There were a lot of reasons to like Life Is Strange, Dontnod's quirky supernatural adventure game from 2015. And while the game's main story was fine, the real draw was the earnest, heartwarming relationship between Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Beyond how refreshing it was to see two young women at the heart of a game, Life Is Strange was notable for being full of queer subtext. That subtext could become become occasionally explicit (see: the bedroom scene), but it wasn't until the very, very end that it was a full-blown, if tragic, romance between the two.
Max's choices are in the hands of the player—it's also possible to pursue a romance with a male character—but the game featured several references to Chloe's sexuality. (At one point, she mentions having relationships with "boy toys," in addition to "other things.") But as much as Life Is Strange was celebrated for nodding at queer relationships in a video game, it was criticized for taking so long to get there. (There are also legitimate criticisms about the game's handling of queerness, from queerbaiting to how the queer characters are quickly killed off.)
Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, a three-episode prequel set a few years before the events of the original game, was announced at E3. It doesn't feature supernatural powers, and Max is mostly out of the picture. (She's in a bonus episode.) Instead, it focuses on the relationship between Chloe and Rachel Amber, a character who went missing at the start of Life Is Strange and served as a McGuffin for the plot.
Life Is Strange insinuated Chloe and Rachel were close, but it left most of what that actually meant deeply ambiguous. Before the Storm will attempt to fill in those details. It's in development at Denver-based Deck Nine, not Paris-based Dontnod, who's already said they're working on a new Life Is Strange. (It's unclear what ties it will have to the first game. I'm hoping for a loosely connected anthology.)
The footage shown at E3 definitely looked like Life Is Strange, even if the lack of Ashly Burch's voice for Chloe, due to the writer's strike, was noticeable.
After showing a brief playable sequence at a concert, demonstrating how Chloe will make decisions with permanence, rather than the ability to rewind and try again, Deck Nine showed a few minutes of footage from Before the Storm. One scene took place at a familiar trainyard, with Chloe and Rachel's day quickly turning to shit, as the two begin fighting with one another. As the argument heats up, Rachel asks Chloe what their relationship is all about. The player is presented with two options. One insinuates they're friends. The other? "Something more."
The pre-recorded video shown to me had the player choosing friends, which prompted groans from the all-male crowd I was watching the video with. But within that choice, there was wiggle room, with Chloe admitting she's not actually sure how she feels. (The developers later told me the player will have multiple opportunities to try and work out what the relationship between the two are.)
It seemed like the scene, and that exchange in particular, was included for a reason: Before the Storm was not only going to acknowledge how Life Is Strange explored queer relationships, but rather than subtext, it's going to be explicit.
After the demo, I had a chance to speak with Before the Storm lead writer Zak Garriss, who is 35-years-old and definitely not a teenager trying to figure out their sexuality. I'll be publishing our entire conversation later this week, but I wanted to highlight, in full, our back-and-forth about how Deck Nine is approaching of the way Before the Storm is trying to make good on certain themes and ideas that Dontnod played with, and how Life Is Strange made people feel represented in a game.
Waypoint: There were certain communities, especially queer communities, that really loved Life Is Strange . Other than being a game about young women, which is rare for a video game, it was about young women while also touching on their sexuality. The footage I saw showed it's clearly something you're thinking about and responding to. Can you talk about what you took away from the way some communities responded—specifically, the queer communities—to the game?
Zak Garriss: I think, as creators, we all at Deck Nine admired what Dontnod did in breaking the ground they did, in the ways that you just described: telling stories from teenage female perspectives, telling stories from teenage females who might be gay.
Questions of representation are hugely important right now in general, and they're hugely important to us at the studio, and they're core to the franchise. When we were examining what kind of story we wanted to tell in the Life Is Strange universe, I don't even think that was on the table for negotiation. That was definitely going to be a part of the story because it was such an important component to why the first game resonated so strongly with fans.
Even just for us as artists, we looked at what Dontnod did there and we said, "That's a really good thing to do. We need to do that more. More of us need to do that." I don't think it was ever a question. We wanted to continue that unfortunately courageous thing [Dontnod did with the story]. I say unfortunately because I wish it were more normal.
Queerness was a theme the player had some agency over, but it wasn't really acknowledged until much later in the story, at least explicitly. It seems like what you may be addressing in Before the Storm is being a little more up front about it. Garriss: That particular moment in the footage you've seen is a point of great, um, contention within the writing team. I say contention in the best way. We really examined this specific time in the story of the first episode—this specific place in that junkyard, that conversation, that choice, and what we're doing in the larger arc of the relationship between the girls. We looked at lots of different ways to explore that, ways to create opportunities for player input.
At the end of the day, where we've landed—and I'm really glad we have—is exploring a relationship that is like real relationships, in the sense that it is not static. There's not a particular moment in time where you make a decision about whether or not you're with someone, or even how you feel.
I think a core port about being a teenager is not being in control. We really tried to create a dynamic range of interactions over time between Chloe and Rachel so the player can feel one way one day and another way the next. There's going to be an intelligent and thought out response from the characters you're interacting with accordingly. We think that will do interesting work in letting the player build and bond with the characters that they're interacting with, like Rachel, through the agency that we're giving you.
As a studio, as a writing staff, writing about teenagers is obviously different. Writing about potentially queer teenagers is obviously very different. What sort of work and research have you put in to understand that perspective, to write it accurately?
Garriss: It's hard to do too much research. I think it might be something you can do? [smiles] For me, it's a lot about memoirs. I like to read memoirs on grief, I like to read memoirs on identity, because those are first-person accounts of experiences.
We have a diverse writing team. We have men, we have women. We have people from all walks of life. We have some people almost as old as I am. I'm the oldest, for sure—I'm a 35-year-old man. I'm not a 16-year-old girl. Our youngest writer is a 20-year-old woman who's still in college. We really try to have a plurality of perspectives in the room.
But the other core belief—or I should say [my core belief], as the lead writer. I don't want to speak for my team on this. We're not striving to speak for any one community. We're not striving to say, "This is what it's like to be queer and 16 and a girl." We're striving to create Chloe, and we really want to focus on who Chloe is. There are many facets to her, and she's not defined by any one aspect of her character—her sexuality, her gender identity. It's an aggregate of all of that.
If we sought out to say, "the community is really responding to this archetype, let's build something that responds to that," we'd build an archetype, we wouldn't create a real character. We deliberately tried not to do that, but rather, to listen to voices whose experiences map onto what we're saying Chloe's experiences are, and to write from that place. To be vigilant, to be critical while we're doing it.