On June 29, 2017, Keith Milburn published an article about Life is Strange: Before the Storm on the NZGamer website. It features an interview with lead writer Zak Garriss and co-writer Chris Floyd from Deck Nine Games at E3 2017.
Normalising Grief - An Interview with Life is Strange: Before the Storm’s Writer, and Co-Director
It's the last day of E3. Everyone on the show floor is bleary eyed. Tired. There's a palpable exhaustion; it washes over the crowd in waves, rising and falling to the beat of the trashy EDM songs that flood the halls.
My final appointment is an interview with members of the team on Life is Strange: Before the Storm; writer Zak Garriss, and co-director Chris Floyd. This can be a blessing or a curse. Interviewees are either laid back and open, or drained – falling back on perfunctory PR-friendly answers.
Thankfully, what I got was an earnest, honest discussion about how games often celebrate excellence, with stories about achieving goals and accomplishing the impossible. About how the team at Deck Nine is hoping to tell a story about mundane failures, that acknowledge day-to-day struggles. And, about shaping the medium for generations to come.
NZGamer.com: Life is Strange had a definitive ending, so it’s not surprising that you want to go back and tell a prequel story. What made you want to tackle Chloe’s backstory though?
Zak: Chloe’s a very different character from Max – in a lot of ways. There’s almost a paradoxical complexity to her. She’s really strong, fierce, aggressive. But she’s also vulnerable, she’s frail – there’s a pain to her, that I think is really authentic.
I feel like that nature, that kind of hero, potential for a player character like that – that’s very unusual in games. We’re really excited to explore a story based in her world, her reality, that feels so authentic. That feels so real. We think fans are really going to resonate with that.
It’s also a shorter season – is this because it fills a gap narratively? Or did you plan the tale you wanted to tell in that timeframe?
Zak: Yeah, when we first imagined the prequel we would tell, we really didn’t restrict ourselves to any particular length. We focused on what we’re most passionately about, and we shared that with Square, and we had a lot of dialogue around that.
That result felt like a 6 - 9-hour story, so it was like “Let’s make that three episodes.” [laughs]
Life is Strange also dealt with a lot of incredibly tough issues – bullying, assault, stuff like that. And Chloe had an incredibly hard time growing up. Are you looking to explore similar things?
Zak: Absolutely. I think Dontnod had a lot of courage in what they put the lens on. Their game, the issues you’re describing – we see that as a cornerstone of the franchise. So we’re definitely choosing to do the same.
We take that very seriously. I think it’s one of the most special qualities to what Life is Strange is.
Zak: And at Deck Nine, we’re so passionate about doing it right, doing it carefully. That’s why Chloe again was the kind of character we ended up really wanting to be a part of, because of her background, her history, the hurt that she’s had. I feel like there’s a lot of potential to explore there.
One of the things is also tackling those issues with respect and the gravity they deserve. In the first season, each episode finished with a hotline to different places you could call if you had a hard time. Are you looking at doing anything to address these issues at the end of each episode, where people can reach out and find someone?
Zak: Yeah. I think with every – I don’t want to call them special topics. But yeah, when we go to dark places we’re being very careful about the kind of materials that we’re using. Research, and the foundations that we’re building from, and the kind of materials and communications we’ll share – through the UI, through the game, just like they did with the first one. Where it feels appropriate.
Chris: And one of the things that Life is Strange did well, was it approached all those issues, not in any kind of cheap or callous way. With a very honest eye, without any kind of agenda. So that’s really the other qualities that we wanted to apply when we’re addressing some of that serious stuff.
One of the PR reps outside was telling me that Life is Strange has one of the biggest social media followings out of any of Square Enix’s licenses. Dontnod also won themselves a BAFTA for their first season. Has that put any pressure on you to step up?
Chris: Yeah, yeah!
Pressure is definitely the right word. To be totally honest, there’s a lot of pressure. But it’s also just a great privilege. To be able to build on that franchise, and to build on the foundation that they’ve laid out – we’re really standing on the shoulders of giants, and we couldn’t be prouder to be doing that. And trying to fulfil the fans’ expectations – since we’re fans ourselves, y’know?
Chris: And that makes it that much easier. So, that’s really our driving goal all the time.
So [Zak], for you personally as a writer, what was the story you wanted to tell here?
Zak: I wanted to look at a character who was broken. A character who maybe questions from day-to-day “Can I make it? Who am I even right now, what is my future going to be like?”
I’m passionate, I’m interested in normalising that. We celebrate excellence in a lot of ways in stories, and I think there’s a space for that. But I also think there’s a space to recognise and validate having a hard time. Full stop.
Like, I mean, being sixteen, and not know who you are. Being alone, being alienated. Feeling like you’re never going to get over grief. Something that was really interesting to me, the idea of grieving, the idea of – for a time after loss, a time of unknown length – feeling like a fundamentally different person. Not knowing when that’s going to change, not knowing when you’re not going to feel alone anymore.
I have gone through that myself, and I know other members of the writing team as well. And what I hope to do, we hope to do with the story, is to put the player in the shoes, and to ask thoughtful and careful questions about what it means to hurt that way. And to really – at the same time – explore how incredible it can be when you’re in a place like that, and you meet someone who changes your world. Either because you need them, and/or they need you.
And how you can learn in a moment that “oh yeah, the way I felt yesterday, that’s not the way I’m always going to feel – that there are other ways to feel.” And to me, that’s the heart of the human condition. That’s the heart of what it is to connect, or not to connect with each other. So that, Chloe as a vehicle for exploring that, Arcadia Bay at this time and this place, is a space to raise questions about that, and tell a story within that kind of setting – it’s incredibly exciting.
And we’re all so proud of what we’re doing in Before the Storm, and so hopeful that fans are going to like it.
So did you have a lot of freedom narratively and creatively, or was there a lot of back-and-forth with Dontnod, and what you could do with their baby?
Zak: Yeah, that’s a great question.
Square cares so much about this franchise – so much. And they care so much about the community around the franchise. So when they were looking for a partner to develop Before the Storm, a new entry in the world, they were looking for the right kind of team that would be capable of having a vision for the story they wanted to tell.
So that’s a high bar that they’re asking for. But at the same time, they want to know that it’s in good hands, that it’s in the right hands. So yeah, they asked us “what would you do if you were going to tell a story in the Life is Strange universe,” expecting us to say “something good, something amazing, something compelling,” right?
But it’s a constant process of back-and-forth, and dialogue with them. We’ve been working with the core team from Square Enix that worked on the first Life is Strange, designers and producers on the publisher side. Really, stewards of the franchise, who want us to see and build our vision, but at the same time, ensure that vision has a healthy place in the franchise as a whole.
So getting to do that has been a real joy for us. Absolutely wonderful working relationship.
Chris: Since we’re fans as well, we’re kind of the first line critics of our work.
Zak: [Laughs] Right, yeah.
Chris: There’s sort of a joke in the office we’ll have is, we’re always massaging all of our ideas, and looking where the story might go. And saying stuff like “OK, that’s a really funny moment, or really exciting, but is it Life is Strange?”
And we have to ask that question, and sometimes, we go “Y’know what, it is, we can do that thing inside that world, for sure.” But sometimes we say “no, we need to moderate this a bit.”
The way that Life is Strange, the story really likes to take its time, really likes to breathe, leave things. So much room to explore. There are so many qualities to it that are just very characteristic of that game, and it’s really important to us to stick to that.
One of the things I really liked about the first game – and in general, a lot of narrative-driven adventure games we’ve seen in the last five years, like The Walking Dead – is quite often, your choices aren’t about shaping the story. Just because of dev costs, the story needs to be a diamond shape.
But I quite like the idea of your decisions influencing the way that people, the characters in the story think about you, or react to you. Has that – doing this as a prequel – been an interesting challenge? That you’re shaping the way that characters that potentially show up later in the universe, think about other characters?
Chris: I sort of feel that the timeframe we’re talking about – three years earlier – is a really nice to place for us to live. In many ways, I find that it is very fruitful, and energizing, to think about some of the characters that we’re gonna see return from the first game. Where they might be, and how their situation might be different.
We know of course that we need to be in line in Season 1. We need to stay true to that. But we have enough freedom at this stage, to do a lot, and to maybe show a different side of a character before they landed there.
I think fans and players are really going to be interested in, to see where they are.
Zak: I think Chris is totally right. By not telling the story of Rachel’s disappearance – which was a deliberate decision on our part – but rather going farther back to this more ambiguous time in Chloe’s life, we do open up the freedom to invite player agency in the story, and create threads, and branching narratives, let the player’s choices influence what actually happens in Chloe’s life at this time. Leading all the way up to the final moment in the game, up to the multiple possible endings of the story, I think that’s really critical, and core for the franchise.
So we very deliberately picked a period where we could still have that freedom.
So outside of the communities, and other members on your team, what does Life is Strange mean to you personally?
Zak: So I’ll answer as a writer.
Chris: Yeah, go for it.
Zak: Slash game designer [laughs].
I love what Life is Strange has done for the medium of interactive storytelling. It’s really proven that we can tell an interactive story, about the real world, in a way that is profound, and fun, and thoughtful, and challenging.
In that way, in that sense – for me – the whole medium is made better. Is tilted, a little bit. It opens the door for a lot of new potential, for how interactivity within in any form of narrative – however mundane – can be productive, can be socially conscious, can be incredibly compelling. And I think it’s going to lead – ultimately – to our industry evolving. Storytelling growing – and what a huge contribution that is.
I’m awed every day with what Dontnot accomplished, and where we might go next. That’s what really kinda compels me.
Chris: Yeah, I’m always inspired – and I feel like I might be repeating your answer [laughs].
Chris: I’m always inspired by the unique that powers Life is Strange. The way it – as Zak says – looks at everyday life, uses the supernatural to heighten that –
Zak: That’s good.
Chris: And really just evoke more human qualities, humane qualities, out of the characters. But, y’know, just visually, and even gameplay-wise; really motivated by what the character is feeling. An example is in the mill, the gameplay is driven by “Chloe wants to hear this music”, y’know? We’re not just trying to use a cinematic sequence to pull you to whatever, or a new level we want you to run around in.
But we’re always constantly personally motivated for our characters, And I do think that’s a unique vision, a unique take on what videogames can do – and how stories and gameplay can really meld. So that’s inspiring to me, as a game developer.
Awesome – thanks for your time! I think that’s your last meeting for E3 as well, isn’t it?
Chris: I think it might be?
Zak: Congratulations, Chris!
You made it through!