Opinion – Life is Strange: Before the Storm Is The Queer Love Story I’ve Always Wanted In A Game
Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first Life is Strange and The Last of Us DLC Left Behind.
Life is Strange dug its hooks in me with a genuine and heartfelt tale. I enjoyed seeing the relationship between its two teenage protagonists Max and Chloe blossom. Their connection is magnetic, and I often felt a spark between them. In one scene, I had the choice to let Max kiss Chloe. In another, they swam in an indoor pool at night time, speaking earnestly about the positive influence they have on one another. While I enjoyed these moments, I kept waiting and hoping for this intimacy to progress – but it never did in a satisfying way.
Life is Strange insinuated that there was something more than friendship between its main characters. Some choices allowed you to superficially explore that intimacy, but it was never addressed narratively. As a gay woman, I find this frustrating, because I would love to see more canonically queer ladies in video games.
Queer romance, especially between female characters, is a rare sight in games. When it comes to queer love stories, I don’t just relate, but I connect with them because it gives me a chance to play through a fantasy that is tailored to players like myself. This is why I’ve been thoroughly appreciating Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
An episodic prequel to Life is Strange, Before The Storm leaves the prior game’s romantic ambiguity behind. By chronicling the events before Chloe meets Max, we get an intimate look at Chloe’s budding relationship with Rachel, which was the catalyst for the original game. It appropriately feels like convincing teenage love with a romance that is reckless, idealistic, and beautiful.
While playing through Before the Storm, I reminisced about my own past relationships, and craved that same emotional intimacy that Rachel and Chloe so easily possessed. I cried, I laughed, and I was relieved – because I was connecting on a much deeper level than I usually do.
Growing up, I was bombarded with love stories, from my favorite television shows to Disney animations. Wherever I looked, I saw a happy heterosexual couple, and it was the only kind of romantic love I knew. I was never explicitly told to be a certain way, but it was clear that I was expected to follow societal conventions. Gaming is a powerful medium that drives empathy, and can empower those that are vulnerable and help educate others. The queer community, as well as other marginalized groups, need this positive reinforcement to thrive.
Just like the first Life is Strange, Before The Storm is a choice-driven experience. Your decisions have consequences, and other characters react to your actions. Playing as Chloe, I appreciated how she stumbled on her words when talking to Rachel in early interactions, or hearing Chloe’s inner monologue where she psyches herself up to “play it cool.” Her nervousness felt achingly real, and with every choice I made, it both affected and progressed the relationship.
Before The Storm has a behind-the-scenes intimacy level that fluctuates depending on how you interact with Rachel. Certain actions and dialogue choices can increase it, such as confiding in her or flirting. Whether Rachel leans in for a kiss or expresses her feelings toward Chloe depends on how you’ve interacted with her. Even the intensity or length of a kiss can adapt, which gave me the impression that I had agency in what occurred on-screen. Relationship mechanics aren’t new, as we’ve seen them in franchises like Dragon Age and Persona, but this amount of agency for even the smallest romantic or flirtatious action is unique.
Best of all, Before The Storm tells a captivating story. This isn’t a lackluster narrative that happens to have queer characters – it’s an engaging journey that involves several other themes, including processing grief and familial troubles. It allows you to identify as a queer woman by putting you in control of Chloe’s life, such as defining your relationship with Rachel as "something more." Before the Storm also introduces a character named Steph, who is prominently known to "like girls," and it's refreshing to see her positive portrayal. The writing makes these characters intriguing, with Rachel and Chloe having very different backgrounds. Heartfelt moments have so far felt realistic, such as when Chloe and Rachel conspire to run away together. However, since a third and final episode hasn’t been released, time will tell whether developer Deck Nine continues to pull it off.
There’s room for all kinds of stories in video games. Queer representation in media still struggles, and far too often we see gay characters portrayed stereotypically, featured only as minor characters or used as the butt of a joke. For example, Persona 5 has a recurring gay couple that appear throughout the game. When encountered on the beach, both the protagonist and Ryuji run away in fear after the two men hit on them. Though this is a relatively brief moment and is meant to be lighthearted, it nonetheless comes across homophobic.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm isn't without its issues either. A common trope in media, known as "bury your gays," is present here as well. This trope is a damaging trend in pop-culture and media that sees most gay characters killed off, keeping them from happy endings. For players that played the first Life is Strange, they know that Rachel's death is in a few years. Depending on your choices in the first game, Chloe's death may be fast approaching as well.
Luckily, we’ve seen a handful of games that have excelled in their depiction of lesbian romances. Ladykiller in a Bind, for example, is a visual novel sex comedy unabashed in its portrayal of queer sexuality. In 2013, The Last of Us’ DLC Left Behind introduced us to the relationship between Riley and Ellie, and Naughty Dog has since confirmed that Ellie is gay. BioWare has long been dedicated to both inclusive representations and romance options, and created transgender character Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Even games with little narrative, like Overwatch, are embracing inclusivity when they announced earlier this year that Tracer, the shooter’s mascot, is a lesbian.
Queer representation is important, especially for those that are struggling with their sexual identity and/or gender expression. It can be difficult for these individuals to find acceptance and safe spaces. According to a study done by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 2016, 30 percent of transgender youth have reported at least one suicide attempt. With at least 20 percent of millennials in the United States identifying as LGBTQ, it makes sense to have adequate representation in a medium commonly targeting that demographic.
Video games have the power to reach us on an incredibly intimate level. Because of the agency they provide, we can both empathize and connect to these virtual worlds and their inhabitants in a different way than we can in television or literature. Queer characters like the ones in Before The Storm offer us a deep look at different perspectives, and also gives the queer community something positive and relatable, which can be very difficult to find. I hope to see more developers tackle these topics in the future so that we can have more unique and personal stories that relate to all sorts of audiences.