On May 26, 2015, the core team of Dontnod Entertainment visited BAFTA, London, where they spoke in detail about Life is Strange in the ongoing BAFTA Showcase series. The event featured Co-Directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet, Producer Luc Baghadoust and Game Designer Alejandro Arque, and was hosted by Keza MacDonald from Kotaku UK. They discuss the game's design, themes and mechanics. A video of the showcase was released on July 10, 2015, on the official Life is Strange YouTube channel. You can find a script of the showcase interview below.
[Note: Some of the dialogue was grammatically modified and repetitions and interjections were removed from the script.]
Keza MacDonald: Alright. Hello, everybody! Good evening. My name is Keza MacDonald. I am the editor of Kotaku UK, which is a games website; it's pretty good so check it out. More importantly, we're here with the team behind Life is Strange. So, first things first, who here has played any of Life is Strange? Hands up! [waits a moment] That's pretty much everyone. Has anybody not played any of Life is Strange? [waits a moment] Okay, good, still some people. So this evening there are gonna be some mild spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2, but don't worry if you haven't played Episode 3 yet; as it's just come out, these guys aren't gonna talk about anything specific with regards to that, so calm your fears there.
So first up, you guys, let's have a quick chat about the core of Life is Strange which is this rewind feature, this idea that Max, the main character, can rewind time to a certain extent and redo things she's done before. So what were the decisions behind? Was this always at the root of the game? Was this put in at a later stage? What were the reasons for this rewind mechanic's existence?
Raoul Barbet: For all those who have played Remember Me - there were some sequences called "memory remix". It was a great pleasure to design those scenes, and a lot of players have loved those scenes when you have to remix the memories and those small changes in the memories have huge consequences. So we wanted to expand this concept to a whole game, so we started to discuss about what kind of game, what genre would be the best, and "modern adventure game" came very quickly because we wanted to talk about all those choice and consequences aspects on a game. So we very quickly go to an "adventure game" - [Michel Koch now starts talking]
Michel Koch: Yes, because we're having a coming-of-age story and a game about choice and consequences taking place in a nice, cool setting. It really was a great setting for us to have, because it's the time of your life when you are taking decisions that really decide who you will be later as an adult. I think that everyone could think that at a point if we could go back to high school, there will be decisions we could change and that could change our entire life.
Keza MacDonald: Oh yes! [Audience laughs]
Michel Koch: And really, that's the way we decided to create the main character, Maxine Caulfield. We started to create her to think about several possible characters, but quickly Max was the character that was working best with the rewind mechanism, with the choice and consequences system. That's why we designed her as a shy teenage girl that still has issues going forward in her life. She has issues taking decisions, she's always questioning her choices, always looking to the past, like the way she's using a Polaroid camera instead of a digital camera. And we really wanted the main character to resonate with gameplay power, because it's really what's important for us in a video game, that everything is cohesive when you really need to have a good blend of character with gameplay, story and the players(?). And even for the other characters, when in Life is Strange we have a various cast of relatable and colorful characters. And at first, when we created them, we started for Episode 1 by using known archetypes. It was really our goal to have those archetypes to use as entry points for the players. You know, we have the bullies, the bitch girls, the nerds, the jerks(?), the football players etc. -- so really those characters that you have seen in teen movies, in TV shows etc. Those really were a good entry point. But really quickly, in the next episode, we are starting to change them, make them evolve and twist them in a way that will surprise the player, because, like in real life, nobody is completely black or white, and we are really playing with these shades of grey for the characters. In Life is Strange, we really wanted to use all those characters to speak about some themes that are maybe not always dealt with in video games. And a video game is a really strong media. And it had been done in some games, in indie games, but I think in Life is Strange we are dealing with mature themes that are not very often dealt with in video games, like, I would say, social media bullying, or domestic violence, or isolation, teen pregnancy... And we thought, from the beginning, we really wanted to deal with this, because it's something that some of us thought we know people who experience that and we saw that it could be interesting to use video game media to talk in a sensible way about those aspects of real life and to bring attention to that.
Kenza MacDonald: What's interesting for me, obviously you guys are a French studio and yet the game is set in America. But then it feels like a lot of things that are talked about here are things that could happen anywhere, and they happened to most teenagers anyway, right?
Michel Koch: Yes, really, I think that some of those are universal, and either we've experienced that or we know someone who experienced that. And I think it's not only happening in America, of course it's broader than that. But it's also a good point that you are mentioning that we're a French studio. We didn't want to make this American game that might not be well done by a French team, so we did a lot of research of documentation; we're working with an American writer who lives in San Francisco. And we looked at a lot of news articles and websites and blogs to really be sure that we are dealing with these issues in a sensible way; and because it's really important to do that right when you're dealing with these kind of subjects.
Keza MacDonald: I mean, obviously there is a character called Kate who is suffering a lot at school because of something that somebody videoed at a party, essentially. Did you have any trepidation about approaching subjects like that, given that these things are things that even teenagers are still coming to grips with, let alone the rest of us. Was there any trepidation about approaching these difficult subjects?
Michel Koch: Yes, it's not easy to approach that, and we worked hard with a writer, with Christian Divine, to really be sure that we were doing it the right way. And at the end of the [episode], there was a link that Square Enix and that we did put that brings the player to a webpage with links to associations, or apps, or maybe if some players have the feeling that they really related to this and that they maybe could get help. The way we dealt with this scene is trying to bring the positive message that if you care about your friends, you can really help them, and you can maybe sometimes do something and stop a bit of the bullying.
Raoul Barbet: And what we really wanted to do is to show that you're not alone with these kind of problems and that you can discuss about that with your friends. And this is really something we see from the community, which is great to see, that they are not alone. A lot of movies or games also have a blast in our life, and I think this is what we wanted to do, just to say, "You are not alone. You've got some difficulties. A lot of other students have some. Maybe you can just discuss about that."
Keza MacDonald: Yeah, 'cause the headline thing about Life is Strange, you know, originally from the trailers and that, was the time rewind, this supernatural ability, and it turns out a lot of the stuff the game actually deals with is extremely normal and not supernatural at all. But why did you go with the decision to make it an episodic game? What were the advantages of that format?
Michel Koch: It's really a good way to control the pacing and the narrative rhythm of an episode because, like I said, we really know when the players start and end an episode, and we can end it of course like in TV shows with a cliffhanger, and I think it's really good for the player too because we've seen on Twitter, on Facebook, there is a lot of discussion going on about the game, like it really brings expectation and I think enjoyment for the players. When they are ending an episode, they talk about it together; they are making theories and thinking what will happen in the next episode. And that's why I think TV shows are so popular these days - there is this sense of community. And for us as creators, it's great, but it also allows us to take into account some of the feedback from the community.
Keza MacDonald: Are you able to adapt between episodes a little bit?
Luc Baghadoust: Yes, the whole story is written, but we still have the possibility to change some stuff depending on the public reaction. If a new idea comes up that's really good, we can still integrate it. And also some prediction event, let's say we have a talent; we record the voice over for the first episode, we notice a talent - an actor - is really good, so maybe we can add more scenes, or scenes that fit their personality for the upcoming episodes. We're still working on the game; the game is not finished. It's not a game that's complete and we just split in a few parts and make you wait for a few weeks... We're still working on it, so it's hard, but also it's really good because the team has perceived the real good feedback we had from the first episode, so it's like a morale boost. As soon as the episode is released, we see the reviews, people's reaction on Twitter, we spend nights reading the tweets of people who loved the game, and yeah, it's truly a morale boost for everyone. And there's also a downside from the production perspective: it's really exhausting because the teams are working -- some are in the debug phase, and some are in the middle of the production of an episode, and others are working on what's gonna be in the next episode -- and it's a small team, so everything at the same time is quite complicated to manage, and it's exhausting; it's like you have to ship five games.
Michel Koch: There are five sessions of recording the voice actors, five sessions of motion capture, five sessions of submissions to the publisher... But in the end, it's really great, because we think it's really a nice way to tell a story, and we are seeing that the players are liking this way of writing a story.
Luc Baghadoust: It's an amazing adventure that we share with the public, because if people want just to wait for the five episodes, they can wait, of course, and play everything in one run. But we love TV shows, we love to wait for the next week's episode, and it's the same. I think people will gather on the game, and more and more people, I guess - I hope - will jump on the train and wait for the next episodes. So, yeah, it's really an unique experience.
Keza MacDonald: So we're gonna talk a bit more in depth about the choice and consequence system and how that works. Briefly, before we do, can we chat a little bit more about the art design and the use of music? Obviously, there's quite a strong musical thread and quite a strong art direction, both, in Life is Strange.
Michel Koch: I think it's like when we said about the way we created Max, it's the same way for the art direction. We knew that we were having a game about the rewind, and a game about the choice and consequences. It was a nostalgic feeling, so we saw that a realistic rendering art style wouldn't be the best solution for this game, and we decided to have these hand-painted textures with a stylized rendering because we really think that having this kind of visual can allow the player to put some of their own imagination, their own feelings or memories into the scene, into the characters. And I think it's a style that can keep the test of time, and as a digital game it's a game that will be online for several years, and this kind of art style, it works well for this, and it brings this nostalgic mood and the kind of contemplative feeling we wanted for the game. But on top of this stylized rendering, we still have this state-of-the-art lighting technology. We really worked on the lighting, because the light is something that's really, really important for the mood of the game, for this autumnal feeling, a bit like "in a cocoon" mood. Yes, that's why we went for this style of visuals, and it's a little bit the same approach for the music, this nostalgic feeling...
Raoul Barbet: Yeah, for the music we used a lot of different artists.
Keza MacDonald: Oh, these ones, as it happens. [points at the screen which shows all the artists that have appeared on the game so far]
Raoul Barbet: Since the beginning of the project, we used a lot of tracks; even on prototype scenes we were putting some tracks of artists we like. And one of the artists was Jonathan Morali from the French band Syd Matters. So we contacted him after we contacted Square, and Square allowed us to ask him if we'll be okay to use some track from Syd Matters. These are the tracks you can hear, for example, in the corridor at the beginning of the game when Max is putting on her headphones, or at the end of Episode 1, and as we talked with him, it was a great pleasure for us to see that he loves the project.
Luc Baghadoust: He's a huge gamer.
Raoul Barbet: Yeah, he's a huge gamer, a huge (...). And so he wanted to be a part of the game itself, so we asked him if he wanted to do the score so all the score of the game is done by himself because he is the head of the Syd Matters project. So on one side, this score was, like you say [to Michel], a very nostalgic feeling, and this autumnal feeling we wanted to keep, but also more dark scenes -- you can see them in the next episodes -- and having those licensed tracks, we really wanted to push to have some artists like this that we liked, and those kind of licensed tracks tell a lot about the characters also, because Chloe won't listen to the same music as Max or even Rachel, so this is really something we wanted to have. The fact (...) the game's interactive is really something unique, so we used a lot of layers on those songs. For example, if you sit on the fountain, we will add some layers to the music to be able to give reroutes(?) to the player. We take this time so you can play some guitar. When you play a song in your bedroom, you can play some guitar on top of this song. So it's these kind of small details we wanted to add for the music and the sound design.
Keta MacDonald: Yeah, there's a line -- not spoilers -- there's a line in Episode 3 when Max was like, "You know you're down when you don't care about music." Obviously this game cares about music.
Michel Koch: And also we are using the music in the game in some way, like for example there is this scene in Episode 1 when Chloe asks Max to put a CD in the HiFi, so at first the music is coming from the speakers in the room, but as soon as you exit the room and explore Chloe's house, the same music starts to be the score and to follow Max around in a way that brings this nostalgic feeling to the whole scene, so we're really using the music in the game to really bring another narrative layer to the whole game.
Keza MacDonald: So we're gonna dive a bit deeper inside how the choice and consequence system works now, but first, we have the story of what the game was originally, and we have some very early material from the design docs and other stuff that's all quite interesting. So I believe you guys talk through that.
Michel Koch: Yes, "What if?" was the code name of the game when we started working on the project. And of course, when we signed the project with Square, we knew that we needed to find another title, because at this moment, there was a movie with Daniel Radcliffe, I think, that was just coming out with the same title "What if?", and our previous game's title was already a movie with Robert Pattinson, so we thought that it could be cool to have a new title. And "Life is Strange" was our idea for the title of the first episode of the game, but when we talked about it with Square, we saw that it really could be a great name for the whole series because it's what Life is Strange is about - it's about life, and about real life issues, and that is the title that could really resume some ideas of the game and could work for other seasons and for the series as a whole.
Alejandro Arque: We have prepared a lot of major choices, and actually one of them is a bit of a graph where you can see in the first episode, when you are chilling out with Chloe and her step-dad comes in - David - you actually can do a lot of different things there. So you can hide in the closet; you cannot hide in the closet; if you hide in the closet, when David comes in and finds the weed, you can go out and actually take the blame or you can let Chloe take the blame, and of course that actually plays in a future episode on how you relate to Chloe - if she's still nice with you or you actually went on (...) defend her.
Keza MacDonald: So this flow chart... There are four different outcomes from the same scene, essentially, but they all lead to the same conclusion.
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. So, after these, they all go to the cliff. Of course, what happened in this room plays later on, so how you behave and how your relationship with David and how your relationship with Chloe is will affect future positions in future episodes. I'm going to explain something a bit more complex, which is Kate's scene in Episode 2 - --[Keza MacDonald now starts talking]
Keza MacDonald: This is a spoiler if you haven't played Episode 2 so far.
Alejandro Arque: So for Kate's scene, we get to a point of the relationship between [Max] and Kate when [Max] goes up to the roof and she finds Kate about to jump, so I'm going to explain how that works in terms of complexity.
[The interactive cutscene footage of the roof scene in Episode 2 now plays and Alejandro provides commentary overlay.]
Alejandro Arque: So, as you can see here, this is the peak of the relationship between both of them. Max has been playing with her power during the whole day, so now when she gets up there, she's completely exhausted, so she cannot use any more of the power. But now she needs to use her relationship with Kate so you actually help her and try to prevent this. So as soon as you go up, Kate comes to you and starts talking about what you did with her before. So, for example, in the first episode, you can take a photo of her or help her with David. If you did help her with David, she'll know that you did that and she remembers it.
Keza MacDonald: So the dialogue choices that you get in this scene and in many scenes -- the actual choices that you get -- depend on stuff that you've decided before, right?
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. So, for example, you can pick up the phone or not when you are with Chloe in the second Episode. If you didn't, then you need to excuse why you didn't do this, why you were not there for Kate at that moment. Then you need to be convincing; you need to really tell her why it was that reason. Then, of course, there's another section where she actually asks you if she could go to the police or wait and not go to the police. Again, if you did go there and say to her, being supportive as a good friend, "Go to the police. I'll back you up, no matter what happens to me," that could be dangerous for you but will help Kate, so Kate will remember this and will chip in. And, of course, you can do little things for Kate as well, which is removing the slate where people are drawing nasty things about her, or even removing a link to her video. Of course, you can bring this in the conversation to help Kate understand that you care for her - you really care for how she's doing, and you do understand, and you actually want to be there for her. Then, of course, you come to a point of the conversation where she asks you how she should feel with this social bullying, and then again, you need to tell her that she needs to remain strong, that you will be there for her.
Keza MacDonald: And you can pick the wrong options in this?
Alejandro Arque: Yes.
Keza MacDonald: Yeah, very bad stuff can happen at the end of this scene, right?
Alejandro Arque: Unfortunately, yes. But, then again, it's all about how you care for Kate. Did you care a lot for Kate? Did you investigate that has to do with her life? We've been putting clues all around the place from the first episode. You can see how people have been bullying her. For example, in the first episode, there's a first scene where someone throws something at Kate. If you go and look on that paper, they talk about that video already on the first episode. And when you go to her room, you can look around, and you can investigate about how her family is, how she is. So, for example, we see that there is a picture of her with her sisters smiling with her, so that means that you shouldn't talk about her brother. Or her father... he actually cared for her. And, of course, she's quite religious(?), so if you look at the bible, she has scratched some of the entries.
Keza MacDonald: You mean scratched out with a pen?
Alejandro Arque: Yes. Completely scratched out and underlined some of it. Then you can answer these two [referring to the religious verse dialogue choices in the displayed game footage]. Bring this in [selects the "Matthew 11:28" dialogue option]. Hopefully safer at this point.
Keza MacDonald: So some of this stuff you as a player know, because you've looked into it...
Alejandro Arque: Yes.
Keza MacDonald: And some of it is stuff that's the relationship between Max the character.
Alejandro Arque: Yes, exactly. So you can see, in this playthrough, we actually save her. [Footage shows Kate stepping away from the roof edge towards Max.] But again, that's all how you play with her - how you relate to her - that brings you to the final conclusion. So, after this, no matter what happens here, you'll get to the principal's office. Of course, in that scene, the mood is completely different even though the scene is quite similar; the mood is very different if she's alive or she's dead.
[The interactive cutscene footage of the principal's office in Episode 2 now plays and Alejandro provides commentary overlay.]
Alejandro Arque: So, as you can see here, you can blame three different characters for what happened to Kate at this point. Everyone sees those three options, but actually (...) six different scenarios that can happen [screen behind now shows a flow display of scenarios].
Keza MacDonald: Ohhh, it's tiny text!
Alejandro Arque: Yeah, I know! You're going to be able to see it soon. So, as you can see here, that this scene is affected by three main choices that you did before, so that one there is if you did talk to the principal--[Keza MacDonald starts talking.]
Keza MacDonald: This is six permutations based on three individual choices?
Alejandro Arque: Exactly.
Keza MacDonald: So this is six states that the game is in when you are into the scene?
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. So depending on what you did before, you get one of these scenarios. So if you play the game, we change things, you get a completely different scenario. For example, this one here is: Did you denounce Nathan when you saw him with a gun? Did you not? Then: Did you take a picture of David or step in to help Kate? If you help Kate, then on the suicide scene, it's going to be easier to help her. But, maybe here, it's not going to be that easy. And that one here is: Did you take the blame for the weed or not? So, for example, this scenario here, is about you protecting Nathan, so you didn't tell -- You didn't tell about the gun.
Keza MacDonald: You didn't dob in Nathan, you intervened with David, and then you took the blame for the weed.
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. So, what happens here is that, okay, let's go and blame David. You blame David, then because you don't have a picture, David comes in like, "Max cannot be trusted, because she's a drug dealer." So then everything goes against Max. Okay, let's try to blame Nathan in this case, but you didn't talk about Nathan before, so why should the principal trust you now? Plus, David says, "You cannot trust Max, because she's a drug dealer." So the only guy that you can blame is poor Jefferson.
Keza MacDonald: Blameless Jefferson.
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. You know? I mean, come on! He hasn't done anything wrong. But it's the only way out if you don't want to be expelled.
Keza MacDonald: So the two things that can happen at the end of the scene is that either Max gets expelled or she doesn't?
Alejandro Arque: Yes.
Keza MacDonald: But depending on what you've done, the way to make those two things happen is completely different?
Alejandro Arque: So, in this scene, what can happen is that Nathan can get expelled, David can get suspended, Max can get suspended, and then Jefferson doesn't get to go to the art gallery. That's how this actually works, so it's really complex, even though if you see one, you may say it's always scripted, but no. It's actually talking every single decision.
Keza MacDonald: If everyone in this room is like me, you're desperately trying to read that little text to see which permutation you got, but I believe this picture will be out there, so don't worry if you can't.
Alejandro Arque: And this is one from the second episode. Now, this is for a future episode [screen behind now shows more flow diagrams]. This is actually blurry, so you cannot read anything.
Keza MacDonald: Now I see the purpose of the tiny text!
Alejandro Arque: There you are, see? So this is actually one of the scenes on a future episode, and this is how complex these choices are. So we take every single detail, and we bring it into the conversation, and we bring it to the outcome. Actually, this has four different outcomes and all these to take into account before we get out of this. So, everything comes from the first episode to whatever this episode is, and there you are.
Keza MacDonald: So this sounds like a nightmare to design for, though. Is it? [They laugh and nod.] How do you write around this? What can you do to make all of this still make sense even if there are twenty-five (...)
Raoul Barbet: We begin with a small amount of choices, and each episode we add some so the tree is growing. We want it really to have a small consequences aspect and, of course, long-term consequences that you can expect. So small-term consequences as Alejandro talked about in the principal's office... Okay, so this one is fired... this one is fired... What choice will I keep? Okay, I'll keep this one. But you don't know, of course, in maybe two episodes if we come back and it will be another consequence that you don't expect at all. So it's kind of short-term and long-term consequences we really wanted to deal with, because the importance is not really to make the choice, because it's difficult to make the choice at the moment, but we need to live with it after and to try to continue episode after episode to live with those choices you have made before. And, of course, a rewind power is easier to talk about that.
Alejandro Arque: I think what's interesting is that there's no right or wrong, so the choices are actually what you think is right and what you think is wrong. There's no right or wrong in reality.
Keza MacDonald: So there's no correct answer to your choice?
Alejandro Arque: Exactly. So, you know, what could be good now for me may be really bad for me in the future, or vice versa. So that's what we always try to bring to any single choice that we design, not right answers; there's never right answers.
Michel Koch: And I think one of the main themes of the game is that, at a point, you have to accept your choices, to accept fate and to live with it, and there is no perfect (...) for in the game like there is no perfect (...) in life. So that's really one of the main ideas behind this game. And, yes, it's really hard to work on all these choices, when you're playing the game, you see this small butterfly in the top-left corner; every time you see this butterfly, it means that you have made a decision that will impact your story at a point. We are not lying. We are really using all those moments to change the game later, and it can be, like you said [gestures to Raoul Barbet], some really big changes like some different character or someone dying, but it's also a lot of smaller consequences like getting a text message, having new lines in the dialogue, a character is reacting to Max in a different way, receiving emails, characters who dress differently, changing environment, and so on. We are really bringing your choices your choices into the game, so you are playing a story that you really created based on what you did in the game.
[Part of the Episode 3 launch trailer now plays.]
Keza MacDonald: Okay. Well, thank you very much to these lovely gentlemen. Let's give them a large round of applause. And thank you very much for coming. Once again, this is part of a series BAFTA does on the creative industries, and for more, check out BAFTA's website. Thank you very much. Good evening.
[The DONTNOD team thank the audience, and the interview ends on audience applause.]