In my time as a games critic I’ve seen a lot of spin off titles; it’s not uncommon for publishers to take an existing franchise and pass it off to a new studio to put a fresh spin on its formula. This is often an opportunity for a development team to explore new ideas and mechanisms that don’t fit with the established conventions of the series, bringing additional depth to an already existing game universe. Predictably, however, they aren’t all good—for every Tales from the Borderlands, there’s an Escape Dead Island. So when Life is Strange: Before the Storm, a prequel to the hit 2015 game Life is Strange, was announced, my response was reluctant acceptance. Could an entirely different team possibly hope to retain the honest raw depth that made the original so popular in the first place? The answer would surprise me.
While it would be easy to assume that Square Enix is handing off the prequel due to a lack of commitment to the series, it’s actually quite the opposite. The publisher is completely aware of why Life is Strange “works” and is adamant that anything related to the original game retains the key elements of its recipe for success. In my interview with Before The Storm lead writer Zack Garriss and co-director Chris Floyd, Garris describes the opportunity to write a Life is Strange game as thrilling and intimidating. The Deck Nine team were already huge fans of the original. The studio initially got on Square Enix’s radar due to a cutting edge script writing tool set known as StoryForge, and their passion for storytelling lead to an offer from the publisher to create the prequel. From the get go there was a lot of pressure to live up to the legacy established by the predecessor and the legacy it inspired. Once they adjusted to the shock of being handed an opportunity to write an entry for the series, they were full of ideas of where the story could go. Says Garriss, “It was super important to [Square Enix] that any studio they considered working with was up to the task. They put us through months and months of tests to see what we can produce from a content standpoint, what kind of stories we would write. Did we understand Life is Strange, did we have a personal connection? They wanted to work with a partner who would creatively own the story they were telling. They were demanding in a very wonderful way.”
My initial questions about Before the Storm concerned the lead character Chloe, and what kind of research the team did to write from her unique perspective. While co-director Chris Floyd has a teenaged daughter, Garriss admits he has no direct insight into what it’s like to be a girl of Chloe’s age. He stresses that it’s important to remember that while he’s the lead writer, there are two other men and two women on the staff, and the process was in part informed by the character’s original voice actress, Ashly Burch. Her involvement came about initially because the team wanted to her reprise the role, but respected her position with regards to the voice actor strike. They gave her a copy of the game’s script, and Burch “fell in love” with it, expressing a desire to contribute to the project as a writer instead of a performer. The team also benefited from the other women in the writing room, including 20-year-old Mallory Littleton.
Says Garris, “I’m the oldest at 35, the youngest is a 20-year-old, she’s still in college. So she has a very different perspective on issues of voice and story from what I do. And the way that we strive to honor what a sincere version of the story about Chloe and this time of her life would be is having a culture of open criticism within and around the voices of each of us contributing the formation of the story. Mallory, at 20, has my encouragement and my demand to challenge my ideas as she sees fit. As a community of writers we have a trusting discourse around what’s working, and what’s not. We’re figuring out Chloe’s experience together.”
Burch’s work as a story consultant was particularly key and, Garris says, would have been insightful even if, as Chloe Price’s original voice actress, she hadn’t been so personally connected to the character. She especially contributed to the framing of Chloe’s relationship with her stepfather, David. At the time of Before the Storm, Chloe’s mom is still dating him (they are married in the original Life is Strange), and conflict arises as Chloe comes to see the relationship as a sign that her mother is ready to move on from the death of Chloe’s father, even though Chloe is not. “There are elements of David’s personality that preclude the chance for Chloe to build a relationship with him no matter what. But the fact that he’s stepping into [her father’s] shoes, whether he’s willing or not, means Chloe hates him. I think Ashly brought some wonderful insight and challenges to me about honoring the ways in which that relationship could be more complex.”
As I approached the writing team for this interview, I also had some concerns about the impending social impact of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. The game’s narrative mechanics raise some red flags with regards to their context for female dissent. The teenage years are when many women receive the majority of their social conditioning with regards to self censorship and female obedience and I myself, having grown up in an abusive household, have a lot of experience with this; my parents were fundamentalist Christians and kicked me out when I was 16. From my perspective, “troubled” young women are often dealing with something else: they don’t act out for no reason. So to see that conflict potentially placed in a negative and condemning context, one that seems to value authoritarianism, is concerning to me. Young woman already have a lot of pressure to repress their emotions, to the benefit of those who wish to downplay or invalidate their right to object. When I hear the world “backtalk,” what I hear is, “You should respect my authority without question”—a sentiment poised for exploitation.
Garris seems to agree. “There’s almost a preset position that speaking your mind is disobedience,” he says. “In Before the Storm we’re inviting people into Chloe’s shoes, and our goal is to explore grief and loss, and the kind of resentment that can create. But we’re also on a higher level exploring simply what it is to be a teenager. [At that stage] so many aspects of your life are controlled by other people. You are learning and developing a desire to be your own person. Even the discovery of who you are, and the performance of who you are, you are still subject to hormones, and feelings and context that you can’t control. Gender identity, sexuality, any kind of interpersonal relationships, and how you express yourself, what your voice is, what you like, all of that is constantly in flux. We want to look at how brutally difficult that is and say, ‘That is really hard’.”
Shifting back to an earlier comment of mine, he adds, “Backtalking is not a replacement for the rewind [mechanism], it’s one of many ways in which we’re saying Chloe’s world is different from [Life is Strange protagonist] Max’s. We’re deliberately designing a space where we’re showing that every single day for Chloe is a fight…that there are oppressive systems in place, when you’re a teenager, when you’re a woman… It’s an exploration of how imprisoning the world can be and simultaneously, the joy and the freedom that can come when someone else looks at you and says, ‘You can be exactly how you are right now. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to need space, it’s okay to not need space.’ It’s the magic that happens when you get that kind of acceptance, when it’s not a prescription from society telling you that you have to fit certain expectations. It’s an invitation to be who you are. That’s what the game is about.”
Adds Floyd, “I’ve always seen that there’s been a built-in irony of that term backtalk. The way we use it is kind of describing that moment from the perspective of Chloe’s antagonist, respected. But what the player experiences in the game, we intended those to be moments of empowerment and her pushing back. I think that’s what players will see. We’re also really excited as the series goes along to take that mechanic to a couple of unexpected places that I think are going to change the player’s perspective on it as they go along.”
As we closed the interview I reflected on Garris’s words about interpersonal connection, and the sentiment that “it’s okay to not be okay.” Says Garris, “I definitely sympathize with that. My interest in the story comes from a very personal experience of not [being okay].”
I find the sentiment immensely compassionate. Teenage girls need to hear that more often. I think we all do.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.