During Microsoft’s press conference at E3 2017, Square Enix debuted Life is Strange: Before The Storm, a prequel to the critically acclaimed episodic series developed by Dontnod Entertainment. Unlike the original series, however, Before The Storm is being handled by Deck Nine, which has turned back the clock to tell the story of Chloe Price, the rambunctious, blue-haired friend to Max Caulfield in Life is Strange.
The series will depict a time when Chloe’s life falls apart following the death of her father. It will allow players to guide her decisions as she attempts to find herself and recenter. Core to this story is her complicated relationship with Rachel Amber, who is key to making Chloe the person we know from Life is Strange.
During E3 GameSpot spoke to Life is Strange: Before The Storm’s lead writer Zak Gariss about Deck Nine’s involvement in the Life is Strange series, the decision to return to Arcadia Bay, and why it felt Chloe’s story was an important one to tell.
You’re a new studio to Life is Strange but are no doubt aware of the legacy and the fandom it has. How did it feel to be brought on board, was it nerve wracking? Did you feel up to the challenge?
It was extraordinary. All of the above that you just described. We’re all huge fans of the first game. So getting the part from Square and jump into the Life is Strange universe and write these characters that are so vivid and so loved from what Dontnod created is tremendous pressure, and a privilege simultaneously. And it’s been an absolute joy.
How much input did you have on the direction of the prequel? I consider the first Life is Strange to be a great self-contained story, but you’re returning to Arcadia Bay. Where did that decision come from?
I think it’s Square responding to what the fans were asking for. The community’s so big and so vocal and their passion for what Life is Strange is and has become, I think that really speaks to what Dontnod achieved with the first game. But Square loves the community and they love the game and I think they wanted to meet that desire from fans to kinda go back to Arcadia Bay and see something new in there that’s gonna feel both familiar and at the same time, maybe shocking.
Is there ever a worry that you might be over-explaining? I like that there was a mystery to the relationship between Chloe and Rachel and the details were personal. I knew something complex happened there but the fact that I wasn’t privy to the everything gave texture to the character and relationship. And now that you’re going back to it and really laying it all out, do you think that that is a risk that you guys might be taking away some of the magic there?
I think in the sense that you were … We’re taking something that in the first game was very private to Chloe. She didn’t even tell Max the details of her relationship with Rachel, like you’re hinting at. We just know that Rachel was hugely important. Not how, not in what way, not why. So we are unveiling that for the player and absolutely I think there could be a risk to that in the sense that we’re asking the player to take what was Chloe’s and make it their own. And we’re very deliberately, in the story that we’re telling, not attempting to lay out for the player what Chloe’s relationship was with Rachel. Rather, we give the player an opportunity to navigate that relationship for themselves. And to make decisions that form kind of what that looks like and what that means to them.
What’s really interesting is when Chloe appears in the first game she’s a strong, guiding influence that helps define Max in a lot of ways. And now we’re seeing her when she’s vulnerable and in need of guidance. Rachel is there too, but she seems like she also doesn’t have a stable grasp of herself. You’ve got two people who are kind of both adrift. Can you talk a bit about why you went with that dynamic?
I think that’s a very keen observation. Yeah, our Chloe is a lot more vulnerable than the Chloe from the first game. She’s younger, she’s 16. She’s closer to the detonation, after her father’s death blew apart her life, right? She’s alienated, she’s all alone. And we’re examining what it’s like when Rachel shows up in Chloe’s life like a comet. We’re looking at these two people who are seemingly opposite, with Chloe being at the bottom of the Blackwell social ladder, really kind of adrift, really lost. Rachel being the top, loved by everyone. This mythic character from the first game. And we’re actually kind of shattering that illusion and we’re exploring how, oh yeah, the girl who looks like she has all her life together? No no, she’s broken too. And the girl who’s absolutely obviously broken, no no, she’s strong. And there is unique ways in which both girls kind of desperately need each other in this particular moment in their lives. And in that way, we’re really excited to just be exploring this universal aspect of human connection. How everyone, I think at a certain moment in time in their life might have that one person who just kind of walks in and kind of changes their world.
Life is Strange had a profound effect on so many people who identified with characters and issues in the game. As someone who’s now creating the next chapter, how much do you think about the audience and the issues you could address? Do you want to target issues and try to help people through them or is it just like, “We’re gonna write a story, and whatever issues arise, we’ll tackle them”?
Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. We think about this every day. I think Life is Strange had a real courage in how it put a lens on social and personal issues. What we might call small issues in Hollywood, but are actually quite huge because they’re real. They’re about what our lives are actually about. It’s incredibly courageous. It is the franchise’s prerogative to do that, and the impact that it’s had on lives is sacred.
Deck Nine and Square Enix take that really, really seriously. So we’ve pursued that same kind of courage, topics that are personal, that are impactful. And we strive to be thoughtful about how we’re doing that. I would never be presumptuous to want to tell people how to identify themselves or solve their problems, right? But I think good art asks tough questions. And asking tough questions creates dialogue, creates connection, and that can empower people to kind of find the answers they need. So that’s very much what we’re hoping will happen with Before the Storm.
We’re exploring how, oh yeah, the girl who looks like she has all her life together? No no, she’s broken too. And the girl who’s absolutely obviously broken, no no, she’s strong.
One of the major changes you’ve made is to remove the supernatural element of Life is Strange. Max had the ability to rewind time and Chloe does not have that kind of ability. What was the thinking there?
Yeah, I’ll say we stripped away the power from the player character. That we definitely did. The supernatural does live in our Arcadia Bay. We have a lot of surreality to the world, a very Twin Peaks style of normalcy, masking strangeness, right? And we think that was core to the first experience and we’ve really embraced that. But yeah, choosing not to have a power Max has, the rewind, it felt like it was really fitting for Max. But for Chloe, it’s a different story, it’s about a different part in a person’s life. Different lessons that she’s learning for her personality and for what we’re examining. We felt like having to really double down on the discomfort about, “You’re gonna make a choice and you’re just gonna have to live with the consequences of that.” That felt really right for Chloe.
Max’s ability formed the meat of the gameplay in Life is Strange since the puzzle solving involved figuring out the logic behind the situation, unraveling it, and then putting it back together to create a scenario that works for you. Without that sort of mechanic what does gameplay in Before The Storm entail, beyond speaking to people and making decisions?
Yeah. So I think you’ll see a lot of puzzles. A lot of gameplay is not just cinematics. Chloe will find herself in all sorts of situations, and from a puzzle standpoint and a gameplay standpoint and a narrative standpoint, these situations feel very right for Chloe. Did you see the demo?
Yeah, right. So the mill is an example. That’s a place Max would never go to. Chloe will fight her way inside. She actually has to fight her way inside, there are a variety of ways she can accomplish that. The gameplay can accommodate success or failure in different paths. But they’re fitting to her because the environment is reflective of her personality and the consequences and the nature of those puzzles, without spoiling the gameplay features … Will really map on to Chloe’s kind of, more aggressive, more in your face, approach to things. She’s more of a wrecking ball than Max was.
By the end of Life is Strange there was a villain character. Is that going to be the same for Before the Storm? It seems like you guys are trying to shine the spotlight on these two characters specifically and how they navigate the world instead of creating a bad guy, so to speak.
Yeah, so, the content that we’ve shared with the public so far is very much just about Chloe and Rachel and kind of setting the foundation of the game and the context of the relationship. But that world that you’re describing, that we’re gonna see in Arcadia Bay, it’s going to have a variety of characters who will be more and less wholesome depending on the choices you make. One thing that the franchise strives to do, and we definitely are striving to do with Before the Storm is embrace the kind of gray space where all characters have something sympathetic about them. All characters have vulnerability to them. And many characters have really problematic aspects of their personality. We’re trying to avoid pure evil, but rather just sort of examine humanity in its good, in its bad, and how messy that can be.
So there won’t necessarily be someone positioned as a villain, but someone could be interpreted as one based on actions?
I think that’s fair to say.
What engine is this being developed on?
So we’ve used Unity to develop. And we use our own proprietary narrative design tools that we call StoryForge, which is a combination of a script writing software that looks like Final Draft but contains code. So our staff writers actually write in code, dialogue and code to create branching structures that exports directly into a second part of the tools called StoryTeller which is a cinematic design tool that our cinematic artists use to light and block, insert camera frames and timing, and keyframe objects to create the cinematic elements. This is something our studio has been developing for years.
Okay, so it’s all your own tech?
In house. Yeah.
And you’ve emulated the style of Life is Strange. Are you planning to diverge any? You’ve got this sort of clean, soft style which typifies Max a lot for me. She was this young, innocent character finding her way in the world. Whereas Chloe seems to be this more aggressive, boisterous figure. Are you going to be playing with how the game is presented to reflect that?
Yeah, so there’s certain elements of visual style that we do play with to say that, “You’re in Chloe’s shoes, you’re not in Max’s shoes.” But then there are core elements which we don’t because we feel like they’re really core to the franchise experience, the franchise as a whole. I mean it’s a very, almost surreal kind of painted world. And we really wanted to keep en masse … We think it’s one of those charming things about the first game. But in terms of the spaces you’re going to, yes, sometimes they’ll feel a lot darker, a lot more malevolent just because Chloe’s story’s gonna be a little different here.
Where did the decision to do three episodes came from? I felt Life is Strange had a very slow start. Its writing and characters didn’t really hit their stride until a few episodes in. Is this a case of trying avoid that to make it tighter experience with three episodes?
That’s a good question. Yeah, it wasn’t an attempt to deviate from anything that Dontnod did with the first game. We actually kind of broke the story at a high level, deliberately agnostic of any length. We wanted to say, “What’s the story that we’re most interested in, that we’re most passionate about? Okay, what does that feel like?” Does it feel like a four episode story, a three episode story, a five episode story … And it just landed on three episodes. Which is six to nine hours of content.
Those five or so episodes that made up the original game felt like a much longer journey. Does Before The Storm have a similar journey-like feel, even with just three episodes?
Yeah, I think we’re deliberately telling … In many ways we’re telling a smaller, more intimate story then what season one covered. I mean we’re not … It’s not cataclysmic in a lot of ways that I think the kind of quantum effects of Max’s power created. We’re looking at grief. Grief in a 16 year old’s life. I think it will feel like a journey, but not necessarily an odyssey.
You mentioned the cataclysm and, by the nature of it being prequel, you’re segueing into Max’s story. So will we have any sort of like connective tissue between the two games?
Yeah, you might be surprised at where connective tissue manifests. It certainly will in a lot of ways. Our story will talk to and intersect with the world of the first story. But we’re setting it far enough before that the entirety of our narrative, the mystery, the tension and obstacles, the climax, it’ll all live in such a way that I think that fans from the first game will still be surprised and challenged by some of the decisions that they’re gonna have to make. And ultimately where the story ends up going.