So the highlight of Microsoft’s 2017 E3 conference was, of course, the reveal of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, the prequel series to Dontnod’s narrative-driven adventure.
Despite being a self confessed, obsessive Life is Strange fan. I can’t help but feel a little cynicism here. Not only does a prequel to Life is Strange feel unnecessary (the mystery behind Rachel Amber’s fate, and Chloe’s troubled past was answered in season one) the three episode series isn’t being created by DONTNOD, with little-known studio Deck Nine Games taking the lead here. While the studio has claimed they won’t be touching upon the events that lead to Life is Strange, it seems unlikely that the knowledge Rachel Amber’s eventual fate won’t be hanging over the events. A cynical observer could suggest this project has been shovelled over to a third party in order to build hype for the upcoming second season.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for the game to be interesting, however. There’s enough material in Life is Strange’s DNA to allow for a prequel that feels distinct enough to compensate for its lack of time control mechanics.
Upon release, Life is Strange attracted criticism for leaning a little too heavily on its Twin Peaks inspirations. Not satisfied to simply have the popular girl in a small town meet a grizzly fate under supernatural circumstances – DONTNOD really wants you to know how great Twin Peaks is, you guys. Instead of relying on subtle thematic clues, the game would prefer to bludgeon you with their Twin Peaks winks and nods to get the point across. Whilst the game is riddled with equally subtle pop culture references, DONTNOD seem particularly eager on getting David Lynch-senpai to notice them. It’s adorable, really.
The similarities between the two victims, Rachel Amber and Laura Palmer are equally as obvious. Two young girls, universally loved by everyone in town, dead (or “missing” in Rachel’s case) under mysterious circumstances. The girls are remembered by their loved ones as kind-hearted images of purity, but as the mystery unfolds they reveal themselves to be more complicated and troubled than they previously seemed.
With all this in mind, there seems to be an obvious source of inspiration to draw on if we’re going to be seeing the full story of what really happened to Rachel Amber.
Fire Walk with Me is the 1992 Twin Peaks prequel film, released after the cancellation of the TV series after its disappointing second season. Much like Before the Storm, the film attracted criticisms from fans who, desperate for a continuation of the Twin Peaks saga, had little appetite for what was seen as an unnecessary prequel. As an answer to why viewers needed to be re-told the fate of Laura Palmer, the film adopted a thoroughly darker tone to the TV show it was born from. Twin Peaks fans knew how the story would end for Laura, but they weren’t prepared for how brutal things got along the way. Whilst still keeping to Lynch’s surreal tone, the film moved away from the charming Agent Cooper and his cherry pie. Fans already knew that Laura was going to die, so the film had to deliver its emotional hits harder and frequently. Like how your mum likes it.
For Before the Storm to be a success, this seems a good place to start. If the series simply replicates the tone of the original game, the lack of rewind power is going to increasingly feel like a handicap. You don’t release a Gears of War game without an impractical chainsaw/machine gun hybrid, nor do you make a Life is Strange game without some sort of supernatural powers. The best way to avoid this is to ell Rachel Amber’s story in an entirely different manner to Max Caulfield’s. Max’s story, a coming of age tale where she learns grows in herself and encounters the darker sides of the world reflected her character and narrative arc. Rachel’s story must do the same.
Fans will begin Before the Storm knowing both that Rachel is doomed to die, and the exact nature of the events that lead to her death. Deck Nine Games should embrace this. Judging by the trailer, we’ll be opening the three-part series with the sudden death of Chloe’s father, and her subsequent depression. This prequel series should embrace every dark aspect of Life is Strange and roll with it. Even the peaceful moments should be undercut with the knowledge that everything is about to go wrong. Make the lack of a rewind mechanic more than a handicap – make it a feature. Make the feelings of powerlessness in the player reflect Chloe and Rachel’s powerlessness to change their fate.
Life is Strange told the story of Max and Chloe reuniting, and their relationship blossoming as time went by. Before the Storm needs to tell how Rachel and Chloe were brutally torn apart. Players shouldn’t wish they could rewind time because they’re used to it, they should want to rewind because their soul is crying. Tell the story of a troubled girl and her tragic end at the hand of a twisted man who abuses his position of authority. Show every detail of a family torn apart by the sudden loss of a sickeningly jovial father. Have the tone of the three episodes reflect the downfall of Chloe Price and Rachel Amber.
If Before the Storm is going to be anything more than an expensive advert for the second season, it can’t hold its punches. Make me cry, fellas.