Zak Garris, by his own admission, has never been a 16-year-old girl. Yet as lead writer of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, he’s confident that he’s still qualified to tell the story of troubled teen Chloe Price — as well as aware of how important it is to have more women in the writers’ room than the prequel game’s predecessor.
“The idea of writing a 16-year-old female character poses unique challenges to me as a writer, because I am a man, and I am 35,” Garris told Polygon during E3 2017, shortly after we watched several scenes from Before the Storm. He’s never been a teen girl or known the nuances of their language, their relationships. But Garris could still relate to Chloe’s story, which is one of significant loss and grief and pain.
That’s where Chloe is at the start of Before the Storm, set three years prior to the events of Life is Strange. Players of the first season will recall that after Chloe lost her father — and her best friend Max, who moved away shortly after — things changed for her, and for the worse. She’s since taken to drinking, partying and drugs, all of which are on display in an early scene we saw in a closed-doors demonstration.
Somehow, though, she befriends the most popular girl in school. Rachel Amber is a Laura Palmer-type presence, someone that publisher Square Enix described to us as “everything to everyone.” She’s a magnetic presence who harbors some dark secrets that Chloe gets completely caught up in ... and Life is Strange fans already know that Rachel’s story has yet another tragic ending.
Tragedy is universal, but female friendship is something specific. Garris called himself “lucky” for having a handful of women pitching in on the writing process. Chief among them is story consultant Ashly Burch, who voiced Chloe in the first Life is Strange. She’s not alone; overall, there are many more women working on Before the Storm’s script than the occasionally criticized script of the first game.
“I’m extremely passionate about not being the only voice in the room, about encouraging women everywhere to join the industry, about doing what we can at [development studio] Deck Nine to celebrate the female creators and devs that we have, about empowering and kind of courting their courage and their perspectives,” Garris said. “We need more of that, and I think we’re going to continue to have more of that.”
To hear him say this may feel disingenuous, however — for as much as the Life is Strange franchise champions women’s storytelling, the staff behind it is still strikingly male. The first season’s script was occasionally mocked for “unnatural” dialogue — remember all those “hella”s? — and it was easy to blame its older, all-male writing team for that.
A Square Enix PR rep interjected at one point in the interview to say that a good writer can tell any story, which isn’t untrue. But if Life is Strange is such a trailblazing game because it dared to put women at the fore, shouldn’t the development studio work harder to do the same behind the scenes?
Garris is conscious of how dissonant the production staff’s gender makeup may feel to the diverse people who love Life is Strange and eagerly anticipate Before the Storm. Considering how to approach this story from a place of understanding and inclusivity is something he keeps at the forefront of his mind.
“Are we telling the best story for Chloe?” Garris said he often asks both himself and his team. “Are we being thoughtful about the challenges about the topics that we’re addressing? Are we being critical of our own blind spots and own privilege?”
Hearing him say that may be comforting to Life is Strange fans or anyone who champions gender diversity in the gaming industry. Garris went on to say that even though he’s at the helm, the female members of his team were just as instrumental.
“It’s a constant effort, but I’m thrilled of what we’ve produced,” he told us.
Before the Storm’s first episode will launch on Aug. 31.