GDC 2019: DONTNOD Talks Life is Strange Setting, Soundtrack, Episode 3

With GDC 2019 hosting some of gaming’s most prominent figures, Hardcore Gamer had the privilege to meet with the team behind DONTNOD’s Life is Strange. Coming hot on the heels of detailing information about Life is Strange 2 Episode 3: Wasteland, we discussed the past, present and future of Life is Strange. The title made its debut back in 2015 with the first installment following a group of teenagers in a high school setting. When our protagonist, Max, figures out she can turn back time, it becomes a race against the clock to solve the mystery haunting her town.

After the debut of Life is Strange and The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, DONTNOD is back again with a new adventure in Life is Strange 2. We follow the story of two brothers, Sean and Daniel, in their coming of age experiences. After being involved in an accident which left both a police officer and their father dead, Sean and Daniel find themselves as fugitives on the run to their father’s home town in Mexico. Life is Strange 2 is about to receive its third episode on May 9 that follows the brothers into new and dangerous territory. We sat down with Raoul Barbet (Co-Game Director & Co-Creator) and Luc Bagadhoust (Lead Producer) at GDC to discuss the past, present and future of Life is Strange. Note that while both Barbet and Bagadhoust were present, Barbet answered all questions.

[Hardcore Gamer] Thank you so much for having me, this is excellent to be able to talk, I just saw the press release for Episode 3 coming out for Life is Strange 2! It looks like we are going to continue to see the brothers (Sean and Daniel) evolve, so that’s going to be awesome. What made you want to move away from the first Life is Strange and focus on two siblings versus high school kids in a social situation like that? Because it’s a very different story from the first one.

Raoul Barbet (RB): I think the answer is in your questions, we wanted to do something different. For the team, for us and for the players, we had a lot of discussion with Square Enix about that to think about what is really “Life is Strange.” We think it’s more about characters than stories, and so we wanted to move on and talk about other themes and tackle other subjects.

Yes, you do tackle quite a few different subjects. Some would even say Life is Strange 2 is a little more political than the previous works, just because you do kind of touch upon American politics that are currently ongoing. What was the decision behind that direction?

[RB] Yeah a lot of players say that the second Life is Strange is more political. I don’t think so much it’s such a case, for me the first one, we were talking about a lot of different subjects in the first one because of the setting. It was high school, it was teenagers, I would say the difficulties you can have as a teenager such as: harassment, depression, family problems. So I think it depends on the story, it’s because of the story and the characters that we also deal with some subjects. So here, we wanted first to talk about education which is a main subject for the second season. That’s why we begin to write this story of the brothers and what it means to take care of someone. Yeah, the fact that the subject in mention is part of the story, but we haven’t created the story to talk about that subject. It’s because our story takes place in our world, in a realistic society. So not talking about a subject would for us have been a problem, but I think there are types of things and subjects you have in Europe. Of course in France we have the subject of immigration, and is the case of Europe. Yeah, it’s because the story is taking place in the United States we talk about it, it’s something that affects general modern societies, so it’s interesting to put the player in a situation where you can think about it and make your own opinion about it.

I typically notice that, at least here in the United States, there is kind of…I don’t want to say a complete aversion, but there is some hesitance to talking about politics in video games. And it’s not even, like you just described, it’s not necessarily politics, it’s just real things that happen.

[RB] Ah, yeah.

So I think what you’re doing here with this is normalizing different identities. That’s what I appreciated about the first one, there were a lot of different topics about mental health and going around in a school setting as a teenager facing those adolescent troubles. So in this one [Life is Strange 2] is more about family. Is there anything you can tell us specifically about Episode 3 and what it means for the brothers and what challenges they are going to face?

[RB] Yeah, a bit! So I will say I really love this one (laughs). I think the third episode was my preferred personally. Working on the second episode was really cool, but I think this one will please a lot of players because of the themes we talk about, the setting and the difficulties we will face for sure. It’s not so much information, we don’t want to give too much away…you’ll see.

Life Is Strange 2
That’s okay! I like knowing it’s your favorite! So, we see them on this escape route to Mexico and we’ll see more of that in Episode 3. Why Mexico, though? What made that their destination? What was the inspiration behind that?

[RB] Hm. That is a good question, I think the idea when we first began the first episode, the first episode we begin like a classic — I won’t say a classic Life is Strange game, but more than the one we knew. So, the first one you’re a teenager, you are interested in parties and meeting friends and stuff. And we wanted to break out of that to show that we are going to tell another story. So there is this terrible incident coming in, with the death of the father, because we wanted to talk about education and the way you take care of someone else; like a child, little brother, little sister. We wanted to put our characters in the light like this to also be able to talk about different people sometimes living sometimes on the margins of society, or who decided to live differently. So that’s why we very quickly wanted to have this road trip aspect, and of course giving them a Mexican father was a good way to bring them all over the West coast states and talking about interesting themes. And we also wanted to have a little different story elements and different settings, so it allowed us to talk about another subject by doing that. I think there are a lot of different reasons when we brainstorm, what are the core reasons why we want to create this game. We also consider what would be interesting for the artist, also, what would be the interesting aspect of the setting. So, all this together brings the final story and the final themes. I think it was a lot of brainstorming that led us to the story and to the Mexico destination.

Yes, absolutely. And you speak of the settings, the settings are very beautiful. Did you actually go on site to physically look at those natural elements? They plan to enter the redwood forests, was that something you actually visited so that you could look at it for the game?

[RB] Yeah, in fact with Michel (Koch), the other co-director with me, we rented a car and made exactly the same trip as the brothers.

Oh wow, so it becomes even a little more personal for you.

[RB] (enthusiastically) Yeah, yeah! When you create a game in an even more realistic setting, you have to have a lot of research. So the environment team is very talented, as you said, they do a lot of research on the internet and Google Maps, etc. But I think what is really cool is to bring some original photos, videos and even record sound. Feel what it is to see a huge tree compared to a small one from the desert. This is the kind of stuff you have to feel it in order to recognize. So Michel, who is also director with me, but also art director, it was giving him a lot of insight in how it has to look in 3D. So it’s important to be able to do that. Also, we interviewed a lot of people. So every hitchhiker we met, we discussed with them what it was like to be on the road.

Life Is Strange 2
So collecting different perspectives in the area to truly bring that situation, that setting to life. So there was a lot of research for this game.

[RB] Yeah, the first Life is Strange, that was already the case, but it was — not easier — was just Oregon and high school, so we found a lot of stuff on the internet. But, yeah the idea was that we need to feel the sound, the light, that kind of stuff.

And with those settings, that ambiance, how did you decide to construct the soundtrack and sound design?

[RB] The music is specific because it’s a mix of Ska and original tracks. So I’m the music supervisor for the games, so I work with the composer,Jonathan, we decided to create a lot of themes corresponding to moments of the road trip or the characters you meet. For example: you have a theme before the incident, you have a theme for when the brothers are in the woods, you got a theme when the brothers are alone. We decided quickly to create all those different themes to be able to accompany the player during the road trip and see the evolution of Daniel. So there’s much more ska music and opposite that, you have original tracks. So we have 3-4 titles per episode, it depends on the needs and the feelings. We use them, for example, you have seen in episode 2 when they walk, to give the feeling to the player that time is passing. It’s difficult in a game to make the player feel like they are on a journey, so these kinds of cine-graphic moments with music tracks on top of it helps. After, we have tracks linked to characters, like Cassidy in the market when she’s playing or Brody in the first episode in the car. These kinds of moments, you can add something to the characters using the tracks.

There are very emotional tracks in the game, especially during some of those very important scenes. Through the music, you can also feel the themes. Did you do any research with the music, or you knew, “I wanted to do Ska”?

[RB] Ah, no. It’s a very long process. I had a talk yesterday about that (GDC Panel), we had a talk with Sebastien Gaillard, who is the audio director on Life is Strange. We explained how we mixed those tracks with ska. But yeah, very quickly, it’s a long, long process. I have a huge file full of hundreds of titles, where I take notes about the feeling when I listen to it. The bit of the song, the reason, the lyrics, and the story behind the song and the artist. I think it’s important, also, to know where the song is coming from. And after listening, it depends on what you want to make the player feel. For example, having (the band) Phoenix at the beginning of Episode 1 is more towards this festive atmosphere and this teenager feeling because you know, after you’re going to break out of that. So we have something after from Whitney, which is much more indie folk with a nostalgic feeling. For Captain Spirit, for example, the lyrics are very important because it’s a title from Sufjan Stevens, and the full album is about the death of his mother. So when you now the story of Chris, it resonates with the whole story. We put the the chorus of the song only in a specific moment, because this is the only moment in the song when he talks about his mother. So it’s a kind of mix about being careful about the rhythm, the melody, but also the lyrics. It’s a long process, but it’s really cool because I think when it works, it really gives something more to the sequences and the emotion.

Life Is Strange 2
Well I think it was so well-thought out, because the way the soundtrack was constructed, you can even — even if you’re not playing and you’re just listening — you can see all of those moments happening in your head. At least that’s how I feel when I listen to the music apart from playing the game.

[RB] Yeah, the music from Jonathan is really impressive and I’m really happy to, again, work with him on the second season because I think he has made an incredible theme.

For the music, was that similar process as the first game, or was this a completely new process?

[RB] Yeah, I think the first game, the themes were more about the characters and the environment. For example, we have a scene for the compass, the theme for Max’s bedroom, a theme for Chloe, one for Rachel. So it was easier. We really have to think about the environment and feeling of the theme. So a stressful theme will be different. It’s just that there is much more content in this one, but the process is nearly the same. As it’s a road trip, you have more content. Usually we have a theme, it’s about a moment or a character or gameplay to create the type of theme.

To wrap up, what does the theme of “family” mean for this title?

[RB] The family aspect is really important in this game, I think it comes with education. Because if you think about it, what is it to educate someone? Is it coming from the school, the family, a friend? So that’s what we’re talking about. Daniel will learn from his brother, for sure, but also from everyone they met. So you have to be careful as an older brother, to know and to help him to choose good teachers. It’s also about what is family, really? Is it about a family member, or a friend? Can you be raised by a friend, parents, grandparents. It was very interesting to talk about that, for sure it will evolve in the next episode. What is a family?

Life Is Strange 2
You want to show all the different ways we can learn as humans, and from each other. Obviously, there is such a thing as a school setting, but all of our learning doesn’t necessarily happen in school. Coming from a Hispanic cultural background, I was told that blood relatives take precedence, but I have also learned that you can choose your family as well.

[RB] And I think you’re right, it’s just showing that depending on your history, your culture, differences in origin or religion, you can have a different feeling about all that, about friends and family. Like when they go visit their grandparents, you can tell they are not close immediately, but very quickly you can see that because it is family, it helps a lot. Sometimes family are quickly broken and it is impossible to avoid, so it does depend on your history. But I love the feeling you have in Episode 2, because a lot of people have this feeling with some family that just because someone is part of your family is it easier. But sometimes you hate them, but sometimes it’s happy because you have this feeling of belonging.

Yes, family can be complicated [laughter]. Do you have any open ended comments you’d like to add about the game, the process, etc?

[RB] It’s good to talk about all this, I hope the player will be happy to continue and to think about all those subjects for sure. Thank you.