PAX West 2017: Developers Discuss How Life is Still Strange

Life is Strange took the narrative adventure game and raised the bar with a unique time reversing mechanic but more importantly memorable characters and good storytelling. Deck Nine was given the honor of creating an episodic sequel to this beloved game. Naturally there was some skepticism with a new studio handling the follow up to an established title but so far the reception indicates Deck Nine did an admirable job of rising to the challenge. Hardcore Gamer recently sat with the writer Zak Garriss and director Chris Floyd to discuss Life is Strange: Before the Storm.

[Hardcore Gamer] The biggest difference I’ve noticed with Life is Strange: Before the Storm is the time rewind mechanism has been removed. What prompted the decision to remove the one superpower?

[Zak Garriss] There were a couple reasons actually. You played as Max Caulfield in the first game and in Before the Storm you’re stepping into the shoes of Chloe Price at age 16, three years before, so from a canon standpoint it wouldn’t make sense based on how Chloe responds to Max’s power in the first game if Chloe has a similar power or really any other power so it felt right in that regard. The other part of it was we realized pretty quickly when we looked at the fan community around the game and what they talk about and what they love about the game they seldom mention the power, they talk about the characters and the relationships the story navigates so we felt pretty bold at first removing the power but once we started producing the content it felt right to focus on those relatable issues and not need to force the superpower into the story. We think it paid off pretty well.

[Chris Floyd] We also have a character that is bold and brash and in a lot of ways different than how Max was in the original game. Max was second guessing herself all the time, so metaphysically that power made sense for her. For Chloe to be a character that makes choices and has to live with them while leaving some damage behind where ever she goes it felt right leaving that power out for the story we wanted to tell so you’re going to have to live with those choices and she’s going to have to live with those choices.

That makes sense since Max wasn’t quite the troublemaker Chloe is. Personally I’m in agreement with what you’ve said about the fan community, the time travel mechanic was a cool feature but it wasn’t enough to carry the game, what made the first game so enjoyable and memorable was the characters and how they felt real. 

On the other hand we’re not shy about the supernatural. Chloe doesn’t have a superpower but we do explore some of the more surreal aspects of Arcadia Bay and without spoiling the content Chloe will be encountering a lot of strangeness.

So no superpowers for Chloe but there is definite weirdness afoot.

Life is still strange. That could be a good tagline.

You got the band Daughter to do the soundtrack for Life is Strange: Before the Storm. How did you come to selecting them to do the music?

We knew the music was going to be super important to the game as it was in the first game so very early on when the story was starting to take shape we started looking at tracks that seemed to fit Life is Strange but also fit Chloe’s story and that made it a little different than the music that fit Max’s story so in the game you’ll hear music that is a little bit edgier, more raw, than the song you hear in the first game. We were going through, just finding tracks that sounded right to us for our story and we came across a number of tracks from Daughter that we really really liked so we approached them to compose an original score for the game. They’ve never done scoring of any kind for TV or film so that was a new thing for them. They really liked Life is Strange and what it was all about and thought it was a good fit for them so it was really fortunate they agreed to do it. A number of score tracks they’ve created are in the game along with some tracks they’ve previously written and released as well as some songs they wrote for the game. They have an album out now that was released digitally today (9/01/17, Music From Before the Storm) and can be heard on Spotify so their contributions to Life is Strange: Before the Storm are an official Daughter album.


Before the Storm takes place three years before Life is Strange. Can you talk about any spoiler free events in this game that can link the two games together?

There are many examples of that. We were really excited to go back in time to Arcadia Bay and see a lot of characters from the first game three years earlier at different stages of their lives. Chloe is still enrolled at Blackwell and the principal will be there but we will be seeing them through Chloe’s eyes instead of Max’s so things will be a little nostalgic but at the same time new. We’re in a space where we’ve been before but we’re in the space through the lens of Chloe’s interior world which is radically different than Max’s so we’re getting a different read on a lot of these characters who are also at different stages of their lives. It was also really important to us to see new environments in Arcadia Bay and meet new characters as well so we really tried hard to strike a good balance between spaces and people fans already new about and want to see again and bringing in totally new environments so it would feel like a completely new game.

I can imagine the different perspectives of Max and Chloe being drastically different, since not only are their personalities so different but we’re also dealing with 16 year old Chloe and 18 year old Max and that three year age gap is significant in teenage years. 

That is a good point but I’d like to take it a step further and look at not only the differences between 16 year old Chloe and 18 year old Max but also 16 year old Chloe and 19 year old Chloe. Chloe is very different than Max in her brashness and willingness to be wrecking ball and crash through obstacles but 16 year old Chloe is also different than 19 year old Chloe and that is something we want to explore across all three episodes. 19 year old Chloe is so vibrantly, loudly angry with a brittleness to it and in the first game she is dealing with having just lost Rachel Amber and had lost Max years ago and lost her father years ago but the loss of Rachel was much more recent. And Chloe’s arc in that first game is pretty tightly defined. What we’re exploring in Before the Storm is that pain from her father’s death and Max’s departure is much closer and raw, much stronger, and at the same time she is about to meet Rachel Amber in that first episode and through the three episodes her world radically changes and we see a vulnerable version of Chloe, a sensitive version of Chloe, a hopeful version of Chloe. We get to see a version of Chloe with much more depth than just the anger and brashness we saw in the first game. We get to see a lot more of her character and her relationship with Rachel and the mystery they unravel and see how that effects her and see much more emotions pulled out her.


During the course of Before the Strom will we get to participate in these events and watch these changes happen where we see the transformation into what we’ve known as angry Chloe?

Absolutely, the consequences and choices that you make throughout the story shape her but that is also part of why we set the story three years in the past and why this is not the story of Rachel Amber’s disappearance. This story takes place around a window of time when Chloe is 16 and we’re able to craft a narrative where players can shape what type of voice Chloe develops over the game based on player choices so they can watch how her personality develops over the course of the three episodes.

Since Chloe was a major character in the first game with a strongly defined personality, even though we are going back in time three years did you feel there were constraints on what you could do with Chloe as far as giving players freedom to shape her behavior?

On paper you’d think we’d feel very constrained but you hinted at this earlier that three years in teenage years is a very long time. It comes down to the story that we are telling and the type of choices you have to make and the amount of latitude you have within those choices for expression. We’ve crafted a very small intimate story that creates that room, even as prescriptive as a character Chloe is creates a lot of room for possibility for different versions of her within that space and different version of relationships within that place, and developing choices with differences characters like Joyce, David, and Rachel and other characters across the three episodes. It ends up feeling very complex across the three episodes and allows the player to respond in a wide number of ways to the decisions that you’re making.

I’m curious what made you decide to go the prequel route instead of continuing with a new story after the events of the first Life is Strange.

We knew we wanted to go back to Arcadia Bay for this game so the first thought that came to mind was what happened after the first game but we realized if we were to carry on the story in some way we would have to sort of invalidate one of the big endings for that game where there are a couple of different endings and big outcomes at the end of the last episode and to canonize one of those outcomes and invalidate the other we didn’t feel was fair a segment of the players, we felt that they should get to own the outcome of their story and shouldn’t have to accept something else if they wanted to play our game so we felt going back three years for a prequel gave us the room to create a story that couldn’t break season one in a sense and let us see all these characters we love and want to revisit.

I probably shouldn’t ask this since it was way too premature as the first episode of a three episode game just came out yesterday but what you said made me think of it, are you considering perhaps taking another Life is Strange character and exploring their story somewhere in say a five year window of time within the Life is Strange stories where it’s connected to these games but self contained enough where it doesn’t screw up the timelines of those games? 

We are very excited about where Life is Strange is going and there is always potential for that but we’re very focused on Before the Storm right now.


Right, I figured the game is only one third released so it’s way too early to think of a follow up but that’s how random thoughts work. I figured when I asked the question you guys were thinking what is this idiot talking about, we just put out part one, we haven’t even thought of the next game, these things can’t exactly be written and programmed in just a few weeks.

(laughter)

One of the most memorable aspects of Life is Strange is how realistic the characters were and how easily they were to relate to. A lot fans, whether we are talking TV series, books, or video games, tend to get attached to their favorite characters. What kind of reaction did you get when you announced that you were going to take an established character like Chloe and go deeper into her back story and allow players to shape her development.

We got a mix of great excitement and skepticism, very reasonable skepticism. The first Life is Strange was very unique and didn’t feel like anybody could do this so when news of a new Life is Strange was coming out a lot of them were very excited but some were quite frightened. What does that mean for the quality or nature of the game? And now we’ve been overwhelmed by the positivity we’ve been getting from the fans who have actually played the game and got to experience the first episode. We’re hearing a lot of love and appreciation about what is going on in Before the Storm and they are excited about what is to come with the next two episodes. It’s really humbling and we are definitely still processing it.

The reception overall has been very positive and it’s a game we built for the fans. They wanted to go back to Arcadia Bay and we wanted to stay true to what made them become fans of the first game. To hear them say that we managed to make a game that feels like Life is Strange is the ultimate validation for us.

So you are a different development team than the one who worked on the first Life is Strange. So no pressure, you’ve just inherited this critically acclaimed title with a passionate fan base. What sort of things did you have to consider when this opportunity presented itself to you?

For me we really had to honor the canon and quality of the first game in every aspect. We had to strive very hard to create something new and beautiful within that world and making it fit and belong within that space but still at the same time tell a new story and offer something new, catch fans off guard and challenge them in a new direction. That is kind of the responsibility we have in making any new title. Honestly figuring out as an industry what are narrative adventure games, which they figured out a large part of that in the first Life is Strange. They took an existing genre and grew it up a little and they did something really sophisticated and interesting with it.  We want to push ourselves everyday to continue to evolve the storying telling medium and to look at Before the Storm as chance to give fans what they want in a return to Arcadia Bay and add a new story to Life is Strange as a whole.


Since I’ve been given the wrap it up warning is there any last thing you’d like to say about Before the Storm?

We did give Chloe a new mechanic in the game which is the Back Talk mechanic. This is Chloe’s ability to confront somebody who has something she wants or to stop somebody from doing something and through a special dialog challenge gives her the ability to talk her way past something or convince someone to give up something. It’s become a fun way to let the player perform as Chloe. It’d make the player feel like they have a team of writers providing the smartest and wittiest thing to say back to someone in a verbal fencing match.

So basically teenage angst weaponized as a super power.

(laughs) Yes that’s a good way to put it.