It’s safe to say that the format of the ‘decision-based narrative adventure game’ is now safely established. Telltale might be sucking up intellectual property with an avaricious glee to rival that of Disney, but the basic premise of its games remains largely static.
It’s usually at this point in a genre’s genesis that a second generation of games arrives to challenge the status quo. Enter stage-right Life is Strange. Dontnod’s five part ludo-drama about a time-travelling teen was a self-reflexive comment on the genre as well as being a tale well told. We caught up with Game Director Michel Koch and Executive Producer Luc Baghadoust to discuss teenage girls, episodic development, and whether Life is Strange is actually a game at all.
Existential Gamer: Why choose a teenage girl as the central protagonist?
Michel Koch: That’s a good question. We didn’t start working on the game by having this checklist of saying ‘we need a female character’ or ‘we need two female characters’. Basically we really started with a blank slate just knowing that we wanted to make a game about choice and consequences using the rewind ability. That was the basis of our thinking – if choices are involved, rewinding makes it interesting. So then we started to brainstorm about what would be the best stories and best characters, what can we do with that? In the first phase of brainstorming you can go in a lot of different directions thinking ‘do we do a story with a male character?’ Or ‘how about someone coming back from a war or something?’ And we said ‘Okay, a teenage story is interesting because high school is a time of life where most of your decisions will affect what you will become later as an adult and I think every one of us would love to change some of the things we did in high school, go back to this time maybe, try other stuff.’ We were also fans of American shows, teenage dramas and shows like Buffy or Friday Night Lights, these were shows that we really like and we said ‘okay, this could be a good setting.’ And then quite quickly we had this idea of Max, of this quiet, shy, introverted girl who is having a hard time going forward in her life; she is always questioning herself, she always has a lot of difficulties making decisions. We thought that if a character like that had rewind, it’s even more interesting because she already has these issues of going forward and if you give people the ability to go backward and change everything it’s compelling because the principle gameplay mechanic also becomes the main storytelling device and resonates with the character. So I guess Max happened like that.
EG: Yeah, I never felt like Max was sure of her decisions, even when she had rolled back time and tried again. That indecision was so important for me as a player.
Luc Baghadoust: In some other games you have to pick between two options and just instinctively choose one, here you have the rewind power and many players told us they had a hard time choosing because it makes the decision more important, it’s not just pressing a button within a limited time. You have to be sure this is the decision you want to make and move forward with this choice.
EG: Telltale’s decision making mechanic is the antithesis of what you just described. Did you look at it and think, ‘something here is broken here’?
MK: It makes sense sometimes, especially in The Walking Dead, or in Game of Thrones if you are, let’s say, under pressure to answer questions.
LB: I think The Walking Dead is a wonderful game, their short timing makes perfect sense, with the setting and with the choices available. It works really well in this game because it’s completely integrated into this universe where you have to make these kind of decisions in a split second and bad things can happen anyway. But it was interesting for us to go the complete opposite direction, not because it was ‘not good’ but because it was interesting to do something else and one of the main aspects of Life is Strange is that it is a slow-paced game and the rewind adds even more to this slow pacing because when you can rewind you basically have all the time in the world. So we wanted to add more and more to this idea of taking your time. That’s why we included options like sitting on your couch and playing guitar and continuing to do it for as long as you want before quitting the scene, or sitting on the fountain and just looking around, being lost in your thoughts and looking at the people passing by. Those are all the kinds of elements that we thought were important for this kind of game, to create this bubble where you have a lot of time. We never wanted to put pressure on the player and rush them.
MK: I remember when the game was introduced the first time at Gamescom the reaction from the press that knew The Walking Dead and enjoyed it was that if you can rewind your decision it means that your decision is not important at all. But when we explained that they could understand the short-term consequences but not the long-term ones it started to click and people started to understand the point of the game.
EG: Speaking of those decisions and scenarios, the subject matter of each is pretty serious: domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide. Why was it important to include those in Life is Strange?
MK: I think what we had in mind for Life is Strange is to be quite close to reality, it’s a modern day game with realistic settings and characters. We thought that if we had a realistic setting in a high school nowadays, it would make sense to show all the difficulties that teenagers can face in real life. For instance, the rise of social media which can lead to cyberbullying like we have in Episode Two. Also, this relates to why the game is called Life is Strange, because even if it includes rewind, which is a sci-fi element that gives the game a supernatural vibe, basically it’s really a realistic game about characters and the difficulties they might face in the real world.
EG: Do you think that games have a responsibility to tackle social issues like that?
MK: I don’t think that games as a whole have a responsibility to do that, but they can do. More and more games are doing it. We tried to do it in Life is Strange but there are also games like Papers Please, or That Dragon, Cancer, or even in big AAA games like Spec Ops: The Line, which is a shooter still.
LB: A lot of these topics were taboo in big games, and the indie scene is so creative, so many great ideas, great games, great themes. For us it’s kind of our brief in the world to make sure that these kinds of topics are dealt with in games. I’m sure we’re going to see more and more of this in the coming years with games taking risks.
MK: I also don’t think that all games should take those risks. There is not just space for one kind of game, so, I don’t want to see every game being really topical, I think we need the fun games, sometimes you just need to play some Street Fighter. It’s an interesting time in that there are a lot of different genres like you see in movies where you can go to a cinema and see a really broad range of movies and we’re starting to go there with videogames.
EG: As you were episodic, I’m guessing that your players became your guides as you received feedback between episodes? How did that shift what your were doing during the development process?
MK: After Episode 1 we were already working on the next episode and laying the groundwork for Episode 3 – the game wasn’t split artificially after being completed. The main story was there from the beginning and we wouldn’t have changed the main story arc because of feedback from the players; we were really confident with the story we had, but sometimes we would have the opportunity to add things.
EG: What sort of things? Cues for players? Mechanical stuff?
MK: Sometimes it was just adding a few more lines of dialogue to a character that the community really liked or even sometimes just making some small nods to the community by adding some easter eggs. Making each episode is like making five small games in a row, so we learned from mistakes in each one and how to improve things in the next episode like the design of a puzzle or adding scenes based on what worked well previously.
EG: Moving sideways slightly – I’ve wanted to grab someone in your genre for ages to talk about form. Feel free to answer this question how you will: how do you feel about the term ‘interactive film’?
MK: I don’t mind it that much because there is still the word ‘interactive’ inside which is good. I know that there are people who like to say that Telltale games or Quantic Dream games or our games are interactive movies. I know that some people like to say that because they think that these are less ‘game’ than other games because they don’t require skills, but I disagree, because to me, ‘game’ doesn’t mean that you require skills, a game is something with rules and interactivity. I would say that in a game like Her Story for instance, there is still interactivity and there are still rules, as simple as they might be. You don’t have to have all the boxes ticked to make something a game as long as you have control or interactivity or something that connects your brain to what you’re playing and you’re still affecting it and not just watching passively, I think that it’s a game. For me there is a lot of space for different ways to interact with games.
EG: Playing devil’s advocate here – some would say that it’s the loss of win/lose scenarios, the principle defining aspect of a game, which puts works like Life is Strange in a different category.
LB: Well if you think about old point-and-click games you had puzzles, you would choose dialogue options ,some of which had deadly consequences, but most didn’t.
MK: Maybe the word ‘game’ isn’t actually the best word for the kind of media we’re talking about today. I guess I’d have to look at the exact definition of what a game is, but a lot of people might relate it still to a toy, to fun, to rules, whereas not all videogames or interactive experiences need be like this.
LB: It is something you see a lot in design discretion, sometimes the fun factor is the principle aspect of your game, sometimes not.
MK: Yeah and if you look at movies, they can be fun, but if you look at a great like, let’s say, Schindler’s List, it’s a great movie, but nobody would say that it’s a fun movie. In the end, games don’t have to be fun, they need to be ‘entertaining’ if that’s even the right word. You should get something from an interactive experience, you should experience emotion – it might be fun, it might be scary, it might be sad, but I think that reducing this to ‘fun’ and win/loss and rules, tends to create a bad image of interactive experiences. A lot of games that are great, but it’s easy for some people to say that it’s not a game because of A, B or C.
LB: It’s funny, many videogame players are arguing about what is a game and what is not but if you don’t like a genre don’t play it and don’t bother those who do. Same with sports where people criticize things like cycling.
EG: I agree, I don’t think that games have to induce a dopamine rush every five seconds. Not at all.
MK: The genre needs to grow up – there is space for everything.
LB: I remember when we were working on Life is Strange and Gone Home was released, it was an indie game but it reached a big audience and we were really happy to see that there was room for these kinds of games – narrative storytelling, discovering the story bit by bit by exploring your apartment. It was really a good thing for us to see that people might enjoy our game after all.
MK: I think that the success of Her Story shows that the industry and its audience is evolving by accepting a different kind of gameplay. If you look at Her Story it’s basically just typing words and looking at videos, but to me this includes the heart of interactivity and game design. It’s about what has to happen in your brain, how you put the pieces together. With this simple game plan he managed to make what I think is even better than the really big investigation games out there, where everything is designed for you to find the clues – your brain doesn’t have to make these jumps, but in Her Story the game pushes you to make these leaps like a real detective.
Sinister PR watchdog: We’re actually kind of running out of time now.
EG: One more serious, bigger question: I’m pretty bored with AAA storytelling, frankly, and have been for some time. A lot of the more experimental, interesting stories seem to be coming from smaller studios or the indie scene. Do you agree? If so why?
LB: Didn’t you enjoy The Last of Us? I think that game was a good example of a big studio designing a game with a similar process to an indie company – they really cared about the story and characters. Michel usually hates shooter games on console but he managed to enjoy the shooting sequences, which is an incredible achievement. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are big studios that still do really well with storytelling though.
MK: The Last of Us is definitely one of my favourite AAA games of recent years because the player experience is really cohesive – they blend the gameplay and the storytelling in a way which works for me. Even though I really like the Uncharted games, you have a story sequence, then shooter sequence, then story, and then shooter, whereas in The Last of Us I think that it makes sense when you’re in a shooting sequence; you still make a story in your head that you need to protect Ellie and that the guys who attack you are really a threat and you need to put them down. I was never out of the story, out of the experience, everything made sense and I didn’t have the feeling of a patchwork of different dynamics. Which was great. I kind of see what you mean about narrative in bigger games, though I think that Rockstar is doing a great job with its storytelling; Red Dead Redemption and GTA V were really good in their characters and story even though it’s so big that you can sometimes drift away.
Last thing: what IP would you most like to make a Life is Strange-esque game for?
MK: Hmm, I think that there is great stuff that could be made in the Deus Ex universe – I’m looking at you [gesturing toward the man from Square Enix]. And if I had to pick another to give the Life is Strange treatment then I would pick The X-Files. For a narrative-based game this would be interesting.
LB: Yes, especially for the psychological horror element.