There is a lot to love about this new season of Life is Strange—Before the Storm.
It really sucks that, with all the beautiful relationship-building and scene-setting and hits-you-right-there writing, Before the Storm was produced, essentially, with scab labor. Briefly: the game was in production during the SAG-AFTRA strike that affected union members that provided voice talent, including Ashly Burch, the actress who portrayed Chloe (brilliantly) in the first game. The staff made the game anyway, replacing Burch with another actress.
Burch publicly stated she was "heartbroken" to not be playing chloe in this game, and frankly, it's a fucking shame that this all happened. This game is beautiful. And it's marred by this decision to cross union lines.
I'm writing about the game because it means a great deal to me, as a queer woman, to see this level of representation. I'm a fan of the series, and I think that Before The Storm is a stronger game than the first, which was one of my favorites back in 2015. But it hurts to see it in this context: it's a game whose developers made a point of hiring scab labor and undercutting union solidarity in order to tell their story. And so a game that is inclusive and sensitive about an often marginalized or ignored community also carries a poison of self-interest over economic justice and labor decency.
Suffice it to say, there are a lot of complex feelings here. I just finished the second episode last night, and I think it's the strongest single episode in the series' history. It contains so many pivotal, memorable scenes (scenes that I won't spoil, but they had me positively swooning), stronger writing, better animation, and a palpable, real sense of the intensity of first love, crushes, and teenage emotion.
Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez goes into this here, in admirably spoiler-free fashion. (Disclosure: I'm in a personal relationship with the writer of that piece.) But I'd like to talk about something else I love about the series: the benches.
Well, not just the benches—literal benches that appear in places like the park or the Blackwell Academy Quad—but the spaces where the game allows and even encourages you to sit down, relax, and take in the world for a few minutes. The first game had such a sequence: you could decide to stay next to Chloe for a while in her bed, but I feel like there are more here in before the Storm, and you are treated to some inner monologuing if you choose to use them.
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In the first episode, you can sit on a bench while you hang out with Rachel Amber in the park, and Chloe basically gives herself a pep talk not to act like a weirdo. There are several places you can do this in episode two—atop a decrepit boat in the junkyard, on a bench in the quad—that serve as breathing room.
After a bit of inner dialogue, the scene will just let you stay there, hanging out, taking a moment. The camera cuts lazily. It's a beautiful feature: Before the Storm isn't a wildly fast-paced action game, by any stretch, but here it is, acknowledging that it can be nice to just take a second and enjoy being in this world.
I'm going to keep playing this game because it's fantastic, and because we don't have enough good games with queer women front and center (more, perhaps, than we've ever had, but queer ladies are still in the vast minority of game protagonists). The team at Deck 9 has made something very special here, but I certainly wish they didn't step on so many necks to do so.