Life is Strange is a coming of age tale with a twist that lets rewind time. In Episode 1: Chrysalis, Max Caulfield, a high school student that returns to her hometown in Oregon to pursue her passion for photography, discovers her power during a tense moment. The time rewinding mechanic allows players to see how a choice will affect the near future and change their mind before committing to a decision that changes how the story unfolds. Siliconera spoke to Jean-Maxime Moris, Creative Director at Dontnod, about making Life is Strange, Danganronpa, and the growth of story driven games in the West.
Life is Strange and Remember Me have a common thread of examining memories in different ways. What makes this theme interesting as a developer?
Jean-Maxime Moris, Creative Director at Dontnod: I think the theme of identity links the two games. In the first game, Remember Me, you fiddle with people’s memories, remix them and change who they were. We loved playing around with that mechanic of rewinding time. We wanted to do more stuff with the rewinding time element and bring into a new setting, real life. Eventually, we started looking at human identity again, but from a different angle. This time from being a teenager where you make choices and movie towards becoming an adult. Overall, the rewind feature was developed to do what we wanted to with human identity. We stuck that feature and then did another game around it.
Max is a photographer, do the photos have a similar symbolic value as the memory cubes in Remember Me?
Yeah, definitely. Remember Me was this top down concept to gameplay experience. I started by writing remix memories and change the world on the board after fifteen days of trying different combinations. [Laughs] And then, we made a game out of that. Part of the game was the rewind [feature]. Rewind stuck and then we escalated that feature into this concept of a coming of age tale where choice can have a consequence. Again, they are very much linked, but I think the link is both the rewind and the theme of identity.
What stories inspired the story in Life is Strange?
It’s always the same, you start off with an idea and you’re not trying to copy what’s been done. In the early stages of the game, everything feels like something that’s already been done because it takes time for you to reach the point with the experience for them to see it for what it is instead of the references.
That being said within the game, if you had a triangle we would have Gone Home with games on top for realistic themes and environmental storytelling which is pretty heavy in Life is Strange, but not so much in The Walking Dead which is still a very big influence. That would be the second influence for the general approach to an episodic narrative with player choice and consequences. The other side would be Heavy Rain with more of a push in production values, but on a different path. They’re going for more of a photorealistic approach while we have a very conscious choice of large brush strokes and impressionistic rendering techniques. Movies, independent movies, Sundance, Tribeca [Film Festival] movies. Realistic movies, poetic, and nostalgia driven movies or Sofia Coppola movies. Books, coming of age stories. Max’s name is a nod to the main character in Catcher in the Rye.
How does Dontnod plan the overall story and map out how choices affect different points of the story?
Basically, the idea is like a Telltale Games title, the storyline moves in overall the same direction for everyone, but it’s your choices that determines how that story gets told and how your experience differs from other players. The same key events will happen, but for different reasons based on the context. There will be different endings, but not a lot of them, just a couple. The idea to me is that first of all, you can’t afford from a small to medium sized studio to have one branch open in San Francisco, one in LA, and one in Paris.
Even if you could afford it, it isn’t a smart thing to do because 90% of the people would only see 10% of your work. For instance in The Walking Dead if you missed the ending it would be pretty awful. It’s good that everyone shared the same experience. Your choices will impact the people around you, dialog, cut scenes, the objects that are in the cut scenes, and you’ll get different text messages. There are about 20 things we flag in Episode 1. There will be roughly the same amount of flagged items in subsequent episodes. By the time you’re at Episode 2 or 3 you’re going to see stuff like text messages that are really tailored to how you played the game. I’m a stronger believer of making a game feel personal rather than having it branch in all of these different directions.
Max has a diary she updates throughout the game. Did Dontnod add this in to refresh people’s memories from episode to episode?
Having an item like this is a typical adventure game feature. It also makes sense with the character. She has a diary that she sticks pictures into it. It’s very personal, it’s like when you’re in high school and you’re heavy on cutting stuff from magazines and pasting it. There’s that element that it’s part of the character. It’s not just a log of conversations, we could have done it that way. It’s her own personal interpretation of what’s going on, so it acts as a tool to show how she develops as a character too.
Can you tell us more about Rachel who Chloe has been looking for? She has been missing for a long time when Max arrives and it seems a little odd that only Chloe is searching for her.
Rachel used to talk a lot about leaving and going to Los Angeles. So they think she just dropped out to move to LA and become a movie star. Because she used to say that, it’s not an out of the blue disappearance. She is Chloe’s closest friend and she took Max’s place when she left. I can’t tell you much more other than her disappearance is one of the main driving forces behind the game.
It’s interesting that adventure games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange have seen a resurgence in the West. In Japan, the visual novel genre, while niche, has been quite strong with a dedicated user group. Why do you think it’s taken so long for story driven, not gameplay driven games to come back in favor in the West.
That’s a very good question. Maybe we can draw a parallel with the movie industry. The movie industry in the 90s was all about special effects. You would go see a movie just because it has a large budget for visual effects. Then, in early 2000s that started to go down. Obviously, there is still really cool stuff on screen, but now it’s content based. Maybe that’s why TV series have come back.
It’s the same with video games where it’s been driven by technology so much so far. We’re a year in with PS4 and Xbox One and I think the gap isn’t as big as it used to be or at least we haven’t seen it yet. People are focusing on content more and content often times means story. The industry has people have played these kinds of games like you and me who grew up with them. I’m not too sure, but those are the few thoughts that I can share.
Like a good book, a good surprise drives players to want to see what’s next in a visual novel. How did you plan moments that surprise players in Life is Strange? Unlike other games where you can replay a level or test how responsive controls are, how do you know that your writing is sound?
I think it’s just good writing. A movie will surprise you, a book will surprise you, a visual novel too. You’ve played Danganronpa? Number two for me, that had a biggest surprise. It could have been really disappointing, but to go on for five hours and dig deep into it, it’s amazing.
For me Danganronpa is my game of the year, last year. On top of that, a team that can stage the events with interesting gameplay mechanics. How do you test it? There are trials in Danganronpa 2 that I think that weren’t really… I think the overall gameplay quality is lower in Danganronpa 2 than Danganronpa 1, but I think the writing in number two is better. It’s difficult. You just have to trust yourself and we do focus groups. Focus testing, but that has more to do with testing the overall storyline instead of minute to minute gameplay. Whether they feel surprised or not? We’ll see.
You can test a lot of things, but the biggest things like being surprised in a choice different game or the twists in a 20 hour visual novel, you just have to trust yourself.
Square Enix as a publisher is known for developing RPGs that put an emphasis on storytelling. As a publisher, what suggestions have they given you for Life is Strange?
We have a developer publisher relationship. They funded the project and therefore have a say in the choices that we make, but they never said let’s make it a male character. You may have read about that and I don’t want to make it a bigger issue than it is. They didn’t want to change the character, the rewind we’re using or the general recipe of the game.
But, when we have our weekly meetings they go this bit of relationship with Max and Chloe we don’t think it’s working why don’t you try this? This way we’re working on the same project. It’s a privilege because I know other situations where it’s like let’s each try to make a different game and eventually what comes out is a compromise between the two visions. We have the same vision and we take their input into account.