different, too. Up until now, virtually every graffiti has provided two options and given you the choice of which to do; the only exception I can think of is the "canon wall" from Episode Two. But here, as we approach the end of the episode, almost all of the graffiti is predetermined. Our choices are removed. I wonder if this is intentional, a reflection of our lack of influence as we head from the vibrant freedoms of Before The Storm into the strictures of canon continuity.

After finishing this game, I'm less optimistic than before that we'll get another Before The Storm sequel covering Chloe and Rachel's time together between 2010 and 2013. I did start to wonder if we might get a mini-series or one-off specifically for Rachel: there are still unanswered questions about what exactly she was up to immediately before the events of Life Is Strange that could be compelling to explore. Upon further reflection, though, that seems even less likely than another Chloe game. Rachel's always had a larger-than-life mystique, and it would be hard to maintain that as a playable character. And, to quote Rachel herself, "Life needs a little mystery." Just because there are open questions there doesn't mean they should be answered.

On the other hand, though, there do seem to be strong spin-off possibilities. Steph is an obvious choice, a fan-favorite who embodies many of the best aspects of Life Is Strange while also being a very distinct and fresh persona. It might be harder to do a sequel with the Norths, given the various outcomes in the game, but if you set it a few years later with them as young adults I think it could work really well. And, hey, Samantha can come along too! While I have my own speculation about her, she doesn't have the canon encumbrance that other characters do, and would be a terrific Max-style anchor for a new series.

Okay, that's it for now! Awesome game, it would definitely have been my Game of the Year if it wasn't for the final ten seconds. If history is any guide, I'll probably have at least one or two more posts in the coming weeks as I digest all of my Feelings and Thoughts and synthesize them with the collective knowledge of this incredible fan community.

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