This year, while Life is Strange developer Dontnod kept chipping away on a sequel to their critically acclaimed teenage time travel drama, developer Deck Nine revealed it was working on a prequel game subtitled Before the Storm starring Chloe, the first game’s rebellious sidekick.
That announcement did come with some controversy, since it was revealed that actor Ashly Burch, wouldn’t be returning to play Chloe due to the ongoing voice actor’s strike. As the season closes out, we were lucky enough to sit down with Life is Strange: Before the Storm co-director Chris Floyd to ask him about Deck Nine’s debut narrative game, and the intersection of business and creativity in game development.
The art and business of teenage angst
Floyd wasn’t able to personally comment about the strike, only pausing to note that Deck Nine and Square Enix weren’t named in the initial documents, but in a year filled with tumultuous omens for single-player games, he did remain bullish about Deck Nine’s chances, and explained why they thought it was worth continuing the first game’s episodic model.
First, Floyd says that the types of people who play Life is Strange are the kind of people who support this kind of episodic game, since they’re personally invested in the ongoing character drama and are willing to keep returning to say how it plays out. “It’s a fanbase that’s really dedicated, and really patient and forward thinking,” he explains.
Floyd compares the story development of Life is Strange to that of the MMORPGs he’s worked on in the past. Unlike in those games, he says the Before the Storm team isn’t obligated to lay out a three-year long model, and is able to use that end point as something to plan for in production and writing. “A lot of the episodic structure is trying to really get people excited about the story as it goes along and kind of lead it out in the way a TV series does, create something for people to talk about, create a longer tail of interest in it.”
Standing on the shoulders of other game developers
One interesting trend in 2017 has been watching narrative games like What Remains of Edith Finch and Tacoma invest a lot of time and energy in finely-detailed environmental design that encompasses a lot of unique assets to convey a sense of identity. In the case of Before the Storm, Floyd admits that Deck Nine owes a lot to the work invested in the first Life is Strange.
Since the game covers many of the same locations, Floyd says Deck Nine is free to re-use assets created by Dontnod, freeing up their team to build a pipeline for the extensive amount of props and assets needed to fill out these world. But, as Floyd points out, there’s a catch.
“Some of these art assets have a meaning in the original game and if we aren’t thinking carefully enough, when we reuse them, people might think ‘oh there’s a connection there,'” he says. “I think we had people who said “there’s a guitar in the drama lab, oh that’s Max’s guitar from Season 1!’ and we’re just like ‘what guitar??'”
It’s also worth noting that since Before the Storm shrugs off the time travel mechanics from the first game, it’s essentially a 6-hour drama with a lot of player interaction, and fewer gamified puzzles to prop up that length. When we quizzed Floyd about what he’d pass on to other developers, he referred to a scene from episode one that revisits the junkyard from the first series, and how Deck Nine was able to add interaction to what could have been a cinematic moment.
“When Chloe is walking around smashing things, we have four smash verbs on each object, if you remember that. So it’s almost communicating psychological realities…through the game’s interface,” he says. “That was a place where we kept struggling.”
“In telling a moment in the story that’s very emotional, a lot of times we have this tendency to want to sweep the player up into that and do a lot of that cinematically. And with a lot of effort, found a way to make the emotionality interactive.”
Doing queer relationships (and other real-world themes) right
From the jump, Before the Storm is way, way more willing to depict the Max/Rachel relationship from the first game as being romantic in nature, not just friendly. And more than that, it gives players agency over pursuing that relationship, which, especially in the case of teenage characters, is an extremely sensitive subject to write about.
With that in mind, how did Floyd (and the diverse team of writers at Deck Nine) do it? In his words, it’s about keeping a strict tone and perspective.
“A lot of it is just taking those topics and the lives of people who live those lives seriously and trying to be as honest about it as you can and thinking hard about how we’re showing those, illustrating those lives and those issues.”
That also goes for depiction of drug use–the trailer for Episode 3 flashes briefly over a heroin syringe, which is possibly connected to Rachel’s mother, who seems to be tied to returning drug dealer Frank. “Again, our philosophy was really ‘let’s not treat it like it’s an action movie,'” says Floyd. “Even just a typical crime procedural. Let’s not be too blasé about it.”
“It really is about thinking about the human effects of it, keeping your sight relatively small and focused on characters. The temptation sometimes is to have some sweeping message or trying to talk about politics or something larger, and we constantly remind ourselves ‘let’s make sure we’re keeping this grounded in our characters.'”
Of course, Life is Strange isn’t an on-camera drama, it’s a video game where bugs and awkward 3D models can take the dramatic weight of a scene and well…ruin it. Floyd credits the animation and motion capture teams at Deck Nine for minimizing those awkward moments as much as possible, but also says the only reason they can tell a love story with this non-photorealistic aesthetic is the process of setting expectations.
“I do think there’s a kind of magic…[when you set] expectations and [let]people get comfortable with what they’re seeing, how these characters look and move, and all of that. At some point, there’s sort of swept up in that and they don’t question the scenes.”
So if you’re trying to tell this kind of tale in your own game, Floyd’s advice boils down to pacing your experience so that players aren’t alarmed when not-precisely-human characters begin acting in exceptionally human ways.