Life is Strange: Before the Storm dev on Ashly Burch's absence, season pass kerfuffle and more
"We contemplated lots of different ways to react, including abandoning the project."
When word first broke that beloved teen adventure Life is Strange was getting a prequel, many of the game's hardcore fans were less than convinced.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm is being made by a different developer - the unproven US-based Deck Nine Games - compared to the original's team at Dontnod in Paris. Dontnod is now working on an entirely new Life is Strange 2, and many fans considered the studio's original tale completely wrapped up. Any attempt to go back and revisit those characters, especially by a different team, felt like a huge risk. And then there was the unwelcome news that Chloe Price voice actor Ashly Burch would not be returning, along with word that the game's Season Pass would not include the season's bonus episode.
But then Before the Storm was officially shown off at E3, and suddenly the conversation changed. Aoife saw the game first, and reported back with positive impressions. We had both been pretty sceptical of the project, and she told me to go see it. I found time on the show's last day and found myself similarly impressed. Our friends at Outside Xbox also felt similar - we've embedded their video below.
Still, it is early days. We were only treated to a live gameplay demo of Before the Storm's opening scenes, and we are yet to find out the full tale it will tell. For answers to our burning questions, Aoife (who is now on holiday, lucky her) sat down with lead writer Zak Garriss to discuss the need for a prequel, Dontnod's involvement, Ashly Burch's absence, the odd decision around the Season Pass, and which returning characters may make an appearance.
So I guess the biggest question is, why now and why this story?
Garris: Yeah, it's a good one. I guess that's critical. So, everyone at Deck Nine, we are huge fans of the first game. We really fell in love with Arcadia Bay and with everything that Dontnod accomplished. Chloe in particular. So we saw an opportunity in looking at this particular time in Chloe's life - she's 16 years old, we're closer to her father's death. Max is gone, has abandoned her. Joyce is moving on with this new guy she's dating, David, who everyone's gotta love because he's awesome. Chloe's alone.
There's something profoundly human about this period in her life and it's a chance to look at that and examine the beginnings of her relationship with a character like Rachel Amber, who is this mythic character from the first game who we hear a lot about but we never see. The way Chloe talks about Rachel, the lack of detail she provides even for Max, speaks to how profound that relationship was for her, while still allowing for an ambiguity, the complexity that can create branching narratives for the players we're inviting to play Before the Storm, to give agency towards what that relationship is going to be like.
Talking with other friends who played it, as soon as that was announced, one of the things we all said was, as you say, Rachel Amber was such a mythical character, that's kind of what we loved about her. You never got to meet Rachel Amber. She was this ambiguous being, and you heard all these things about her, and it was all second-hand information, a lot of it unreliable - so you never knew what was true and what wasn't. So it must be quite difficult to walk that line, letting us know a bit more about her, but also... I don't know, I guess it's because she's idolised so much. I like the mystery.
Garris: It's hard to meet your idols.
Garris: It's really hard to meet your heroes, and I think it's a profound truth, because you can be confronted with their humanity and the reality of who they are. So while we hear about heroic elements to Rachel's personality, the truth to who she is is going to be even more meaningful. She's top of the social ladder, she's the most beautiful person, she can charm everybody. That's interesting, and there's a power there, but it's not extremely human. And what we're really wanting to unearth and expose is, even the perfect girl is broken. And even the broken girl, Chloe, has strength. And so we see a chance to explore the really unique ways in which the two girls can be something unique to each other. That can really, we hope, speak to human connections - what it's like to have that one person show up at a particular moment in your life when you need them. It can be everything.
Obviously we know how their story ends, so it must be quite difficult to make sure that it's not just treading water.
Garris: Yeah. So it's important to call out, the events of the first game happen when Chloe is 19. We're moving far backward enough so that the terminus of our story is not Rachel's disappearance. That's not the story we're telling here. We've living in this ambiguous space, the conclusion of which even diehard fans of the first game won't know, they won't be able to anticipate because Chloe never talks about it. We found in that a sort of freedom, to create discursive paths so that we can have those challenging choices with those real consequences that I think fans really loved about the first game.
How much freedom did you have to play around with those established characters that we meet again? Is this Dontnod's story or is this... have you been given free license?
Garris: From high-level conception through full execution all the way into the production of the game, this has been entirely Deck Nine. We're working in partnership with the core team at Square Enix that worked on the first Life is Strange.
When was it greenlit, by the way?
Garris: A little over a year ago, yeah. It's been a fast year. (laughs) Square cares so much about the franchise, about every character in the universe, but they wanted us to take the reins and run with the story. And it's a constant dialogue with them, around what we want to do with Frank, what we want to do with David, what we want to do with Joyce. And that's one of the best things about the partnership with Square, for us as developers, is how much they care and how precious they are with Life is Strange. But at the end of the day they really encouraged us to find the version of Before the Storm that we were most passionate about as developers.
Ashly Burch isn't involved this time around but she has said she's provided creative consultancy. What exactly does that entail?
Garris: Oh man that was heartbreaking, not getting Ash in.
What's the story there, it's because of the strikes? There was no wiggle room there?
Garris: She did such a wonderful job in the first game, that was really hard for us. The strike is complicated - extremely complicated! It really challenged us, we were well into development when that kind of problem arose. We contemplated lots of different ways to react, including abandoning the project. What we ended up doing was sharing the first episode of the script with Ashly. We knew that she wasn't going to be able to join as an actor, so we sent it to her, we said this is what we're working on, what do you think? And she saw our passion, she saw the story, and she got really passionate about it and she decided to provide her feedback. She asked to join as a story consultant. She's a fantastic writer, she works on Adventure Time and other materials so, yeah. Every single line of dialogue from high level story concept to any little VO line we've shared with Ashly. We talk with her frequently, we've had her out to the studio in Colorado. She's really become a huge voice toward shaping Chloe at this particular time in her life. So in that regard we've been ecstatic about her getting involved with the story.
I'm glad that she is involved to some extent because it just wouldn't feel right without her - her performances lent so much to that character. But I suppose it is as you say, it's far enough back in time that - it's almost like growing pains when I watch the demo, her voice is a little different, she's going through a rebellious phase.
Garris: Yeah. I had a chance in May to bring a slightly older version of our first episode to Paris to share with Luc [Baghadoust, Life is Strange's producer] and Raoul and Michel [the original game's co-directors] and [writer] Christian Divine, and we played through four hours - put the controller in their hands and had them play through - and watched them laugh and tense up and it was awesome, hearing their feedback and getting their support. But they didn't notice that it was Rihanna [DeVries], the actress that we got to play Chloe. They didn't even notice, they were totally immersed in her voice. She's done a fantastic job.
I'm glad that's the case, because I feel Felicia Day was quite harsh.
Square Enix PR: Everyone's entitled to an opinion. An interesting story that no-one knows about Rihanna yet as well is she was our mo-cap person and she had been using lines...
Garris: Yeah, we have a mo-cap studio in-house, we do our mo-cap in house with our cinematic director working with the actors through all of their motion capture. Rihanna was the physical embodiment of Chloe before she was cast as the VO actor for Chloe. So we had a lot of tests with a lot of different actresses embodying the part, she handled both the physicality of Chloe and the personality in vocal performances, she was a natural.
So has she had to modify her voice all that much?
Garris: No, it's really Rihanna.
Dontnod landed on a very particular aesthetic with the game, which you guys seem to have emulated really well. The graffiti thing I think is a great idea because it also expands on her character, is that the main way you're putting your own spin on things?
Garris: That's not a bad way to look at it. I think there are elements of the visual style that we see as core to the franchise, the kind of painted world, this sort of perpetual golden hour, sunset all the time, beautiful lighting and Arcadia Bay and Oregon just has this beautiful feel to it. I feel like that's non-negotiable. We're in Arcadia Bay, we want to live in that space. But there are also elements that are opportunities to change, to explore how being in Chloe's shoes is fundamentally different from being in Max's shoes. So Max has photography, which is more of a passive collectible, right? And for Chloe we felt that she's more aggressive. She's going to put her mark ON the world. And let's make it a choice, so you choose how you do that.
It's liberating as well because when I play as Max I feel like, no Max wouldn't do that, Max is too nice. But in the demo Chloe has a chance to steal money and, I feel like yeah, Chloe totally would steal that money, so therefore, I'M going to steal the money.
Garris: Yeah, it gives you a license.
It was just like when the bit came up for you to describe Chloe and Rachel's relationship as more than a friendship, JUST KISS! That's my head canon - everybody's gay in Arcadia Bay!
Garris: (laughs) And like sexuality in real life, like relationships in real life, there's no discrete moment where you decide yes or no - this is what we are - it's a constantly evolving experience.
That's absolutely how I saw Max, she was a baby to all that, and actually wasn't sure of her own feelings. But she definitely wasn't into Warren and if Warren's in this I'm going to have words...
But Frank was, and I hope we're going to see the origins of why he loves beans so much?
Garris: That's a core part of the story. It has to be.
It better be! People need to know. Are there other recurring characters?
Can you tell us anything about them?
Garris: I will say that we're looking at Chloe's life as a sophomore at Blackwell. That's a part of the story, right? So we're going to be in that space that's going to be familiar but different. Victoria Chase is a sophomore, she's not a senior, she's not running the place. She's climbing the ladder, stabbing backs or whatever. So there are a number of characters you will encounter that you will recognise from the first game. Some of them have elaborate recurring threads throughout all three episodes, but at the same time it was really important to us to introduce new characters in Blackwell and in Arcadia Bay to increase the diversity of the community, to increase the breadth and depth of those personalities.
Is it still a mystery story, at its core?
So it's still going to have an investigative angle?
Garris: For sure.
And, I have to ask about the Season Pass episode as well. What was the decision to keep the Max episode separate from the rest of the content?
Garris: Oh right yeah, the Farewell, the sort of fourth episode, separate to Before The Storm. So, we wanted to include, Square wanted to include an opportunity for fans to go back and play as Max, but it's really separate to the Before The Storm's core narrative, and I think the thinking was not to force that in but to let that be an option. If fans were interested in doing that too, then that's an opportunity in the deluxe version.
The price difference is quite large, I mean what is £13.99 and £19.99.
Garris: It's about $6 an episode...
Square Enix PR: So basically, because we saw the article on Eurogamer as well, one thing we'd like to say is that, we always wanted it to be around $6 an episode. But because it's not linked to the main story, we didn't want to make people have to do that too. These episodes aren't made for free, but what we've done with the Digital Deluxe Edition, I don't know if people know about this enough - there's like a Zen Mixtape Mode in there, so obviously we've got a licensed soundtrack in there again, which people loved about the first one. They always asked us, can we have the soundtrack, can we play it? So what we did was create a version of the game where you can actually choose all the tracks, you've got all the tracks there. You can repeat one over and over again or you can mix them up in any order, and then it's Chloe sort of laying back on her bed listening to the tracks. So it's like a moment of calm, a zen moment you can control yourself.
But that Max episode, she won't have her powers yet? Because it's also a prequel?
Garris: I don't wanna speak to the details, just yet.
Was not having powers in Before The Storm almost freeing, to not have to worry about that from a story perspective?
Garris: Freeing is an interesting way to describe it. I think maybe that's true. For us, the core of Life is Strange, when I think about what the developers did, making that game, they were courageous, by choosing to tell a story about an 18 year old girl going through... They created something really special. They blazed a trail. And yeah, choosing not to lean on a power to create what's compelling about the game but really doubling down on this idea of an intimate story about young people finding their way? That's enough. That's powerful. And really believing in that and crafting that, prioritising that, I think that's what's really kept all of us at Deck Nine just so passionate about this story that we've come up with and this game experience that we're making.
What character was, for you personally, the most exciting to sink your teeth into story-wise?
Garris: Chloe. It's her combination of strength and ferocity with her vulnerability. I love broken characters, I love flawed characters, because they're real. And I want more stories to celebrate flaws and normalise them, and explore how that's okay. I think Chloe is such a wonderful spokesperson for people who feel disenfranchised, for people who feel alone, for people who feel broken in some way. I hope fans will get to play her and embody her and meet Rachel and meet other characters that we have, and walk away feeling hopeful. About meeting people in their real lives and feeling okay about whatever it is that they're going through.