Life is Strange: Before the Storm is an amazing game, and I think that needs to be said straight away. Episode One was fantastic. Not only do we get inside Chloe Price’s head, we also get to throw the abuse, insults and colourful language she’s famous for. Without Max Caufield as the angel on her little punk shoulder, Chloe is free to sow mischief and chaos across Arcadia Bay on her self-destructive, lonely and wholly empathic journey. She’ll burn bridges, make bad jokes, and finally meet Rachel Amber.
But however well-written episode one is, however emotional and honest the ride is, there is a lingering problem.
For the first time in the series, we actually get to know the infamous Rachel Amber. Her tragic disappearance served as Chloe’s principal motive in the first Life is Strange, and her absence was a powerful source of drama, tension and uncertainty. And with that, comes the problem. In meeting Rachel, we’ve lost something from the original.
In a story of subversion and the supernatural, like Life is Strange, what you know is just as important as what you don’t. And not just important, knowledge can deeply effect the story and enjoyment for the player, and changing that formula post the original can have lasting effects. Just look at community reactions to retcons, or the community engagement that comes from a vague plot-point to see what I mean.
As Max, we only learned about Rachel through the other characters, and what we learned was simple, she was ever popular, intelligent, beautiful and cool. In other words, she seemed impossibly perfect. She was a member of the cool kids Vortex Club, a straight-A student and a destined actress. She subverted the cliques of Blackwell Academy and somehow managed to do so unscathed. All this, from our perspective as the dorky and nervous Max, seemed impossible. And coming from a host of unreliable narrators meant the player could decide what was true about their Rachel Amber.
Clearly, she couldn’t be everything, or so I decided, when everyone seemed to know and love her. So maybe some of the characters had reason to lie about their relationship with Rachel? Or maybe Rachel lied about her relationships to others? Each of us playing through Life is Strange will have seen her differently, from what subtext we picked up on to what we believed of the information we were given.
But Before the Storm changes that. From the very beginning of the game, we see her. At first, it’s only a glimpse, a silhouette in a mosh pit. Then it’s a brief encounter. At these points, she is still limitless, undefined by concrete characteristics. But then we do get to meet her. We get to know her. No longer is Rachel a recounted memory from someone else perspectives, but a character with her only personality, agency and motives.
And I did love that. Rachel’s relationship with Chloe and the player is remarkable and really really enjoyable. You can finally see who Rachel is, how she might just appear impossible to someone like Chloe who was desperate for a connection. The game even goes on to highlight Rachels perception, telegraphing how easy it would be for her to appease everyone. It feels like the final jigsaw piece slipping into place.
But for me, the complete image isn’t as powerful. She was a mythical creature. Impossible, intangible and existing only in the minds of a few that believed in her. With her taken off the pedestal and shown to be a character as flawed and interesting as the rest takes away something from the first Life is Strange, however good Before the Storm is.
It’s a hard concept to come to terms with. I think Deck Nine have done incredibly picking up the story and mood and characters so well. But at the same time a bit of me, just a tiny bit, resents that they’ve shown the man behind the curtain. Like dragons, mermaids and Santa, there is something special about the impossible, and when they disappear into what is possible, a bit of magic is lost.
I can’t wait for the next episode of Before the Storm, but I’m not sure Life is Strange will ever be same since I got to meet Rachel Amber.