We got our hands on Before the Storm, and caught a glimpse of what happened before the events of Life is Strange.
At E3 this year we not only found out that Life is Strange: Before the Storm was coming, serving as a prequel to Dontnod's 2015 game Life is Strange while focusing on Chloe instead of Max, but we also saw a gameplay trailer where Chloe sneaks off to a concert on her own, a section we also got our hands on ourselves when we visited Square Enix in London last week.
Like we say, the level we played has been shown in the trailer above, so we won't cover old ground too much, but here we get a taste of the options available to us as we explore the world. Like Dontnod, Deck Nine has made it so that you can look at and interact with a lot of the things around you, and one example is that you can pull the handbrake of the car that the t-shirt seller is using, so you can steal a t-shirt for yourself, but when you take the shirt you also notice the guy's money (around $200 USD). You can either choose to leave it or steal it, and here's where actions versus consequences come in.
"Yeah, we built on the same foundations of gameplay as Life is Strange, the first season," Deck Nine co-game director Chris Floyd told us when we spoke to him over a conference call at the event. "So exploring places, looking around, getting Chloe's thoughts, how she feels about the people around her, for sure, is part of it. Choices and consequences are absolutely critical. So we look very carefully at the choices Chloe can make, how they affect the people around her, and then we have some unique gameplay mechanics I think we're planning to talk about in the future that really embody Chloe's personality in gameplay."
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While we didn't get to see extended consequences given our short gameplay demo, we did ask Floyd about this, and whether this leads to replayability, and he said this involves "going back through the game and trying different things, making different choices - we'll have some pretty hefty choices, some pretty weighty choices to make - and we'll also have a lot of I think unexpected consequences from some of the things you do. So going back and seeing what might turn out differently I think, especially the fans, will really enjoy doing."
As we walked around the venue for this concert in Chloe's shoes we also interacted with some familiar figures who will no doubt be important for the story, including Frank Bowers, who hooked us up with weed after we gave him the $200 dollars we stole from the t-shirt seller (we owed Frank backpay), and Rachel, who's been in a lot of the promotional content for the game. After we'd accidentally spilt drink on someone at the gig, gave them attitude, and got cornered by them, Rachel helped us out by distracting the aggressors, allowing us to knee him in the groin and flee.
We asked Floyd to tell us a bit about Rachel's inclusion in this game, and he said: "Boy, yeah, I mean obviously I don't want to spoil too much, but Rachel was such a mythical character from the first game. Everybody was just talking about 'the girl who's missing' and it really crafted this image of kind of this perfect girl, and [...] troubled girl as well, with little secrets. That's all stuff that we really want to remain true to. We know [...] more than anyone how important Rachel was to [Chloe], so that's why our story is really about what happens when a special person comes into your life at the right time and sort of changes everything, and Chloe is a character who's grieving [...] for the loss of her father, for her best friend Max being away, she's drawn further away from her family, her mother. Rachel is this great catalyst for her to potentially break out of that. But also this story about broken characters doesn't just apply to Chloe and it really starts to show how these people, both of them need each other. It's not just Chloe needs Rachel but Rachel needs Chloe as well, and they're both going to change each other's lives."
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As we played and moved around as Chloe, hearing her inner monologue, you could certainly tell this was an angsty teenager, but most importantly, you could tell this was Chloe. Granted, she's got less of a "screw the system" attitude, and more of a "you can't tell me what to do" attitude, and there's less assuredness about her, but this is still the same Chloe we know: rebellious, care-free, and sometimes a bit reckless. We could graffiti, steal, and mouth off to people just in the 15 minutes we had, which is pretty different to the options you had with Max in the first game, as is the inner monologue, which is full of a more cynical and derisive world view.
"We sort of honed in on Chloe pretty early on when we were developing our story," Floyd told us. "You know, we considered a lot of other characters to be our main character, but there was just something so appealing about the rawness of Chloe, about her brash nature, especially in contrast to Max. Max was such a soft, gentle, timid character, and Chloe is sort of the opposite of that, and the more we thought about that, the idea of inhabiting this character who's one of the wrecking balls who's just going to bash through the things that get in her way, really felt like a different game experience sort of embodied in that character, and that had a lot of appeal to us, and felt like it would really add to both of our [games], to see it through those eyes."
The second part of the game we saw during our time with Square Enix was a hands-off demonstration, the day after the concert in-game. Here we woke up and had a good chance to survey the room (which was obviously messy and disorganised). Clothes were everywhere, band posters were on the wall, and given the choice of what t-shirt to wear, the choice was obviously going to be the one we'd stolen the night before from the show.
We were then told by our mum that our stepdad David was going to give us a ride to school, at which point Chloe shuddered. Before going outside to see him, though, the video gave us a guided tour of the house (in about ten minutes, we saw what we were told was a quarter of the stuff in the house, maybe less), and this was a quieter affair. The noise in the gig mirrored Chloe's own attitude - loud and abrasive - but here this was more about the calm daily life, which also comes with a sadness. At one point we walked past a collage of photos Chloe's father had taken, for instance, and Chloe speculates when they'll inevitably be taken down, and in another moment we pass the outline of a family portrait that used to be on the wall, and Chloe morosely remarks that she can't even remember what picture used to be there.
This builds into the believable and relatable nature of Chloe's character. "What [...] we resonate with, at the end of the day, with Life is Strange is these relatable characters in real world, difficult situations, and trying to figure out how to navigate those, and that's definitely something we have in our game," Floyd said when asked about the absence of supernatural powers. "Chloe does not have the ability to rewind in time, she doesn't have any supernatural power. I mean, obviously that was a big part, and a wonderful part, of the original game, but when we looked at it we had a number of reasons why we chose to go the direction we did."
"First of all that rewind power is really an embodiment of Max's character and her situation and the themes of the original game, you know, her indecisiveness and this question of 'what if you could take the choices back?' really fit Max's personal dilemma and that's what that story is about. Chloe is such a different character that that kind of reticence, that hesitance that's part of the rewind power didn't fit [...] So we looked for other ways to bring the supernatural into our game than a direct player power."
Another important character was then introduced to us after we had explored the house and the memories it held, and that was David, who you may remember from Life is Strange. He's changed very little, even down to the haircut and moustache, and one of the first things we hear about him is him being described as a "blowhole" or "jerkoff" or something to that effect (a sentiment we find hard to disagree with).
This is at the start of the relationship, though, and the atmosphere is very hostile. After making sweeping generalisations about women taking too long to get ready, clicking his fingers to summon Chloe, and patronising her knowledge about cars, he then demands a toolkit, and Chloe is confronted by the fact that his stuff is already being moved in, while her dad's old stuff is getting forgotten or moved entirely. This is epitomised by the big toolbox (bigger than her dad's old one) that her stepdad takes it upon himself to leave there.
After you help your stepdad fix the car you then have the option to fistbump him, which was declined in the gameplay we saw. This seems to us to suggest that, although this directly feeds into events with Chloe and her stepdad in Life is Strange, you may still be able to alter the relationships around you in ways like this. Most importantly, though, this introduction to the stepdad means that newbies can also jump on board with this game, and won't need to know the relationships from Life is Strange to enjoy it.
"We've tried very hard to make sure in a certain respect this game stands alone, even though obviously it's filling in the gaps from season one, showing you directly a story you've just heard about in the first season [that] the fans will be looking forward to seeing," Floyd explained. "But we've designed the game so that players brand new to the franchise can jump into our game and then carry on to season one after that if they like, and without spoiling anything in season one in our story. That was really important to us to sort of say we could be an entry point for anyone, but we'll also be a really great new perspective on Arcadia Bay for fans who loved the original game."
After we'd played these two brief sections from the game's beginning, this left us wondering about the scope of the project, and it turns out Before the Storm, despite having a lower episode count, will still allow for a similar experience, as explained by Adam Phillips, head of communications at Square Enix Studios' London Studios.
"When we looked at the metrics, people played hours longer than we actually thought they would," he said. "We always knew it was around two to three hours for critical path, which we wanted to deliberately keep that as the same, so even though we've got three episodes versus five, is still a six to nine-hour experience. And we know the real fans are going to play for much longer as well, it's quite interesting when you look at that stuff. But yeah, we're trying to keep it [...] the feel of it, including the length, the amount of content, the type of content, the type of things you're going to face, should be very familiar to fans."
So after we'd seen the fun and lively side of Chloe, as well as her more troubled home life, we were left intrigued about what Before the Storm will offer when the first episode, called Awake, comes to PC, PS4, and Xbox One on August 31. There's certainly a lot here for existing fans, so they can inform their knowledge of events they've already seen, but this is definitely for newcomers as well, with Chloe's earlier teenage years serving as their own story.