A Completely Spoilers-Filled Interview with the Makers of ‘Life Is Strange’
Co-directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet discuss their game's heavyweight themes of bullying and assisted suicide.
One of 2015's most obsessed-over games wasn't a frenetic shooter or fantastically accurate sports sim (although they came out, too), but a leisurely paced, narrative-focused adventure game starring a teenage girl whose return to her Oregon hometown of (the fictional) Arcadia Bay coincides with the discovery that she somehow possesses the ability to manipulate time. Stir in a healthy dose of hormones and a whole heap of social circle stresses, alongside schoolwork deadlines, and a best friend who is way more wild child than straight-A student, and you've a game that sounds like an entirely niche attraction, rather than a played-by-millions commercial and critical hit. But then, Life Is Strange isn't much like many games that came before it, and its success shows that original ideas can triumph in a market so dominated by routine design given a fresh lick of paint at yearly intervals.
(And, once again, if that headline wasn't enough of a notice, this article contains massive spoilers. The game is out, finished, done, albeit with a physical edition now available for those who don't like to download digital titles. If that's you, and you want to go into Life Is Strange with everything a mystery, click away now.)
"It was a bit of a risk," the game's co-director at Paris-based studio Dontnod Entertainment, Michel Koch, tells me—and fronting the money for that risk was Square Enix, the huge publisher behind today's Tomb Raider, Hitman, Final Fantasy and Deus Ex franchises. "It was something different, and we never really thought about audience or marketing when making it. We were not sure that it would work commercially. We knew we'd find some public, of course, but not a big appeal. So we're really happy to have that. A big community has grown up around the game."
There was a degree of skepticism directed at the project, from the press, when episode one of this five-part game emerged at the very end of January 2015. Here was a very languid introduction to Max Caulfield, our player-controlled "hero" of sorts, who ultimately must make a plot-climaxing decision, after so many (some seriously tough) choices across the game, to see her home destroyed, along with many of its inhabitants, or save her best friend Chloe from death. By the time of episode three, Life Is Strange is revealing its dark secrets, its irresistible lines of investigation and complex character arcs, complicated so much further by Max's time-hopping tendencies. But episode one was almost entirely primer fare, like the pilot of a TV series, setting up characters and location but not featuring too much action. It was big on sense of place and humming with potential, but somewhat unsatisfying as a standalone experience.
"We didn't actually get everything we wanted in that first episode," says Michel's fellow game director, Raoul Barbet, "but after episode two we changed a lot, and a lot of players gave us good feedback. It's cool to think about how the first episode was received, now. On our side, it was quite stressful, because the game was quite different from Remember Me, our first project. Episode one was an entry point into the game's universe, with a lot of characters to discover. You've Max's power to understand, and lots of settings to become familiar with. It's a slow-paced episode, but we wanted to make sure the player had a good starting point.
"It was funny to see players react to the later episodes by saying they wanted to go back to the cocoon of episode one, when everything was nicer. But that's what episode one was meant to provide—that sense of being safe inside your bedroom, in this little cocoon."
Life Is Strange might sound like a mix of teenage high school drama and science fiction hijinks on paper, but while Max and Chloe's relationship forms the spine of its story—how they reconnect after several years away, become closer (potentially romantically, depending on the decisions you make in the game) and either inseparable at the cost of other friends and family or forever split by the wicked hand of fate—its supporting characters are cyphers for very relatable troubles. They are consistently drawn "in shades of gray, and not in black or white," to quote Raoul, and first impressions are rarely the complete picture. Chloe's stepdad, David, seems to be both a dick and a pervert when we first meet him, but he later proves to be fiercely loyal to his loved ones, his overprotectiveness to blame for some questionable monitoring of local students. Max's friend Warren seems like a bubbly geek full of platonic respect for our protagonist, yet there soon seems to be something creepy about his passive-aggressive text messages—plus, he's been spying on her dorm room. And the top bitch on campus, Victoria, isn't quite the ice queen episode one sets her up as.
Episode two, "Out of Time," explores cyber-bullying, and its potentially devastating effects on victims and those around them. In the game, the religious character Kate is doped at a club, and filmed kissing strangers while totally out of it. The video goes viral and she can't take it, leading to a rooftop standoff between her desire to end it all and Max desperately trying to make her step back from the edge (without the use of her powers, too). Episode four, "Dark Room," begins with what is essentially a debate on euthanasia, as an alternate-universe Chloe is permanently disabled and asks Max to end her suffering. It's probably the toughest decision in the entire game: turn up your friend's dosage of painkiller to send her into an eternal sleep, or demand that she fights on, a hollow act of betrayal as both characters know there'll be no victory.
"We love the character of Kate, and we put her in that position for two purposes," Raoul tells me. "Inside the main story arc, it's the first time that Max realizes that she has more responsibilities than she did before, when she was using her power just for fun. We use the scene on the roof that Max's power might not always be there, and she has to take actions by herself. And the second purpose, of course, was to talk about this theme of cyber-bullying. It was really important for us to talk about that.
"We receive letters and fan art and cosplay photos every day to the studio, and reading some letters where players explain how the game has moved them, how a lot of themes have spoken to them, that's really something. And it's heart-breaking for us, sometimes, to read these personal stories, to see how people have related to this game, to the characters. Of course, we wanted to talk about difficult themes, ones that were perhaps more adult than you find in other games. And the community is happy to talk about this stuff, because of a video game."
Max can stop Kate from falling to her death before a crowd of smartphone-wielding gawpers—I did in my playthrough. But there's no saving the Chloe who's confined to a wheelchair, unable to move from the neck down. She's doomed however Max chooses to play the euthanasia scene. "We put a lot of research into that, just as we did into all of the themes the game addresses," Raoul says. "It was important to treat it with respect and show that we're accurate with the subject. We studied specialized home equipment, read blogs by disabled people, and asked them what their setup was at home. One of the designers on the game has had some family issues like we present in the game, at that moment, but we have to be careful as developers and creators to not make the subject too game-y. That could be seen as not respectful, and we really want to talk about the subject and sometimes put the player in a really difficult position, and have them think about this."
Episode four ends with a revelation that I certainly did not see coming. Having considered both Nathan—a spoiled schoolboy brat whose family has a great deal of political sway in town—and Frank—a drug-dealing drifter type who lives in a dilapidated RV—as the game's most-likely antagonists, Life Is Strange throws a dizzying curveball with the reveal of Max's own photography tutor, Mark Jefferson, as the "big bad" of proceedings. Actually, "big bad" doesn't come anywhere close to summarizing the man's evilness. In a scene echoing the torture chamber basement of Martin Vanger, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we're shown that his studio is in fact an underground lair, his "dark room," within which he drugs young girls and puts them into compromising poses before shooting them—with a camera, that is. Although murder is far from beyond him, as he proves at the climax of episode four when he kills Chloe—not that her death, at that point, can't be undone. (Sort of. It's complicated.)
"Some people did predict that Mr. Jefferson was the bad guy, as there are some clues in the game leading up to his reveal," Michel says. "If you listen to his lecture in the art class, in episode one, he's directly saying what he's doing [in the bunker]. One of his first lines when he's talking about photography is, 'I could frame any one of you in a dark corner, and capture you in a moment of desperation.' And if you look at the photographs, he has on the campus, his exhibition, they're of women in some sort of vulnerable poses. And in episode two, there were more hints. Actually, we were worried that we'd put too many hints in there."
"I have to admit that I thought more people would see the reveal coming," Raoul continues, "but, no. So it was OK. But we had to be careful with having that kind of cliffhanger, at the end of episode four, to make sure that it's believable. I think we managed to do that, but we had to be careful with the twist."
The reality of Jefferson's practice becomes the opening scene of Life Is Strange's concluding episode, "Polarized," after which the plot accelerates to its life-or-death final decision, an ending that Michel says was in the studio's collective mind from the very beginning of the development process. "The final choice was always there," he says. "Everything we were working on in the game, it was going towards that end scene, in that direction, to really put the player's choices and the consequences affecting their version of Max and her relationship with Chloe, in a different way for everyone." Raoul tells me that players were 55 percent in favor of sacrificing Chloe to save Arcadia Bay, which is the decision I went for, adding: "For this big one, we weren't really sure how it'd play out, but in the end it was quite even."
Dontnod's success with Life Is Strange is something the studio is rightly very proud of. But moving onto their next project, the role-playing game Vampyr, due out in 2017, they're taking nothing for granted. "I think this is a good moment for us," Michel says. "But now we have to work. It's cool because back at the beginning of making Life Is Strange, it was difficult to describe what we wanted to do with it. People didn't immediately get the idea—they thought it might be boring. But now we know that players want games like this. So we want to move forward and try other original ideas." More than that, though, Life Is Strange proves that intimate, emotional, and empathetic interactive experiences can come backed by the support of the gaming world's biggest publishers. It's going to be fascinating to see what precedent the game sets for mainstream gaming, across the next few years of this always-evolving medium's irrepressible growth.