The premise of Life is Strange: Before the Storm (check out my review) intrigued and worried me. As a fan of the first game, returning to its world of supernatural teen drama sounded A-OK. But as a prequel centering on Chloe, a character whose backstory already received plenty of detail, it made me question if there would be any weight in decision making.
After all, the beginning of Life is Strange basically acts as Before the Storm’s ending. How much can the player’s actions matter when the outcome has already been cemented? A big reason choices work in games, for me at least, is that the consequences are unknown. What’s the fun in being given a question you already know the answer to?
Before the Storm attempts to make this work and it largely fails. For example, Chloe’s a jerk to her mother at the start of Life is Strange; why bother choosing to be nice to her in the prequel? Sure, I could turn a blind eye to the future and be as well-behaved a daughter as possible. And I wanted to do just that (I’m an unabashed goody goody in real life), but couldn’t get invested in that path knowing its futility. Conversely, being an assclown would better suit the narrative as well as Chloe’s character, but would lack personal gratification. This also nullifies much of the severity behind major consequences. I could cause Chloe to be arrested and sentenced to trial by combat, but she’ll obviously survive long enough for a reunion with Max no matter what happens. That leaves me to respond with an apathetic shoulder shrug.
One big reason the decisions surrounding Rachel Amber work so well lies in the unknown details of her relationship with Chloe. Fans know Rachel’s ultimate outcome, but they didn’t know the exact events of their time together prior to that. Now they get to witness and manipulate that murky period. You may be asking why this differs from the example of Chloe’s mom. Unlike Mrs. Price, Rachel’s an unknown factor, existing in name only during the first game. We don’t know how she’ll react to the player’s actions, while we know Chloe’s mom will probably just take her daughter’s BS. Chloe and Rachel’s destination is vaguely determined at best while their journey lays wide open. I feel like I’m making meaningful impact on that aspect of the story, hence why I care about Rachel Amber’s arc the most.
Can choices matter in prequel? Depends on how developers approach the story. Maybe prequel’s whose stories sit closely behind the plots of their preceding installments should exclude major decision making. You can’t leave a mark when the next story immediately wipes away your fingerprints. That’s one reason why I had trouble getting invested in the plots of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (as well as the upcoming Shadow of War). While a different type of game, cutting down orc generals and assembling an army to challenge Sauron loses some purpose knowing the Dark Lord’s revival takes place in the very near future no matter what.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic features a myriad of player options. It pulls it off partly because it takes place 4,000 years before Star Wars proper. That’s a lot of lead time to work with as the actions of a single person will only ripple so far. I still know what happens later, but that future lies so far off in the distance that I can ignore it easier.
Unless I can change the future by altering the past, this sense of futility will probably gnaw at me for the remainder of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. It’ll be interesting to see if the pure narrative quality will be strong enough to overcome my choice-making dilemma. I’m also curious to see if this is a sentiment felt by others, and if developers working on similar projects can find ways to address it going forwards.