Lucien’s Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm (Episode 2)

Sorry this is a little late.  Been trying to organize my thoughts, and have other stuff going on.  Here’s the thing about this game – it’s kind of a mixed bag.  It’s not the original.  Part of me is impressed that it is not trying to be.  This game was created for one purpose and one purpose alone – to give players the back-story between Chloe and Rachel.  But it does make your choices feel weighty.  That’s one thing I’ll give this iteration that the original really didn’t have – player choice feeling substantial.  Since there are so few episodes, there aren’t a huge amount of choices to keep track of.  So the writing is easier.  Plus, it’s easier to make your actions feel meaningful.  Why am I going so far out of my way to preface this?  I guess it’s because I honestly like this prequel.  This review is going to be a little odd.  See, there isn’t a huge amount of stuff to substantively talk about.  The visuals are still in the same vein, and good.  Hell, even the kissing animation you have access to later on isn’t the worst I’ve seen.  It’s not Mass Effect 2 levels of clipping.

What do I think of this episode?  As I said, the core of this prequel is to explain the growth of the relationship between Chloe and Rachel.  And they got that right.  My favorite parts of this episode are when you see the relationship between the two deepening.  It feels pretty good.  It’s not perfect.  The dialogue is stilted as fucked.  But where this game goes right is making the emotions match the scenes.  You do believe these characters when they’re on stage together and Rachel is poetically confessing that she has a bond with Chloe that goes beyond typical friendship.  That scene is heart-warming.

Here’s my issue with this prequel – so much of this really doesn’t feel like it’s tying in to the story from the original.  It kinda feels like I’m ret-conning the lore of that game.  After all, I have worked hard to make the relationship between Rachel and Chloe feel real.  So if the events of the other game happen as you find out they did, then Rachel is doomed to basically cheat on Rachel with Frank.  Given the passion between them, am I to assume that in the months or years from when the prequel ends the two got distant enough for Rachel to leave her girlfriend and not feel at least a little conflicted about it?

Not only that, you can affect where the two girls are looking to run away to, which plays a huge role in what everyone believes happened to Rachel in the original.  Maybe all of this was developed just for fan service to fans of the original.  Maybe I’m really over-thinking this.  But as someone who genuinely enjoyed the original game, a lot of this plot stuff just rubs me a little wrong.

I don’t know.  Maybe I need to change my perspective.  Instead of seeing this as an extension of the original game, see it as its own story.  Where I a guiding the romance between two characters, one of whom I have really grown to like.  I still love Chloe as a character, along with the voice acting.  As stilted as the dialogue is, at least it feels genuine with all the emotion she puts into it.  I just know somebody is going to call me an SJW for liking this stuff.  This game definitely takes inspiration from social justice talking points.  Thankfully, that shit seems to be from characters in periphery.  Chloe and Rachel are not just walking stereotypes of Tumblr feminists.

One thing I really wanna touch on is the dream sequences.  I really do like them.  Each one has a thematic purpose.  The first is Chloe addressing the death of her father from her family, as more and more of him is being stripped away.  The second was her addressing the pain of having her blossoming relationship with Rachel seemingly going up in flames, while her father is the voice of reason who tells her that she still has a place in her life.  This episode had a really great sequence.  It has William sitting in front of the car he crashed, burning, roasting a marshmallow with the raven.  Really wondering what the raven is meant to symbolize in context of this story.  The butterfly from the original symbolized Chloe as a character.  The raven is a point of conjecture.  Chloe sits and starts roasting a marshmallow herself, and William tells her that watching everything burn is beautiful, but she might be missing seeing what other beautiful things are being hidden from her by her perspective.  We see this come to a point when she acts in The Tempest, with the stars in the sky sparkling like the ones on her outfit.

I also am really liking the new side characters you meet.  There is so much more personality from them.  Having a smaller cast let them give characters much more presence, and it really pays off.  This episode has a conversation you can totally miss but I’m glad I didn’t between Chloe and Steph where you can grow closer or end up hurting her and I went out of my way to be honest about the fact that I had Rachel as where I was setting up the romance between the two.  It led to a genuinely touching moment where Steph says you can talk to her about what it’s like, since she has been open about being gay.  Subtle touches like that go a long way.

One thing I wanna mention is the fact that the walking animation is so fucking weird in cutscenes.  During gameplay it’s fine, but in cutscenes the walking is just so strange.  And the running is even weirder.  Do the people who made this just not know how to animated that?  So odd.

Overall, it’s a good continuance of the story.  Granted, the opening act is painfully slow.  But once you get back to the junkyard, things pick up pretty quick.  I like this story.  With a bombshell having been dropped on Rachel at the end of the episode, I am genuinely eager to see how it plays out.

Final Verdict
7 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

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LGBT Characters in Gaming

Let’s talk a little history.  I don’t know how many of you were around and conscious of what television in the 90’s was like.  Much like the film industry, it produced some of the biggest garbage in the world.  You had shit like Friends and Full House, both of which got unbelievably popular due to nostalgia that people seem to believe the entertainment was so much better back then.  These people are what people like me call “clinically insane.”  But here’s something you may not remember – the 90’s didn’t always write gay characters very well.  Some of the biggest stereotypes about the LGBT community came into being then.  Now, the thing is that they aren’t negative stereotypes.  In fact, they were overwhelmingly positive.  There is a reason for that.  Maybe it was making up for old negative stereotypes, or people just not being able to write these kinds of characters very well.  Whatever the reason, they were all bad.

Here was the problem – these characters all had a bad habit of announcing that they’re gay to everyone they meet.  They are so damn proud of being gay and they are damn sure going to make sure that everyone knows it.  It was bad writing in the worst way.  All of these characters had a bad habit of the fact that they are gay being their entire life.  It isn’t one facet of it, but every facet of it.  Everything in their lives centers around the fact that they’re gay.  It was lazy, terrible writing that led to some of the most one-dimensional characters we ever got to see.

Time went by, however, and writers were able to get past whatever hangup they had and were able to start writing very rounded gay characters who were characters first, gay second.  They had rich personalities and issues with life that are part of the issues everyone has.  It led to some truly fantastic characters, like my favorite anti-hero, Omar Little from The Wire.

That sure was a long intro to talking about what this post is going into.  Gaming is at a similar crossroads.  What led us here is the fact that a lot of gamers are now part of an older generation.  The average age of gamers is closer to 30 than 20.  It’s become a part of popular culture, and is quickly overtaking Hollywood in telling engaging narratives that people can get wrapped up in.  As such, it’s only natural that we see games taking on more and more adult themes.  Things like the nature of marriage and ’til death do you part (Uncharted 4), the price of fame and losing one’s fame and selling out to greed (Persona 5), justifying evil for the greater good and the redemption that comes with being willing to change (Mass Effect 2 and 3).

Something that comes with writing narratives that are more complicated means having characters that are more complicated.  After all, people are not one-dimensional.  And it also means looking at other parts of life.  Like different kinds of relationships.  It was only natural that the gay community would make an appearance in this medium sooner or later.  Now sure, the core gaming audience is men.  That’s just how that goes.  The CoD games will never tackle this sort of thing.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that narratives involving LGBT characters will typically be niche.

For a medium that has a real problem with subtlety, looking into something like this should be a niche thing.  There’s a reason why.  Let’s look at one of my favorite examples of it being done right and then it being done wrong.

In The Last of Us, you meet a character named Bill.  Bill is kind of a crazy man.  He’s weird, unwell, and has a real problem with Joel’s tiny companion.  Granted, they meet with her smashing a pipe on his arm.  That’s something.  However, as you go on with his narrative, he tells Joel of a person that he had to look after.  At first, he calls him his “partner,” and really doesn’t want to get very specific about him.  There is genuine venom in his voice when he talks about this guy.  What happened between these two?  When you get to a house after escaping the school, you find out.  He’s hanging from a noose that he rigged to stop himself from becoming one of the infected.

It’s here that we see another side of this.  At first, he’s clinical about it.  He’s looking over the body and seeing what happened.  But as you listen to him talk about him, there’s real pain in his voice.  Pain, anger, all sorts of emotions.  It’s a testament to what a good performance the voice actor does how much depth he brings into talking about this guy.  As I was playing this with my gay girly-mate Erin, she had this to say, “they had to have dated.”  To which I asked, “how do you figure?” “Easy, you don’t hate someone this much unless you’ve dated.”  Well put.  Bill lives a life where everything is regimented and safe.  When you find Frank’s letter, it tells of a man who was angry with Bill.  He wanted more from life than Bill was willing to give, and it ended in him leaving.  In his last letter, he says how much he hated Bill and wanted more from life than he wanted to give.

What happened between these two?  We never know.  It clearly must have been a very damaged relationship.  The audience can see some of the history and it’s enough to tell us a tragic story of two men who ended up hating each other because of irreconcilable differences in how they lived.  In a world where love for a gay person must be unfathomably hard to come by, to lose that relationship must have been hard for both of them.  But by the end both of them hated one-another.  It was done so well, and played very subtly.  I love everything about the nature of that relationship.  It also shows a side of Joel.  He figures out pretty quickly the deal between Bill and Frank, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it.  After all, he is a Texan.

Now let’s look at this done wrong.  In Mass Effect 3, you meet a shuttle pilot named Steve Cortez.  He seems like an interesting character.  But there is a stark contrast of narrative quality in his his story plays out, depending on if you have male or female Shepard.  If you have female, it is a very interesting narrative about a man who is getting over the loss of someone dear to him.  If you have male Shepard, it’s a narrative about a gay man throwing his grief away in a nano-second in order to try and jump your bones.  It’s cringe-worthy to say the least.  Since I preferred Femshep because she was a much more engaging character, I was able to see the story done right.

What happened?  I’ll tell you – a narrative had to be spun.  See, we have another player in the problem with writing gay characters in gaming right now – SJWs.  Social justice decided to come in and take over the writing process of this character, all so they could call foul when the gamers were like, “this gay sex scene sucks.  Where did this come from?”  Good fucking question.  He was poorly written in order to spread a narrative and get a subject matter talked about.

This has happened quite a bit.  Gay characters are being written where the fact that they’re gay is their entire personality.  Or now the big one is trans.  Like how Ubisoft created an openly transgender character in Victorian London.  A time when I guarantee NO ONE was open about gender dysphoria.  Yet this character is all about talking about it to whoever they meet.  Or the trans character in Mass Effect: Andromeda, who really had to make a big deal out of this when they have a fuck-ton more things to worry about.

I get why this medium is going to be the hardest to write these kinds of characters in.  The core demographic is men.  That’s a demographic that is going to see this stuff pretty black and white.  Hell, in this insanely divisive culture that we live in, nuance is hard to see on any sides.  This is why I genuinely believe that if we are going to see more and more gay characters, it needs to be first handled in the niche markets, where it can be handled with a deft hand, rather than a stick to beat people over the head with, despite how rarely that deft hand is applied.

But maybe there’s hope.  I just got done with the latest episode to a prequel to my favorite game of 2015 – Life is Strange.  That game already had a very well-done relationship between Chloe and Max, but the real stand-out example of a blossoming romance that I genuinely enjoyed playing was in the prequel.  While it is miles below the original, the thing I can say is that the relationship between Chloe and Rachel that I have been able to help shape feels genuine.  And this most recent episode had payoff to that.  We’ll see if it can keep the trend of well-done character development happen.

The ultimate message of this ramble is that making gay characters should be about making characters first.  Being gay is a part of a person’s life, but it isn’t everything.  At least not if they aren’t these social justice idiots who feel the need to make everything tie back into it.  It’s just one part of who that person is.  That’s how these kinds of characters need to be written.  Make them a character first.  Make gamers like them for who they are, then ease them in.  Just like how straight men can have gay friends who they are cool with, I guarantee that that gay friend knows that he can’t be too in this person’s face with how they are, because they know it would make the other person uncomfortable.

Wow, this seems like a whole lot of nothing, doesn’t it?  Maybe I should have made this a RAB post.  Unsure.  What do you all think?  Let me know in the comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Do you think there’s a point where you’ve been acting so much that you don’t even have your own personality anymore?” – Rachel Amber, Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s Review: Life is Strange: Before the Storm Episode 1: Awake

I’ve talked at length about how my favorite game of 2015 was Life is Strange.  While it had its flaws, it told an interesting narrative about a girl with time powers and a mystery that unfortunately had a lackluster conclusion.  The outright-terrible ending of the game, however, didn’t ruin the entire experience for me.  I still love everything leading up to it.  It’s kind of like Mass Effect 3 in that regard.  When I saw the announcement for this, I was more than a little pissed.  I mean, why would I want a prequel?  It’s a story I already know!  Rachel and Chloe were tight as fuck, Rachel was secretly in love with Frank, she gets killed.  What more could they fill in?  I said in my First Take post that if this was just some stupid prequel telling us crap we already know and nothing else, I would ream this game a new one in a way that Square Enix would feel.  I’m happy to say that this prequel challenged my skepticism.  It’s not perfect, but for the flaws it has, it has some things done better.  Let’s talk about it.

This game is still a prequel.  Set four years before the events of the original game, we see a much younger and much more vulnerable Chloe.  She’s trying to get into a concert where a band who is weirdly playing the tune of another band (did the actual band not want their name associated with this game?  You’d think they at least would have had to have the song licensed, so why not just play as yourselves?  Odd).  After getting in trouble, it’s here that we see her meet Rachel Amber, the most popular girl in her school.  From there, our young protagonist gets involved in a new life of freedom, friendship, and maybe something more.

There’s a lot to say about this prequel, and it’s a lot of the same stuff one could say about the original game.  For starters, the dialogue is just as bad as the first episode of the last game.  Maybe this is a trend with this game.  I don’t know who their writing staff is, but no teenager anywhere talks like this.  But just like the original game, that grows on you after a while.  It sure as hell grew on me.  So there’s that.

The visuals are much better.  They’re using the Unity engine, and it really stands out.  The faces in-particular.  My biggest complaint with the original game was that the faces were so inexpressive.  Better facial animation would have made some of the best scenes of dialogue even better.  Here, there is much more expression, and it makes the dramatic climax of the episode really good.

One thing I do miss is that the time powers are gone.  Now, instead of being able to rewind and make a choice about whether or not you want to follow through with something, you have to basically own it.  Not gonna lie, that does bother.  You also can’t restart episodes from various chapters.  That’s kinda frustrating too.  Here’s hoping future episodes fix that.  But you do have some new mechanics.  Like this back-talk mechanic that makes no sense in reality but it is kinda cool that you get to play mental games with people.

Let’s talk about the characters.  There are some REALLY weird voice-actor changes that totally take away from characters.  For example – David.  I grew to like him at the very end when you finally see under the hood of his mental problems if you tell him that Mr. Jefferson killed Chloe and he shoots him.  Whoever they got to replace him as a voice actor does NOT sound at all like a torn-up veteran.  The first guy they got was a douche, but you believed he’s a tormented veteran haunted by what he saw.  This guy sounds like a fucking doofus.  There is no presence with this guy.  Same with the dude they got to replace William.  I can at least forgive that because you only see William in dreams.  His weird speech patterns fit with the scenes they are in, but still.

Ashly Burch is back to play Chloe, and I genuinely do like her character more.  It’s pretty clear that the voice actress is older, but the performance feels more genuine.  Stereotypical punk Chloe is cool and kinda hot, but young and vulnerable Chloe is genuinely more interesting.  One of my biggest complaints from the first game was the fact that we never got to meet Rachel Amber, since I assumed that the power Max had has some connection with her.  Thankfully, I at least know that’s right.  But that gets into spoiler territory for this game.

Something I’d like to add is that there is one genuine improvement over its predecessor.  So many choice-based games make it so that the choices feel meaningless.  This episode doesn’t!  There are a ton of variations, little things that change in scenes because of choices you make.  It was surprising when I’d go through the same scenes over again and have them play out differently because of things I’d done.  That’s pretty cool.  It gives me some hope that the decisions I make in the end will actually amount to something.

Overall, this game is about growing up.  It’s about Chloe accepting that her dad is dead and making a new friend and how she can’t deal with how alone she is.  We also get to peek into the life of a character who I always wanted to meet.  But I am glad to see that it isn’t just a prequel to stuff we already knew.  They actually go back even further than recent history and give us some stuff.  We get some hints as to the nature of the supernatural in Arcadia Bay, which I am desperately hoping they run with.  I’m curious to see where this goes, and while I do hate how much Max gets shit on, we have two new characters to see where things go.

Final Verdict
7 out of 10

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s First Take: Life is Strange: Before the Storm Premier Trailer

I’ve made no secret that the original game is my favorite game of 2015.  Aside from the ending, which is stupid on so many levels that it forced me to do a rewrite which is on this site if you want to look for it, I loved it.  The game is truly phenomenal.  And just like Mass Effect 3, I don’t let the fact that the ending is pants-on-head retarded stop me from loving the rest of the franchise.  However, when I heard there was a sequel episodic series coming out, I was more than a little worried.  I mean, where are they going to go with the franchise?  I had games where I both saved and let Chloe die, so are they going to pick up with Max back in Seattle?  Where could this go?  Are we FINALLY going to get an answer to what Max’s power is and how it works?  That’s the biggest question I have after the series so that could be a little interesting.

But today Microsoft decided to unveil the latest season at their press conference.  And…I don’t know what to think.  Let’s take a look at the trailer and then talk about it.

Okay, so we have Chloe, who is one of my favorite female characters of all time, voiced by an amazing voice actress who I also loved in Horizon: Zero Dawn.  She’s in her room, smoking.  I can see the art style is the same, but it does look a lot more detailed.  The facial animations in-particular, which was my biggest gripe with this style.

She’s sitting there, smoking, and we see a raven land on her windowsill.  The previous game had a thing about the blue butterfly that Max took a pic with.  Is that the way it is with the raven?  In all mediums the raven has symbolized death.  A theory just came to me, but I want to keep going before we talk about it.

There’s a montage of things happening, and one of the things that gets my attention is her being in a car with her father when he is hit by a train.  Is that a dream sequence?  If it’s not, then it makes my theory have suddenly a lot more credibility.  There are things like a tree burning, and Chloe climbing the steps of Blackwell Academy with a sign about good luck seniors.  More Chloe being angsty and shit, but always alone.  That interests me.  The previous game made it seem like her and Rachel Amber were nigh-inseparable.

Here’s why I’m worried – part of me is thinking that all this is is just filling in Chloe’s backstory before the events of the game.  Why?  We already know what happened.  That would be stupid.  That would be the biggest waste of time and potential ever.  And the worst thing is that I’m going to buy the first episode to find out.  Because I have to know.  I have another theory, and I’m desperately hoping that it’s true.  If it really is as simple and dumb as what the title suggests, then I am honestly going to be nine kinds of done with Dontnod and their episodic games.

My theory is this – Chloe dies in so many of the timelines that Max has.  Whether it be in the beginning when Nathan shoots her, the junkyard where you can accidentally shoot her while playing with David’s gun, the alternate timeline if you have Max kill her when she asks her too, and at the very end if you choose to sacrifice her.  I always believed that the tornado was the alternate timelines Max created coming together to fuck up reality.  It made sense.  My theory is that this game has Chloe in the nether-space between timelines.  Like a space where nothing is real and she is desperate to escape.  Kinda like the world of the Nexus in Star Trek Generations.  That would be fascinating!  No joke, if they go that route then it makes sense why her reaction at the end where she sees Rachel is one of awe.  Like she can’t believe that she’s actually there.

But I am still worried that this is just rehashing a backstory we already know.  To Square Enix and Dontnod, if that is really the route you go, so help me Groj I will make the longest and most nit-picky post explaining why you are wasting gamers’ money that you have ever seen!  Not that you care, I’m sure, but hopefully my audience will care.  And I’m going to make sure all of you are told as fast as possible.  The first episode comes out August 31st.  Your move, Dontnod

Initial Verdict:
You Have My Attention

Peace out,

Maverick