The main characters mostly work, but everyone else? It's a mess.
All images courtesy Square Enix
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, a prequel series to the unexpectedly brilliant episodic drama, shouldn’t have worked, but it does. The relationship between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber is genuine, pure, and most of all, believable. This is despite notable turbulence behind-the-scenes, which resulted in the game’s production relying on voice actors who were willing to record lines during an active voice actors strike.
(Such people are often dubbed “scabs." The etymology behind the word is fascinating.)
Voice actress Ashly Burch memorably defined Chloe in Life Is Strange, making the switch to Rhianna DeVries jarring. I know what Chloe is supposed to sound like, and though Before The Storm is set in the past, there’s no way to narratively justify why she’d sound so different. Instead, you have to roll with it. There’s plenty of reasons to criticize DeVries for stepping across a picket line, but in the context of Chloe, she did an okay job. Same for Kylie Brown, who voiced Rachel. They make the relationship work.
The rest of the cast, though? Woof. You get what you pay for—or don’t, in this case—and it proves a real problem when the game is trying to sell traumatic moments requiring a grasp of gravitas and subtly to help it land. The game doesn't pull this off.
Before the Storm’s third and final episode, Hell Is Empty, launched over the holidays, but I only had a chance to play it over the weekend. It’s mostly a mess—some risky storytelling doesn’t pay off, the main characters are separated for most of the episode—but there're enough emotional beats to make it worth seeing Rachel and Chloe’s story play out. It’s worthwhile context for Chloe’s reaction to Rachel’s later disappearance.
Warning: What follows are spoilers for the game’s final episode.
At the end of episode two, it’s revealed that when Rachel’s father secretly met with a woman in the woods, he wasn’t cheating—it was Rachel’s biological mother, a woman struggling with addiction now claiming to be reformed, and hoping to meet Rachel. Rachel smashes the family’s glass dinner table in protest, leading her father to confess to a lifetime’s worth of lies. The revelations are overwhelming, and Rachel to retreats to her room to catch her breath. Before heading upstairs, Chloe spends a few moments with the Rachel’s parents.
Watch this exchange with Rachel’s mother, Rose, courtesy of Youtube’s MKIceandFire:
For all intents and purposes, this woman has been Rachel’s mother, but in the past few minutes, that reality has been shattered for her daughter. There’s no way to know how Rachel will react. Will she still view her “mother” in the same light? Will the weight of the lie prove too much, despite the loving home Rose seems to have provided?
There’s so much history to unpack here, but absolutely none of it comes across.
It’s no better with Rachel’s father, James, either.
Flat, flat, flat. This sounds like temporary voice over, what you toss in a game to make sure the team can begin building and animated the scenes, while the production crew works on finishing the writing and recording the audio. Instead, the episode’s emotional core is delivered with the passion of a robot being fed the game’s script.
(That might be offensive to robots; Alexa and Siri sound pretty good these days??)
Last year, I wrote about how Telltale’s games were having trouble delivering on their central appeal—story—because the dated technology used to build them was making it increasingly difficult to play the games and even tougher to take what was happening seriously. Life Is Strange has fewer problems on that end, but like Telltale, it trades on making you invested in the events on-screen. Before the Storm has even fewer “mechanics” than the original, meaning story is more vital to its success, pushing quality voice acting extremely high on the list of things the game needs to nail.
I’m sure the voice actors strike made it harder to find the right talent for Before The Storm, but everyone could have waited for the strike to wrap up, too. When I interviewed lead writer Zak Garris at E3, he said the developers considered waiting for the strike to resolve, but pressed on because “it felt more heartbreaking to give up on what Before The Storm was and could be.” That’s not exactly a satisfying answer.
Before The Storm works, despite these problemss. But frustratingly, it’s easy to see how it could have been better. The easier path is one that lead to a worse game.
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