Bringing back Steph Gingrich for Life is Strange: True Colors may seem an obvious decision for Deck Nine Games, the studio behind her first appearance in Life is Strange prequel Before the Storm. Steph was an original creation of the team which now steers the franchise's future, and was beloved by fans back in her first appearance. She begged for more screen time, and fans asked for it too. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, being absent in the original Life is Strange meant she was narratively able to return, unaffected by the apocalyptic events at the end of that original game.
But in bringing Steph back, True Colors by necessity had to keep her slightly at arm's length. The main game is not her story, and it is clearly pitched as a fresh entry point for newcomers who never visited Arcadia Bay. It has a weighty, emotional tale of its own to tell, and as I wrote in Eurogamer's Life is Strange True Colors review, the game stays laser focused on exploring that, and particularly its core brother-sister relationship. So much so, that its two sidekicks/love interests, one of whom is Steph, both end up feeling a little under-served.
Wavelengths, True Colors' new prequel DLC, thankfully solves much of that for Steph. This is a character study on her life in Haven Springs over the year leading up to the events of the main game, covering what she has been up to since Arcadia Bay, how she finds herself washed up in another small town, and how she is handling the events of the past. It links the Steph we see bits of in True Colors to the character she was in Before the Storm, and importantly fills in some of her emotional backstory, enough that her return feels more than just convenient fan service.
Wavelengths begins soon after Steph arrives in Haven Springs, where she takes on the open position of local radio DJ and record store owner. The expansion takes place entirely within the shop and its back room, and while other characters cameo in voice-over form via memories or phone/video calls, Steph is the sole on-screen presence throughout the story. We hear more of her time in a now-defunct punk band, and get just enough of an explanation for why she and her former girlfriend broke up. In true Life is Strange fashion, trawling through Steph's phone turns up a frequently sad, sometimes devastating strata of old text messages and blocked numbers - a bunch of mostly broken connections from her recent past. But there's (often dark) humour too, as Steph tries to make connections via a dating app, and navigates an array of candidates on there.
Time passes, and we pick up with Steph during Pride month, now settled into the town and starting to turn the shop around. She has a successful radio bit where she tells people's fortunes based on the rolls of her d20. And, in examining the store's pile of homemade Pride badges, we get our first callback to Before the Storm protagonist Chloe Price. A downside to various Life is Strange games (and actually something LiS2 did well) is how short a window some of their narratives are constrained in. How well did Steph know Chloe and the doomed Rachel Amber outside of what we saw on screen? How did she take the news of Rachel's death? These are questions fans have wondered about (and written mountains of fanfic to fill in the blanks). Finally, as Wavelengths' action shifts to autumn, we get some of the answers.
In a Halloween-decorated radio store, Steph attempts to do her day job - Take calls! Read ads! Tidy the shop! - as the memory of something bad from her past catches up with her. (And yes, I did take the forced monotony of Wavelengths' repeated tasks to be a role-playing exercise of its own.) If you chose to save Arcadia Bay in LiS1, this bad memory will be the deaths of Rachel and Chloe. If you chose to save Chloe, it will be the destruction of Arcadia Bay, and the deaths of countless inhabitants including Steph's mother. Whichever choice you made (Wavelengths asks you before you begin), the game focuses on Steph's survivor's guilt and finally addresses the character history which was left out of True Colors proper.
Bringing back Mikey, the other original character from Before the Storm, lets Steph talk to another survivor of Arcadia Bay - both are simply explained as having been elsewhere - and surface a few quick memories of Rachel and Chloe which may get fans misty-eyed. (One downside here is that Ashly Burch did not return to voice Chloe again.) But this is more than fan-service or sequel-bait, and Wavelengths rightly does not linger too long on those past characters. This is Steph's story, and she has left Arcadia Bay long behind - physically at least, even if mentally those events have clearly shaped her character since. This huge, terrible part of her past needed to be addressed, just so Steph can continue trying to move forward. Finally, there's nothing here which drastically alters or retcons what we know of Arcadia Bay - we simply see the natural impact it has had on those it affected.
I did raise an eyebrow when I saw this fan-favourite character's story would be told separately to the main game, via a £10 DLC or included in True Colors' pricier editions. And I did feel disappointed by Steph's lack of backstory in True Colors, even if it would have bogged down the main narrative. Wavelengths thankfully turns out to be something of a beautiful compromise, as well as another well-written and performed Life is Strange story from Deck Nine. Wavelengths gifts the Steph from Before the Storm with a proper future and some proper screen time, while enriching the Steph we see in True Colors with a well-rounded past.