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Life is Strange: Before the Storm dev still isn’t sure the game’s ending was ‘the right move’

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Some tragedies are inevitable

Spoilers ahead for the episodic games Life is Strange: Before the Storm and Life is Strange.

Much of the mystery of Dontnod’s episodic game Life is Strange focused on a disappearance. When popular girl Rachel Amber goes missing, her absence sets the story — about a teenage girl named Max who can rewind time and her best friend Chloe, who is in love with Rachel — in motion. In the end, you learn that Rachel can’t be saved, and Chloe may be doomed as well, depending on how you play.

Last year, developer Deck Nine released a prequel game called Before the Storm, a bittersweet chance to see the fleeting happiness of the budding relationship between Chloe and Rachel, with the knowledge that it isn’t meant to last. To drive that point home, Deck Nine closed the game with a divisive final scene that provided to be controversial even among its creators.

Across the prequel’s three episodes, players watch Rachel and Chloe fall in love and navigate the ups and downs of their relationship. As Before the Storm’s final episode draws to a conclusion, the saccharine montage of their relationship ends with a particularly gruesome reminder: Rachel has been captured, drugged, and is being tortured just off-screen. Players can only watch as Rachel’s unattended phone buzzes incessantly with Chloe’s missed calls, while a camera’s flashbulb flares from the corner. The moment, instantly controversial among fans, with many deeming it “frustrating” and painful, has been difficult for narrative director and lead writer Zak Garriss as well. “I still wonder if it’s the right move,” he tells The Verge.

The ending was not a “quick” or hasty idea, Garriss says. “I think we planned a version of that scene at least before we ever started writing a script for episode 3. Honestly, we might have had a version of that in place before we started writing the script for episode 1.” The team wanted to play with the idea of photo booths and pictures — still moments spliced with animated shots of Chloe and Rachel — as a metaphor for what Before the Storm is: a snapshot of happier times, or a sort of “savoring experience” for Chloe.

“One of the major themes of the story has to do with how we treat the truth and the ways in which we use truth and deception to manipulate people around us,” Garriss says, “and what that means and the sort of inherent value of the truth. But I think that the game itself as a whole, Before the Storm, is a suspension of the truth for a moment.” The final shot of Rachel’s phone, where players can see how many times Chloe has called, was intended to speak to her tenacity. “You can imagine that girl putting posters up on every surface of Blackwell,” Garriss says.

But Garris feels that this moment, which some found shocking, could have been portrayed slightly differently. “I will tell you, the flashbulb going off — I didn’t want to do that,” Garriss says. “I very deliberately didn’t want to do that. Other devs... actually made the choice to do that in response to a very particular note we got. And when I saw it, I was really upset, because it was like — and I know this sounds silly — it was a little bit too far for me. I didn’t like actively showing that right outside of frame, something is happening in the moment. It felt like a little more visceral than I wanted to go.” Garriss adds that of the team, he’s probably “the least sure” about it. “I still think about it. I think I’m not done thinking about it.”

The real tragedy of Before the Storm, is that Chloe’s happiness with Rachel exists only in this window. Garriss says that for better or worse, that was the team’s thinking behind the game’s ending. “What we came down to was a decision to essentially attest to the truth at the end,” he says. Whether that comes through as rage, bitterness, or helplessness for the player all builds toward a simple idea: “With that final moment, [we’re not trying] to shock our players or punch them in the stomach or anything like that, but simply do something that I think this medium alone can really do, which is make you feel the way Chloe felt.”