At the GDC (Game Developers Conference) in March 2016, co-directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet presented a case study on the use of interactive storytelling and game design to tackle real world problems in Life is Strange. In this talk they reveal how they approached the inclusion of emotional, often sensitive, and sometimes taboo real-world issues into the core narrative of the game.
Raoul Barbet: Thank you. Hello, everyone. Thanks to be here for the (...) and sorry in advance for our awful French accent. My name is Raoul Barbet and here is Michel Koch. We are the two co-game directors of the episodic adventure game Life is Strange. We had the opportunity in this game to approach several real world issues and difficult subjects.
Michel Koch: So, our goal in the next 30 minutes is to share with you some of the creative process and thoughts behind the inclusion of those themes in the game. We learned a lot while doing this and we hope that we can give some insight on how we used storytelling, interactivity and game design to deal with those issues in a respectful and meaningful way. And of course, if you didn't play the game, this talk will be quite spoiler heavy, so sorry about that. So, let's quickly introduce ourselves: after academic drawing studios I started my career as an illustrator and concept artist for various projects, like Eve Online, World of Darkness, Call of Cthulhu, and R.U.S.E. for example. And then I joined Dontnod 8 years ago to work on the first game of the studio, Remember Me.
Raoul Barbet: Thanks. On my side, I did engineer studies, I began my career in the audiovisual field, film festivals and cultural events in Canada and France, and the visual center in Cambodia. My first experience in the game industry was for Heavy Rain, for motion capture and game design. I've worked also on animation long features for illumination (...) as a layered artist. I've finally joined Dontnod Entertainment for their first game Remember Me, that's how I met Michel. I was art director on the game and I was working more on the cinematic, as a cinematic designer and motion capture supervisor. After Remember Me we directed together Life is Strange, it was our first game as directors. Why do we love making video games? Great question. One of the reasons is that video game is for us a very strong media, mostly because it is interactive. We all have some great memories playing games, some since after stuck in our mind and most of the time the interactivity is usual in those memories. Video games can be much more impactful than movies or TV shows, which can be more passive sometimes. In a game, the players become the main actors of what is happening.
Michel Koch: And for this reason, video game is a great thought-provoking media and can be used to bring some awareness to the players about important subjects and real world issues, and also push them to develop some personal opinions about those subjects. And during the past years, we've seen more and more games go into that direction. Of course it happens a lot in the indie scene, but also sometimes with (...) published games. Let's quickly talk about a few examples. For example, the game That Dragon, Cancer, which deals with the issues of the illness of child, cancer and family; This War of Mine, with the subjects of war from the point of view of civilians and collateral victims; or Heavy Rain, which approached parenthood, depression and grief.
Raoul Barbet: Another example is Papers, Please, which talks about immigration conflicts, family obligations and public duties; even GTA Fi-- GTA 5, sorry, which has chosen to tackle a lot of issues of modern society, we can see here for example: use of torture, private armies or militias, like Blackwater; and Spec Ops: The Line, which talks in a brilliant way for us about the madness of war civilian casualties in a conflict and again the responsibilities as an individual. There is a lot of other examples like those of course, and [we are] really happy to see all those subjects treated in game, but let's focus now on our experience with Life is Strange.
Michel Koch: So for those of you who don't know our game, don't know Life is Strange, we'll briefly explain what it is. Life is Strange is a modern-episodic-adventure game who tells the story of Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old highschooler who just came back to her hometown after a 5 year absence. Quite early in the game, Max will discover that she has the unique ability to go back in time for a few seconds when she witnesses her former childhood friend Chloe getting shot and saves her. And with this new power, Max will realize that every time she has to try to change the past to fix things, this will have huge unwanted consequences within her world.
Raoul Barbet: And even if we have this supernatural power in the game, Life is Strange is not a sci-fi game, it is anchored in reality. So her power is just here as a catalyst to serve as the main narrative theme of our game. To grow up and become an adult you have to stop looking backward wanting to fix everything, but instead you should accept-- accept, sorry, that life cannot be perfect and move on. Having this main theme and the realistic setting allowed us to explore some real world issues.
Michel Koch: Here are some examples of the various themes and issues we approached in the game: loneliness, domestic violence, cyberbullying, teen pregnancy, euthanasia, drugs and a lot of others. Some of those are very tough subjects and it was sometimes a challenge to walk on them, but we didn't start the project with a checklist like this one, we didn't want to walk this way. Our goal was always to think of the big pictures of the main story and the overall player experience of the game, and actually, the inclusion of those themes did appear organically while we were working on the story of the game. We feel that it's important to stay focused on the main message of a game and to never lose track of it, then at a point some subjects and some themes, situations, will surface during the writing process when they make sense and when they move the story forward. It was also very important for us to not show any political agenda, even if some of the themes in Life is Strange feel political, we knew that we should not force our own opinions to the players but let them think by themselves. We think that if a theme is presented in a neutral way and if it makes sense within the story, it will leave space for the players to maybe learn about it and maybe even to start thinking about it with a different light.
Raoul Barbet: The other point that was very important for us was to be extremely respectful when dealing with those issues. Again, video game is an immersive media and this is our responsibility as developers to be extremely cautious and to think about the players' reaction and also about players that might have experienced similar situations. Now we are going to focus on two examples from the game to explain our process. The first scene takes place in an alternate reality where your best friend Chloe, with terminally ill, will ask you to end her life. The other one will be a suicide attempt from a student victim of cyberbullying. Those scenes are quite heavy and difficult society issues, but we think that they are good examples of our creative and design process. For each one, we will explain the context of the scene, how we got there, the preparation and anticipations for the scene, the moment, how we treated the scene itself, and the consequences after the scene all over the episode and the game. So let's begin with the first scene, Chloe's Euthanasia. How we got there? One of the main narrative drive in Life is Strange is the friendship between Max and Chloe, the "getting attached" to Chloe and helping her is one of the reasons Max and the players are always using her power to try to change the past and fix things. During the first three episodes we did build slowly this friendship, starting with a quite selfish Chloe who slowly opens to Max and shows real concern and connection with her. It was crucial for us to succeed into creating a strong attachment between the players and Chloe, then following our main theme we needed to show that your actions can have devastating consequences, so the players will be able to, at the end of Episode 3, go into the past and change the destiny of Chloe's father, saving in-- saving him, sorry, from a car accident.
Michel Koch: And this action had a terrible butterfly effect, as the players did put Chloe in a very odd situation; she got paralyzed with a degenerating terminal respiratory illness. And since we wanted to push the idea of responsibility, we needed then a strong and difficult choice that would show the player that sometimes there is no easy way out of the situations you created. That's where the story, the themes and the narrative pushed us to talk about this very, very difficult subject: assisted suicide. We knew that it was a really touchy subject but we felt that it was the right moment to talk about it. At this point, we knew that we'd have to spend more work time on this scene than in most of the others in the game, so in order to create the scene in a realistic and respectful way, we got starting by doing a lot of researches and [we] looked for documentation. We started with the handicap and the right medical equipment needed by people in this situation with respiratory issues. We've looked at blogs, websites, [and] testimonies to be sure that we had the right references, and since ultimately Chloe is asking Max to end her life, it was extremely important to never imply that she wanted to die because she was handicapped; it would have been a terrible mistake and a very wrong message. And the main reason for her request is a degenerative terminal illness, so we've contacted some doctors to have more insights about this and to get everything right, the wording, the medicine used, [and] the condition.
Raoul Barbet: Then we also looked at the consequences on the family, the associated costs for keeping an handicapped ill person at home. It was also a subject we wanted to talk about as there is a lot of families that have difficulties, mostly because of the medical expenses. You can see some examples here of letters, bills [and] social care documents. All those researches are also here to create the environmental storytelling of the game. Environmental storytelling is one of the important aspects of Life is Strange, all the interactions have to be relevant and give information to the players, making this universe believable and interesting to discover. For this scene, where you have to make this difficult choice, it was crucial to have a long moment, around 40 minutes, to explore this alternate reality where Chloe is handicapped and get familiar with it, so we used a lot of those researches and documentations you have seen before to create all her props and the general organization of the room. One of the interesting aspects is also that the players knew this house very well during three episodes where Chloe wasn't handicapped, [so] for the new timeline, because of the accident, we had to rethink the whole organization of the house. Chloe's bedroom, for example, has been emptied as she can't go upstairs anymore, so it's quite disturbing for the players to discover this room where they spent a lot of time during three episodes; they got a really emotional attachment to this place and some of the best memories with Chloe. We really wanted them to realize what happened and the consequences on the family. Following the same idea, the old garage where David was working has been transformed into Chloe's new bedroom. It's one of the rooms the player knew well, as they have even solved some puzzles there during the previous episode, so those two rooms are also transformed in the gameplay point of view, the interactions and possibilities have changed for the players. We wanted to stay logical in those changes, what the Prices could afford, all they would have changed (...) after Chloe's accident, we really think that all those small details help the players to believe in the story and care for what happened. The environment of the new bedroom also allowed us to show more about Chloe's character and her new life, showing that she still managed to adapt to her condition, even if it's difficult life goes on and Chloe keeps her spirit up.
Michel Koch: That's also where we can use the character development from the previous episode to strengthen the scene and be sure that the player will care about the subject and see every facet of the issue. For example, before Chloe asks Max her request and puts the player in front of this terrible choice, Max can spend a lot of time with Chloe, take time to fully understand the situation, learn about her terminal illness and her medical condition, but also discover her positive attitude, some jokes and cynism [on how] she feels about this subject. We also created interactive branching dialogues with Chloe's parents, those characters are familiar, but now everything is different because of Chloe's condition. Those dialogues allowed us to let the player ask questions and get the information they wanted about the situation. They also discovered that, even with all the difficulties, Chloe and her parents are still a caring family trying their best to cope with everything, trying to keep up and to stay positive. And the last tool we used was, of course, Max herself and her reactions through the whole sequence. In our game we used a lot of inner voices to reflect Max's thoughts and her view of the world, and in this particular sequence those were extremely important to show Max's guilt and her doubts and reactions to Chloe's request to end her life. But now let's focus on the scene itself and how we approached the moment where the players have to make this decision.
Raoul Barbet: So the players have the time to discover the new universe of Chloe, her condition and the family situation; since the beginning of the episode, the two girls have spent a lot of time together. At this moment, looking at a photo album, Chloe is going to ask a terrible question to Max: will she help her to end her life. When the moment comes to play the scene and to take this decision, it was really important for us and for the players to have enough time to process everything and to reflect-- reflect, sorry, upon the question. (...) Nothing should never be rushed. For example, the framing and editing were really important: very slow editing, shots while the girls are not talking, just looking at it each other, for example, not too many camera angles, a quite classic shot reverse shot, not too much movement in cameras and we wanted to stay close to the girls but not too close, no close-up on tears or stuff like that, the absence of [original] score and music is also very important, we wanted here to be realistic and not overdramatize this moment with music. We also added some times before every choices, is a UI fit in, for example, it can meet just a few seconds but it means a lot in this kind of moment.
Michel Koch: And when Chloe eventually asks the question, we decided to add a third option, "I don't know", a very human reaction if Max and the players cannot think of a right thing to do in a situation like that. It allowed us to give more time to the players to make up their mind and this was the only moment in the game when the players could decide to not make a choice. But then again, Chloe asks Max to make a stand, she has to make a choice. We wanted to show that sometimes there is no easy way out and that you have to take responsibilities for your actions, and one of the really important elements for a scene like that was the voice acting, [so] we decided to use more resource than usually and recorded the two actresses together with a dual microphone setup. It was crucial to get authenticity from their acting with subtlety and no overacting.
Raoul Barbet: Let's talk a bit about gameplay on UI. Yeah, we decided to bend the rules for this important moment in order to remove all kind of gamification. For example, we removed some UI feedbacks, a butterfly appearing on the screen or some sound effects, and we also removed the voiceover of Max just after the choice. Yeah, we didn't want any art game stuff, we wanted the players to be alone with their choice. What is really important is also to give a (...) to this choice with consequences, it could be short or long term ones. The following scenes are extremely important: the players will be back in another reality where Chloe is no more ill or handicapped but the choice the players have just made will still resonate and it's important to take some times also in those scenes to deal with the decision. The mistake would have been to jump back into the game too quickly and we have made the same decision for all characters' death, we-- death, sorry, we really wanted to give an importance to grief, sometimes in video game we tend to trivialize this. One of the characteristic of our game is its slow pacing, we really wanted the players to take their time in the game. We have for example what we call the "Zen Sequences", some moments where Max can just sit under a tree, [or] on a fountaine and the players [can] enjoy her thoughts, music and camera angles. Here we added one of the sequences to be sure that the players had the time to think about their decision.
Michel Koch: And it was also extremely important to have long term consequences to a decision like this one to carry out this choice over the rest of the game, and not to make it disappear as it never happened, it would lose all impact and remove some of the players' reflection if we never talked about it again. So for example, we created a dialogue in Episode 5, between Max and Chloe, in the original timeline where Chloe wasn't sick, where the player can talk about what happened and share this heavy load and emotion with her and getting to see her reaction, her support and her acceptance of what Max did. There is also a nightmare sequence near the end of the game and this choice come back at Max and haunt her somehow, all those consequences are really important to show that such a decision has a lot of weigh on Max. So we try to explain in detail our process to approach a difficult subject like this one, now we'll talk more (...) that is about another example. A scene that happened at the end of Episode 2 dealing with another subject: cyberbullying, which can lead to severe depression and suicide, and as the players will have to try to convince one of your friends, Kate, to not jump from a roof. So how we got there? We needed at the end of Episode 2 to have a serious event happening, showing the player that they might face bigger responsibilities than just having fun with the power, like they did in the beginning of the game.
Raoul Barbet: Kate is a close friend to Max, she's feeling more and more depressed because of pressure from the other students about a viral video posted on internet. Even if Kate is more like a secondary character, it was important for us to build a strong relationship, like for Chloe, between her and Max. Kate will try to find some help but her situation is more and more difficult and at the end of Episode 2, she feels alone and abandoned. As the game takes place in a high school, we wanted to talk about cyberbullying and the social pressure teenagers can feel nowadays, the overconnected world they are living in can be very difficult and we really wanted to have this theme in the game since the very beginning. Let's see (...) we prepared this scene.
Michel Koch: So we worked with the same general approach as for the scene with Chloe, we started again by doing a lot of researches burying testimonies from students, looking at blogs and interviews. Also, in order to prepare the interactive dialogues we looked at suicide prevention websites, and reached for psychoanalysts in order to know how to speak to people in this kind of distress. We used all those elements in the environment of storytelling, for example: for the Bully Free posters, for some harsh anonymous messages and graffitis targeted to Kate, and also for every details in her room showing her emotional distress. Then we also used the characters in gameplay to build the player's relationship with Kate about the first two episodes, several scenes and decisions from the players in the beginning are linked to Kate and we can use them to alter the final scene. All of this allows the player who wants to explore Kate, about Kate, to be able to know more about her, and this will give them more possibilities to help her during the scene. Our idea was to show that to help your friends you may need to care a lot about them and know them well enough, and let's have a look at the scene itself.
Raoul Barbet: So this scene takes place at the end of Episode 2, the players know that something is going on with Kate [and] they discover Kate jumping from the roof and know that Max is the only one able to save her. But we wanted to add a twist to make them involved, so we decided to get rid of the main gameplay feature, so (...) power at the moment they needed the most. So we created a new feature just for this scene, is the power to freeze time; it's not used in any other moment of the game. The scene has a huge visual impact on a production point of view, you can see a lot of different things we have produced just for it, (...) the particles, lights, sounds, motion kit and animations. The music has also a huge role in the feeling of the scene, we wanted the players to feel uncomfortable. Jonathan Morali, the composer, has created a different music than the rest of the score: colder and more digital; the choice of the instrument, the piano, is also linked to the scene had in Kate's bedroom. We had the opportunity with the scene to show an interesting aspect of human beings, some of the other students prefer to capture Kate with a smartphone, taking some pictures, when David, the head of security, runs to try to help her.
Michel Koch: One of the main difficulty of this scene is that it is also a dialog puzzle, where you have to choose the right words to prevent Kate from jumping. Without the rewind power, the players will need to think carefully about what they say to Kate, like in real life there is no magic safe barrier. That's why it was extremely hard and crucial to write this puzzle dialogue in a respectful way, we started by looking for the right wordings and using the logical choice and sentences one could say in a situation like this, then we also used the previous knowledge the player might advocate using gameplay choices and ends they found in the game, if they paid attention to her inner problems. Then we needed to be careful with our gamification, as a situation like this can be real and shouldn't be trivialized or it could be really disrespectful, we had to carefully adjust the difficulty of the scene to reflect reality, as it should not be too easy to talk someone out of committing such an act but it also shouldn't be too hard in order to give hope to the players. Like for previous examples, we thought in put short term and long term consequences after this event. Immediately after the scene, we have another scene in the Principal's office, where people involved can give their versions of what happened; this scene has a lot of difference based on Kate's situation and your previous decisions in the game. As the player you can try to explain what happened and accuse who might be responsible for putting Kate into that situation, but even if you did the right things previously in the game you can end up getting expelled from school, showing that like in real life, you can't always predict what will happen and there is no perfect choice and outcome. And this episode has also two different endings with different things, depending on Kate's situation
Raoul Barbet: During all the next episodes Kate needs to be present in a way, she shouldn't be a throwaway character and her suicide attempt or death needs to matter in the story. Such an event should not be forgotten as soon as the episode is finished, so the following episode, the third one, is really haunted by Kate memory. We can use a lot of different tools to achieve that: inner voices from Max talking about, different dialogues, props on textures, depending on the end of the scene, text messages from Kate or other students, even a confrontation with Kate herself during a nightmare scene, we also decided to add a complete new scene where you can meet Kate again at the hospital if you managed to save her. We're really satisfied with this addition, it gives some hope in a way to players who feel connected to Kate, she feels better, less lonely, positive and it was important for us to show that. Even if those consequences could sometimes have a cost in term of production, the brand new scene for example, it's really important to think about them and integrate them in the planning again to not trivialize the loss of someone. Those subjects are difficult so we decided to have a special page for people who could feel concerned, create this talk to someone page has been decided with Square Enix, when we were working on the design of Kate's scene. We felt that this scene could be out for some people so we wanted to have those information available, there are numbers and addresses where players affected by some of the subjects of the game can talk to people. The game reached a large audience and we got a lot of messages from the players on the social networks by emails or even unwritten letters, we want today again to thank this great community for all those messages.
Michel Koch: The game [at] some time helped them, made them feel better, or pushed them to think about those subjects, but we also got some messages from players who felt bad because of some of the scenes, so this highlights even more the utter importance to be extremely cautious and respectful with those subjects not to censor ourselves, but to take as time as needed to do it right. So we learned a lot during the creation of this game, it was a real challenge to deal with those issues but also a very interesting process and we hope that we were able to share some interesting experience with you. Of course, we had a lot of doubts during the production and it was sometimes odd to keep the scene in game, but if we can again approach some serious issues in the next game, we know that we will put a lot of resources and time into it, and trying to find new ways to improve.
Raoul Barbet: Like we were saying at the beginning, because of interactivity, video game is a very strong and impactful media. It's really our responsibility as developers to be careful and not to trivialize some subjects, we have to take some time to think about it, is difficult but that's also why we love making games. Thanks a lot for your attention.
Michel Koch: Thank you.