To: Before the Storm and Deck Nine
A game is designed to be played a certain way. I recently wrote in a piece about Hellblade’s sound design that:
“Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc (no not Matt LeBlanc from Friends) and Robert Zubek describe aesthetic within video games as the desired emotional response a player has to a game’s systems (MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, 2004).”
Every element needs to come together; the art style, the gameplay, the sound design, the story. In the last week, the final episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Farewell, was released. The game can only be described as ugly beauty. Before the Storm isn’t made by the developers of the original Life is Strange, it was made by Deck Nine, whose most notable projects seem to be remasters of Ratchet and Clank games. Before the Storm is a prequel to the original game, removing the first games protagonist Max, and focusing on her best friend Chloe Price. Before the Storm also removes the time travelling mechanics and soap opera drama that made the first game stand out, but keeps the muddy underdeveloped graphics and cheesy dialogue its predecessor was criticized for.
The final episode of Before the Storm, which is only available to those who bought the Deluxe Edition, strips even more from the formula. It is set even further back, is unconnected from the main story of the previous 3 episodes, and offers extremely limited decisions, which have very little effect on the plot. Yet somehow, this 40 minute chunk of Before the Storm, was the first time a video game has made me cry in 5 years.
It shouldn’t be able to achieve what it did, there is too much going against it. However Farewell signifies a developer who designed every element to push you toward a specific goal. When focusing on the aesthetics of a game, you want to move past ideas like ‘fun’ and instead consider focus points like; narrative, challenge and expression.
I know Max’s story from Life is Strange, and at the time wondered why her best friend Chloe was so hard on her for moving away for a few years. Then I played Before the Storm and saw who Chloe was, where she came from, what she’d been through. Farewell is set just a few days before Max leaves her hometown for Seattle. Max and Chloe are 13 and hanging out in Chloe’s room. They’re cleaning things up, giving the player the option to pick up objects and reminisce over their history. After finding a treasure map, they go on a hunt to find a time capsule they buried a few years earlier. Over the course of the day you see the bond Chloe and her father share, you stroll down memory lane with your best friend, and discover that she might be having a hard time at school.
All of this occurs while you decide how to tell Chloe you’re moving. It may seem mundane, but it’s a drama we can all relate to, a time when things were easier but still so complicated. You could tell her earlier on in the day, but it might ruin things. Every time you choose to delay telling her, the action seems harder, as you’re slowly unraveling more of the bond you’re about to tear apart. It wasn’t a challenge like those found in Dark Souls, but it was still a challenge I hadn’t yet worked out how to overcome. In the end I put it off too long, and before I had even realized it, the day ended in tragedy. A tragedy that I had known about since I played Life is Strange in 2015, but not actually experienced.
Everything came together in that moment. There was a montage of the next few days, there were no more dialogue options, no more choices, a beautifully chosen song (soundtrack being one of Life is Strange’s strong suits). The game ends with Chloe curled into a ball, sobbing to herself, listening to Max, listening to me, explain to her over a cassette that she was moving away. I’d spent two games with these characters. I knew what this message was going to do to Chloe, I knew where it would lead her, how things would eventually end.
Every element was cleverly orchestrated by Deck Nine to evoke this response from me. The symbolism of taking part in such a normal day, just to realize it was the last day, a day I knew as the player was coming, but didn’t expect so soon. It was the choice to take away choices, to show me that things couldn’t and wouldn’t have been any different. The carefully chosen music, the words that I had to say over that recording, because I couldn’t decide how to say them sooner, it was all so perfect.
Yet sometimes no matter how hard you try as a developer, the player won’t feel what you want them to feel. It may seem like a 360 degree turn, but stick with me. Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is designed to create a specific type of experience. You’re dropped on a map with 100 other players, forced to find weapons and items to defend yourself and remain within the circle. There are many ways to go about playing the game, but you should always have the same experience. You should expect the heart pounding sensation of survival, of relief as another player passes by without noticing you, of the fear that whenever you enter into a shootout with another player, it could be you or them. However, “The difference between games and other entertainment products (such as books, music, movies and plays) is that their consumption is relatively unpredictable (MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, 2004).”
Because PUBG is a multiplayer game, effected by servers, and reliant on users playing fairly, the developers’ intended effect may not be realized. The entire premise of survival, of equal opportunity, is broken the moment someone decides to cheat. While playing on PC, I’ve been killed by cheaters who head-shot me from virtually the opposite end of the map. The illusion is broken. There is nothing the developers can do. That was my experience with PUBG. It wasn’t what the designers intended, but because they introduced variables, such as other players, every other element was neutralized. Despite other factors, the game just isn’t fun when it feels like there is no opportunity for success or competition.
This is an issue that has plagued multiplayer games for years. Alwaysblack.com breaks down how his experience in Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast was drastically changed from what the developers envisioned, due to one player (Bow N****r, 2004). The other player chastised him for not conforming to the in game communities ‘rules’, downloaded scripts online that enabled him to deliver overpowered, almost unblockable moves, and during the entire session constantly slung vulgar language along the lines of: “Are you really black n****r?” I don’t think the developers intended for any of that.
The point is, having all of your pieces line up together, to deliver a stand out experience, is difficult. It takes time, effort and communication among the development team to achieve this. Even then it can be undermined by outside influences like; cheaters, foul-mouthed players and glitches. That is why I must applaud Before the Storm and Farewell for achieving what they did.
Goodbye to all the racist, dim witted and nasty players of Star Wars Jedi Knight 2: Outcast. Goodbye PUBG, your cheater ridden world had so much promise. Goodbye Life is Strange. Goodbye Max. Goodbye Chloe. We’ve come so far together, but it’s time to say…