On February 2, 2016, French school ENS organized a panel with Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet, co game directors of Life is Strange. After its release in July, 2016, Maczime published an English script of the panel on the Life is Strange Subreddit on what was planned to be in the game. The text is structured by topics that were discussed during the panel. You can find the French panel here.
Life is strange: Game design, narration and representation
Beginning and prototype
The discussion opens with Michel and Raoul with the links between Life Is Strange (LIS) and Remember Me (RM). Both worked on RM. Hervé Bonin, one of the five cofounders of DONTNOD wanted to stretch the idea of the memory remix into an entire game. There was also a wish to extend the importance of environmental storytelling. RM has a lot but in the end, you were always running and missing all of them.
The very first prototype of the game is a scene with Nilin from RM. She is in a room, a ball breaks a window. She rewinds and opens the window in order to let the ball enter in the room. They kept the idea with the bird in EP1.
At first, this is a small team (Michel is in it, Raoul joined later) working one day a week while RM is almost done and other prototypes of bigger games are emerging. This is a project that was supposed to be independent / auto funded in parallel of another bigger game (RM2 or another AAA IP I guess). It was then presented to publishers due to the financial condition of DONTNOD (the studio entered in financial restructuration in January of 2014). Most of the time publishers were more interested by LIS than the other AAA games the company had to present. The themes of teenage years, regrets and testing your choices come quickly in place and are built in the same time as the writing of the characters and settings. Max was written with that in mind: A shy character who is afraid to move on and becoming an adult. What happen if someone like her has the power to play with time?
There are 9 months between the idea of the game / project and the first playable prototype (FPP) shown to publishers. The prototype is the one in the Director's Commentary (Chloe’s room) and it focuses on environmental story telling and puzzles. It is on that FPP that Square Enix will sign on the project and it will be decided it will be an episodic game. On that, Raoul says that they wanted to do an episodic game but I’m pretty sure I’ve read that Square asked for it in order to give the format a try since they had no game in this particular format (now we’ve got Hitman, Final Fantasy VII Remake, …). A few commentaries about the UI which breaks 4th wall and shows to the player how Max is: She writes everything in a journal that the player reads, the interactive elements in game are done like if it was Max writing notes on everything, …
Time travel and paradoxes
Back to the rewind, Alexis Blanchet talks about the paradoxes of the rewind in the game. The main one is that, in LIS, time and space are separated. Basically, when she rewinds, Max teleports herself. The team thought of acknowledging it directly in the game with NPC being surprised to see Max magically appearing with an exclamation / incomprehension coming from them but dropped it because acknowledging it in the game would have brought more problems than the ones they fixed.
So the team is of course aware of the paradoxes or diegetic narrative inconsistencies that inevitably produces the rewind. To quote Raoul: « During all the production, there wasn’t a morning where I wasn’t telling myself let’s just get rid of the rewind ». After a lot of talks, back and forth and tries, they just decide to assume the inconsistencies based on a balance between story and game, even if that means being criticized on that. The game has to be fun above all. As example, they say that with a « coherent rewind », all puzzles would have been only based on discussion (I know something, I rewind and use that information) and there wouldn’t be puzzles based on interactions (getting the keys in EP3 for example). Same logic behind the fact that Max keeps objects when rewinding: Having to get them back everytime would not be fun to play. It has to be easy to use. They assume players will accept it while playing because the rewind is fun enough, even if some will second guess it after playing the game.
The conversation about paradoxes then focuses on Max herself and Alexis Blanchet tells the power negatively impact her since she is presented as a shy character but then act like a « nasty little hypocrite » when she plays with the rewind. He takes as example the paint bucket in EP1 where she can confort Victoria, but Max is totally responsible for the situation. The mechanics is going against a written character depicted as honest and caring. She becomes in fact sneaky and manipulative. The team admits it and it is in fact something they want the player to think of: The use of the power and the consequences on your surroundings. It was discussed here few months ago here with a quote of Michel Koch telling that Max was not as good as she thought she was while using the rewind (and led to a stupid shitstorm of people pissed about it, but hey!)
Working with Square Enix
About the FPP, as you can see on the concept art, the flag is originaly tagged and tattered. Square US is worried about the reception of that and ask to chill a bit (mostly legal stuff: It appears you are only authorize to flip the flag, deteriorating it is forbidden). They just kept the reversed flag as a sign of rebellion. There will be a lot of discussion about sensitive subjects (rape, homosexuality, bullying) and talks with legal teams of Square about stuff like the design of some elements (truck of Chloe, keyboard and HiFi) that looked too much like real branded objects. Sometimes the team has to remove small details because Square fears bad reception (in EP1, they removed the word « abortion » in Dana’s arc but kept details that fly around it so that, even if it’s not told, many people will understand what’s discussed here). A lot of talks and discussions so, but in the end it allows the game directors to defend their vision and make them sure the issues they want to bring / talk about are important for the game. Plus the story being already widely written, any big change would disorganized the story as a whole.
Pop culture references and settings
Alexis Blanchet then talks about a game for people in their thirties especially with the notion of the rewind that works as a video recorder. For some players (especially those born on the 2000’s), the rewind itself doesn’t mean a lot since they are not used to it. For them, they mainly know DVDs and YouTube where you can directly pick the exact moment you want to watch.
Then, some obvious references you’ll see in the game: The Goonies (one of the writer’s favorite movie) in which you can feel the inspirations for the mood of Arcadia Bay. They confirm that the city is designed based of Astoria, Tillamook and Garibaldi.
Then, the discussion drifts on the link between try / test / assume and the high school setting. Nothing really interesting / untold here. They admit the story would have work in any school in the world but putting it in the USA was a warrant for a minimum success in terms of sales (plus the fact that they are fans of American culture). Some references on the high school setting The Faculty, Degrassy Jr High, Dawson Creek, Buffy, …
They also talk about one of the main critic on EP1: Clichés characters. Even if they are developed later on the story, they needed to put architectural characters because in first episode, the player will meet / interact with around 10 NPC he doesn’t know but needs to know for the development of the story. It’s easier to digest when you can put a function on each of them and then twist their role later on the story. It is basically putting the player in a comfort zone at first to allow the dev to bring him where they want (darker subjects).
The discussion finishes on the pop culture references. Raoul tells that he wanted all those easter eggs / references to be done with the approval of the game directors because they don’t want them to be out of place or outdates quickly, just like the art direction. The references must still make sense in several years.