‘Life is Strange’ prequel explores teen relationships, sexuality, and loss
Do you, in the shoes of 16-year-old outcast high schooler Chloe Price, see local A-lister Rachel Amber as “just a friend” or is it “something more”?
In a prequel titled Life is Strange: Before the Storm, players get to see and interact with the world through Chloe’s eyes. In one scene featured during an E3 preview, Rachel challenges their budding friendship: how does Chloe see things between them?
“That choice moment isn’t a question of Chloe necessarily deciding what her sexuality is,” lead writer Zak Garris explained. “It’s: what does she tell Rachel? What does she voice?”
That’s heartening. For a game that has already established its choice-dictated story as a powerful platform for saying something about interpersonal relationships, turning Chloe’s sexuality — which isn’t a choice at all — into a branching story moment could easily be misconstrued.
Garris pointed out that there are other moments during Before the Storm in which players can choose the way Chloe characterizes her sexual identity. Allowing players to do so, he said, was motivated by the desire to make her seem like more of a real character.
“It’s a constant dynamic evolution of the relationship” over the course of Before the Storm‘s three episodes, he said. “We feel like it’s more authentic … in terms of how we, as people, relate.”
Deck Nine, the studio taking the reigns from Dontnod Entertainment for this prequel, knew he wanted to dig into Chloe’s relationship with Rachel.
“We hear just enough about it in the first game to know that it was seismically important to Chloe,” Garris said. “But we don’t know the details.”
The first game’s five episodes follow Max, a childhood BFF of Chloe’s who moved away during their respective formative years only to return in the latter months of high school. Rachel is a murder victim by then, and the details of her connection to Chloe are largely a mystery to Max.
“We saw within that ambiguous space a really unique opportunity in games to take the player on a long arc of developing a relationship, with many points of decision informing how that relationship unfolds,” Garris said.
Themes around grief and loss play an outsized role in exploring this relationship. How it applies to Rachel is unclear, but Chloe is a known quantity: she’s still learning to cope after the untimely death of her father two years earlier, not to mention Max’s exit from her life.
“Part of why we chose Chloe … at this time in her life is we saw her as a chance to explore grief,” Garris said. It’s something that everyone knows to some extent or another, even as each person’s connection to loss is highly personal.
“[We wanted to explore] how significant it is when [Chloe] — in this place of loneliness — meets someone else who kind of changes her world. We thought that … fits well with this mythic character that we know from Season 1. You hear things about but never see Rachel Amber.”
Chloe’s grief, alongside whatever Rachel’s going through, creates the perfect circumstance for the two to meet on common ground. In that sense, Before the Storm is an exploration of “how we connect, and when,” as Garris put it.
“Certain relationships we find at a very specific point of time in our lives radically change our lives. Maybe save us, in a certain way.”
Change — especially on the level Garris is referring to — doesn’t happen overnight, or after one snap decision. So when Rachel asks Chloe what their connection means to her, it’s not about defining your character’s sexuality. Rather, you’re fleshing out the narrative texture of the story.
“We fee like it’s more authentic … in terms of how we, as people, relate,” Garris said. “Especially when you’re 16 [and] you have a certain kind of feeling. Then, the next day, you can suddenly feel very differently about a person.”
There’s an obvious follow-up here: how does Garris, a 35-year-old white man, plug himself into the perspective of a 16-year-old girl? How can the script bring Chloe to life when its lead writer has never actually walked in her shoes?
“That’s the right question to be asking, for sure,” Garris said. “Some would say the easy answer is that the craft of writing is about stepping into other shoes and other perspectives.”
That explanation is definitely accurate, he added, but it’s important to note that multiple voices are guiding Before the Storm.
“Culturally at the studio, we really believe that the best and most authentic stories — the first Life is Strange for sure did this — come from a plurality of voices in the writer’s room. So it was very important to me to staff men and women.”
Garris touts Deck Nine’s writing crew as a “diverse team” in which “we all trust each other” and “collaborate in figuring out what Chloe’s voice is, figuring out how we want to explore what her life is like at 16.”
Ashly Burch — who voiced Chloe in the first game but doesn’t return in Before the Storm due to the ongoing voice actor strike — is working with Deck Nine as a story consultant.
“She has — obviously — a real connection to Chloe as a character, and her voice,” Garris said. “She’s also a really successful writer; she’s incredibly talented.”
As the lead writer, the principal focus for Garris is on making sure every voice in the writer’s room is a part of the process.
“In my case, I make sure that I’m not dominating the voice of Chloe,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is cultivate that from the group … and hopefully produce the most compelling story that we can.”